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3 Most Common Complaints About Agents by Scriptwriters

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, script writing.

Television writer Chad Gervich breaks down the most common complaints made by scriptwriters about Hollywood agents.

1. “My agent never calls me back!”

“There are a lot of people who don’t return every phone call,” says literary manager Jeff Thal of Ensemble Entertainment, “even if you’re friends with them.”

He’s right.  I have close friends who take days to return calls — and I’m the same way.  But when it’s our agent, someone we’ve entrusted with out livelihoods, we tend to set the bar higher than we do with other people.  This isn’t entirely fair — to us or the agent.

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Chad-SN-27.jpgimgresThis guest post is by Chad Gervich, a television producer, bestselling author, and award-winning playwright.  He has written, produced, or developed series, pilots, and projects for nearly every network and studio in Hollywood, including E!’s After Lately, starring Chelsea Handler, Disney’s hit sitcom Dog With a Blog, Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, and ABC’s Wipeout.  He also spent five years as a development exec with The Littlefield Company at NBC and Paramount Studios, and has taught and consulted with TV producers around the globe.  He is the author of bestselling books Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, Psych’s Guide to Crimefighting for the Totally Unqualified, and How To Manage Your Agent: A Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Representation.

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The first step in dealing with this is realizing that unreturned phone calls are rarely about you.  Managers “deal with the same thing,” Thal says, “whether it’s agents or network executives or studio executives or produers.  A lot of people are very busy, stressed, and under a lot of pressure.  And some people just have bad phone manners.”

Wait — managers can’t get all their calls returned?!  Well, what’s this tell us?…  That’s right — it’s not about you. 

Certain times of the day, for instance, are better for reaching some types of colleagues than others.  I have a very successful screenwriter friend who always says, “What time of day your agent calls you back tells you where you rate in their life.  My agent never calls me back before 7:00 at night, which makes me think he doesn’t care about me at all.  If they call you back the same day it means one thing; if they call you back before 11:00 a.m. it means they love you.”

But this isn’t necessarily true.

Agents make and return countless daily calls to execs, directors, managers, and producers… and “you have to plan phone calls to those people around the times when they are likely not in meetings, which usually start at the top of every hour,” says APA agent Lindsay Howard.  “So if they’re not starting meetings until ten or eleven in the morning, you have between nine and ten to get people on the phone.  Then it’s cyclical toward the end of the hour before another one starts.”

Of course, execs and producers aren’t the only ones who are busy.  Agents are also in meetings much of the day, so they often make calls while in the car or racing from one meeting to the next.  Entire days can be spent playing phone tag.  Thus, “a lot of people just routinely return all their calls at the end of the day,” explains Thal, “especially client calls.”

This isn’t a comment on the importance of those clients.  But since most executives and producers have specific office hours, agents have limited windows in which to reach them.  Writers and directors tend to have more flexible schedules, so agents push those calls to the end of the day.  It’s easier to reach a writer at 7:30 p.m. than a Lionsgate exec.  So, unless you have an extremely urgent matter, don’t be insulted by your agent’s end-of-day phone call.

Having said that — if your agent starts failing to return calls at all, and this becomes a pattern, it may be worth having a conversation.  You agent may say, “I’m sorry, my wife is pregnant, it’s been a crazy month,” or he may say, “Look, I’m not great at returning phone calls — can you build that into your expectations?”  Or, “I haven’t told anyone this, but I’ve been having some serious health issues.”  Or, “I have more important things to do than talk to you all day — I’ll get to your calls when I get to them, you needy baby!”

Based on your agent’s response, you can then decide whether the problem is fixable… or whether it’s time for new representation.

2. “I have a fantastic idea I’m excited about… and my agent doesn’t want me to write it!”

Writers “are often so passionate about their work they lose perspective on it,” says Folio Lit partner Scott Hoffman.  “Ironically, that’s one of the ways in which agents can be most valuable to artists — particularly writers.  We’re able to be more dispassionate, to see the true worth of [a project].”

An agent or manager’s job is to nurture, guide, and facilitate a client’s career.  And while you may want to write a tearjerking screenplay about your great-grandfather’s gout, if that screenplay isn’t commercial enough to sell, or “noisy” enough to get attention and meetings, you’ve not only failed to advance your career, your representatives have failed to adequately advise you.

This doesn’t mean you must always write what your agent dictates.  It does mean, however, that you should let him do what you’re paying him to do: advise you on how to achieve career goals.  If you still want to write about Grandpa’s gout, go for it.  Your final product may be good enough to change your agent’s mind… or it may force him to say, “I’m sorry — I don’t think I can sell this.  Perhaps we should part ways.”  This is the risk you must be willing to take.

3. “My agent should’ve gotten me more money!”

Money is important… so it’s not unusual to hear writers complain their agents didn’t get them enough cash… which may or may not be true.  What is also true, however, is there are many important things to look at in a negotiation — and because you can’t hit the dollar amount you want doesn’t mean you can’t find equal or greater value in other ways.

In every negotiation, there’s a tension between two concepts: “dividing” value (also called “claiming” value) and “creating” value.

“‘Dividing’ value,” explains Donny Ebenstein, a conflict resolution expert and consultant who has taught negotiation techniques for two decades, “is deciding who gets what slice of the pie.  ‘Creating’ value is making the pie bigger, so there’s more to go around.”

Most people are accustomed to think only in terms dividing value.  In other words: “I know there’s only limited pie to go around, but I want to make sure I get the biggest possible piece of that pie.  I want to divide it so I get the best value I can.”

In normal business transactions, this is straightforward.  If you want an apple, you go to a grocery store, and the store says, “We have a limited number of apples.  Therefore, we can give you an apple for one dollar.”

It’s less straightforward, however, when you’re selling not goods, but services.  How much does it cost to write a screenplay?  Or write on the staff of a medical drama?  Are great jokes worth as much as great stories?  Or flawless dialogue?  You might think your services are worth $20,000 per episode; a studio may think your services are worth only $15,000 per episode.

It’s easy, in these situations, to get bent out of shape, because we’re used to thinking in terms of “dividing” or “claiming” value, grabbing our “fair share” of the pie.  Thinking about “creating value,” works a bit differently.

Imagine your company needs certain computer software to process books.  The software costs $1,000 per year, so each year, you pay one twelfth ($83.33) every month.  But this year, you say to the software provider, “I usually spread my $1,000 out over the course of a year.  But what if I pay everything up front in one lump sum?…  You get your cash up front, and in exchange, I get a discount.”  This seems like a win-win; sellers love getting complete payment up front, you get a discount.  You’ve just “expanded the pie” — creating more value for both parties!

Thinking in terms of a writer’s deal — perhaps your quote is $20,000/episode ($440,000 for 22 episodes), but the studio wants to pay $15,000/episode ($330,000 for 22 episodes).  So you say, “I have an idea, studio.  I’ll do it for $15,000/episode… but I want a blind script deal for $100,000.  If you were to pay me my quote and buy a script from me, it would cost you almost $550,000.  Doing it this way, you get my services, plus a new pilot — all for less than $450,000!”

Thus, you’ve created value — for yourself and the buyer!

“Everyone thinks negotiations are zero-sum, but that’s not always the case,” explains Ebenstein.  Development deals, of course, aren’t the only way to expand the pie.  If you can’t get the actual dollar amount you want, maybe you can get guaranteed scripts or an episode to direct.  “It’s important for your agent to think about how to make the pie bigger.”

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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One Response to 3 Most Common Complaints About Agents by Scriptwriters

  1. sassy says:

    This is very valuable information. Thanks. More please.

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