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March 10, 2009

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Budd Schulberg's 1941 satirical Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? first introduced the world to Sammy Glick, an agent with a spectacular skill for self-advancement that often came at the expense of those around him. The soulless, shameless huckster became a symbol for a segment of the industry that has, more often than not, been maligned by everyone familiar with their tactics. And yet even though the stereotypical agent can be seamlessly inserted into the punchline of virtually any lawyer joke ("Why don't sharks eat agents? Professional courtesy"), the truth is that creative types like writers need agents. Which is not to say that the alliance between the two parties is blissful -- indeed, to hear each side air its laundry list of complaints about the other is to truly understand the definition of the phrase "dysfunctional relationship." But even the greenest writer is well aware that he who represents himself represents a fool. Therefore, if you are ever going to succeed as a writer, you will have to have an agent. But what type of agent will be right for you, and what kind of agency will he be a part of? For although the image of Sammy Glick may still be alive and well, the business of agenting has changed quite a bit. It is extremely difficult to interest an agent in your work, and yet even if you're lucky enough for this to be the case, the agent in question may not ultimately be the best person to represent you.

What is An Agent?

An agent is basically a headhunter for an artist -- in this case you, the writer. Their job is to either sell the original spec scripts you write or to get you work at the studios based on your scripts, which they are constantly circulating around town in order to win you fans among the executives and producers in charge of hiring writers for writing assignments. Agents work entirely on commission, taking ten percent of whatever fee they can negotiate for your work, thus the origin of the term "tenpercenteries," used in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to describe the boutiques and major agencies for whom they work. Keep in mind that it is unheard of for an agent to charge more than ten percent of your earnings; similarly, it is out of the question for an agent to demand an upfront fee. If these are the terms being presented by someone claiming to be an agent, you should avoid them at all costs.

Because agents initially work for free, it is imperative that they feel passionately about the work they represent. Some agents make lofty assurances about their choosiness when signing clients, but have developed a reputation in the business for doing the "spaghetti thing" (ie: throwing as much up against the wall to see what will stick).

While the numbers game might be fine for anything that boils down to mere statistics, it does not benefit any writer, whose work is often likened to "their baby," to be treated like a number on a roulette table. For agents' reputations throughout the industry are forged not only on the way in which they do business, but on their word and their taste in talent as well. If an agent calls an executive to rave about a new writer, chances are the executive will think back to the last recommended writers proffered forth by the agent. And if most of those recommendations were a waste of the executive's time, you can bet that the writer being pitched will not get read anytime soon.

How Do You Get An Agent?

Because agents are viewed as the gateway to the big brass ring (and for good reason), they tend to be besieged by phone calls and queries from people with designs on making it in the film business. Given the sheer volume -- not to mention questionable, at times, sanity -- of this segment of the population, it is small wonder that agents sequester themselves behind their assistants. And given their very real time constraints, there are only so many calls and e-mails to which they can respond-the odds are that when an agent scans his or her call log, they simply delete any unfamiliar names. Sending them your script unsolicited is a waste of time, even if you attach a bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolate, or front row tickets for that agent's favorite basketball team (all of which aspiring writers have done) for the simple reason that agencies have been sued far too many times by unrepresented writers who claim their script was stolen. The way the agencies see it, the risk that they may be discarding the next Chinatown is far outweighed by some very real liability concerns.

So how do you get an agent? Below are a few tips that, while certainly no guarantee, can help elucidate a process whose odds, more often than not, can feel insurmountable. (To read the tips, get the Vault Career Guide to Screenwriting.)

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