How I Got My First Screenwriting Agent
It is a question repeated time and time again: how do I get representation? The answer is always the same. There is no one way. Everyone is different. “How I broke into the business” stories remain interesting because they all vary so damn much. As you can tell by the title, this is my story. There is actionable advice here, I promise, but I need to go back a few years because where I failed is just as important as where I succeeded. So let me start back in college…
Edward Albee was my first writing mentor. I am immensely proud of this despite it being thirty years ago. Edward’s great gift to me was instilling the confidence that I could do this for a living. I remember that lesson when I teach today and it remains a goal of mine for my students.
Back then, as a sixth-year sophomore at my beloved University of Houston, I thought it might be time to leave school and pursue a professional career. Edward wrote me a kind letter of recommendation about how I should be taken seriously as a writer (this was after a farcical letter he wrote, where the kindest thing he could muster was, “He writes lots of pages. Almost non-stop.”)
I thought this letter was my ticket to the big time. Edward had just won his third Pulitzer, so certainly a letter from him should open some doors, right? I was 23, remember. I didn’t know. So I purchased the ridiculously expensive Lone Eagle publishing guide to Agents and Managers (Or was it the Film Writers Guide and I grabbed agents’ names from that? I honestly don’t remember,) and I queried nearly every literary agent on the east and west coast with Edward’s letter as the centerpiece. I must have sent out at least 30 or so letters. Maybe 50.
I did not bother sending anything to the most powerful agency of them all, CAA. I had read stories about how they would post particularly pathetic queries on the mail room wall and laugh at the writer’s delusion. I did not want to end up on that wall, so… CAA never made my query list.
As I waited to hear back, I did what I did back then, I wrote as much as I could, and I produced those plays on ridiculously low budgets. I credit my early training as an actor and the self-producing of plays for how I learned how moments could play on stage. I acquired a good sense of what might work and what definitely would not work. But it was in the DOING that made this happen. It was not theoretical. It was hands-on experience.
I started to hear back from the agents I queried. Some passed outright, others asked for a script, and then later passed, but most just never communicated back at all. My search for an agent was a failure. Just one big goose egg.
I can’t recall my mood back then, but I know it wasn’t good. But I just continued on and kept creating. I and some friends opened a small theater in Houston. The first show was a play I had written and workshopped in school. We cobbled up enough money to pay a couple of Equity actors, and thus PRIVATE PROPERTY became my first “professional” production. We were young, talented, and energetic, and we got some very nice notices from the Houston press.
And then something remarkable happened. Two weeks after opening, the theatre got a phone call. It was an agent. From CAA. A review of the play ended up on the agent’s desk and he was intrigued. He wanted to read the script. Just remembering it now, I am still stunned by this. What a lucky break. Yes. Luck. This was a very, very lucky break.
I sent the script, and while CAA ultimately passed, it began a relationship. What I did not know at the time was that the agent in question was just promoted after working on Michael Ovitz’s desk. His strategy was to find new clients by converting playwrights to screenwriters. The idea was that this could be a shortcut to building his own stable of clients ready to work.
My so-called theatre lasted about seven months before we ran out of money, and infighting split us in different directions. I decided I was tired of low-budget theatre as there was no money in it, and I would focus on more lucrative ventures. Like screenwriting! Again, I was 23. I didn’t know. I spent the next six months diving deep into screenplay structure and form, and this period is worth a post in itself. But I came out of it with an action film (I always considered myself lucky that I was a playwright that loved genre films,) and the first person I sent it to was the agent at CAA.
That agent thought he could sell the damn thing, and he became my agent and remained so for the next 7 years. He wasn’t even my agent anymore when that movie eventually got made. It stars Wesley Snipes and was originally released as UNSTOPPABLE, but is now known as NINE LIVES. It remains a claim to fame of mine that it was my script that launched Wesley Snipe’s straight-to-video career! How many people can say that?
There are a few lessons here. First, just keep plugging away. Just do what you do. You don’t have a choice. Second, luck has a lot to do with it. My career has come back from the dead twice since then, and each time it was a weird, lucky break that I could take advantage of that got me going. I get seriously unnerved sometimes when I think about what it would be like if these lucky breaks did not happen. Where would I be?
But I believe the most important lesson here is this: you have to make them come to you.
You have to create something that generates energy and forward movement that they want to jump on to. When you contact them yourself, they just seem to think, “If they were worth representing, they’d be represented.” They think this because 99.9% of the time, it is true. It’s a safe assumption, and you will get zero benefit of the doubt.
But if they think the train has left the station and they have to jump on before another rep does, then they move. And they move quickly.
I sent out query letters to 40 small agencies, and I got nowhere. They blew me off. I didn’t even bother reaching out to CAA, because what was the point? Yet, after doing my own thing, producing my own plays, CAA reached out to me. I was the same writer. Only the perception of me was different.
So create. Find niches where you can stand out from the clutter. Make movies, win contests (itself a random, lucky break for all kinds of reasons,) publish books, improvise and perform in LA, write comics, do something that puts the spotlight on you even for a moment. Prove your worth. Don’t hope they can visualize it on their own, because they can’t. They have to be shown.
But you absolutely, positively, must do something that makes them come to you.