Breaking In: Representation – GETTING SIGNED

When one of my clients emerges from a meeting with a potential manager that, for all intents and purposes, seems to have gone well (good flow to the get-to-know-you conversation, interests in similar types of projects, maybe a few people in common or shared non-industry-related hobbies), it is not uncommon for me to hear this from the writer when I ask for the bottom line:

“I don’t know… I mean… I think it went well… I hope they want to sign me but… I’m not really sure!”

If I am then to reach out to the manager (because we happen to go way back) and ask how the meeting went, I would more often hear something to the tune of:

“Loved the writer! Eager to sign! Please put in a good word.”

It happens just like that. Believe me. That, for many writers, becomes the first step to getting signed.

Of course, there are those times when a writer goes in, the meeting goes okay but not great, and the writer leaves hopeful that the manager or management company will sign him regardless. Those are not the sort of meetings I’m talking about.

So when the meeting goes right, when there is a real meeting of the minds, when manager and writer seem to be a good fit right off the bat… why the disconnect?

In my experience, all of this is born of one simple industry reality: Getting signed, specifically by a manager, rarely includes a piece of paper (Don’t worry, we’ll get into agents a bit later). Therefore, getting signed is more of a term thAn an action.

To better illustrate, an incident that encapsulates this:

A few years ago, a writer of mine got a call on the weekend from a big name manager who had just read his pilot. “You have to come in first thing Monday morning! We love your work.”

The writer goes in first thing on Monday. Meets with the head of lit at the management firm, and with his second in command. They rave about the work, about this brilliant pilot, about everywhere they want to take it.

“Great!” The writer tells them, “what happens next?”

“We sign you! Right here. In the room.”

Which sounded great, but left the writer a bit confused. There was no piece of paper. No pause in the conversation to make whatever arrangement needed to be made to make this mysterious signing happen. His John Hancock never actually requested. They ended the meeting with lots of big plans and a bro-sy handshake. It took me reaching out to the manager, who just happened to be a friend, to confirm that things are in fact moving forward.

For the record, that wasn’t the first time that I had to do that. Not by a long shot. Over the years, I have learned that, specifically with managers, writers have to read between the lines all too often when it comes to figuring out where the relationship is going. There are those managers who do the hard sell, who say things to the writer like “If you choose to work with us…“ or “If you let us rep you, we could do XYZ.” But I find such statements to be the exception, not the rule. More often, my writers will hear things like “If we work together then…“ which leaves room to debate whether the manager is offering representation or simply contemplating a hypothetical development, or “We would want to do XYZ with you/your work” which again… could be hypothetical.

Another common statement that can be left for interpretation is: “Let’s keep talking.” This can be tacked onto “Why don’t you send me some ideas for a next project?” or “I’d love to see what else you’re developing so…” These statements usually mean one of two things: 1) Before they commit to representing you, the manager wants to evaluate what other sort of ideas you are bringing to the table, or 2) They want to rep you, and therefore are eager to keep the conversation going.

Some managers will assume you are meeting with other reps. If they are mature (and here I’m talking experience rather than age) they are likely to tell you that you should meet with as many reps as you can, and only then make your decision, which implies that they don’t want to pressure you; they want you to decide on your best fit (hopefully them) once you’ve met every manager who came to the table. This does not imply a lack of interest, but rather, in their mind, a show of respect to the process.

In such scenarios, some managers will offer up a second conversation, which may sound something like: “If you want to talk again once you’ve met everyone, we’re happy to have another meeting/conversation.” This, for the most part, means definite interest.

There are managers out there who, as part of the courtship, will offer to provide notes on one of your scripts, be it a feature screenplay or a pilot. This is often done to display their development ability, in the hopes that the notes would impress, and make your decision to go with them easier.

If you are meeting with a rep who either a) states that they indeed would like to work with you and/or b) that they would like to continue talking but respect the fact that you have other meetings still to take, and you decide that this is, in fact, the manager you would like to sign with (whether they are the only one with whom you’re meeting OR because they are the managers you’ve liked most from everyone you met with) then I highly recommend taking a night to think about it, weighing your options, and letting them know the following day or after the weekend. If you decide not to sign despite taking meetings, or sign with someone else, you always want to communicate where you’re at. And always, always, send a thank you card or email at the end of a meeting, even if you are not quite ready to make a decision yet.

A select few managers, though not many, will seek to have you sign a contract. This, in my writers’ experience, does not happen often. Those managers looking to “paper” the relationship will aim to define, potentially, the service term, and the steps necessary to terminate the contract, as well as commission, and area of representation.

With agencies, getting signed is often a much more straight forward ordeal: Many writers are first introduced to their agent through their manager, who will then oversee the process, and identify which agent or agency would not only be a good fit, but is also expressing the desired enthusiasm for representation. In such scenarios it is going to be the manager reaching out to agents, the manager submitting material, the manager “selling” the writer to the agent for potential representation, as well as following up with the agent post meeting to seal the deal once the writer has completed her agent meetings and decided which agent/agency to go with.

When not introduced to agencies via managers, new writers may make inroads with agencies via executives, showrunners, producers or industry mentors eager to advocate on their behalf. When this is the writer’s way in, she will usually be put in touch directly with the agent, after which the agent’s assistant will set up a meeting, and a potential relationship would be pursued from there.

In all likelihood, and unless doing so as an outright favor, an agent in a mid-level or large agency would not take a writer meeting without seriously considering the writer as worthy of representation. Both material and pedigree have to be impressive enough to warrant time on the agent’s busy schedule. Of course, just because a writer gets an agent meeting doesn’t mean that representation is guaranteed; if agent and writer fail to connect or make sense personality wise, or if the agent has significant concerns about the writer’s “in the room” skills, representation may not be offered.

Most agents and agencies come ready to impress when bringing a writer in to meet. Many will assemble a possible team ahead of the meeting, wowing the potential client with their proposed representation in different areas: Television, features, even books and/or plays if those are of interest. I personally can’t remember any agency meeting that one of my clients went on in recent years where they met with just a single agent. The only way such meetings – with just one agent – happen is in those rare occasions when one of the team members is called away unexpectedly and is therefore unavailable when the writer comes in for that initial meeting. In such cases, a follow-up meeting with the missing agency team member would be scheduled with some urgency in the hopes of sealing the deal.

It is considered bad form to sign with an agency in the room. Agents tend to be direct and efficient with their words, which means that if they want to represent you, you will know right there and then. It is expected that the writer will leave the room, complete his agency meetings, take a little time to think, and then inform the agent/agency he wants to go with. There’s no harm done playing a little hard to get. It’s important to also graciously decline representation from those other agencies who offered to represent you – let them know that you decided to go with someone else even though it was a REALLY hard decision – and thank them for their interest. You never know what might happen.

As agencies are empowered to procure work for their writers and, in almost all cases, in charge of collecting and distributing the writer’s compensation, when it comes to signing with agencies, contracts are fairly standard. The agency will paper the relationship in order to establish that it is, in fact, the agency of record. Signing your agency paperwork is, for many, a simple administrative step. Agencies are governed by the ATA (Association of Talent Agencies) and as such, have standard representation agreements in place.

At the close of this past summer, one of my writers was making a push for representation. He had completed a new pilot he was excited about as it was receiving rave reviews from friends and industry mentors, and his latest feature screenplay made the semi-finalist round with the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship. After reaching out to reps with targeted queries, the writer received some requests for reads. There were a couple of non-committal meetings with a few lukewarm managers.

But then he got a response to one of his queries from a junior manager working under one of the hottest reps in the feature space. A meeting was requested. I know the manager – I sent my own email raving about the writer. They met on a Friday. The following Monday, the writer made it official, letting the manager and his apprentice know that yes, he did want to sign with them. A follow up meeting was quickly arranged. There was a good script at hand; with a bit more development, it would be ready for the marketplace. The writer rolled back his sleeves, ready to work. Which I love. Not a moment to waste! But I did ask him to do one thing: Take one evening, maybe even just an hour, to celebrate. Getting signed for the first time by a known, industry-recognized rep is a definite career milestone. An important step. While it does mark the moment when the hard work begins, it’s also something that should be commemorated.