Confessions of a (Screenwriting) Referral Source

When you hear agents and managers talk about what differentiates them from the competition, many will narrow it down to this: Taste level. The belief that their taste level is superior, and that they are therefore able to single out the most promising talent and most marketable work. Part of what agents and managers rely on in order to identify this superior talent and material are referral sources. In today’s industry, high-visibility contests, listing services and television writing fellowships can all be considered referral sources. But referral sources can also be trusted industry associates, whose own taste level has proven to hold merit in its own right. That’s where I come in. Having worked in this industry for twenty years now, I am in the fortunate position of having a small but distinct group of industry colleagues, specifically working in representation, willing to read material I recommend to them based on my perceived ability to identify great writers with super solid material.

Part of the reason these reps have come to trust me is because it’s quite rare that I will send something their way and recommend that they read it. I work with hundreds of writers, yet in the last two years I estimate I’ve sent out all of twelve scripts. Being hyper selective on this front has gotten me a fairly high batting average. Off the last 10 scripts I sent out to industry colleagues, seven or eight writers have gotten representation, secured development deals or formed strong relationships with producers. I like those numbers. Those numbers allow me to help my writers should the opportunity arise at that rare industry-ready moment.

Despite these long-standing relationships, getting a writer read is not easy. The reps I reach out to scrutinize the format, the genre, the logline to quickly figure out whether what I am sending their way could fit with their sensibilities. With what they know they can move in the market today, whether it be as a project positioned for sale, or as a stand-out writing sample. There’s strategy that goes into getting material into the right hands. Positioning. Planning. And every time I get a script out there, I do send a piece of my heart and hope along with it. After all, when you are in my position, you want every wonderful writer to be discovered. And I’ve certainly sent material out there that I LOVED that in the end didn’t get the writer the attention I knew they deserved. Over time I’ve learned that getting a rep to request a script and ultimately explore engaging the writer for potential representation is going to require a superior script in a marketable format and genre, and a strong in-the-room presence. Pedigree and pre-existing industry relationships certainly help. And even then, a rep taking on a new writer is something of a leap of faith.

Which brings me to the confession part of this blog: Recently, I read a TV script from one of my writers that I thought was OUTSTANDING. The writer and I had been working together for close to a year. By this time, I knew that he was hard working, ambitious, and very consistent. I did read an earlier draft of his script and thought it was promising but not there yet. A television writing instructor I had introduced the writer to, and with whom the writer had been working on the pilot, gave me a heads up that the script had become something really special. So when the time came and the writer asked me to read it, I was happy to, even though I remembered everything that didn’t work in the script the first time around. So I picked it up and started to read. And the deeper I got into it, the clearer it became: This was an exceptional pilot. Unique. Rich. Full of market potential. It read as though it was written by a seasoned professional with his finger on the pulse of what television audiences crave.

When something like this happens – which admittedly is rare – I usually try to think through every reason NOT to send the writer’s script out just yet. After all, these reps are likely to think of every reason they can to say No to representing. My job, then, is seeing what can potentially be done to eliminate any reasons for which a rep might ultimately pass on a writer. I had to ask myself: Does the writer have enough of a body of work? He did – a second script had recently received a CONSIDER from a very scrutinizing script reader. Is there a strong, mature enough voice there? Check. Do I trust that if an agent or manager likes the work, they will also respond to the writer in person? Once again, my answer was Yes. Other than the natural fear of rejection, I couldn’t think of any reason NOT to get this script out there. The writer had done his job through and through. So I decided to help the writer get the work out there.

There are a handful of managers to whom I give “exclusives” – a first look at material, before I send it out to a wider audience. This is a sensitive process, one rep at a time, a few days for them to read, and then, if they don’t respond to the material, on to the next one. I usually select who I will go to first based on the material and who it might be the best fit for. In this case, I opted for a high profile manager with whom I’ve worked for nearly ten years for the exclusive. With the rep already working with another of my clients, I floated the fact that I had a new script for him to read. The manager said he’d love to read if I thought it was THAT strong. Which I did. So I told him I would send him some basic information on the script and the writer the next day.

And that’s when I got really REALLY nervous.

See, I’ve talked to enough reps who told me how they never – or hardly ever – sign new writers who don’t have any success stories to speak of. They don’t have to be big success stories – contest wins and fellowship placements would do – but they have to have some recognition, some industry connections, SOMETHING. And this time, well… The writer had tons of talent, hunger, and an outstanding script on his hands, but not even a smidgen of industry success yet. This would literally be the very first time his work got read by a rep. I had no choice but to take a deep breath as I reminded myself that even though the writer was going to be a very tough sell, he did such a great job with the script I couldn’t deny him the chance. Even though I didn’t say it out loud, at this point I assumed my best hope was that the manager would read the work, like it, then tell me to have the writer get in touch once he’s made some industry headway. I said a silent prayer and sent the email to said manager. It was a Thursday.

On Sunday afternoon, I got an email back. I read it today.  I read it twice.  I want to sign him.  Get him into my office immediately.”

I read the email over and over again, and realized that those carefully selected words could never contain what this email actually meant: That after all these years, it’s still first and foremost about the material. Forget about all the other BS. Sure, pedigree helps. Success stories are important. Industry contacts are key. But at the end of the day, it is about that killer script. It is about the work that you put into it to make it the best that it can be. It is about the classes you take and the expert you engage with to push your writing to the very limit. It is about the fans you create for yourself with that work, who then go on to become effective referral sources. And in a world of so many No’s, so many rejections, that was a simple truth that made this referral source very very happy.

The writer did go to meet with the manager the very next day, and that afternoon was signed by a major Hollywood player. Within four days he went from a guy who was just working hard on his craft and building his body of work to someone who is now legitimately on his way. Would he have gotten read had the material not come from a referral source? That, I am not so sure about. But what I am sure of now more than ever is that despite everything you hear, every big statement made about new writers not being able to break, at the end of the day when you do really outstanding work that not only puts your talent on display but also is suitable for the marketplace you will find success.