How To Get A Screenwriting Manager

This is the 2nd installment in the BREAKING IN: REPRESENTATION series.

Today, managers are considered to be on the forefront of talent discovery, serving as scouts for the agencies, the studios, the networks and production companies. It is their job to find the diamonds in the rough, then develop and prepare those carefully selected, promising writers for the working industry. These days, long before most writers get an agent, get staffed, or get a script out into the professional space, they usually get a manager.

My friend, manager Jeff Portnoy, recently shared an industry truism with me that explains the expectations from the agent/manager hierarchy: As a writer on your own, you’ll push yourself to a 3 or 4. The right manager will push you to a 7. An agent will push you to a 10. Which is another way of saying that in order to get ready for a literary agent, as well as become industry-ready, you are best off working with a manager first.

Not sure about this? Want to bypass getting a manager altogether and go straight for an agent? Before you do, check out my first blog post in the BREAKING IN: REPRESENTATION series, HOW TO GET A SCREENWRITING AGENT.

Of course, there have been occasions when a writer did not need to pass GO and went straight from hustling on their own to working with an agent. Recently one of my clients – between managers at that time – got staffed on a show, and had her showrunner walk her into his agent’s office, who then signed her on the spot. I’ve also worked with a writer who got picked up by a junior agent looking to build up his list, and willing to take a chance on an unestablished (albeit contest winning) writer, because big name writers weren’t exactly knocking down his door. But short of such outliers, in most other present-day scenarios, for new writers trying to break in, it usually goes manager first.

For a literary manager to be effective on your behalf, they should possess the following elements:

TASTE LEVEL – The manager has to be known for his taste level and ability to identify both screenplays worth reading and writers on their way up. The younger the manager, the less likely they are to be known around town as someone who is able to identify and potentially develop those diamonds in the rough, but those with enough hustle will get enough scripts into relevant hands to start making a name for themselves. Which bring us to…

HUSTLE – For a manager to be effective, especially on behalf of a brand-new writer whose name does not immediately garner interest, they have to be willing to break down some doors, to work hard, to hear a million NO’s on any given day, and still have enough fight in them to get to that all-important YES.

ROLODEX – If you don’t know anyone in town, it’s going to be hard to get people to read from you, so the more people a manager knows, the more access and exposure he can provide his brand-new, still unknown writer.

But how do you get a manager to give you the time of day and consider adding you to their work-intensive client list?

First of all, you have to know the players, so research is incredibly important. It goes without saying that most writers would love to get signed by the likes of Aaron Kaplan or Larry Shaman, but you probably want your manager to have some hustle in their step, some hunger that will drive them. The rule is that the more established the manager, the less he will need your success. This doesn’t mean that they won’t get passionate or motivated about your work and on your behalf, but even if they do decide to add you to their list made largely of working professionals, your success will likely be less critical for their overall career trajectory. Additionally, as a new writer, you will always have to compete with writers who are proven earners for the managers’ time and attention. Therefore, be sure to familiarize yourself with some of the younger managers out there (and by young I mean years working as a manager, not years on this earth), as well as newly-minted rising stars. Such names can be found through the big contests where they serve as final round judges alongside more seasoned reps, as well as the annual prestige lists such as The Black Lists and The Hit List that often feature scripts written by such managers’ up and coming clients. Don’t get me wrong: Not every manager with a client on The Black List is just starting out. Name managers like Adam Kolbrenner (Madhouse) and Sean Perrone (Kaplan/Perrone) have clients on there too. But getting clients onto prestige lists (especially when it’s more than one) is a sure sign of hustle.

Once you do your research and know who – in an ideal world – you’d love to work with one day, it’s time to figure out how to get to them. The fastest way to get to a manager in the industry today, and have him give serious consideration to your material, is through a referral. As Echo Lake’s Zadoc Angell told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “It’s a referral business. How does a baby writer get on my radar? It’s someone in the business that I talk to with regularity saying, “This is someone that I think is exciting, and I’ve read their material myself and I think it’s great, and I think you’d be a match, and you know, you should look at this.” That’s one way. And there’s also, of course, the network and studio writer programs and diversity programs, because they read a lot of the new talent out there and cultivate a class of writers every year and are invested in staffing them, and so of course you sign people out of those programs, because they’ve already been selected in some fashion.”

Manager Scott Carr of Management SGC concurred: “If something comes through a referral of someone I trust it does mean that I will probably read the material either faster and also with a higher expectation because I think there’s gonna be quality there because it was pre-vetted by someone I trust and think has good taste. So if the writers do have access to executives and producers and people they feel can better facilitate conversations with executives then I encourage them to go those routes and exploit those relationships.”

The Black List website (not to be confused with the annual prestige list of most liked unproduced industry screenplays written on spec and on assignment and voted on by development, production and studio executives) has also become a proven path for getting a manager’s attention. While listing a screenplay on the website is not an immediate path for getting eyeballs on the work, The Black List has certainly captured the industry’s attention when it comes to generating meaningful evaluations. Up-and-coming managers often flock to the website in search of quality material, identified as such by the scores of 8’s or above. While some good scripts are certain to fall through the cracks, The Black List has made its case to the industry for being able to identify worthy material such as A LETTER FROM ROSEMARY KENNEDY written by Nick Yarborough (due to roll in the summer of 2018 starring Elizabeth Moss) which was discovered on the site.

John Zaozirny, who represented the screenplay BLOND AMBITION which topped the website’s prestige list counterpart in 2016 told me when I interviewed him for BREAKING IN:“The best thing you can do is get your script on The Black List website. “NIGHTINGALE (starring David Oyelowo and released on HBO in May 2015) was on The Black, which got made and won awards. That was just right on there, you know? I think of it as a way to find writers who have talented voices, I don’t think it’s a way to find amazing concepts that sell for a million, zillion dollars to a studio. You get a weekly email from The Black List and I definitely read every single logline. I was just talking to a writer last week that I met off The Black So it’s definitely a place where I look for talented writers. I don’t necessarily go trawling through there, so it’s a lot easier when you’re getting a weekly email that tells you: here are the scripts that we’re excited about that kind of match with your preferences.”

Screenplay competitions, too, have become a legitimate way for writers to send out to and potentially attract interested representation.

Manager Ryan Cunningham of Madhouse advised: “Competitions serve to give a little bit of legitimacy and exposure. It certainly is a culling process from unwatched writers. And something like the Nicholl especially—because everybody reads the finalists—it just gives the writer exposure very quickly to people who normally wouldn’t care that much. But there are a lot of competitions that aren’t really legit that are just there to take your entry fee. So find the competitions that are actually connected.”

But how do you know which competitions are the ones that are worthy of your hard-earned bucks? In my experience, attracting industry interest, and specifically that of managers or maybe even agents, is one that requires big-fish-big-pond results. What does that mean? While winning one of the smaller contests (of which there are many) may provide some validation for your craft and talent’s ability to rise to the top, you have to win, or in the very least be a finalist, in one of the industry’s biggest contests in order to attract industry attention. Winning or placing as a finalist, top 25-er or category winner is not about fancy new software, gadgets, or a cash prize. It is, in the simplest terms, about access.

Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler broke it down for me: “If you have $100 in your pocket and that’s all you’ve got to play with, and there’s 2 competitions to choose from, one that has a $50,000 prize and one that has no prize but guarantees your script will get read by this list of people that work in the business, and both of them are $100 to enter, enter the one with the list of people because that’s worth way more. There’s legitimate ones out there that get read by agents, managers, producers, and we all get together and have a big dinner and everybody talks about what they’ve read. That’s what you want. Go where you get the most amount of exposure for your money, not the most amount of money for your money.”

So, which are some of the biggest screenwriting contests out there, the ones that have proven to hold the interest of literary managers? The Nicholl Fellowship is atop everyone’s list. Ever since its launch in the 80’s, it’s identified countless fellows who have made the transition to working scribes in the professional space. Other big-pond competitions include Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Pilot and Screenplay Competitions (which discovered Eric Koenig’s MATRIARCH in 2014 and Pete Barry’s MARIAN in 2017, both of which went on to sell in the competitive space), Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Competition (whose finalist, BETHLEHEM by Larry Brenner, went on to sell to Universal), Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting and Teleplay Competition, and Tracking B’s pilot and screenwriting contest, through which Mickey Fisher’s EXTANT was discovered. There are, of course, smaller contests that may be worth your hard-earned dollars, including Cinestory, which invites its winners and finalists to exclusive industry retreats and ISA’s Fast Track fellowship. But if you want to be able to use your win or placement to stimulate some attention for yourself and your screenplay, it’s the big screenwriting competitions that will give you the biggest bang.

You may also opt to explore online pitching, offered by both Stage 32 and Roadmap Writers, which provides a fantastic platform for connecting potential managers with determined scribes. Online pitching allows writers to pitch their work to producers, executives and potential managers year-round, and also provides the added benefit for connecting on camera, giving the manager a sense of not only the script, but also the writer.

And then there are query letters.

While many people frown on query letters, and their popularity has certainly declined since the 90’s when they were the standard way in which a writer reached out to the industry, the reality is that for many writers without pre-existing industry contacts, query letters are the only known path to start paving real inroads into the industry, and getting themselves and their work in front of potential managers.

Manager Scott Carr of Management SGC told me: “The unsolicited query route is a game changer in the world of the internet. Everyone’s information is online. So all resourceful writers need to do is get an IMDB Pro account and then see which reps have emails and accept queries and send off well-structured loglines… I don’t think a writer out there can complain that they don’t have access to Hollywood anymore, we are all one click away from seeing and hearing what they have to say.”

But what’s the best way to get a query letter out there? And what practices are most effective? For that, stay tuned for my next blog post in the BREAKING IN: REPRESENTATION series, TO QUERY OR NOT TO QUERY?