Screenwriting Agents vs. Managers: What’s the Difference?


As you set out to find representation, you may hear a lot of conflicting, if not straight-out confusing, statements:

“You can’t break in without an agent.”

“You have to get a manager first.”

“Agents and managers pretty much do the same thing.”

But make no mistake about it: Agents and managers do have clear differences between them, in the job they do for their clients, and in the manner in which they operate. For this blog post, the 6th in the BREAKING IN: REPRESENTATION series, I wanted to take a deeper dive, in order to help bring some clarity.

(Previous installments in this series include: How to Get a Screenwriting Agent, How to Get a Screenwriting Manager, Getting Representation: Do’s and Don’ts, Screenwriting Representation: To Query or Not to Query and Screenwriting Representation: Payments, Commissions and Percentages).

Super agent David Boxerbaum, who made the move to become partner at Verve earlier this year, told me when I interviewed him for BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:

“An agent guides someone’s career in the writing business, meaning that they will be helping the writer to choose the types of stories they should be telling, and then telling the writer what the marketplace is looking for, marketplace being the studio world, independent world… Making sure the writer is writing from not only a place of passion but a place that can hopefully further their careers, so a script that can help them generate opportunities to rewrite scripts. Basically, everything that comes to help guiding them in the right direction, keeping them on track—that’s what an agent does every day. You hope, at least.”

While there are certainly similarities between agents and managers (both advocate for their writers in the professional space, both seek to help their writers gain and maintain employment), there are also vast differences between the two. Let’s break it down!

Agencies are legally allowed to procure work for their clients. That means that an agent is permitted to submit a stack of potential writers for a job, an especially important capability when it comes to television staffing, where agents take on the lion’s share of the work.

Unlike their industry counterparts, managers are not allowed to procure work for their writers, or, technically, to oversee or negotiate a sale (though that does happen with the support of a lawyer). They can only pursue employment opportunities for their clients on a one-off basis, facilitating introductions and submitting a writer of interest to a producer or a showrunner, rather than a packet of potential writers for a job. For this reason, agents tend to be more instrumental for television staffing which can become a numbers game.

As hot, up-and-coming manager Jeff Portnoy told me when I interviewed him:

“Agents and then agencies are very helpful in terms of staffing, they track all of the shows that are getting ordered to series, they reach out to all of the showrunners, producers, network executives that are working on those shows and then they submit staffing samples for all of those shows. And they have a very formidable organized machine that does that. So for staffing you really ultimately want an agent. Managers also do staffing but it just depends on the size of the company. The bigger the management company, the more like an agency it functions, the more staffing they do.”

Veteran manager Jon Karas, a former attorney, and agent, explained:

“Management has ‘The Three S’s of Management’. We sign, we sell and we service. So signing isn’t just about, ‘hey come on in and sign your contract.’ It’s about figuring out who to work with and why they are special, and deciding that they are worthy of your time and attention. Selling is a lot broader than just: “Hey, I’m gonna take your stuff and show it to all these buyers.” It’s a lot more than that and before you can get to selling, this sort of fits into the Service category as well, we have to shape what we will sell, we have to make sure we put the best foot forward and the most unique original special version of whatever it is any particular writer does. And then the goal is having a really thorough approach to selling.”

Agents, as part of larger agencies, are licensed and operate under very strict parameters. Because of this, licensed agencies and the agents working within them cannot be attached as producers to material written by their clients, nor are they to collect out-of-pocket fees from their clients. At least not on the up-and-up. Agencies do, however, collect packaging fees from networks and studios when packaging material for the screen.

Unlike their agent counterparts, managers are able to take on a client for representation, attach themselves to a particular project for the production, or both. And just to clarify, just because a manager expresses interest in a project, doesn’t mean that they are taking the writer on as a client; managers or management companies can take a project on for production without taking the writer on for representation. Producing a client’s project allows the manager or management company to collect a larger “producer’s fee,” which thereby demands that they waive collecting 10% directly from the writer (managers are only to be paid once, either as a rep OR as a producing entity).

Madhouse Entertainment’s Ryan Cunningham explained:

“When we produce, it’s almost exclusively material that was our idea to begin with (i.e. it originated with one of the managers/producers at the company), which we then took to writers. The same goes with books or articles or IP that we’ve sourced and brought to the writer. We’ll develop a pitch, develop a pilot, develop a feature speculatively, then take it out and try to sell it, which usually involves packaging with elements and so on and so forth. The benefits of it are the fact that because we’re involved, we add another voice to the process that is almost always aligned with the client’s—because we broke it open creatively together to begin with, we have the same point of view on the material.”

Agencies provide their agents with a base salary, on top of which commission is paid, typically a percentage of the commission an agent’s clients have brought in, though some agencies do have a profit-sharing model in place, allowing for agents to more willingly see their clients vacillate between formats (in the agenting world, a writer is likely to have a film agent AND a television agent if working in both). Because of this, agents tend to be more beholden to the sales goals and quotas set by their companies than managers.

Contrary to agents, managers tend to be mostly – if not all – commission based. While a few of the bigger shops offer their managers a base salary plus commission, most operate on commission alone, some profit sharing and – if part of a larger operation – a generous spending account. Because of this, managers have a longer runway for developing new talent; while agents need to see returns and quick, managers may opt to develop talent and material over time in order to deliver just the right career-making impact. In the management scenario, and because of the lack of company-wide sales goals, each manager sets his own limits for how long he will work with a writer before the client books a job or sells either a pilot or a spec.

Most agents do not sign clients before there is business on the table. Their job, to simplify, is to book revenue, to follow the money, to oversee the career; it’s managers who are often on the forefront of talent discovery, seeking to find those writers who, with some development support and industry enthusiasm, will be ready for an agent soon enough.

As Bellevue’s Jeff Portnoy explained:

“Managers tend to serve as, to use a sports analogy, scouts for the agencies. It’s our job to be out there, judging screenwriting competitions and TV writing competitions, meeting writers and developing material. And then when we feel the writer is ready we reach out to the agencies and the agencies hopefully will sign them, and then together as a team we go out to the town with the material and get the writer meetings.”

Echo Lake’s Zadoc Angell agreed:

“Management has a responsibility to find the diamonds in the rough—to cultivate new talent—because agencies aren’t doing it. Agencies used to when there were a lot more literary agencies and there were more literary boutiques out there, but in the last ten or twelve years, virtually all of the agencies have become big, high-volume corporate kind of places that value making money. So they’re not going to sign a baby writer hoping that two years of investment will turn into a staff writer job. That’s just not their business model, and that opened up a real vacuum in the business. Well, who is doing that work? Who is finding the next generation of showrunners? And that’s where, often, managers really win because we find that new talent, we cultivate it, we put in the hard years and build a person’s career and get them launched.”

Developing the writer’s content, be it in the feature or TV space or both, often falls under the manager’s umbrella of duties. It is often the manager’s job to help sift through the writer’s proposed loglines to find the most exciting one for the industry, provide support through discovery stages of outline and beat sheet, all the way through script pages until a cohesive draft emerges and then goes to the agent. However, some agents have been known to give substantive notes, while others focus on the selling aspect of their job.

Zadoc Angell broke it down further:

“Agents will give you a couple notes, a couple thoughts, a couple changes, but traditionally they’re not going to do hours of notes calls and be in the weeds the way we work in management. Some lit managers really do just focus on the creative. They work on scripts and generating material for their clients, and then it’s the agent’s job to go sell that material and negotiate and make deals from it.”

Agents, traditionally, are in the incoming call business. They are there to accept calls for their clients, to sift through offers and opportunities in order to best position the writer for employment and success. While many will make outgoing calls for their clients when getting a new piece out to the TV or feature space, and will call on behalf of their list when submitting to a TV staffing opportunity or an open writing assignment, it’s the manager’s job, by and large, to conduct those ongoing outgoing calls that will help introduce the writer to, and keep him front of mind in, the professional space. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: There are those rare agents who will make the breaking of new writers part of their ongoing business model.

Because being an agent is very much a game of volume, most agents have a significant number of clients on their list, ranging anywhere from 50 to 100+. As Ryan Saul, SVP of Motion Picture Lit at APA told me:

“My job is part psychologist, part Sherpa, part lawyer, even though I’m not one, and a big part being a salesperson.”

Unlike agents, most managers tend to work with a smaller roster of clients, in order to be able to give each one the time and attention they deserve. Because of this, managers are likely to have 15, 20 or 30 clients at most, allowing them the bandwidth to read scripts, give notes, prep for meetings, escort clients to high-priority meetings if needed, and check in on a regular basis. Managers who do not develop or do not develop significantly (i.e. read scripts but don’t work draft-to-draft or give in-depth notes) are likely to have more clients on their roster, as their development time is limited. Managers at larger management firms may appear to have even more writers on their list, but in fact are sharing some clients with another manager, which helps carry the load of day-to-day servicing.

Finally, Ryan Saul offered this when it comes to constructing your team, and getting it to work in harmony:

“You want to match the strengths of your manager with the weaknesses of your agent or vice versa. So if you have a manager who’s at one of maybe the bigger management companies, you don’t really need to be at a CAA, WME or UTA. Or an APA. If you have a manager that’s maybe kind of a one-person shop, then maybe you could use the power of some of those bigger agencies. It’s all about the personality fit and how it fits together with your team. And if I’m a writer, I’m putting together my board of directors for my business, and the CEO is the agent. The president of my company is the manager. Business Affairs is my lawyer. You want all of those cogs in the wheel to work together and be in synch and those are the careers that I see rise the fastest.”