Want to Get Signed? Your Screenplay or TV Pilot Has To Do THIS
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve heard me say this before: One of the questions that I get from writers most often is all about getting noticed by representation. How do I get an agent? How do I get a manager? What do I need to have in my portfolio before I start my approach? What actions should I take to try to get their attention?
These are all valid questions, many of which I attempted to answer in my How To Get a Screenwriting Manager and How To Get a Screenwriting Agent blogposts. But those earlier questions really speak to approach. To getting read. To having a rep take note of you enough to prioritize you in their read list. But getting read and getting signed are two different things.
Here’s the truth: With enough connections, referrals, contest placements and 8’s from The Black List, anyone can get read by at least a few managers still bringing new clients onto their lists. But getting signed? Going from “I took a look at your script and… “ to “I would love to work with you!” is the difference that matters. Which raises the question:
Once you get your screenplay or TV pilot in an agent or manager’s hand, what does it take for them to pull the trigger and decide to bring you on as a client, or at least explore a professional relationship?
For the record, I’ve had my clients, even those who were virtual unknowns at the time, doggedly pursued by reps who might not have given them the time of day (or more time than it takes to read enough script pages to dismiss the work) suddenly, aggressively pursue them. One of my clients was pursued by a manager to whom she sent her pilot (after he passed on the previous 5 that she wrote) suddenly hounding her on the weekend, desperate to get her to his office so he can sign her that Monday. Another of my writers got pulled off a set where he was working as a 1st Assistant Director mid-day on Friday because a manager read his feature and was so excited about it, he wanted to sign him before the weekend. And it doesn’t stop there: A year ago one of my writers walked into the office of a prestigious writing program’s organizer. His script was at the top of the pile, with a heart drawn on its title page. So it does happen. Though probably not nearly as often as any of us would like.
There’s no two ways about it: For a rep, taking on a new client, be it a working writer or one still trying to break in, means committing to taking on a lot more work.
If you are already a working writer, your employed status will likely affect the rep’s decision of whether or not to sign you. Being able to, in all likelihood, get you more work with some ease is not going to inform a rep’s decision to work with you entirely, but obviously knowing that they should be able to monetize you rather quickly by securing your next TV staffing gig or writing assignment will compute into their decision. But make no mistake about it: I’ve seen plenty of working writers get passed on by agents and managers because the rep in question “didn’t connect with the work” or “didn’t love the writing enough to take the writer on.”
And if you’re not a working writer? A potential rep knows that breaking in a new writer will mean knocking on a lot of doors, getting a lot of rejections, working hard to build you a substantive fanbase, making the case again and again that you are the one writer, from all the writers trying to break in, that an agent, a producer, an executive or a Showrunner should be paying attention to. While it is very much in the job description of any rep who opts to take on an unestablished writer, the job, itself, can be frustrating and demanding, an uphill battle to boot.
In my experience, a huge factor in the decision of whether or not to take on a new client, and all the work that comes with it, is the writer’s material. It’s not all about structure, or subject matter, or concept, or world, though those are certainly important too, as are the writer’s skills in the room. A rep will consider taking a new, unestablished writer on as a new client when the pilot or screenplay at hand, while displaying great understanding of structure, plot and character, also, and most importantly, made the rep reading the material feel something visceral (other than dread or annoyance) when reading your material.
Over the many years I’ve been working with writers and reps, I’ve heard this simple sentiment more times than I can count: Some managers have gone as far as to say that if you made them feel anything during the read, if you made them cry or laugh, you will get a call from them when they’re done reading your pilot or screenplay. Super manager Jewerl Ross mentioned this very simple fact when I interviewed him in a Final Draft webcast a couple of weeks back.
But that wasn’t the first time I heard him mention this. Years ago, when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Jewerl told me:
“As it relates to starting off a career for a writer, what I do for them in the beginning is simple: I fall in love with the material and I send it to a lot of fucking people.”
What does it all speak to? I have two words for you: Emotional resonance.
Falling in love is a purely emotional experience. No amount of architecting of story in the world (while still very important) can guarantee sentimental impact. But it’s emotion that gets us invested in stories, in characters and in journeys. It’s the caring about the characters that we watch on the screen, observing the experience that stimulates all the feels, that brings us back to the page, back to the next episode, that has us sitting through to finish that movie, despite all of the programming options available for us these days.
And reps are the same. They want to feel something. They want the material to draw enough sentiment out of them so that they are inspired to take on a new client, and all the hard work that it brings.
Therefore, I challenge anyone reading this blog to consider: How do you want your screenplay or pilot to make the reader feel? Once the plot is tracking, and the character turns are clear, make sure that the emotional experience is what you want it to be. Of course, not every reader of your work will respond the same way, and with some readers, such as agents or managers considering your work, you will have no way to find out whether the work delivered emotionally for them. Therefore, long before you send your screenplay or pilot to professional hands, send your material to trusted screenwriting and in-the-know friends, and ask them to walk you through their emotional journey while reading your work.
In addition to finding out which part of the story had them excited and invested, be sure to ask questions about particular characters and story elements: Were they invested in a particular character? If so, why? Did they care what happened to them? And if not, why not? While not everyone will feel the same way about any particular screenplay or pilot, in the end you should gather enough responses to confirm that with enough of your test readers, your screenplay or pilot delivered the desired emotional impact.
Yes, managers and agents want their clients to be good in a room, they want them to be generators. But they also want their clients to deliver the sort of work that makes them care and that stimulates them. That doesn’t mean that they will only take on clients that inspire the sort of work that will change the world; feeling can range from joy to anger and heartbreak. But it’s those feelings that will inspire those reps to take you on and to put in the hard work to help build and develop your career long before they get paid. It’s that emotionally resonant work that will help pave your path to screenwriting or TV writing success.