What Are Screenwriting Reps Really Looking For?
The other day, during a coaching session, one of my writers asked me: What are reps REALLY looking for? While this may seem like a simple question, the answer might not be quite as simple or straight forward as you think.
Of course, there is a simple, somewhat amorphous answer: Reps are looking for great writers. But that can be a lot of different things. So instead of leaving you with that highly non-specific answer, let’s unpack this seemingly simple statement and consider all the things that “great writer” could mean.
First of all, and most immediately, great writer means great writing. And great writing has to show up on the page, in a complete story be it a screenplay or a pilot, that makes the readers care.
As manager Lee Stobby, perhaps best known for getting Issac Adamson’s much hailed screenplay BUBBLES to the top of the The Black List some years ago, told me when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“I think that a lot of writers, they don’t think enough about ‘oh, I have a good idea; it’s a B+ idea, that’s OK, that’ll be enough’. No. I can’t do anything with a B+. I can’t do anything with an 8 out of 10. I don’t think anyone in Hollywood can. There’s no marketplace in Hollywood for scripts that just exist. Or are ‘fine’. There’s no room for that anymore.”
Over the years, I’ve encountered many a writer who told me: I would be great in a writers’ room. Or… I could write a screenplay that’s so much better than… Or: I know I can write a great pilot. To be the sort of writer that reps are looking for, you have to put it on the page.
So what are reps looking to see on the page when considering a writer for representation?
- A unique, interesting idea, something they’ve never seen before, or a new angle or take on an oft-visited story. The one thing they don’t want the material to be? Derivative. For more on this, check out my blog post The One Thing You Don’t Want Your Screenplay to Be.
- Great execution. As Stobby suggested, in today’s industry, an idea is likely not going to be enough. For a new writer to surface, it’s going to be just as much about the execution of the material as it will be about the idea at its heart.
- Understanding of craft, structure and standards. Reps and execs get excited when they read something written by a masterful hand, one that displays in every sentence, scene and sequence the scribe’s understanding and mastery of the craft. This is not to say that the material has to follow every Save the Cat rule, or adhere to every guideline provided by McKee. But if screenwriting rules are broken, they are broken most effectively when in the hands of someone who clearly knows what she is doing, and you can sense that on the page from a mile away. Want some examples of screenwriting mistakes to avoid? Check out Don’t Ruin a Good Read!
- Great characters and dialogue. We are looking for unique characters that leap off the page. Punchy dialogue specific to each character, in which the writer manages to craftily tell us a lot without using too many words. These sorts of elements really help set a screenplay apart.
- Finally, we’re looking for voice. While voice remains hard to define, it’s undeniable on the page. The are some writers whose voice is so specific on the page, I could recognize it with ease. When it come
“A voice is a unique point of view to a storytelling process. Someone that takes a character and layers it in a way that is different from what I’ve read in the past. Someone that takes a story and adds an element to it that we haven’t seen before. I know it sounds so cliché, but it is something that you know it when you read it. It stands out to you. When I read David Guggenheim’s draft of SAFEHOUSE—just to use that as an example—there was a voice to his action, there was a voice to his character work that spoke to something I had not read in many action movies—two-handers especially—in the past.”
Lastly, and specifically when it comes to the writing, it’s also about this one simple thing: Emotional resonance. It’s about moving the reader. Making them feel something through the read. You do that, and you will likely get some industry interest. For more on emotional resonance, be sure to read: Want to Get Signed? Your Screenplay or TV Pilot Has to Do This.
For good or bad, fair or unfair, in today’s industry it starts on the page, but it’s not JUST about what’s on the page. After all, studios, production companies, TV networks, streamers and show runners get in business with the writer herself, not just what she’s put on the page. Perhaps The Cartel’s Head of Literary & Television manage/partner Evan Corday put it best when she told me:
“There are 50,000 completely talented fine writers, it’s that 1% of that group that’s gonna rise to the top because they have it all. Because they have the voice, because they have the talent, because they have the drive and because they keep being in a room where people want to be with them. And when you read them and you meet, you know, that magic, that thing happens and you’re like, oh yeah, I gotta work with that person.”
What Evan refers to is what has become known as being good in a room. Or, as some might call it “giving a good meeting.” While it may appear simple, being good in a room requires…
- Having your personal narrative down pat, i.e. knowing how to tell that one story that is uniquely yours which speaks to who you are as a person and a writer in a specific and concise and memorable fashion that really stands out from the rest.
- Knowing your brand, as well as your space. To be successful in the industry, you have to not only understand the organizing brand that informs what you write, but also be able to speak with authority about other projects, both new and old, that speak in the same space.
- Understanding the industry and how it works. No one wants to be an educator; industry professionals want to work with other professionals, even if they are only just starting out. While you won’t be expected to understand budgets, deals, or even the players to the same degree as a working professional, you are expected to know how it all works, and what is and isn’t realistic for a new writer.
- Being able to talk about a lot more than just the writing. Often times, executives and reps seek to connect with the writers they are working with well beyond the page. This may mean bonding about anything you might have in common beyond the writing, and may include your ability to chat and tell stories about everything from your travel adventures to your love of period romance novels or rescue dogs. You never know what will bond you!
- Showing innate curiosity. Genuine interest in the person you are meeting with, be they an agent, manager or executive, always goes a long way. This means both doing your research prior to walking into any meeting, as well as showing spontaneous interest in who they are and in their experiences.
If a rep wants to meet with you, that means they like your writing enough to take time to meet. The meeting itself is to suss out whether they want to work with you, and would they feel comfortable putting you in a room with their friends in the executive sector. If a rep meets with you, likes you and connects with you, they will be excited to start introducing you to the town and getting you out there!
Of course, it’s not easy to differentiate yourself and actually get in front of those reps who would consider taking you for representation. Beyond the writing and in the room skills, reps may be looking at the following factors when considering taking on someone who is not yet proven in the industry:
- Referrals. Introductions through industry sources continue to be of great importance in the industry. Per Echo Lake’s Zadoc Angell: “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.”
- High placement in highly regarded screenwriting competitions. While placements in such competitions are by no way a guarantee for representation, they can open a lot of doors! For a recent example, look no further than my client Crosby Selander, who sold his spec feature BRING ME BACK in a 7-figure deal after being named finalist in the Script Pipeline competition. For more on which competitions can help you get noticed in the industry, be sure to read Screenwriting Competitions: The Good, The Bad, The TRUTH.
- Traction with TV writing programs or other labs. The TV writing programs have long been on the forefront of talent discovery. Therefore, being accepted into one of them, or even being named finalist, can serve as a great door opener!
- Making something, be it a great short, a stand-out web series or a fantastic low budget feature film that gets out there and gets the attention of an agent or manager.
- Finding success in an industry-adjacent sector with novels, essays, plays, short stories or graphic novels can certainly garner attention from industry players.
As mentioned at the start of this post, there is no single, or even a simple, answer to the question, What are reps REALLY looking for? But there are different ways to be successful both on the page and in person, to establish your path and garner attention. Keep developing your craft and honing your voice, creating an engaging personal narrative and building relationships that one day could become referrals, and sooner or later that screenwriting career that you have been working so hard for will be yours.