What Does It Mean??? Decoding The Industry, Vol. 2

A few years back, I wrote the blog post DECODE THIS: I DIDN’T CONNECT WITH YOUR SCREENPLAY. Its mission was simple: dig into what executives, agents and managers really mean when they tell the writer something to the tune of: Nice writing, I just really didn’t connect with it. The more time passed after that blog post, the more I realized that there are other things that writers are told regularly by agents, managers and executives that may, at their worse, sow some false hope and become a breeding ground for disappointment. In this follow-up post, I want to dig into those, and explore what the proverbial they – agents, managers, executive – actually mean when they say certain things.

For the record: I am not writing this in order to crush anyone’s industry hopes. My mission is always to empower the writer with information. Contrary to what a few out there think, I don’t get off on stomping on what little hope the writer is given by the industry. At the end of the day, I believe that the old cliché is true, that knowledge is power, and that writers are stronger than many give them credit for. That most writers are not entirely fragile, and can handle whatever the industry has to throw at them.

So what are those things that industry execs may say on occasion, and what do they actually mean:

“I liked your script a lot, but just couldn’t get buy-in.”

This statement usually comes from managers, who potentially warned the writer that before they can bring her onto their client list, they have to get other managers in their firm to sign off on this, or by development executives who need company buy in in order to take any project on for development.

The above statement, when made by a manager, usually means that:

The manager works within the construct of a management company  where a client is managed by a team rather than an individual, and therefore the writer has to garner interest from a majority – if not all – of the managers that would potentially be on her team. All managers would be giving notes on a piece of work before it goes out to the professional space, all managers would be weighing in on strategy and advocating for the writer in the industry. For example, respected management firm Epicenter, which reps Steven Canals (POSE) and Nick Yarborough (A LETTER FROM ROSEMARY KENNEDY) is one of those who works very successfully in accordance with this business model.

But… it can also mean other things.

It could be that the manager who read the writer’s material liked the writing enough to send it around and see if anyone else fell in love with it, but not enough to go to bat for the writer without anyone else in the company expressing enthusiasm. Recently, one of my clients was told this by a partner in a high-profile management company that does not go on the record for collectively signing their clients. In my experience, if a company does not sign collectively and a partner LOVES your writing enough to take you on, it really doesn’t matter to him what anyone else thinks. In this scenario, what this generally means would be a bit more of a “liked it, didn’t love it ENOUGH.” It is often accompanied by the manager encouraging the writer to send in her next work when it is finished.

The above statement – I couldn’t get buy-in – can also mean that the manager who read your screenplay or pilot did in fact really like your writing, but doesn’t quite have signing power just yet, meaning that they need a more senior rep to sign off on you before you can be represented by anyone in the company. This likely means that the manager who initially read you and responded to the work is somewhat junior, but could in time get into a position where he is autonomous in his decision making. He will likely encourage the writer to submit her next finished script, in the hopes that by the time she does, he has either moved up or she would have written that undeniable script.

A similar comment from a development exec might be: “I liked your script a lot, but just couldn’t get other people excited.”  This usually means that she liked the material enough to have it go through coverage or read by her superiors within the company, but ultimately no one else responded as she did, making it a “pass” for the company.

“Thanks for sending this to us, it’s not for us at this time, but if you get it set up, let us know.”

For the most part, this statement will come from anyone representing talent. It may be an agent representing an actress or a manager representing a director. You get it.

For me, this one is pretty cut and dry: What the rep is saying is: “talk to us when there’s money on the table. Without funding in place – or other known industry players involved – we won’t give this project serious consideration.” This may mean that they liked the writing but not enough to push it to their talent without a guarantee of payment, or else it could mean that they didn’t love it but would consider it again if there’s money on the table because, after all, their job is booking talent and getting paid.

Some writers are frustrated by this statement, annoyed that the writing itself is not given the attention that it deserves, that where story and character and word-smithing should be king it is, in fact, all about the money. Others are encouraged; they see the above statement as an invitation to re-submit once they – or a producer they are working with – is able to extend a real, tangible financial offer.

The most important thing to remember here is this: It’s a rep’s job to get their writers paying work. If a screenplay is not coming from a known writer that a particular actor’s been wanting to work with, or from a producer with a respectable track record, they are that much less likely to engage. In other words, if they don’t know you from Adam, it’s going to be about what you bring to the table that will help them do their job. To be taken seriously, a project has to be set up in some way that would imply their actor or director will get paid, and they would, consequentially, make their 10%.   

“I have no actionable notes.”

Let me be honest: I hate that response. The only time that I LOVE that response is when the writer hears it because the screenplay or TV pilot is working so well, the person who read it has no actionable notes, i.e., no changes need to be made, nor can the reader suggest any notes that they think would make the material SO. MUCH. BETTER.

But, most of the time, that’s not why an agent, manager, producer or development executive would say this.

Most of the time, what this statement means is that the person making it thinks the material is beyond repair. Doesn’t matter how hard you work on it, there is just not enough there for you to salvage. Or the concept is so entirely flawed that any improvement in writing, character or plot is not going to be able to overcome its challenges.

Don’t get me wrong: there have been those rare screenplays that I read that were… for lack of better words… A nothing-burger. A TV pilot where there just isn’t a “there there,” where the writer would be better served starting something new from scratch than trying to salvage something usable from whatever they put on the page. Those screenplays that didn’t have enough conflict, enough character, enough stakes, or even an interesting plot to make a rewrite worthwhile. Those scenarios do exist, and believe me, those conversations very difficult to have. I can only speak for myself, but, believe me,I’ve lost sleep on those nights when I knew that the next day I was going to have a tough conversation about a screenplay or a TV pilot. Those are never fun.

Even if a manager, an agent or an executive feels strongly that there is nothing in the screenplay or TV pilot worth saving, they do understand and appreciate the hard work (if not blood sweat and tears) that went into constructing it. Unless they also tell you that the work is lazy. In that case, they will likely have less of a hard time saying “no actionable notes” because, well, they will not only think that the screenplay or pilot is complete flawed, they will also assume that you phoned it in. Which is never a good thing.

Here’s the bottom line: If you are working hard, improving your craft, pushing your writing to the next level, trying to get better with every TV pilot or screenplay that you write, then “I have no actionable notes” should not be something that you hear with any regularity. You can hear “I didn’t connect with the material,” “I just didn’t love it,” or even “it just wasn’t for me.” But “I have no actionable notes” would say more about the person giving notes in this scenario, then it would about the writer receiving them

I would love to hear from you: What are some of the things you’ve been told by agents, managers, development folks, producers and/or network and studio executives that made you wonder whether there is more meaning behind the words? Send them my way through my CONTACT FORM, and you may find them in a blog post one day!