I spent last night in the heart of London, on a screenwriting panel at Soho House.
Organised and hosted by the brilliant Paul Molloy, there were four guests: Matthew Bates, from Sayle Screen Literary Agents, Jonathan Kinnersley from The Agency, Philip Shelley, from Channel 4 Screenwriting, and myself.
There were probably fifty people there. We answered questions for an hour or so, and a good time was had by all.
It was fascinating to hear Matthew and Jonathan debate.
It's not often I get to hear agents talking together, so it was great to get their take on the business, and find out where they agreed, and where their experience differed.
How DO you get an agent?
The question came up, as it always does, and this proved an area where they both agreed 100%.
I didn't take notes, so I'll have to hope they don't mind me paraphrasing.
These are the salient points as I understood them:
- Matthew takes on very, very few new clients, and when he does, it's inevitably through the personal recommendation of someone he knows and trusts.
- Jonathan is actively building his list, and so reads and reads scripts constantly, but still finds personal recommendations extremely useful.
- There is little point in sending agents treatments or pitches. Agents are looking for new writers' voices, and it's almost impossible to hear a writer's voice in anything other than an actual screenplay. (And a couple of short film scripts isn't nearly enough demonstration of what you can do.)
- Both said that an agent isn't so important in the early stages of your career - actually you need to be out powering your career yourself and making some kind of impact on your own in the very early years. Agents really love a self-starter.
- Enter good competitions (but don't get sucked into seeing them as an end in themselves - they should only ever be viewed as a stepping stone to getting you noticed and making connections).
- If an agency says on their website that they aren't accepting new clients, then believe it. They're really not.
- Look to make as many of these connections with producers and script people as you can. Attend industry events. Talk to people. Get to know people.
- Research production companies and the people who make the shows you like. Be aware of who makes what, who works with whom, and what their tastes are, so that you don't waste your time pitching the wrong projects to people.
- Look at the shows you love. Who writes them? Find their agents. Agents rarely work purely for money: they really do hire people whose work they truly love, who they believe in, so when you love a writer, that means you will probably find you are in tune with that agent.
- Don't obsess on this question. Getting an agent won't change your life. They don't power your career as a writer, or, heaven forbid, give you the passion for writing. They do negotiate for you, they do act as career advisors, and they do constantly work on connecting within the industry, so they can act to make introductions and generally smooth your passage.
- As a new writer, consider writing for the theatre. It's all about getting your work up and out there, and small theatre is an incredibly good way of doing this. Theatre in a room above a local pub can lead to getting a play on in a local theatre, which can lead to well-known theatres in London - and most junior script execs in TV these days have to be very aware of what's happening in the theatre.
- The most successful time to start looking for an agent is when people are saying to you "what do you mean you haven't got an agent?!", or when you have enough 'glitter' around you that the agents are coming to you.
I must say that matches my experience entirely. I've signed with three agents in my career, and each time it has been because I was either known to the agent professionally, or I was recommended by someone the agent knew and trusted.
Which begs the question, how do you make these connections? How on earth do you get to the point where people in the know are recommending you?
So what's a new writer to do?
If you've looking for in depth advice on getting your scripts into the hands of the people who can buy them, then you should definitely take a look at our Open Door Newsletter.
Every issue is full of detailed advice on the industry, with plenty of behind-the-scenes advice on the best way to go about making the contacts you need to sell your script.
Or you could also download a free UK Market Report, giving you the most likely places to get hired as a new British screenwriter.