Agent Advice: Ken Sherman of Ken Sherman & Associates

This installment features agent Ken Sherman, founder of Ken Sherman & Associates in Beverly Hills. Sherman handles screenplays, books and life rights. GLA had the opportunity to talk with Ken for the 2008 Guide to Literary Agents.
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“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Ken Sherman of Ken Sherman & Associates) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.

This installment features agent Ken Sherman, founder of Ken Sherman & Associates in Beverly Hills. Sherman handles screenplays, books and life rights. GLA had the opportunity to talk with Ken for the 2008 Guide to Literary Agents. The interview will be reprinted in the 2010 Screenwriter's & Playwright's Market. Part of the book's lengthy interview with Ken is posted here:

Ken, a Los Angeles native and University of California-Berkeley psychology graduate, started his career in film and television as a reader for Columbia Pictures. Sherman’s agency opened in 1989, and currently handles approximately 35 clients; he makes contact with most of his new writers through referrals, and he handles just about every topic you can think of in nonfiction, fiction and scripts.

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GLA: When a writer is composing his first screenplay, should he aim to write something perceived as trendy, marketable or salable? Or should he just write the best he can, even if the script will likely be unproducable?

KS: What I’m looking for, and what every producer, studio, network and agent I know is looking for, is a killer writing sample—meaning something that we can send out in one day to 30 producers and have them say, “This may not be exactly the story I’m looking for, but I need to know this writer.” And hopefully, each one of them will call me back and say, “We want the story. We want to option the material or purchase it outright.” But most important is that they want to know the writer and meet with the writer and talk about other projects because the writer has a unique voice.

GLA: In addition to working with television writers, screenwriters and book writers, you also deal with buying and selling life rights. How does that work?

KS: Here’s an example: I was sitting in my office one day and a TV/movie producer I know called me. He said, “I’ve spoken to a lady and the fireman who saved her life during the Oklahoma City bombing. Would you mind handling the life rights—the option and purchase price and contract for them?” I then negotiated for both (individuals). Their life rights were optioned and then the purchase price for the exclusive use of their stories for the TV movie Oklahoma City: A Survivor’s Story was exercised.

GLA: If a writer wishes to see his idea on the big screen, is it more practical to write a good book and get it optioned into a film, rather than try to sell an original screenplay?

KS: It depends in which form the author writes best. If the writer is a great screenwriter, I would hope they’d attack the story and characters as a screenplay, because, traditionally, screenplays take less time to write. I want to preface this by saying that there are no rules or answers to any of these questions. What I’m suggesting today are just a few ideas of a few ways things can happen for individuals—but everybody needs to find their own way in their own time. One prominent client wrote eight screenplays before things finally clicked.

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GLA: Do you pay any attention to what studios are buying?

KS: I don’t worry too much about that. I prefer to try and find really first-rate material that stands on it own. And even though it may be a genre that’s a bit out of favor at the moment—maybe something that was hot three or five years ago for some reason—we can reignite interest with a solid screenplay or book. One thing I’ve noticed is that many executives in this business are very happy not to take a risk on anything. They’re very happy to go along with what other people say, which is why sometimes you can get an auction going with multiple bids on the same project. You say, “Well so-and-so just made an offer on it,” or “Such-and-such studio wants it.” And they think that if another studio wants it, it must be something good. Of course it is…

GLA: Kind of like the business phrase “Don’t sell the steak. Sell the sizzle”?

KS: Sometimes you can sell the sizzle, but more importantly, the material really has to stand on its own. Because don’t forget that even with a TV movie, a producer or writer is with the project for a good six months to a year, if not more. A producer needs the passion to stay with the project and to be able to sell it, because they’re constantly selling and reselling the material to new people who join the project.

GLA: Let’s say someone writes a great script. You read it and love it. Before you sign a contract, is it important that the writer has other screenplays waiting in the wings?

KS: That’s ideal. Again, as I’ve said before, I’m looking for that killer writing sample: a screenplay I can send to anybody anywhere anytime and have them sit up and say, “Wow, this is a serious and professional writer.” And more often than not, I won’t take on clients without knowing that there are three or four or five good pitches behind them if they’re to go into a meeting, and ideally another one or two screenplays that are polished and ready to be sent out.

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