Having an agent is a necessary ingredient for a screenwriting career. Even if you get a producer interested on your own, don't go near a contract without an agent. But how do you hook and land one of these big, slippery fish?
The Writers Guild of America has the definitive list of screenwriters' agents. You can call the WGA's agency department at 323/782-4502 to get the list. Or visit www.wga.org and view the list for free. There are also books that catalog screenwriters' agents. These generally have more information on each agent, but don't include as many as the WGA list.
How do you narrow your list to the most likely prospects? You could blanket the field, since multiple submissions are acceptable in Hollywood. But one shortcut for finding the best agent for your type of script is to read movie credits and note the writers who are writing the movies you love. Call the WGA and ask who represents those writers. Then query the agents of the writers whose careers you want.
The query letter
Your query should be well-written, bright, original and include a great hook. Tell the agent who you are, what you've written and briefly describe the script you want to send. Keep your pitch to one sentence. Describe only enough to make the agent want more. Don't send the script unless he or she requests it. Some of you, I know, hesitate to give away your idea in a cover letter for fear of it being stolen. But agents are not in the business of developing scripts, so it's unlikely they will steal an idea.
Here are quick tips to help you get a script agent:
Get the WGA list of agents. Read the movie credits and research agents. Write a dazzling query letter. Make sure it has a strong hook. Enter screenwriting contests. Try writers' conferences, pitch-a-thons or pitching online. Use an express delivery service. Make a follow up call after a month. Befriend the agent's assistant.
They are looking for writers with good scripts. And the only way to get them to read you is to put the great story of your terrific, polished script into the letter. I strongly recommend that you take this leap of faith. If you spent two weeks working on this one-page query letter, it would be time well spent. It may be the most important page you ever write.
Bait the hook
The hook in your query letter might be that you have won a screenwriting award. (This one worked for me.) Enter as many writing contests as you can. An agent will be much more likely to ask to read a script that has already beaten a field of contenders and won a writing award, any writing award. You can find out about contests by reading the market listings and ads in this magazine, or other screenwriting magazines.
Or the hook might be that your script is something you are uniquely qualified to write. If you can truthfully say, for example, "I have an action-adventure script based on my own experience in the Navy Seals," go for it. This kind of statement in a cover letter grabs their attention.
If the query letter is funny, this can also be a hook. If it has a couple of real laughs in one page, they will probably want to read more.
Other fishing holes
Pitch-a-thons and writers' conferences are also places to find agents. The pitch-a-thons are relatively new and cost quite a bit to spend two minutes pitching to agents and producers who are bombarded with hours of two-minute pitches. It's unlikely they'll remember yours, and most stories take longer than two minutes to pitch well. One big Hollywood pitch-a-thon I know of, while drawing hundreds of writers per year, has only had a total of four deals result from it in the last six years. So, the odds aren't great. But if it's convenient and sounds like fun to you, you'll at least get practice pitching.
Sherwood Oaks College holds two pitch-a-thons per year. For $250 you get two days of pitching 20 to 30 industry people one on one. The next one is June 10-11 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, (tel. 323/851-1769, www.sherwoodoakscollege.com).
With most writers' conferences that include pitching to agents, you have 10 minutes to pitch and a better chance of impressing them. Like contests, you can find them advertised in writing and scriptwriting magazines.
I have been wary of pitching online, since it seems like throwing ideas out onto the net would be asking for them to be stolen. But I must mention some positive results as well. The producer for a major network miniseries, a project for which I wrote the script, found the source material in a pitching chatroom. I have also had students who got producers interested in their scripts in pitching chatrooms. Always ask for the name, company and credits of the person to whom you are pitching. Call the Producers Guild and see if the credits are legitimate. Go to the video store and see if his or her name is on the video jackets of the movies in question. Do your homework.
Reeling them in
Having a script agent say "send me your script" is the first big leap toward your dream coming true. Be sure to address correspondence with an agency to the specific agent's name. Mark the envelope, "As Requested." An express delivery service envelope will get a little more attention, but it's expensive, so you may want to do second-day delivery. You can include SASK, but it isn't typical practice in Hollywood. It implies that you expect it to be returned, and Hollywood operates on a higher level of swagger.
Give the agent a month to read and if you haven't heard by then, put in a friendly check-in call. Make note of the assistant's name. Ask if he or she knows of your script and if the agent has read it yet. The assistant can sometimes move your script from deeply buried to the top of the stack.
With luck and the stars lined up right, you may get that call that begins with four of the most beautiful words in the English language: "I loved your script."
This article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Writer's Digest.