Congrats! After years of hard work and a dead forest’s worth of rejection letters, you’ve done it — you’ve gotten signed. An agent or manager has seen the light and rolled the dice on you. Now the tricky bit: Don’t f— it up.
Sure, there are a zillion ways things can go south, but saddest of all, oftentimes we are the instruments of our own demise. Fortunately, we’re here with this handy-dandy guide. Learn well these eight
1. Say, Your Scripts Look Lovely on That Shelf
You’ve got a huge backlog of material, and now you’re finally in meetings with producers asking what else you’ve got. What could go wrong? “Most writers, by the time they get noticed by a manager or an agent or a producer, have written anywhere from 10 to 20 bad scripts,” manager Jake Wagner of Good Fear said. “Write the bad ones out to get to that good one. In my experience, the one you sign them off of is usually their best one, and nothing’s going to be quite up to that level.”
“This has happened to me both as an agent and as a manager,” said The Arlook Group’s Richard Arlook. “After getting a client a meeting with an executive or producer, I’ll get a call from the client saying, ‘Oh, the meeting was awesome. In fact, [the exec] told me he’s also looking to do a movie about, you know, fishing. And remember that fishing script I wrote 10 years ago? I emailed it to him.’ And I’m like, ‘What?'” Yep, you’ve likely just fired that 12-gauge directly into your big toe. “They wind up screwing themselves,” he said.
“We work hard to get them into those rooms, to give them an opportunity,” added APA agent Adam Perry. “I’ve never once seen someone come out of a general meeting and sell something from their back catalogue.”
2. Ego is a 4-Letter Word
Once you break in, you’ll be riding high for a while — and screw everyone who ever doubted! But try not to embrace your inner egomaniac. “Ego can get in the way,” said The Shuman Co.’s A.B. Fischer. “Say you’re on the writing staff on a TV show, and you’re constantly chiming in and talking over the upper-level writers — clearly you don’t know your place. You should be hyper-aware of the hierarchy of the room.” Fischer feels that baby writers sometimes get into trouble “because they’re like, ‘Hey, I got this great job. I’m the man, and I can show everybody how smart I am.'”
There’s a bit more wiggle room if you’re somebody, of course. “Nobody ever earns being an asshole,” he says. “But you can earn some push-back chips. Any creative person needs to have conviction in what they believe in. If you’ve created multiple hit shows, or you’ve written hit movies, you’ve earned the right to tell a studio or a network they’re wrong, and you’re doing it your way. But when you sell your first [project] or you get your first job, you don’t.”
3. Embrace Your Inner Xanax
Decades of rejection have a tendency to chip away at the psyche, but showing your insecurity can drive reps crazy. One no-no: “Sending a draft after we’ve already accepted a draft,” Magnet Management’s Jennie Frisbie said. “If there are a few typos, you can catch them after. It’s totally writer neuroses. Once it’s been sent, it’s been sent — at that point you just have to let it be.”
Similarly, bugging your rep incessantly can grate. “We’re working from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every night, and then we’re going to drinks,” Perry said. “And then just trying to read a script before you go to bed — there’s not a lot of time in the day.”
In other words, respect your agent or manager’s time. “It’s exciting, if you’ve never had representation, to all of a sudden have it,” Arlook said. “There’s an overwhelming desire to want to get the most out of that. It’s one thing if your rep is being chatty with you. Just don’t call for no reason. A quick email is always better.”
Wagner agreed: “Feel free to check in, but pick your check-ins strategically.”
4. Paul Masson Sells No Wine Before Its Time — and Neither Should You
Reps hate to be pushed to send out material they don’t feel is ready — and be wary of positive feedback from friends or writing groups. “You need to have the people [who] read your work in its early stages be brutally honest with you,” Arlook said.
But even with that candor, that doesn’t mean the clients will listen — or execute the notes well. “It could be ego, it could be thin skin,” said Circle of Confusion’s Zach Cox. “It could be they don’t have a great work ethic. Putting a screenplay together — it’s not easy. But it’s easier than doing the notes.”
5. Communication Breakdown
Keep your rep informed on what you’re working on. “It’s usually clients who have that personality where they’re not communicating with you, and then you’re thinking, are they still a client?” Cox said. “You reach out and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have a spec and it’s going to be done soon.’ And you’re like, a new spec? Why didn’t you tell me, and where have you been?”
Instead, bring your rep in from the beginning. “Let’s get a set of ideas, talk about the merits of each,” Cox advised. “Then let’s develop the one that’s the most marketable. That’s how we want to work.”
6. Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?
One reality of the biz is that producers and execs try to wring as much free work out of writers as they can. While the WGA has firm rules and reps try to manage the process, writers sometimes still need to learn to accommodate requests. “The writers I have who are not working, the main reason is because they did not handle the politics of their last assignment properly,” Arlook said.
“Let’s say Writer X has a one-step deal at Paramount with an optional second step,” he said. “Producer Mary So-and-So gets the first draft, and she calls Writer X and says, ‘Hey, great first draft, but it still needs more work.’ And you do some more work, but it’s not there yet, so she asks for more changes.” Eventually, you can get to the point where the writer doesn’t want to do any more unpaid work — since it’s still part of that first step.
But if the producer’s not happy, the studio won’t be either. “The writer doesn’t get the optional step, no one’s happy and the producer brings in a new writer,” Arlook said, adding that the producer is then unlikely to use — or recommend — Writer X for future projects.
So suck it up. “If in your demeanor and in your willingness to please people, you do it well, then they will hire you again,” Arlook said. “It’s a balancing act. You’ve got to be true to yourself, true to the Guild, and true to the person who hired you.”
7. Is This the Right Room for an Argument?
Ideally your rep won’t just shop your material — he will also provide sage guidance. So listen. “If your representation is telling you [a new story idea] is going to be a tough sell, you might want to think about other ideas,” Cox said. “If your inclination is to say, ‘Well, I don’t know, I just saw something like it that sold the other day, and they’re already making a movie like this…’ then you’re not listening. When you start thinking that you know better than your rep, you’re already in a bad place.”
Cox insisted he’s not in the business of killing dreams. “I don’t want to get into an argument with a client,” he said. “We don’t make money unless the writer makes money, so if we’re telling you something, it’s not personal — it’s business. We’re collecting information from the marketplace every day.”
8. But I Wrote a New Script Three Years Ago
“The worst thing writers can do is not write,” Frisbie said, adding that her most productive clients “are generally the ones I spend the most time on.” Some writers simply have a slower process, and that’s fine too, she said, “as long as they’re writing something. If I’m going to get a script once every two years, if the script is brilliant, then OK.”
But she cautioned that writers whose process is that painstaking may not get many writing assignments.
Wagner and Perry recommend having a new piece of material every six months. “That’s pretty much the exact right time for both sides,” Wagner said. “You don’t want to flood the market with three or four things. It just confuses people.”
Perry added, “You need to have at least three to six ideas every time you go into a room. If you’re taking general meetings, I want you to be able to talk about other ideas — a feature idea, maybe a TV idea, a book you would be interested in adapting, maybe an idea of shows that are already out there that you can say, ‘Hey, I could see myself working on that.'”