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Why Top Agents and Managers Are Steering Clients to TV: ‘That’s Where the Money Is’ (Guest Blog)

The Rep Sheet: ”When I first started, television was the poor cousin to films — and now it’s like that’s all everyone wants to do,“ manager-producer Richard Arlook says

The winds of change are blowing through Hollywood. Feature specs are tougher than ever to move without source material and/or a compelling package, creators are finding new opportunities via DIY and streaming services rule the universe. We asked a panel of top literary representatives what this all means for them, their clients and everyone hoping to one day be on their lists.

“The biggest change is I used to pretty much just rep feature writers, and they would be in one bucket. Then I had TV writers in another bucket,” Good Fear’s Jake Wagner said. “Now everyone needs to be doing 50/50 or at least 70/30.”

Richard Arlook, a manager-producer with The Arlook Group, thinks the pendulum may have swung even farther. “When I first started, television was the poor cousin to films — and now it’s like that’s all everyone wants to do.”

Magnet Management’s Jennie Frisbie added, “Where movies were maybe seven years ago is kind of where TV is now. Everybody is either already working in TV or wants to be working in TV. That’s definitely where the cool kids are right now, and that’s where the money is.”

So what’s happening on the feature side? Wagner said that the studio movie biz has constricted to the point where it’s “just giant hundred-million dollar movies and then $5 million dollar Blumhouse [movies]” — with not much in between.

Arlook noted that the studios “seem to be making the same 10 franchises over and over, and the same 10 producers — we all know who they are — get to be the ones doing that.” Fifteen years ago, he said, there were three times as many deals being made for all levels of writers and producers.

Mid-level writers made a good living with multi-step deals, which generally included a draft, revision and a polish, with the writers being paid for each step. Those multi-step deals are now often one-step deals, and that means that writers, as well as their agents and managers, are feeling the pinch. “The deals now are all there for a very specific reason, or tied to a franchise,” Arlook said. “Less movies, bigger movies, same people doing them.”

rep sheet

Picking up the slack in a big way: TV, cable and streaming. “There’s tons of opportunity,” said Wagner. “I’m not saying it makes it any easier, because on any given day I’d say there’s three dozen pitches out on the market, but there are more buyers and networks, so there’s a lot more opportunity.”

UTA’s Carolyn Sivitz thinks it’s smart for creators to traffic in both worlds. “The good news is that if you have an idea of a really compelling character, then you can be really thoughtful about where that character best lives,” she said. “It’s just about what medium makes the most sense and what’s the smartest path to production.”

Indeed, our panelists said they occasionally steer a feature script idea toward TV. “It’s funny because it never used to be that way,” Wagner said. “I was in a meeting at an agency on Friday, and writers pitched a great sci-fi hook. The two agents and I were like, “That would be a great series.” Wagner said that sending out a genre concept for TV “used to be “like a Hail Mary wild card. Now that’s the first thing everybody says — ‘Maybe this could be a great TV series.'”

Industry Entertainment’s Ava Jamshidi recalled an article she recently considered adapting. “Was it a movie, or could it be TV? It’s probably not an ongoing series, but could it be a mini-series. [You have to weigh] what’s the best format for something like that,” and of course, the best chance of setting something up. “That definitely is a factor,” she said. “[Feature] specs don’t sell like they used to, and people don’t read like they used to.”

After the last writers’ strike, she said, “Many lost the habit of reading a bunch of [film] scripts overnight. Now development [is] on the shoulders of the reps and the producers, because the buyers aren’t interested. Buying a script now is almost like a production decision rather than just a development decision. There is a lot more work on our shoulders now.”

More changes affecting creators: There are fewer paths to theatrical distribution nowadays, DVD is on its way out, and foreign sales are meh. Can indie producers actually make a living? “You just have to make the best movie you can,” said Arlook, who produced “It Had to Be You” and “I Smile Back.”

“Both films got limited theatrical release, good reviews and festival exposure. Nobody got rich, but it did a lot for my clients’ careers and created new and good opportunities,” he said, adding that one difficulty on the indie side is that “the model is built around you selling your movie out of Sundance, but what if you don’t get into Sundance? Or you get in [but then] you don’t sell it to Focus or Searchlight. It’s challenging, which again is why everyone has gone to TV. You just move forward and try to make up the difference in TV.”

Sivitz feels that while the amount of studio development may be smaller, “the number of ways in which you can get movies made outside of the traditional system is still really vibrant — and in some ways it’s more vibrant, particularly if you’re conscious of your budget.” Indeed, creators are finding innovative ways to get things made, such as crowdfunding, and indie financiers have filled some of the gaps left by the studios.

“I do think there are a lot of opportunities for filmmakers looking to make movies (in the) under $3 million range,” Frisbie said. “There’s a lot of really interesting talent coming out of that pool. There’s also a lot of opportunity for young writer-directors in digital streaming in terms of web series and hoping that becomes a platform to launch themselves.”

Sivitz concluded, “A filmmaker can write or direct an exciting indie film that gets a lot of attention on the festival circuit and may not make a ton at the box office, but that gets enough attention so that they become a viable entity on the TV side. And then they can create a TV show or get writing or directing work on a series, and by virtue of the reach [of] those streaming platforms, they can raise their own profile and become all the more viable for a bigger budgeted feature.”

But these days, it seems, it’s all about landing the TV deal.

Jim Cirile is an L.A.-based writer, producer and musician and the founder of CoverageInk.com. He's written about the biz since 2002 for Script and Creative Screenwriting magazines, among other outlets. He is co-writer and co-executive producer of the animated horror feature "To Your Last Death," starring Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise and William Shatner.