“I have an agent.” That’s the most impressive thing a new screenwriter can say to someone, short of “I have been hired to write the new Batman movie”. To get an agent is more than a genuine boost to a career; it’s validation. To fellow writers, it gives you a certain status. To Hollywood producers, it’s a mark you need to make them listen to anything you have to say.
Although there are always exceptions to the rule, an agent is a necessity if you want to work inside the Hollywood studio system. But if you are an unproduced writer, an agent should not be your first stop any more. These days, and for new writers in particular, it is essential that you have a manager.
So, what’s the difference? It’s a pretty significant distinction, although they both have one unfortunate thing in common: taking a small percentage of your earnings. An agent deals in three things: getting you a job; getting you a good deal for that job; and getting you an even better job next time out. Your agent is there to protect and serve you from a business standpoint. They put you in the best position to succeed and earn the most amount of money.
Your manager, on the other hand, doesn’t dip their hand too much into those waters. They can play a role, much as an agent can get involved in creative decisions, but for the most part your manager is there to make you a better writer. The line is blurry, to be sure. Both of them want you to succeed so they can succeed, but think of your manager as the one who is more invested in your career from a grassroots perspective. They identify the areas in which you need to improve, and give you the tools to do so. As one writer (who asked not to be identified for fear of offending anyone) who penned one of the 2012 summer’s biggest films told me, “I love my agent, but my managers are the ones that turned me into a great writer. I would be out of the business if they didn’t help me get better.”
For proof that managers are becoming increasingly vital to new writers, look no further than the Black List, the Bible-like publication that lists the year’s best screenplays. There are 78 scripts listed in the 2012 version of the Black List, and only eight of those writers are not represented by managers. In fact, a few of them are represented only by managers, showing that the right company can still get their clients out there without the aid of an agency. It’s also further proof that breaking into Hollywood without a manager is becoming near impossible. Increasingly, agents are looking for writers already represented by a management company. They want to know they are getting a close-to-finished product when they sign you.
Your manager will be the one who looks at multiple drafts of your tortured masterpiece. Then, after they look at each draft, they will help you try and improve it. They will be the ones you float that ‘crazy’ idea to, and even help get your movie pushed into production. They are the ones sending you out on meeting after meeting after meeting; introducing you to producers who may want to work with you and trying to find the right level of talent for your script.
Some managers will be even more hands-on in bringing your film to the big screen. One of the bigger management companies, BenderSpink, not only help set up your script with talent, but they also serve as producers as well. Diablo Cody’s manager, Mason Novick, helped get her Oscar-winning script for Juno (top) made and was a producer on that project. When you get a manager, you are getting someone who is almost as interested as you in getting your film made.
But here’s the biggest reason for unproduced writers to be interested in getting a manager: they are actively seeking new material. Send your script to an agency, even a lesser one, and it will likely go straight in the trash, either for legal reasons or sheer disinterest. But most management companies list their intentions on their websites; not only are they looking for new writers and new stories, they will often tell you what kind of stories they are after and exactly how you should submit it to them.
The danger for new writers is, of course, the same as with agents: not all managers are good. In this Internet age, there should be no reason for you to engage with management companies not worth your time. If a company doesn’t list their credits on their site, that’s a bad sign. Or, take a look at the Black List, write down all of the different companies represented there, and start querying. Not only do you know they are reputable, but they are obviously serving their clients very well.
So while it’s absolutely true that getting an agent can immediately validate your job to others and is eventually a necessity to a lucrative screenwriting career, strongly consider making the attempt to get a manager. For new writers, it is your best chance to break into the industry. The odds are already stacked against you, but a manager can be the one to help you break down the door.
This feature was originally published in movieScope magazine, Issue 36 (October-December 2013)