How important is it for a screenwriter to have a manager? What do literary agents do, exactly? When do you need to hire an entertainment lawyer and how can they help you negotiate contracts? These are important questions for new and emerging screenwriters because writing a great screenplay is only the first step of a successful screenwriting career. If you want to succeed you’re going to need representation from screenwriting managers, literary agents, and entertainment lawyers. Here’s exactly what each of those roles does and what to expect from your representation.
Why you need a manager, agent, and (yes) a lawyer
Fun fact: Bill Murray doesn’t have a manager or an agent. He has a 1-800 number. That’s right, if you want to cast Bill Murray, you have to leave a voicemail. And while that’s quintessential “Bill Murray”, his lack of representation is actually incredibly rare in the entertainment industry. Why? Because you need someone (or a team of someones) in your corner to shop your scripts around, help you find work, negotiate contracts, and safeguard your career. It’s tough to navigate Hollywood on your own.
That’s what representation is for.
So even though Bill Murray is the best, you probably shouldn’t emulate every aspect of his career. Here’s why you need representation and what you should expect from your agent, manager, and entertainment lawyer.
What to expect from your manager
When you start the search for representation, start looking for a manager first. The only problem is that it might be tough to land a manager. More often than not, they won’t answer unsolicited emails or cold calls, so the best way is through a personal recommendation.
If you know a successful writer, agent, producer, development executive, or showrunner, have them contact the manager on your behalf. If you don’t have any writing credits make sure you at least have a bulletproof writing sample. The more amazing scripts you have the better, especially if you’ve won a few screenwriting contests. Making the quarter or semi-finals is great, but if you win a competition, managers will pay more attention.
What makes a good screenwriting manager?
A good manager should really help you launch your career. They tend to represent a smaller number of clients (less than an agent) so they have more time to develop and oversee all aspects of your career. My manager, God bless him, is not only my business partner, he’s my friend, my therapist, my guidance counselor, and more often than not, my babysitter aka hand holder ha-ha.
Your manager should help you find work and also help you elevate your craft. They should be collaborative and proactive. Getting staffed on a TV show or optioning a script does not happen overnight, but you should be confident that your manager is working on my behalf. Patience is a virtue. Managers are your career architects, so in my opinion, they’re worth their weight in 10%-15% gold, which is what you’ll be paying them.
What to expect from a screenwriting agent
Once you have a manager, and you’ve begun establishing yourself as a working screenwriter, it’s time to look for an agent. The difference between a good agent and a manager is that an agent is not going to help you launch your career. They are going to enhance the career you already have.
Agents expect screenwriters to have been around the block a few times. So their priorities will be shopping your projects, setting up pitch meetings, and negotiating your contracts. I love my agent, but whenever I see him I make sure I have my business socks on because he’s all business. Your agent will definitely not be your therapist, nor your guidance counselor, nor your hand holder. They will not talk you off the ledge when everyone in town passes on your brilliant screenplay. Although supportive, your agent’s primary focus is money and your financial success. Which is great, because that’s what agents do best.
My experience working with a literary agent
I had the pleasure of working at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency. I assisted the head of the Literary Department, Nancy Nigrosh, and helped represent:
- Kathryn Bigelow, the first female director to win an Oscar
- Stuart Beattie who wrote and created The Pirates of the Caribbean blockbuster franchise
- Peter Bogdanovich who wrote and directed classics such as the Oscar-nominated Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, and Paper Moon
- John Cameron Mitchell who created Hedwig and The Angry Inch
- David H. Steinberg who wrote for The Simpsons
- Mario Van Peebles who wrote and directed Baadassss!
- and many, many others.
I tell you this not to name drop, but instead to show you how diverse an agent’s roster can be.
Agents will represent writers in many genres. Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Drama, Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller, etc. It’s important that when you approach an agent you know your genre and your brand. Both of which should be very specific. How specific?
After Stuart Beattie wrote the first draft of Pirates of the Caribbean we literally pitched him around town as “the pirate guy.” Obviously, a “pirate guy” (his brand) is going to know how to write an action-adventure and/or crime-thriller (his genre). Stuart was ultimately hired to write GI Joe: Rise of Cobra, I, Frankenstein, 30 Days of Night, Collateral, and several other big movies.
So know your genre and your brand, and make your agent earn his weight in 10%-15% gold.
What to expect from entertainment lawyers
Entertainment lawyers primarily advise on contracts and represent their clients in lawsuits. There are a few different times in your career to consider a lawyer. One of the biggest is if you don’t have a manager or agent and find yourself with a contract. That’s a good time to contact a lawyer. Never, I repeat, never negotiate a contract on your own.
In some cases, a manager or agent will want you to sign a contract with their company. This is another time to consult a lawyer. If you have a manager and an agent, your agent will do the majority of your contract negotiations and more often than not, the agency will have an in-house legal department. You can depend upon the agency for legal support, or you can hire a personal lawyer. The benefit of having your own lawyer is they will negotiate contracts that best serve your interests rather than the interests of the agent/agency.
Whether or not you hire a lawyer is a complex question, and there’s no simple answer. The best decision is what makes the most legal and financial sense for you. I have a lawyer whom I respect and trust, so for me, he’s worth his weight in 5% gold.
A guide to representation: managers, agents, and lawyers
So there you have it, all the reasons you need representation as a screenwriter and what you should expect from your manager, agent, and lawyer. When you reach the mystical status and fame of Bill Murray, you can fire your entire team, but until that day comes it pays to work with a team of industry pros and experts who have your career (and bottom line) in mind.
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Justin Trevor Winters has nearly two decades of experience as a screenwriter, lecturer, producer, and development executive. He began his career working in the Literary Department at Innovative Artists Talent and Literary Agency where he worked in collaboration with established directors, screenwriters, and authors. He later joined Creative Artists Agency, and after assisting in launching numerous projects, began focusing on his own screenwriting career. His feature film debut, Killing Winston Jones, a dark-comedy, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, Danny Masterson, and Jon Heder. His TV debut, Sports, starred Jessimae Peluso, and was produced by Comedy Central. He is currently a screenwriting lecturer at the School of Film & Television at Loyola Marymount University. He’s also taught at Arizona State University, where he was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He has lectured at universities and conferences both nationally and internationally, and regularly contributes to TheScriptLab.com, ScreenCraft.org and FilmCourage.com, websites dedicated to encouraging young writers and filmmakers to study and pursue their goals and aspirations. He’s also the founder of Sixty Second Script School, an educational website that teaches the craft and business of screenwriting through sixty second daily lectures.