Chapter 7: Breaking In


Getting an Agent

Okay. You’ve written two great spec scripts, one procedural, one character-driven. Now you need an agent. Agents who represent writers are called “literary” agents; you need a literary agent who works in TV. An agent who works in features can’t help you much; nor can a lawyer. It is all but impossible to get hired onto a show without an agent, unless you have some kind of back door in.

With all agents, you need someone who’s enthusiastic about you. There’s a tradeoff involved in how high level your agent is. If they’re too low level, they can’t get you in anywhere. If they’re too high level, even if they’re enthusiastic about you, they can’t take the time with you that your career needs. They have more valuable clients whom they don’t have to sell, they merely have to choose between offers and negotiate for them. You don't want the very hottest agent you can get who will still return your calls. If all they’re doing is returning your calls, they’re not beating the bushes looking for work for you.

To tell how effective your agent is, look for their name and the name of their agency in back issues of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. They’re available online, and you can often get a free trial offer that will serve you long enough to tell you what you need. The major agencies — CAA, ICM, Endeavor, UTA, William Morris — will come up a lot. Less well-known ones, such as Gersh, or Innovative, will come up now and then. If you can’t find any references to an agent or agency, they probably don’t have much clout.

Also, consider how successful they seem to be. A rich agent is, by definition, making money for her clients. If an agent answers her own phone, that’s not good. If she has an assistant, that’s better. If you get a receptionist before you get to the assistant, you’re dealing with someone who’s making enough money for her clients that she can afford a couple levels of staff. If the agent’s office phone is also her home phone, consider moving on.

Location means something. The major agencies are mostly in Beverly Hills. Some agents are in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, with a few in Manhattan. Canadian agents are mostly in Toronto. If an agent works in Tarzana, you have cause to doubt. An agent in San Francisco may have nice things to say about you, but can’t take the meetings to say them in.

If you have a choice, you need an agent with enthusiasm and clout, but enthusiasm is more important. Enthusiasm — faith in you, greed at the prospect of all the dollars they can make off you, true passion about your talent — is what the people they're talking to on the phone will hear. An agent can't say, "This is the best writer I've had in years" about more than a few clients at a time.

If you have a choice between two agents, consider the following formula:

enthusiasm x enthusiasm x clout

A really enthusiastic agent at a mid-level agency is better than a mildly interested agent at CAA. But any agent at CAA is better than a really enthusiastic agent no one’s heard of.

Of course, you may not have a choice to make. You may have only one agent who’s seriously interested. In that case, so long as they’re signatory with the Writer’s Guild, any agent is better than no agent.

If they’re not signatory with the Writer’s Guild, don’t bother. Any agent who wants you to pay for screenplay critiques or script polishing services is not worth your time. Some legitimate but impoverished agencies want you to pay for script copies and/or postage, but the mainstream agencies don’t expect you to pay for a thing. In fact, they take you out for lunch. TV’s a good business for an agent. Once they put you on a show, they get 10% of your income from that show as long as you’re on the show. One deal can mean five years of income for an agent.

The best way to get an agent is through a recommendation from someone in the biz, preferably someone with credits. Then you can say, e.g., “Darren Star suggested I contact you.” If you have writer friends, for example, they can ask their agents who else is looking for clients. (It’s not cool to ask someone for an introduction to his or her own agent. If you sign with my agent, she’s going to take some of her precious time to work for you instead of me, damn you.) Network execs, development people and story editors can tell you who’s sending them the freelance writing samples they like; those are the agents who are picking good writers and getting them work.

If you’re out of the loop, you’ll have to call the agencies and find out who might be looking for new clients. The Writer’s Guild website ( has a list of agencies. The Hollywood Representation Directory is more expensive (about $40), but lists individual agents at each agency. Get it from

Find out who’s in their television division. Call one of the agents. Ask his assistant which other agent might be looking for clients. Assistants are all looking to move up, and some take on clients of their own. If it’s a good agency, this might be worth a try, if you can’t get a real agent of your very own.

(Agents will sometimes “hip pocket” you. That means they’re repping you, but the agency isn’t. This is better than nothing, but if you’re not getting action within six months, bail.)

The WGA list actually specifies what agencies accept “unsolicited” scripts, meaning they’re open to queries. Definitely hit these agencies, but try the other ones, too. All agencies have junior agents who are looking for hot new talent. The trick is finding out who they are, and making sure you don’t sound clueless when you talk to them or their assistant.

If you sign with an agent, don’t fret too much about the contract. Agency contracts are regulated by the State of California. An agent can’t take more than 10%. There will be a clause stating that if your agent doesn’t get you a bona fide offer in any four-month period, you can terminate the contract. I generally prefer a contract that can be terminated within a short period — you never know when an agent’s going to lose interest — but in the beginning of your career you rarely have to worry about an agent holding on to you if you’re not making money.

You do not need an entertainment lawyer. Television deals are standardized; your agent should be able to handle the boilerplate. Having the right manager can help, but until you’re successful you are unlikely to be able to attract a really good manager.