I often get asked by screenwriters about best practices for working with a film producer or literary manager -- I've served as the former for nearly two decades and was the latter for eight years in a previous life. With so much interest in this subject, I decided to write an article on the topic, which Funds for Writers recently published on their website. As such, I thought I would also include it here on my blog for those who might have missed it. I hope it provides all you up-and-coming writers with some real insights as you work your way up the Hollywood ladder.
Best Practices for Working with a Producer,
Agent or Manager in Film & TV
By Mark Heidelberger
Producers. Agents. Managers. Oh my! As a writer looking to make a living in the world of entertainment, these sometimes enigmatic creatures will be an integral part of your journey from unproduced novice to sought-after scribe du jour. Learning to work with them in a way that proves mutually beneficial means creating a winning environment for both sides, creatively and economically. (That’s why we call it “show business” and not “show show.”) And while no step-by-step guidebook exists for doing this because no two individuals are alike, I can suggest a handful of best practices that neophyte writers should keep in mind as they find themselves seeking these useful and often necessary allies.
First off, let’s clarify some basic definitions of each role so we know exactly who we’re talking about.
Producer – The chief visionary of a production who hires a writer to create a story or buys and develops her already written story with the ultimate intention of filming it for mass consumption.
Agent – A commission-based representative who is solely responsible for seeking out and procuring work for the writer or selling the writer’s material.
Manager – A commission-based representative who is tasked with guiding a writer’s career choices, developing her work for presentation to producers, coordinating her other representatives such as agents and lawyers, and facilitating opportunities, but not actively selling the work as an agent would.
Collectively, we’ll call them PAMs.
Get a Referral
Not only do most PAMs dislike being pitched without an invitation, especially by a stranger, they flat out refuse to even read or listen. Such pitching is called unsolicited and it’s frowned upon, not only because most PAMs are already inundated with material, but because it’s a legal liability. Hollywood is a relationship town, plain and simple, so getting a referral from someone the PAMs already know and trust is a universally accepted method for soliciting their attention.
Be Clear on the Deal Terms
PAMs who recognize your talent and want to work with you can feel rewarding, but don’t let that excitement cloud your judgment. Negotiate terms you can live with, get it in writing and have those terms reviewed by an expert who can verify that they are, at minimum, in line with industry standards. If the terms are not satisfactory to you, don’t be afraid to walk away. Anyone offering you terms outside of industry standards probably aren’t legitimate anyway.
Trust the Process
Respected PAMs achieved their status through years of experience, and while their methods may at times seem unconventional, trust that they bring knowledge of the industry that has been, until now, obscured from you. This isn’t to suggest you take a passive approach, but simply to accept guidance from those who have been around the business far longer than you.
Communication is King
Create a fluid system of communication from the outset. Establish the best method of contact, a regular schedule for corresponding, and what the goal of your collaboration will be. Clarify on a regular basis what you expect from your representative or what the producer expects from you. Moreover, respect their time and skill just as you want yours respected. Stand up for yourself without being combative. And pick your battles carefully.
Entertainment is one of the most competitive career landscapes in the world. “Overnight success” stories never happen overnight; they’re the result of years of unseen toiling in trenches. Accept the fact that you’ll always have to do a lot of legwork yourself, even with a PAM in your corner, and that most projects still never see the light of day. Failure is part of the process. That said, getting one in every 10 projects made means you’re a success even by jaded Hollywood standards.
Have an Exit Strategy
Sometimes your relationship with a PAM will go south, perhaps over creative differences, personality clashes, egos, money, whatever. Keep this in mind from the beginning and always make sure you have a contractual way out if the relationship sours. The worst position is to be stuck with a PAM who’s a drain instead of a buoy for your creative talent.