Agents aren't really necessary as you begin your screenwriting career. Although agents are sales representatives with contacts that new screenwriters don't have, they also do many things writers can do for themselves. Agents, for instance, submit log lines -- writers can submit log lines. Agents telephone people -- writers can telephone people. Agents talk to producers -- writers can talk to the producer's assistant.
Nobody in Hollywood has a secretary anymore. They are mostly called producer's assistants, and they can be your best buddy in the whole, wide, celluloid world. Make nice with the producer's assistant, and the producer's assistant will make nice with you. And keep in mind that most producers' assistants are producer wannabes, so position your self to ride their coattails.
I advise new writers to freely ask questions because, by asking questions, they start to acquire their own contacts and become open to the reality of the Hollywood literary marketplace. You may very well find it is more difficult to contract with a reputable agent or manager than it is to option your screenplay with a producer or director.
Which is why a new screenwriter, by necessity, needs to become an entrepreneurial screenwriter. Talk one-on-one with people already working in some aspect of the Hollywood motion picture industry -- that's called networking. If you don't know anybody, call production companies and talent agencies. If you don't have a specific project you are marketing and are unsure what to say, ask for a job. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A new writer seeking contacts and insider knowledge might find it advantageous to work an entry-level industry job -- it helps pay the bills while waiting for that big break. Mailroom people get to know everybody at an agency -- they're in their offices every day. And production assistants buy the producer's paperclips and lunch -- every day.
I think it may be informative to sign with Central Casting for occasional employment as a non-union waiver extra on motion pictures and network television shoots. Extra work puts you in the middle of absolutely everything, and this gives you a terrific opportunity to talk to people about what they do and who they know in the movie industry. It also helps you to absorb the industry jargon.
Even if a writer doesn't live near Hollywood, but is flexible in regard to work schedule and wants to build a foundation of knowledge of the industry, there are occasions to work on location. Read the weekly pre-production and production reports in Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Since so many films shoot as runaway productions, there are opportunities throughout the country to work as either a production assistant or as an extra. I advise screenwriters everywhere to check with their state's film office; every state has one.
These opportunities principally serve as foundation builders, but if new screenwriters feel the need for an agent to guide them into their new career, they can start by contacting the Agency Department of the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriter's union, for a list of signatory agents. There are also several comprehensive agent directories commercially available from the Writers Store.
While the Writers Guild won't advise as to which agents are good, they do maintain files on agents. If complaints come in regarding a particular agent, the WGA Agency Department will report those to you if you ask. Also, it's prudent to check with the Better Business Bureau in the agent's city. Each local office of the BBB keeps complaint files for three years and will share complaint information.
My main recommendation to new screenwriters is that you don't necessarily need an agent or manager to get started, which is why my book is titled Selling Yourself as a Scriptwriter in Hollywood. The problem facing new screenwriters is that most successful agents don't solicit clients without track records. Reputable agents and managers are salespeople and, as salespeople, they would rather handle name brands than unknown generics. So be cautious when signing with an agent.
Anyone with a business card, voice mail and a state license can be an agent in California. Managers don't even need a license. And although most legitimate agents and managers work strictly on commission, many so-called agents and managers actually make their living charging fees to the new writers trying to crack open the door to Hollywood. Small boutique agencies often require reading fees or retainers, so the writer is wise to ask questions and not act hastily.
But regardless of whether it is a writer's query or an agent's that options the project with a producer or director, a screenwriter absolutely needs a professional representing their side in contract negotiations.
When writers serve as their own salesperson, it's imperative they have an entertainment attorney close the deal -- which is why I list several industry law firms in my book. Generally speaking, writers make lousy sharks.