Why You Don't Need an Agent - Yet

Posted by Sheldon Bull on

Trying to wedge a toe-hold in Hollywood as a screenwriter or TV writer is exhausting, frustrating, maddening, heart breaking, humiliating, confusing, and not just a little bit scary. I know.

During the blastocyst period of my career, I was trying to climb out of the liquid nitrogen and differentiate into a working writer just as you are now. I knew not one soul in show business. (Not that there are too many people with souls in show business anyway.) Mennonite farmers had more contacts in the entertainment industry than I had. I was utterly bumfuzzled, consumed with the ulcer-inducing fear that all of the people who said, "Give up! Go to law school!" would end up being right.

As my desperation grew, I became less and less interested in the calisthenics of writing and more and more preoccupied with taking a shot and scoring my lucky break. Of course I was OCD about finding a way to wiggle into showbiz. Who wouldn't be? I wanted results. I wanted validation. I wanted an American Express card! I wanted a reward for the stack of scripts that I had written on spec. I wanted a job!

So, like almost everyone else requesting three-hole punched paper at the copy store, I glommed on to the standard wannabe writer's quick-fix solution: I NEED AN AGENT!

I was certain that if I could just get an agent to represent me, then my scripts would get around to network big-shots, and it would only be a matter of time before I was shopping for a Lotus Esprit.

A skinny girl I knew, who would later have an amazing amount of plastic surgery to correct very few problems, was dating a baby agent at one of the big Hollywood shops. I won't say which one, but it sounded a little like Billiam Borris Agency. Agent/Boyfriend read my spec sitcom scripts. I don't really know if he liked them or not. He was already an agent. Telling the truth was back there with graham crackers and glue sticks. He agreed to try to help me, not exactly frothing with enthusiasm, but, again, he began his day by strapping on a telephone headset.

Agent/Boyfriend suggested with absolutely no sense of the absurd that I spec for the Saturday morning kids' shows. I remember actually writing an entire script about a hobo dog, and then getting notes from Agent/Boyfriend about how to make the hobo dog's plight more compelling. Agent/Boyfriend also touted an apprentice program in New York for soap opera writers. No knock on daytime drama, but I wanted to write jokes! Two weeks with this guy and already I was more fettered and confused and further from my stated goals than before I had an agent!

Through another friend I scored a sit-down with a seasoned Hollywood lit/package guru. I would have had more luck hitting on Uma Thurman in an airport. He was colossally unimpressed with me or my work, or my clothes or my haircut. This was a palpable setback to my confidence, and as with Agent/Boyfriend I was getting no closer to fame or a new car!

Through still other friends - Thank God I had all those friends! - I landed audiences with three more Tinsel Town Ten-Percenters. (By now I was reading Variety.) These agents thought that my scripts were passable, and therefore all of them passed on me. One grizzled veteran listlessly leafed through one of my spec sitcom scripts and pronounced with the passion you'd expect from a toll booth attendant, "Your script is better than six out of eleven." Six out of eleven? What was that? The Vegas book on my chances?

Agents were not opening doors the way I thought they would. In fact, agents were closing doors behind me and not validating my parking. I felt like Dorothy outside the Emerald City confronting a dyspeptic man in a fur hat screaming, "Go away!"

What was worse, this so-called short-cut to success was starting to affect my writing. The unfocused, oppositional, or world-weary perspectives of these various agents were causing me to lose faith in myself and in what I had written. I was feeling less and less like the next James L. Brooks and more like the next "What Was Your Name Again and What Are You Doing Here?"

Then, out of the blue, my fortunes suddenly changed. And an agent had nothing to do with it!

On my own, I met a working TV writer. He was teaching a class that I took at UCLA. (I was focusing on the writing again and not on short cuts!) The working TV writer read my stuff and thought it showed real promise. The first encouragement I'd had in a long time! He also had ten thousand notes about what I was doing wrong. The notes were brutal, but at least they were coming from a fellow writer who was willing to help me, and not from an agent wolfing down a Cobb salad while ten telephone lines blinked on hold.

I took all of the notes from the working TV writer. I think I even managed a "Thank you." I was back to writing what I wanted to write. I wrote and wrote and rewrote. I gave the working TV writer draft after draft. More brutal notes. More painful rewrites. I was starting to miss the agents! Eventually, the working TV writer felt confident enough to show my stuff to his colleagues inside the Hollywood gates. Within a few months I had my first writing job on network TV. My career was launched!

Then, as so often happens in life, irony struck. Because I was already working, I instantly became a desirable property to Hollywood agencies. I didn't have to search for an agent anymore. The agents came to me! I mean literally. The agent with whom I signed actually walked into my office at NBC and told me he'd like to represent me. It was his knee that was on the floor this time, not mine. (He didn't actually come close to genuflecting, but in my mind and my memory that knee was bent, baby!) What a turnaround. My new agent was now a big asset to me, getting my scripts out to producers who were eager to read them, fielding offers from people who heard the buzz about me, and making me aware of opportunities that were suddenly rushing my way.

Here's my point: During the time when I was trying frantically to break into the business, the agents to whom I groveled couldn't do much to help me. They were busy with their real clients. I had jumped the gun. My understandable impatience got me sidetracked from my work, and I suffered a minor crisis of confidence.

I didn't need an agent yet. I needed a mentor, a spirit guide, someone who believed in me and could give me a map and point me in the right direction. I found all of that in the working TV writer, whose name was Bill Froug. I was in need of a Jedi master who would patiently teach me how to properly brandish my light saber. I needed an Obi-Wan Kenobi. Because I took my mind off finding an agent and put it back onto writing, ("Let go, Luke. Use The Force!") I crash-landed right where I needed to be, in front of the person who could help me most.

Who will be your Yoda or Ben Kenobi? I wish I could tell you. Several people may have to collaborate on that role before you complete your training. But that person or those persons are out there. Searching for them is the quest that you should be on, not flailing around for an agent.

Finding your way into Hollywood can be a baffling, spirit-withering mystery. I've been there. I wish I had the perfect advice for you about how to get your career started, but I don't. Nobody does.

All I can tell you for sure is that you are probably going to have to do most of it yourself. An agent is unlikely to be the person who opens doors for you. An agent can be a huge help after the doors are open, but you're probably going to have to figure out how to unlock them yourself, perhaps with the help of a generous tutor.

On the other hand, you may serendipitously meet an agent at a party or in a pick-up basketball game in Santa Monica. Perhaps that agent will like you, and will love your work, and will get you your first job in Hollywood. I hope that happens. But you have no control over fate. What you can control is where you put your focus. You can keep writing, and rewriting. You can eagerly seek and gratefully accept the advice of those who already know how to do it. You can put all of your energy into improving your work. The more sophisticated and polished your writing becomes the greater the chances that opportunity will find you.

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