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When a Screenwriter Needs an Agent

Contributed By Charles Deemer

Almost all of my students want to get an agent long before they are ready for one. While it is true that you WILL need an agent to pursue a screenwriting career, it is not true that you need one when you start out. They are many things you can do, and should do, for yourself without an agent before you lose any sleep about how to acquire one.

Learn the Craft

Before you do anything else, of course, you must learn the screenwriting craft. Whether you do this by taking classes or reading books, by studying movies and working in the industry, this is your first priority. Before you do anything else, learn how to write a screenplay.

When you have mastered the extraordinary efficiency of the screenwriting craft, and when you have used what you've learned to write several decent scripts, then you are ready to enter the marketplace. And you begin this journey without needing an agent.

Contests

What screenwriters need in the beginning is some kind of professional validation. You may feel confident that you've reached a level of quality in your writing, and your friends and relatives may even agree, but there is nothing as satisfying as learning from an anonymous professional in the industry that your script was read, liked, and taken seriously. Perhaps the quickest way to get this validation is to enter screenwriting competitions.

But where to begin? The most cursory search of the Internet will turn up dozens and dozens of screenwriting competitions. While all will serve the purpose of giving you personal validation if you do well, only a few will actually help your career in a big way. The most important of these is the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship competition.

Every beginning screenwriter should enter this contest annually. You don't have to be one of the five winners to do well here. If you make the first cut to the quarter-finals, you can congratulate yourself for learning the craft. And you are likely to hear from producers who want to read your script.

You can learn more about the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship at: http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/

Querying Producers

The second thing you can do to kickstart your screenwriting career, even without an agent, is to send query letters to the small, independent producers who usually originate new script projects. The query letter is your sales tool, and a future column will tell you how to write a good one. For now, understand that your job in a query letter is to pitch your script story and summarize your writing background in less than a page.

You need to do a little research to make this strategy more effective than it might be otherwise. You want to contact producers who are interested in the kind of stories you write. How do you do this?

Make a list of movies that are like yours in some way and of movies about which you can say,: "the people who made such-and-such will do a good job with my story." Go to the Internet Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com and look up each title. Write down the names of the small production companies associated with each movie, not the recognizable studios where the project ends up but the unknown producers ("Never A Dull Moment Productions," for example) where projects are likely to begin.

Take these names to the Hollywood Creative Directory (HCD), which is the bible of marketing, an alphabetical list of production companies with personnel, credits and other information. You can find it at http://www.hcdonline.com and you'll need to buy a copy or, better yet, subscribe to the online version. More and more production companies, or prodcos, have email addresses and accept email queries. By all means, take advantage of this. Again, I'll talk about what goes into a query letter in a later column.

It's a Numbers Game

Send out as many queries as you have time to send. Once you've exhausted your movie list, go through the HCD and query anyone who isn't specialized in a genre unrelated to yours. This is a numbers game. You don't want to send out a few query letters or even a dozen; you want to send out dozens and even hundreds.

Producers are going to request your script. Of course, you've registered it with the WGA. They may ask you to sign a release form, usually providing it themselves. Sign it. Keep records about your queries and responses.

When producers show interest in your script, better yet when a producer wants to option your script, then and only then are you ready to approach agents. This, too, will be the subject of a future column.

There is much you must do to help yourself and your career before you go looking for an agent. What are you waiting for?

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