Got agent? Good. Now can you hold onto him? Hmm...
by Jim Cirile
Congratulations! You’ve been lucky enough to secure agency representation or literary management. Someone with actual industry juice has decided to take a flier on you, either as a hip-pocket (unofficial client) or as a full-fledged signed client. Guess what? You’re gonna blow it. yep, sorry folks, but we’re writers, and self-destruction is what we do. Sooner or later, you’re probably going to inadvertently screw yourself like some mad well-hung contortionist. The following tidbits come from my own experiences as well as from years of talking to the top reps in town for my Agent’s Hot Sheet column. And so in an effort to prevent you from committing career hari-kiri, we present to you the five best ways to lose an agent.
1) BE A PEST. Agents in particular, and managers to a lesser extent, are very busy people. An agent might have 80 to 100 clients. That’s a LOT of people with their own needs and neuroses. Given that, you might think you need to be a squeaky wheel to get any grease, right? BZZZ. The correct answer is: agents hate being bothered. If you’re calling your agent four times a week, he’s going to label you “high maintenance,” and before long his assistant will be given direct orders not to put you through. Needless to say, that’s a one-way ticket to losing representation.
So when is it okay to call your agent? Obviously, when you have business to discuss, a story or career concern -- anything legitimate. And by legitimate, I don’t mean spending an hour to think up some legitimate-sounding excuse to call your agent, the real goal of which is to ask him if there are any more people he can think of to send your script that everyone’s already passed on to. Beware the “just calling to check in” call. If you’re going to do that, make sure you have something of value to tell the agent, such as a few new loglines to run by him.
That said, if a month goes by and you haven’t heard from your agent, pick up the phone. There should always be some movement on something – whether it’s simply to find out who’s passed on what submissions or to give him a status report on how the new spec is coming. So control that neediness and desperation, folks! The relationship is firing on all cylinders when the agent looks forward to taking your calls and when you speak, there’s momentum and business discussed.
2) INSIST THEY ACTUALLY WORK FOR YOU. This sounds like a flip comment, but it’s really not. Here’s the thing – agents hate having to actually do work. It’s a pain in the ass to make a lot of calls, and especially to break a new writer. The truth is, an agent is going to do as much work for you as he feels is warranted. This is a hard lesson, but here it is: if the agent is not feeling your script, he may slip it to a handful of trusted producer friends for an opinion. If those five creative executives are not interested, you’re done. No amount of script revisions or suggestions of other places they can send it to are going to reenergize your rep. He rolled the dice and crapped out – on to the next. Write a new spec.
This is a staggeringly hard lesson and one we writers hate. But it’s reality. If you push it, and demand they actually work for you, guess what? Yep, you’re now “high maintenance.” (See above.) And this also applies to starting a new relationship with an agent. If you’re very forward the first time you meet and tell the agent, “I’m looking for someone with hustle who’s really going to work for me,” you’re done. Sounds crazy, right? But there it is. Agents want you to be easy-going, easy to work with, but also savvy about the business (like they are.) If you’ve got a great idea about an attachment or a marketing strategy, then absolutely lay it on him. But if you insist he send your spec, which just went out and racked up 25 passes, to another 25 companies, you’re digging your own grave. Let them call the shots and accept it. If you’re lucky, your agent will be a go-getter and will be out there hustling for you without you having to tell them. Of course, he could just be a lazy bastard, in which case, you’re pretty much effed either way.
3) SHOP AROUND FOR OTHER REPRESENTATION. This is one I did myself. I was repped by one of the big 3-letter agencies some time back, and I did not believe at the time that my agent was doing anything for me other than giving me lip service. When I’d ask him to send out a script, he’d make excuses. (This was before I learned about coverage, and that the real reason the agent wasn’t lifting a finger was because he had gotten some shitty coverage on my scripts. He had faith in me as a writer but for whatever reason was incapable of giving any constructive criticism that would help me improve.) This went on for the better part of two years until I finally got fed up. So what did I do? I started contacting other agencies. Naturally, I led with, “Hi, I’m Jim Cirile, and I’m currently repped by so-and-so from XXX.” See if you can guess how long it was before this got back to my agent?
You may think, “So what if it gets back to him? You’re dumping him anyway, right?” The problem is twofold. Firstly, this tells the town that if they do take you on, you’ll likely do the same thing to them someday. Pass. Secondly, it creates acrimony with the current agent, whereas perhaps the separation could have been more amicable and left the door open for interaction in the future. Ex-agents are like old significant others. Leave on good terms and keep their numbers for a possible future booty call as needed.
So how do you get new representation if you’re unhappy with your agent? The best way, of course, is you’re being courted by someone else. In that case, you’ve got some heat, you’re in demand. Agents poach clients from each other all the time. If you have no heat, you can try just having a conversation with your agent to see what the roadblock is. Why is the relationship breaking down? Perhaps, as in my case, the agent was not forthright about why he’s not working for you. You can always ask if maybe there’s a new assistant about to be promoted who’s building his client list, and if the agent would be interested in placing you. That way he can still be on the team (and make a commission) if you get work without actually having to DO any work. If you’re that easy-to-work-with, productive client, they’ll do that rather than lose you.
4) BE UNPRODUCTIVE. This one seems pretty obvious, right? You’d be amazed. As lazy as agents can be, we writers can be even lazier. Nothing gets an agent less excited than having a client take two years to give them anything new. There’s only so much mileage they can get out of your back catalog. Eventually you need to move on and actually produce something they can go sell. No one wants to rep the writer who never has anything new except excuses.
But writing a brand-new script from scratch is a pain in the ass, and who wants to do all that work, right? This is where a little psychology comes into play. By involving your agent in the process from the get-go, he will become invested in it and feel ownership of it -- and that means he’ll work significantly harder to get it set up than a finished script he simply read. If an agent feels his fingerprint is on the material, that he helped develop it, he’ll work that much harder for it, and HE’LL even call YOU regularly to monitor its progress. The technical term for that is, I believe, “lighting a fire under your ass.” Your productivity will go through the roof if you know you have an agent excitedly waiting on the material and helping you when you paint yourself into a corner in Act 2. So I propose soliciting as much input in the spec development process as he’s willing to offer from day one as a way to adrenalize your process and keep your agent stoked.
5) THE NAME’S DONNA. PRIMA DONNA. You are not a director. You’re a lowly writer. You do not have, nor will you ever earn, the right to be an asshole. If you think just because your spec sells and you land a big studio assignment that you can cop an attitude, think again, pal. Heat dissipates, and three years from now you’re going to be the struggling has-been whose calls no one returns. A word to the wise :)
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
By Jim Cirile
Quick – name a production company that’s been around for 15 years and every movie they’ve ever made was not only a huge critical hit but grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Stumped? It’s Pixar, of course. Last year, the Emeryville company tapped writer/producer and UCLA Professional Program instructor Tim Albaugh to teach at “Pixar University” – a unique and amazing opportunity to work with some of the most talented folks around. Tim was one of my instructors at UCLA, and he and his partner Sean Sorensen own production company Popular Films, which handles high-end screenplay consultations in conjunction with Coverage, Ink. I was excited to find out how the experience went. I caught up with Tim to find out all about what it was like to work with Pixar.
Jim Cirile: Tim, in the screenplay of your own life, can you tell us a bit about your protagonist’s backstory?
Tim Albaugh: I got my undergrad degree at San Francisco State. My last quarter there, I took a screenwriting class as an elective. I was going to go to law school. I wasn’t interested in writing at all. But in that class I had a wonderful professor who’s a producer here in town named Peter Almond, who produced “Thirteen Days,” the Kennedy missile crisis movie. I wrote a script in his class, and that script won the “Bay Guardian” screenwriting competition -- it’s the Bay Area’s “LA Weekly.” That put me in touch with (UCLA’s) Richard Walter. He was one of the judges of the competition. He invited me down to UCLA to sit in on one of his classes. Next thing I knew I was at grad school at UCLA. I spent three years there, and one of the scripts I wrote as a student there was the first thing I had produced (“Do Me A Favor”), and that was kind of the things that got me going. I wrote for about 8 or 9 years and was teaching at UCLA as well. Sean Sorensen was a student in my class.
JC: How did you wind up teaching at UCLA?
TA: I had a movie produced. They’re always looking for people to teach there, especially who are alumni, who’ve had some success. They contacted me after I had my first film produced and asked if I wanted to teach a class. Lew Hunter was my mentor at UCLA, and I always admired his approach. He was working professionally as a writer and also teaching, and I thought that that would be a good gig. I thought it would be a 1 or 2-quarter thing. Cut to 12 years later and I’m teaching a class there every quarter. I love it, and for me it’s been very good professionally, too, because that’s how my partnership with Sean came about. We started our own company, and many of the projects that we’ve been able to set up have been things that I’ve discovered through students in my classes or through other students at UCLA.
JC: I imagine being in that academic environment constantly helps your own writing and creativity, too.
TA: Yeah, and it’s just fun to be in a room with people who are working towards the same thing that you are.
JC: And you teach elsewhere also, right?
TA: Yes. The last two summers I’ve gone back to this wonderful place called Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia (www.hollins.edu), and they have an MFA program in screenwriting that only meets in the summers. Students come together for six weeks during the summer. They have an extensive 6-week term, and they get their MFA over a 4 or 5-year period.
JC: That’s crazy. Six weeks a year?
TA: Yes, but it’s been fun to spread the gospel back there. It’s a fun program. It’s modeled after UCLA, but it also has a very strong European influence. So it’s been fun to kind of be the Hollywood guy there.
JC: How does your style mesh with that? Do you wind up butting heads with these guys sometimes?
TA: We’ve had spirited discussions, sure. Ultimately it comes down to telling a good story, obviously. There are many ways to tell a good story. I just tend to practice the way that’s used by the major studios because that’s who I do business with.
JC: So how did this Pixar association come about?
TA: Again, a UCLA connection. I was teaching a course for the UCLA Professional Program online, which is very popular because you can get a UCLA class without actually having to go to UCLA...
JC: Or pay the $11 parking...
TA: Exactly, and hassle with traffic and all that. And of course it opens up the Professional Program to the entire world. There was a gentleman in my class named Stephan Bugaj who works at Pixar, a very good writer, and we forged a friendship. He told me that they occasionally bring in people to teach writing courses for the people at Pixar. “Would you like to be considered for that?” I said, sure. It took a little while to iron things out and go through the approval process.
JC: I would imagine the screening process was fairly rigorous, right? I mean, this is Pixar, where story is king. What did you have to go through, what kind of hoops?
TA: Uh… Stephan liked me, so they liked me. (laughs) Okay, well, obviously, my ten-year teaching record at UCLA, the track record of my students, and my ability to set up projects written by my students, all those things came into play. And they do have a relationship with UCLA. Linda Voorhees, a UCLA instructor, has taught at Pixar before, as well as, I believe, Fred Rubin.
JC: So what was the whole experience like?
TA: It was great. They’re up in Emeryville, so it was decided that I would teach two courses -- a general ‘write a script’ class, and then I also taught a class on how to approach rewriting. It’s part of a component they have called Pixar University, something that was started by, I believe, Steve Jobs. Happy employees make good product, so to speak. They definitely support people pursuing things other than what they do every day. A lot of the animators were in the course, generalists, technicians, IT people, one of the attorneys, one of the modelmakers who does all the models for the films… a wide spectrum of people. Obviously, the goal within Pixar is to tell the best story they can tell. The feeling is if you teach these storytellers how to tell their stories, even—well, you can’t say better than they already do, because they’re the best. But the idea is to keep everybody involved in the creative process.
JC: Were these taught during the work day?
TA: I believe that each Pixar employee is allowed four hours per week to take Pixar University classes. I taught one course on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8, and they would bring dinner into the class. I’d spend the night Thursday and then I would teach another course on Friday at noon, and that one, half of it was their lunch hour, and the other half was their P.U. time.
JC: Was what you were doing similar to your UCLA class? Were people bringing in pages?
TA: It was a workshop format. People had written many scripts. It’s funny. A lot of the people at Pixar want to be writers, too. Or some of the animators want to direct, and so they’re trying to develop a script they can use to direct a film. Everybody’s working towards the same thing, I think. What’s exciting for me is to work with smart people, and obviously, anybody who works at Pixar is pretty smart -- the best at what they do. So it was pretty exciting for me to go into a room each week and take what were already good ideas and try to make them better. They were people who were eager to learn and taking time out of their busy schedules -- these are people who work 80, 90, 100 hours a week already -- yet they’re pursuing these other things as well because they’re just passionate, driven people. And of course it’s a place that nurtures creativity and risk-taking. It’s just like a huge family. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
JC: For my money, Pixar makes the best movies around bar none. But it seems like there’s still a certain stigma involved, at least with some people, because they’re animated films. They think that this is second tier stuff, that it’s not as “real” as other types of filmmaking, and to that I say: bullshit. You know, I was blubbering like a toddler during Act 3 of “Wall-E.” It touches you on a deeply emotional level. All of their films speak to something human in all of us; they just happen to work in an animated format.
TA: I totally agree. It’s amazing when a movie that only does half a billion dollars worldwide is considered a disappointment in terms of a company’s track record. It’s an amazing place, and they do amazing things. “Wall-E” to me is the most romantic movie I’ve seen in 20 years.
JC: Thanks for taking a few minutes, Tim. I’m sure lots of folks reading this list wish they could take that class at Pixar! Although one can get pretty close to the experience with your UCLA online class I’m sure. Can you give our readers some parting advice?
TA: Sure. Coverage is a great way to start off. It’s a great way to find out where your script stands in the larger world of things. And then when you want to take it to the next level and you want to go through a consultation, Popular Films is here. Just make sure that you’ve addressed all the issues that have been brought up in the coverage. I think people are in too much of a rush, and send out material without having (developed all the problems out first.) With our consults, I approach it just as if I was producing the movie. Let’s find your take, your point of view, the message that you are trying to get across and pull that to the forefront. That’s what’s going to make it different. You’ve got to find your voice. And your voice comes from your attitude, I think. You have to have a unique take on the world and the human condition.
You can bring the same firepower Pixar uses to your scripts. Check out the Popular Films page at Coverage Ink HERE.
Posted by Admin at 12:54 PM
Monday, January 19, 2009
We LOVE this! "Black Dynamite," a fake '70s blaxploitation film written by Michael Jai White ("Spawn,") Byron Minns and Scott Sanders, was snatched up by Sony Pictures at Sundance. This is particularly exciting because we've been tracking this film for a while and have known about it since inception. Michael Jai White has been on a multi-year crusade to get this puppy made, and the payoff is indeed sweet. Congratulations, Michael!
This from Nikki Finke's Dateline Hollywood:
I told you last night that the blaxsploitation spoof Black Dynamite was "an instant cult hit" at Sundance following the cheering at its packed midnight screening at the Library last night. Now it sold to Sony for $2M -- the second purchase at the film festival and the first overnight sale. As the film premiered, I hear Sony Picture's Worldwide Acquisition Group led by Peter Schlessel, and Endeavor Independent's Graham Taylor, Alexis Garcia, Mark Ankner and Liesl Copland repping the producer, negotiated in multiple rooms back at the agency's condo the rest of the night. Not only does the pic have a North American theatrical release commitment for this year, but also franchise expectations. "Astounding in a tough market for a little film without high-profile cast. It's a cinderella story," an insider tells me.
Check out the hilarious trailer HERE!
Posted by Admin at 2:56 PM