Advice from Hollywood Agents, Managers, and Others
Q: What if a client pitches his agent an idea and the agent hates it? What does the agent say?
A: (Joel Begleiter, agent at UTA) Usually the way I frame that conversation is: “I have to be honest, this one doesn’t light me on fire.” [Maybe] the concept seems generic. Or I found the whole thing confusing. Or you just don’t have the pitch together. I rarely have an instance where the client says, “Well, fuck you, go sell it.” [A good client is] open to the conversation about why I’m worried. They may ultimately, nicely say, “I understand your concerns, [but] I’d still like to take a cut at this.” So we do that.
[In these cases], I call producers and say, “I’ve got this client. I know you like this client. As a reminder, here’s who they are, here’s what they’ve done. They’ve got an idea for a television show that I think is interesting. It’s not fully baked yet. They’re going to need some help, so we’re coming to you because you’re the right person for it.”
We put the writer in rooms with producers and let that be the canary in the coal mine. If those producers are like, “Oh my God, I fucking love it,” I’m wrong, and we move forward. If those producers pass, I [go to] to the client and say, “Listen, [this idea’s] not going to work.” [We don’t take the pitch] out to networks or studios where [the writer’s] value could be damaged.
Q: What does an agent do if a client is passionate about writing something the agent feels is un-commercial?
A (Scott Hoffman, founding partner at Folio Literary Management): It depends on the client, and it depends on the project. There are projects you think are entirely wrong projects, career killers, and there are projects that are just not the right next project for a client, in which case you have a dialogue about each of your respective roles, and what the benefits and drawbacks are to each specific party. [Likewise], if a client turns in work that happens to be not their best work, or not up to the kind of quality you as an agent feel you would like to represent, it’s up to you to have an open and frank discussion and say, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing this [with buyers]. When I send something [out], there’s an implicit endorsement of it. I don’t think this work is your best work, and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing I would like to be professionally associated with.” But, in general, if the dialogue is working between the agent and the client, what needs to happen for both parties will happen for both parties.
Q: I just had a general meeting with an executive at a film production company that has a deal with a major Hollywood studio. A friend of mine, an assistant, set up the meeting. The exec told me they’re looking for supernatural thrillers with female protagonists. What’s the best way for me to use this information and try to sell them something?
A (Robyn Meisinger, manager Madhouse Entertainment): Don’t bother. Don’t try to satisfy a whim of a studio. There might be a situation where Paramount says, “We’re looking for a micro-budget horror movie.” They think that way, [but] we wouldn’t necessarily recommend clients [write] things to satisfy one studio. It doesn’t make strategic sense. What we advise our clients: write commercial movies. You know what they are, because they’re in the movie theater. And hopefully, it’s what you like, too.
Q: I worry that if I ask my manager for too much help developing a screenplay, they’ll get annoyed and lose interest. How much help is too much to ask for?
A: (Lenny Beckerman, manager at Hello and Company) When it’s too much is really simple: when the work is not good. I could do a first act with the writer, and we could do three or four sessions trying to get that first act, but if the writer can’t get there, then the writer is not talented enough to get there. That’s when you start to figure whether to cut your losses or not. I mean, the only thing [managers] have is time, but you have to use your time correctly. So if the writer is taking too much of your time, but not getting there, then you bet on the wrong horse.
Q: I had a general meeting with a film producer yesterday, and I mentioned the screenplay I was developing. The producer loved it and suggested developing it together. On one hand, I’m thrilled to have someone excited about my project! On the other, it’s my idea. Is working with this producer a valuable partnership? Is it worth attaching a producer before the script is written?
A: (Tanya Cohen, literary agent at Verve) It’s a case-by-case situation. If a writer came up with an idea [on his own], I don’t see the value in developing it on spec with a producer—unless that producer adds a substantial amount of creative value in terms of breaking the story.
If you have a writer who is a great executor, but has a hard time coming up with the next great thing, and... a producer gives him an idea—something he loves—then I would encourage it. In some situations, it’s [even] easier to just go and pitch it, to try and get a studio or financier to put up money for development. If you're a brand new writer, and there’s a great producer who has a track record, fantastic actor and director relationships, and is invested in the project... it can open doors where there are paying opportunities that the producer is working on.
Q: I understand that when I’m pitching a show to a TV studio, I need to be crystal clear on what my show is. But what if the execs in the meeting suggest a change? What if they want the show to have a female lead instead of male? Or they want it to be single-camera instead of multi? How do I respond?
A: (Amy Retzinger, agent at Verve Talent & Literary Agency) You say, “That’s giving me a lot to think about. Let’s have a further conversation.” That [way,] you’re not so wishy-washy that you’ve bent with their suggestion, yet you are leaving the door open to a further conversation.
Q: I’m an indie filmmaker about to finish a new movie. Why can’t I act as my own distributor, skipping festivals and markets and going straight to exhibitors myself?
A: (Richard Hare, Senior VP and CFO of Carmike Cinemas) You can! The challenge with that is scale. With the advent of digital, you can give us a digital print, and we can put it on our projector, but...distributors pay for advertising costs...and has anyone ever heard of this movie? We have to look at the economics of our screens and say, “If we’re going to put something on this screen, we have to take something off of this screen.” Can we take something off of this screen? How much money do we think we’re going to make by doing that? What I’ve learned is the enormous importance of advertising and marketing for these movies. You’ll see where people will buy movies from Sundance or other sources—the movies are already made, already in the can—and how much money distributors have to [spend]. Sometimes the distributors spend more on advertising and marketing than they do on making the movie! And that’s crucial.
The other thing, economically, you have are virtual print fees, which are fees studios typically pay facilitators of digital projectors. The way it works: you have a company that buys digital projectors and [leases them to exhibitors]. In our case it’s Cinedigm, a public company (CIDM). We put projectors they own into our circuits, and they collect virtual print fees from studios. Virtual print fees are what studios pay to subsidize digital projection in the industry; in lieu of studios having to pay the money they normally pay to produce a 35 mm print, they pay an amount of money, or part of it, to subsidize digital projection. A lot of smaller independent [distributors] have a hard time coughing up the virtual print fee. So it can be very difficult [for exhibitors] to make money off of those.
This article is excerpted from Chad Gervich’s book How to Manage your Agent: A Writer's Guide to Hollywood Representation.