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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have Marc Pariser, a very special guest. He is an agent from CAA and William Morris.
Marc: Recovering agent.
Geoffrey: Recovering agent. I wanted to get you on here so we could talk about how a screenwriter can get an agent. But first, I’d like to hear a little bit about your origin story.
Marc: Prior to joining the entertainment industry directly, I began as a professional artist. I was a freelance fashion illustrator and a layout artist of an animation studio. In animation, I was working on a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, so in that sense I was in the business, but certainly not on the radar. After a few years of doing that, I decided that wasn’t the right path for me. I took a look around me and decided the entertainment industry looked like one of the more interesting places to spend my life. I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do in the business, so I joined the training program at ICM and went to work in the mailroom xeroxing scripts.
Geoffrey: You started on the bottom, that’s amazing!
Marc: It was the standard traditional story. My thinking was, if I got into the agency side, that would give me a good overview of the business because agents work with everybody. I just naturally gravitated toward representing writers. I always liked working more with writers, and it turned out I really enjoyed that. I was an agent for 25 years after that. After ICM, I went to a small place and got recruited by William Morris. I spent a bunch of years at William Morris and got recruited by CAA, and that’s been my career now for decades. I took a little break from the business for a few years, worked in the start-up world, and now I’m back representing writers and directors, as a manager.
Geoffrey: You have seen it, you have lived it, you have breathed it. I look forward to any of the nuggets you can drop for our listeners today.
Marc: I caught the virus, the show business virus. That was a pandemic for a certain percentage of the population long before COVID.
Geoffrey: The burning question, of course, that every writer has in the back of their minds is, “How do I land that Hollywood/LA agent?” We talked a little bit about this, and you said that’s actually not the right question to be asking. I was wondering if you could guide our listeners into what they really should be considering when it comes to an agent.
Marc: Let me start by saying, in general, when you’re looking for answers in this business or life in general, the answers and guidance you get all depend on the questions you ask. Step number one is figuring out the right questions. I will also say, as a prelude, that in these days when the business has become larger, broader, and more complex than it used to be, you need to develop the skills and interest in marketing yourself. Whether it’s to an agent, manager, producer, studio, or whatever because you are your business. You are the product… A portion of your brain has to be reserved for being a salesperson.
Marc: The idea that creatives have to sell themselves tends to offend some creatives because they consider themselves artists. This is still a business.
Geoffrey: It’s not called ‘show art’, it’s called ‘show business’. It’s absolutely true, Marc. I write blogs and I talk a lot about not just being an artist but being a craftsman, looking at it as a craft, and being able to brand yourself. By branding yourself, as you said, you’re able to sell yourself. It’s absolutely accurate, 100%.
Marc: If you want to make a living at your craft, or your art if you will, then you’re a for-profit business. If you want to create art and you don’t need to earn any money with it, then you’re an artist. That’s the distinction, and most people I come across actually want to make a living at it because they need to make a living and they don’t want to do something else. So you have to approach it as a business. Having said that, this is probably the hardest time ever to get an agent, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the business has grown, evolved, and expanded. As the business has grown, so has the number of people trying to enter the business. Competition has increased exponentially. COVID has affected production. The WGA battle with the agencies has affected representation. Managers have become more popular for writers. For most of the time, I was an agent, I writer having a manager was a rare thing, now it’s routine.
Geoffrey: Because managers aren’t federally regulated. I think that’s one of the issues. Some managers are really great and can help your career, but there are some managers who shouldn’t be doing it because they’re borderline predators.
Marc: It’s the same thing for agents and agencies, there are good ones and there’s not good ones. You have to operate as the CEO or HR department of a company because you have to evaluate everybody you’re considering getting into business with, including producers and anybody else. I always tell writers, when you’re being interviewed by an agent, producer, or studio exec, it’s a two-way interview. If you feel they’re not the right person to share your vision, either for a project or a career, then don’t get into business with them, even if they want to sign you.
Geoffrey: So many writers can hit that desperate phase where they’re just trying to get that agent and they think that’s going to take their career in the right direction. But like you said, you can get the wrong agent that cannot help your career at all and can actually do the opposite. When you’re in these interviewing processes, [it’s important] to come from a place of confidence and power and do not come from a place of desperation, so you are making the right decisions. This is good stuff.
Marc: The first thing before you go get an agent or a manager for that matter; I’ll talk about both because these days the right manager can help you get an agent; step number one is you have to be ready. You used the word ‘craft’ a minute ago, which is really important because, frequently, people’s first script turns out to be pretty decent because there’s a level of energy, passion, enthusiasm, and naivete [behind it]. When you have to take on an assignment of somebody else’s idea, hopefully, you love the idea and develop some passion for it, but you’re mostly relying on craft. If you’ve written one script or even two scripts, no good agent or good manager can really make a judgment about the level of craft you’ve achieved off of one piece of material. You need to prove yourself. If you send a script to an agent and they read it and they like it, first of all, no good agent will sign you off of one script. I did that early in my career and you find out very quickly that’s usually a mistake. If they say, “Gee, I really love this script, what else do you have that I can read?” If you don’t have something else ready, or 3-5 things ready, if it’s a good agent you’ll have lost them. You have to have written enough things. The more you’ve written, the better it is. Not just in developing and gaining confidence in your craft, but it also shows the agent that you’re a self-starter, how ambitious you are, that you’re not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, that you’re business-minded and realistic, and you know what’s required of you. The agent is not looking to sign a great writer, what the agent is looking for is to sign a great writer that will have a long-term successful career, meaning they’ll earn money. The agent is looking for the home run, not the base hit.
You have to be ready, and then you have to figure out “what kind of agent do I need?” If you haven’t sold or optioned your first script, or gotten a movie made, or no anybody in town, it’s not likely you’re the person that CAA, UTA, or William Morris wants. They sign all the stars…These days, they don’t want to spend their time developing talent. Their attitude is, let the small indie agents develop you, then if you begin to get hot, they’ll steal you away.
Geoffrey: Yeah, how about that?
Marc: Having said that, if you’re determined to go to an agency like that, you don’t go to the senior agents because they don’t sign young start-ups like that, they sign the stars. What you want to do is go to the person in the lit department that’s the youngest and hungriest, the one that just got promoted out of the mailroom and just got his agent stripes. That’s the person who’s going to be the hungriest and work the hardest because those people are looking for clients that will become stars so the two of you can grow together.
Geoffrey: I love that Marc; you want to find that hungry guy. When I write on spec, I research a producer or director to send it to, to make sure I’m writing within their genre and budget that they write for. I research that person and make sure this is something they want, I send a query letter to them, so I have a better chance of them liking it and getting optioned. It’s exactly the same thing, you’re researching where you want to go.
Marc: More than twenty years ago, you couldn’t go online and research anybody. These days, you can look up everybody.
Geoffrey: You can go right on IMDb Pro and find anybody.
Marc: You can find anybody. You can look at people’s client list so you can see who they like to represent. Some people prefer comedy writers, some people prefer drama [writers]. Producers have genres they prefer to produce in.
Geoffrey: What about writers that don’t want to try and go for CAA or William Morris? What if they’re going for the smaller agencies?
Marc: There are lots of legitimate agencies that are boutique shops and midsize places like Innovative, Paradigm, or APA. There are smaller indie places like Capital of Stalwart and Rothman Brecher that have been around for decades, literally. They are journeymen and women that have great writers. There’s choices out there.
Geoffrey: If you go for one of the boutique shops do you feel there’s a better chance? Or are they just as difficult?
Marc: It just depends. It’s always difficult because you’re always looking for the representatives that are in the business and representing working people. They’ve all got limits on their time and attention. The same things apply: if you’re going to the smaller place, you want to go with the younger agents, but you also should not ignore the assistants. This is true whether you’re trying to get an agent or get to a producer/studio exec, the assistants are the next line of the company infantry. They’re looking for ways to prove themselves so they can get promoted to the next level. If they bring a fantastic writer to the agent they work for, that’s a plus for them. The very first script I ever sold, I sold while I was in the mailroom at ICM.
Geoffrey: That’s fantastic, Marc, oh my god! Did it get produced?
Marc: It did not get produced, but it kicked off the career. He ended up writing a couple of Clint Eastwood movies, so I got in my little Volkswagen Beetle and schlepped down to Huntington Beach, where he was living, I introduced myself and he became my first client while I was in the mailroom at ICM.
Geoffrey: Absolutely amazing, wow! That’s the secret, right there, to the industry.
Marc: Never overlook anybody at any level, you never know where the break is going to come from.
Geoffrey: It sounds like you just have to be savvy.
Marc: I heard one showrunner describe it as, you have to be able to outsmart the business. The business is like a country club. If you want to be a member of a country club, if you can afford to write the check, you can become a member. Show business doesn’t work that way. We need new members every year, just like a country club does, but we what we do is we post a guard at the gate to keep people out, even though we’re looking for new people every year. We actually put up barriers, so you have to figure out how to get through the side door or the backdoor. The people that try to go through the front door, that allow themselves to get swatted away, aren’t going to make it in the business anyway.
Geoffrey: That’s a great point. That’s really true. If you’re savvy enough to get an agent, then you’re going to make it. You’re just going to go there. Just getting read is so difficult.
Marc: What people need to understand is breaking into the business is difficult, no matter what part of the business you’re trying to break into. I was hired by a small agency that did not have lit department, when I left ICM. They hired me, a total unknown in the agency world, to help them build a lit department. Now my task is to go out into the community and introduce myself and the agency. And of course, the business being what it is, who’s going to give a shit about me or the company I work for? Three times a week, I would go out to a different studio, walk around, and knock on doors of producers and executives. But I didn’t have drive-on. I didn’t have an appointment, so I couldn’t get on the lot. Most of my contemporaries would drive up to the gate of the studio and say they were from such-and-such agency. The guards would say, “You’re not on the list here,” so they’d start yelling and screaming, “Don’t you know who I am?! Don’t you know I work for William Morris?! How dare you not let me on!” I thought to myself, who do they let onto the lot without question? They let messengers on the lot. So every time I wanted to go onto the studio, I would put a script in an envelope, have it sitting next to me on my seat in the car with some executive’s name on it, I’d drive up to the gate and say, “I’ve got a delivery for Milt Hamerman in the tower at Universal.” And they’d say, “Okay, go over there.” I wouldn’t even have to go to the parking lot, they’d wave me over to a spot next to some soundstage. Then I’d park the car and spend the next three hours on the lot.
Geoffrey: That is so brilliant. I don’t know if you could get away with that nowadays, but I think that is awesome.
Marc: No, it’s much stricter now. The other thing I used to do, in the old days when security was not an outside security company. The guards were guys that had worked there for 25 years, and they owned the gate, literally. Every Christmas I would drive from studio to studio and I would give each gate guard a bottle of whiskey and a Christmas card. That made it easier for me to get on the lot. It’s a people business. You’ve got to be creative, not only in how you write, but in how you sell yourself and market yourself.
Geoffrey: I agree, I can’t endorse bribery or any types of B&E, but you’re right.
Marc: If you won’t endorse it, then I will.
Geoffrey: I’m not saying to do this, but I knew a guy that would read the trades and see who was having what big parties. He would call up the producers the next day, who were at those parties, and say, “Hey! You remember we were at that party last night and you wanted to read my script? So here’s the synopsis…” He would get read that way; he was savvy. I can’t endorse that you do that, but you’ve got to be creative. The takeaway so far is that we want to have, not just a lot of scripts, but we want to have quality scripts. So, when we do get to impress that agent and they ask for more, they have stuff they can want to read. Also, looking at younger hungrier agents and agencies, whether they’re larger or, like you said, boutique shops. Perfect. Looking at the assistants is good. Do you have any other kinds of suggestions? You said researching the agents that want to represent your type of voice and genre. Being able to pitch yourself, of course, is important.
Marc: It’s a fair assumption that everybody in the business has an ego of some size. Small or large, everybody’s got an ego. When you approach people to ask advice or pick their brain, they’re way more receptive than when you approach them to use them to get something you want.
Geoffrey: I always find networking is a great way to make progress in your career. When I preach it to anybody I speak with, I always mention that it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you can provide them. It’s about the value you can give that person. Whenever I network with anybody, it’s always, “How can I help you?” I do it selflessly, but then the relationship forms, and then eventually you start coming together. That’s what it sounds like: you’re just networking with people and if you’re networking with people in a specific circle, that’s even better.
Marc: The purpose of networking is to create repour. You have to be clear what the purpose is for each interaction that you have. An example, somebody called me about a year ago and said, “I’ve been sending these query letters to agents all over town and I haven’t gotten a single response.” I said, “Send it to me and let me look at it.” So she did, and it was the standard query letter: introduction at the top, ‘hi, my name is so-and-so…’
Geoffrey: ‘Hope this finds you well.’
Marc: ‘…I have this script’, then a two or three paragraph synopsis, another paragraph that tells the agent why this is going to be a hugely successful movie, and where they studied screenwriting. Sometimes they even forget to include the call to action, which is, “can I send you my script?”
Geoffrey: Oh no!
Marc: Query writers would actually forget that. I read the letter, then I called her and said, “Let me ask you something. What is the purpose of this letter?” Her response was, “to get the movie made and to get it out there.” I said, “that’s not really the purpose.” I asked her again what the purpose was. She thought for a second and she said, “to get an agent.” But that’s not the purpose, either. I didn’t want to embarrass her any further, so I said, “the purpose of your letter is to get the person you’re sending the letter to, to say, ‘send me the script.’” That’s it. Everything that doesn’t serve that purpose is superfluous. Letters where people start by saying ‘hi, my name is so-and-so’ drive me crazy because, unless you’re not intending to not sign a letter at the bottom, there’s no reason to say what your name is at the top. Jump into what you want [to say], they have a very short attention span. People that read professionally, for a living, they don’t need to see a synopsis. Nobody has ever written an interesting synopsis. If you have a two-hour movie and you can tell it compellingly in three paragraphs, you don’t really have a two-hour movie, you have a three-paragraph story. You can’t condense a two-hour movie into a compelling three paragraphs, all you can do is a chronology of the highlights. Go with loglines.
Geoffrey: So what do you like in a query letter? Since it’s not a short synopsis, what’s going to grab you in a query letter?
Marc: First of all, the letter is your first piece of proof that you are a writer.
Geoffrey: That’s very true, I have preached that. It is your introduction.
Marc: If the letter is boring, or looks like everybody else’s letter, [you’re done]. You don’t have a story that’s something they’ve never read before. There’s only seven stories in the world and everything is a variation on those seven stories.
Geoffrey: The seven basic plots, it’s true.
Marc: I can’t give the exact answer, you just have to find a way to be creative.
Geoffrey: Do you weigh heavily on a logline?
Marc: Loglines are critical. I use loglines every single day when I email executives and producers. A good producer or executive doesn’t need anything more, they can answer multiple questions from the logline. Do they have anything similar? Are they interested in the genre? How will they promote it? How much will it cost? Is it a small picture or big picture? The logline gives them all that critical information. They don’t need to know the plot.
Geoffrey: Have a killer logline, folks!
Marc: Loglines are often harder to write than scripts.
Geoffrey: Tell me about it!
Marc: Don’t think if you write a 110-page script that you’re just going to knock off a logline and it’s going to be effective. It takes some work, but it’s a critical piece. So, to answer your question, brevity is a critical factor whether you’re writing a query letter or emailing somebody to introduce yourself. Brevity, they appreciate brevity because they don’t have time. If they open up an email or a letter and it’s too long, forget about it. The thing you’re doing when you’re approaching agents, managers, or executives is you’re not trying to sell. What you’re trying to do is create curiosity. You want them to lean in and say, “Tell me more! Come and pitch to me! Send me the script! Tell me a little bit more about this before I have you in for a meeting. Let’s talk on the phone.” You’re always trying to create curiosity. It’s the same thing the trailer is designed to do in the theater. They’re not trying to show you the movie, they’re trying to make you curious to come back and plop down $15 to see the whole movie.
Geoffrey: You want to hook them.
Marc: You never ever make people curious by giving them more information, you only make them curious by giving them less information.
Geoffrey: Wonderful insight, Marc. I think everybody needed to hear that. With the query, when sending it out, you want a killer logline. Put time into it, people. If you need to spend a month on that logline, spend a month on that logline. Marc, do you feel a short synopsis is optional?
Marc: Let me say this, I’ve never seen an agent use a synopsis to sell anything. There are circumstances under which someone might ask you for a synopsis. If they’re going to AFM to sell a film and they’re putting together marketing materials, they might ask for a synopsis. But generally, when you’re trying to get in someone’s office or have them read a script, the synopsis doesn’t get it done. If you’re in any circumstance where somebody wants to ask you about your script, the logline might be enough. Or you might have them for five minutes, or you might have them for 15-20 minutes, so you’ve got to be able to talk about your script in any of those time frames in a way that will be compelling and will make them curious to hear more.
Geoffrey: There you go.
Marc: People assume that when they get an agent, their problems in terms of getting meetings or making submissions are over because the agent will make that happen…They assume if an agent calls an executive and says, “I want you to read something,” the answer is automatically, “Okay.” Or, “I want you to meet with my client. He/she’s got a new story and I want them to pitch it to you,” and they think the answer is automatically, “Yes.” That’s not the case, the answer is not automatically yes. When you call an executive or a producer and say, “My client Jeffrey has just written a new script that I’d like you to read,” 100% of the time the response is the same: “What’s it about?” They’re not asking the agent to pitch it, the agent doesn’t want to pitch it because that’s the client’s job, what are they asking for? They’re asking for a logline. What’s it about? If you meet a producer at a party and you say, “I’ve written a script,” and he says, “What’s it about?” he doesn’t want you to bend his ear for the next 20 minutes. If you don’t provide a logline to your agent, once you get an agent, [they’ll have to write one for you]. I’ve never had a client give me a logline. I’ve always had to create them myself.
Geoffrey: Really? Wow!
Marc: I always found that curious. Agents get very good at, just off the cuff, giving that description to an executive.
Geoffrey: I am shocked that you haven’t had writers giving you loglines.
Marc: You’re risking it if you leave it up to your agent. You’ve got to write your own loglines and provide it to anybody that’s going to be talking about your material.
Geoffrey: That’s really good to know. We’ll shift gears here in a second. How do you feel about the WGA and agencies right now having their legal dispute? I know WGA had a bunch of their writers cancel contracts with agents. There’s antitrust issues, it’s still in court, and it’s put off till 2021.
Marc: There are multiple issues here. To distill it down, the WGA has basically gone after the big agencies over packaging fees. The agencies’ packaging fees are diminishing the writers’ ability to get fairly compensated. They’re creating situations where shows can’t have as big a staff as they need. I don’t agree with any of their assumptions. I think they’re not seeing the business accurately. It’s also the wrong argument at the wrong time because the business is changing. The backends that used to come from syndication, in the next two years, you’re not going to see any of that anymore.
Geoffrey: Residuals are going away.
Marc: Not only residuals but profits. The streaming companies are buying out everything.
Geoffrey: That’s true. They’re changing the game.
Marc: The way that the agencies made money from packaging is really irrelevant anymore. Once upon a time, when they first started packaging, they were actually rendering services that they no longer render on behalf of the company. It was a financial benefit to the company to have a packaging agent.
Geoffrey: Is that right?
Marc: Yeah, they would get all their production financing done by the agency.
Geoffrey: Just in case people don’t know what packaging is, would you be able to explain it? It’s a technique that agents use, especially if the agency is also a production company.
Marc: Packaging, in its simplest form, is putting as few or as many creative elements together to make the show or project sailable.
Geoffrey: Talent, writers, directors, and sometimes those are all [together].
Marc: Sometimes you only need one element. People get resentful of the package because they’ll say, “You didn’t really package it. You had one big star, producer, or writer, and you took a package commission.” Historically, the clients have not had a problem with packaging because they save 10%. They don’t pay a commission when the agency is collecting a packaging commission. Agents don’t double-dip, what they’re doing is collecting a commission from the production company, and they’re not collecting the straight percentage like the guild asserts. I don’t want to get into a lot of technical stuff.
Geoffrey: Yeah, we don’t have to get into a lot of technical stuff. They’re bringing together different talent. One of the concerns is, sometimes the agency is representing all the creatives under one roof, and that’s where the concern for the double-dipping can come in.
Marc: Here’s the thing though, the guild is asserting that package commissions have caused writers’ compensation to stall, and that’s not born out by the facts. Packaging started in the early sixties, and over the next forty years, packaging increased both in the number of agents that were doing it and the number of packages that were on the air. Writers’ deals were growing consistently as the packaging was growing. Then in ’96, the FCC repealed the Financial Syndication Rules, and that allowed studios, networks, and media companies to start merging.
Geoffrey: It kind of blew up. I know agents now that just package, that’s it, that’s all they do. When that happened, there was a big shift.
Marc: All the power went into the hands of five media companies and the agents lost a lot of their negotiating leverage. The purse strings were controlled in a different way.
Geoffrey: What do you think the future is now? Where do we go from here after they settle their dispute? With residuals going out the window and revenue changing completely.
Marc: I don’t know. Somebody’s going to have to come up with a new model because there’s more and more streaming services and more and more talent is going to the streaming services. The streaming services…the content is available 24/7. There’s really no backend.
Geoffrey: No, it’s all frontend now, that’s what I see.
Marc: You can’t make the huge frontend unless you’re a major star. Those showrunners that are making 8 or 9-figure deals, they’re always going to be in the minority, so everybody else struggles to make what they can make.
Geoffrey: But we can agree that it’s all going to completely change, there’s no question. It’s currently changing. Well Marc, what do you got going on right now?
Marc: Producing, managing, and I have a coaching business which I don’t promote much, but the website is marcpariser.com. Typically, I hire out by the hour to help people with career and project issues. I work with many writers, but I also work with actors and directors.
Geoffrey: Are you helping writers learn the proper way to query an agent?
Marc: I don’t do script consulting, but I work with them on how to conduct the business of being a professional writer and how to market your materials. I just spent a couple of months working with a writing-directing team on revising their look books.
Geoffrey: Those are more popular, nowadays.
Marc: How they approach their business, developing their personal story; you always need, aside from loglines for your material, to develop your personal story. Appearing to be interesting is something that appeals to people.
Geoffrey: Everybody loves a good story. I think everybody has a good story, it’s just how you present it. You could’ve lived in your mom’s basement for twenty years, but if you present that right, it could be fascinating.
Marc: I like to tell people, when somebody asks you what you do, try to answer without using the words ‘writer, actor, or director.’ [If you say], “I’m a writer,” you have no idea what kind of response that’s going to create in the person’s mind because they might have preconceived notions of what that is. That might not be an interesting enough response for them to say, “What do you mean? What kind of a writer are you?”
Geoffrey: marcpariser.com Marc, I really appreciate you coming on, and I just want to thank you. It was so important for screenwriters to get a peek inside of an agent’s mind.
Marc: It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me. I hope I gave your listeners some value.
Geoffrey: You absolutely did, sir.
Marc: Terrific! Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay well.
Geoffrey: Alright, you too. Be safe.
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