Don't Fall in Love with the Letters on the Door

Don't Fall in Love with the Letters on the Door

There’s a very important lesson buried within this article. Something that I really feel I need to share with all the young writers reading this. I’ll get to the point as soon as I can (promise), but I need to tell you a story first. I swear there’s a purpose to all this ...

There’s a sad reality that comes with the territory of being a development executive in Hollywood: most of the scripts you read are not going to be good. They won’t all be bad, honestly many are just about average. While it’s always nice for the stuff you’re reading to not be terrible, if material doesn’t grip you, it’s not engaging. And scant few stories meet this criteria.

But that’s the name of the game, right? Each and every one of us is out there looking for that diamond in the rough. That next unknown writer with skill enough to craft a story that holds our attention and characters that take our breath away. We’re all looking for that excellent script that breaks the (usually long) streak of bad ones.

And oh Nelly, did [Pipeline exec] Matt Misetich just send me a C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!!

About a month ago, he asked me to do notes on a script, and of course, I obliged. And wouldn’t you know it, this thing had real potential. The writing was PHENOMENAL! The world, unique and interesting. The main character had palpable emotions, and there was a great inciting incident. The second half needed some changes, but I could absolutely see that this one was a gem that needed a bit of polishing.

These are the days I fucking live for.

Much of my job as a writing coach has me teaching basic storytelling fundamentals to people who are just starting out in their journey. And I love what I do, don’t get me wrong. But saying the same thing over and over can get a little repetitive. This script allowed me to go deeper. I could really flex my development muscle on this one. It was a great, little exercise in story craft.

I turned in my notes and asked him to please pass along my compliments to the writer. I was seriously interested in reading the next iteration of this pilot, if the writer wanted me to. And wouldn’t you know it, a few weeks later, a fresh draft of this same script hit my inbox. I opened it posthaste.

I knew instantly this was a writer with talent.

A trait I see often in young scribes (and need to beat out of them) is that they rush their rewrites. They’ll hear that their story has potential and poop out a draft that is basically the same, with a few fixes around the edges. They know that digging into a rewrite takes a lot of work, and many don’t have the patience for that. They hope that with a few new garnishments and some easy fixes, everything will suddenly pop into place and work wonderfully.  

Not this writer, though. Her entire second half had been completely redone (hell, it may have been more like 60% of the whole pilot). The story engine was dynamic. The character’s mission, so much more clear. And the writing was still stellar.

I told Matt that we had a live one here. He read it within an hour and agreed. This script was really flipping good.

We both got right to work (good scripts are rare, and rare things need to be shared with friends). I emailed this out to a few of my buddies, and within 24 hours, one of them got back to me that he loved the read. He’s a manager at a boutique company, and wanted to talk to this writer ASAP. Of course, I set up the meeting.

Now this writer was a total baby (NOTE: this is not an insult—it’s movie speak for someone with no credits), and hadn’t done a meeting like this before, so I hopped on the phone with her, just to walk through the process of what this would be like. And something that she said really stood out to me.

“I’m really happy a manager is interested in signing me, but I’m worried about the size of his firm. I might use this as practice and wait until a bigger place comes calling."

And … there it is. The point to this whole thing. Here’s the lesson of the day, boys and girls (and every gender identity in between): I need you all to divorce yourselves of the idea that by signing with a larger firm, this guarantees you a higher level of career success. This is simply not true (at the beginning of your career at least).

If you think that signing with Circle of Confusion as a young writer is inherently better than signing with, say, Industry Entertainment, sorry, you’re drinking the Kool-Aid. You’re getting caught up in the aesthetics of how things look rather than how things are. You’re falling in love with the letters on the door.

This is by no means a shot at Circle—there are fabulous people there! Awesome, hardworking managers who kick ass for their clients every single day … but if you’re worried about the name of the company, then you’re worried about the wrong thing. The size of the company does not immediately equate to the success you will receive. Being signed with a rep at a larger place does not mean you will get read at more places.

For example, during my time at a TV network, we would often find ourselves needing writers to staff our shows. It’s a constant struggle to find people to fill these jobs. While doing these exercises, do you know how many times we would say, “Well, writer A is repped at Brillstein, and writer B is from Bellevue … clearly we need to go with writer A, right?”

Zero.

That literally never happened.

Networks do not look at the size of the reps when staffing people for a TV series. They look at the quality of the work. Hell, sometimes being at a gigantic firm can work against you if the agency has extreme packaging requirements that grind things to a halt (but that’s a whole other article in and of itself).

“But that’s not what I’m worried about, Spike,” you’re saying, “clearly the bigger places are bigger because their employees are more successful, right?”

Wrong. That is a logical fallacy.

Let me break this down for you to disprove this point:

You are a brand new baby writer with a hot spec. You just won a writing contest and you get interest from every agency in town. Literally, all of them. On one hand, you’ve got a huge person at CAA. Someone who represents Aaron Sorkin, Issa Rae, Kenya Barnes, and Michelle Obama (okay, not that last one). On the other hand, there’s a freshly promoted agent at Paradigm who thinks you’re the bees knees. Both of them want to sign you. Clearly CAA is the only option, right? So, you sign with them.

Now, let’s play this out for a minute—the CAA agent sends your script out, and you get a few general meetings, but no sale. Bummer. That sucks. Okay, on to the next, right? Well … maybe. You also need to factor something else in here—big agents need to bring in big money to justify their contracts. They have to book people, or they’ll lose their job. And just what money are you bringing in as a baby writer? Zero. But how much money are Issa, Aaron, Kenya, and Michelle bringing in? A metric fuck ton.

Who do you think in this scenario is going to get the attention first? Sorry to say babe, but it ain’t gonna be you.

This scenario happens A LOT in this business. A very talented young writer gets absolutely nowhere because they are stuck buried on someone’s client list. They have their moment, don’t make it big immediately, and then fall down the pecking order until they are no longer seen. Agents and managers need to bring it every single day in order to stay alive and relevant, and they’re going to do that with the people who make them money.

Now, let’s say you made a different decision above: you signed with the young person at Paradigm. Do they have a whole bunch of big-ticket clients yet? Nope. But because of that, they need to HUSTLE every single day to make their money. They have to make 5x the calls that others do, and they have to send out more scripts than the rest in order to get the unknown clients they do have booked on projects. That’s how they keep their jobs.

I’m not sitting here telling you that it is better to sign with smaller places because they, the reps there, need you to succeed more. It can be a determining factor, but it’s not an absolute. Only a Sith deals in absolutes (which, by the way Obi-Wan … that is an absolute, so who’s moved over to the dark side now … HUH???)

What I am really trying to get across to you all is this: don’t fret over the name on the front of the door. Focus instead on the name of the person behind the desk. “Circle of Confusion” isn’t the entity making calls for you every day. “WME” isn’t calling on your behalf. The company isn’t the one sending your script out to all of their friends.

Your manager is. Your agent is.

That’s the person you need to concern yourself with. Your career lives and dies with them.

Once you’ve had five meetings with managers, who do you get the best vibe from? Which of them showed the most passion for your career? Who do you feel is going to work the hardest for you? Pick that one, not the largest firm, just for the sake of being at the largest firm.

The strength of Hollywood representatives are in the relationships they have, and people all over town have great relationships. Not just the people who work at the top companies.

Now, once you make it really big, does it make sense to sign with a larger firm? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Again, would you rather be at the top of someone’s client list, or the middle? It’s a trade off. But the big places do have some advantages over the little guys. If you can tap into them. But (and this is a big BUT) that doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to succeed there either…

I remember once going to one of Hollywood’s infamous parties, where I chatted with a writer who had several prominent credits from years back, but nothing recently. She was a few drinks in, so her lips might have been a little looser than normal, but she started complaining about her agent at [... redacted]. She talked about how he took forever to read her scripts, never returned her calls, and barely put any effort into getting her material out there. It was getting late in the night, so at this point, I couldn’t help but ask:

“If you don’t think he’s helping your career, why don’t you drop him? I know a ton of really hardworking agents elsewhere. I’d be more than happy to send your sample to them.”

“No thanks,” she muttered, “I’m too afraid to cut ties. What if no one else wants me? Besides, saying I’m repped at [again, redacted] is at least fun to say at parties.”

………

……………..

I know I can be hyperbolic and over-the-top at points when I’m doing these articles, so I just want to pause for a minute and confirm that this is an actual quote from an actual human being. Those words actually came out of someone’s mouth. I wished her well and went to get another drink. Upon checking IMDb just now, this writer has not had a produced credit since our talk. I sure hope she’s still having fun namedropping her agent’s company at parties, though …

This is another logical fallacy that I need to dissolve: having a bad rep is not better than having no rep. This is exactly the same logic that keeps people in abusive relationships with assholes. Or that high schoolers use when they just want SOMEONE to take them to the school dance, even if their date is an asshole. “What if nobody else wants me?” Well, you know the clearest way to ensure nobody else is going to want to sign you? Staying with a rep who doesn’t work for you, doesn’t send your scripts out there, doesn’t put you up for jobs, and keeps you languishing in obscurity.

Nobody in Hollywood wants to be seen as a poacher anymore. Especially managers, but agents, to some extent, too. If you have reps, other people won’t want to read you out of fear for your reputation. Instead, you should say “I can do better,” bet on yourself, and cut ties. If you keep the weight around your ankle of a past relationship, you’ll never find a next one, and the same goes for your writing representative, as well.

Look, everyone wants to feel special. Everyone wants that little dopamine hit when people "oooh" and "aaah" over the fact that you’re perceived to be the best. I get it.

But when the time comes for you to sign with an agent or manager, keep your wits about you. Fall in love for the right reasons, not the superficial ones.

*Feature Image by Jorm S (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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