Agents and lawyers and managers… oh my!
It can be so exciting to think about the big money you’ll get once you’re a full-time screenwriter, but that excitement can take a hit when you see the final number in your hand. Much like realizing how much taxes affect your pay, the many people involved in helping you achieve your dreams also take a piece.
Do you need each of them? Well, that depends on what you want to do, where you are in your career, and the individual roles of an agent, manager, and lawyer.
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What Does an Agent Do?
It has been said that an agent is a “pitcher” and a manager is a “catcher.” What that means, is it’s the agent’s job to throw your work to the town by selling you and your work in the hopes of ascertaining more work for you, including staff writing positions and OWAs, or landing a deal for something you’ve written.
Your agent, who traditionally takes 10%, can also read drafts and help pick which projects to focus on, using their knowledge of trends in the industry and your writing voice as a guide. Agents also negotiate your contracts for work, which is why their work occasionally overlaps with an entertainment lawyer.
Agents, unlike managers, cannot sign on as producers. Agencies did make additional money through packaging deals. These were a major sticking point with the WGA deal with the AMPTP agreement, with the WGA arguing that packaging was a conflict of interest for agencies and their literary clients.
What Does a Lawyer Do?
Lawyers have very clear-cut roles of negotiating, drafting, and shepherding contracts for your work through the legal process. They receive 5%. You can also pay them hourly, but if you’re working regularly, it’s worth the percentage, and your other representatives can recommend one with whom they have a good working relationship.
What Does a Manager Do?
A manager, the “catcher,” helps shape a writer’s career. Agents tend to prefer writing clients who already have a manager and, therefore, are proven to be ready for the industry. Managers are there to make sure a writer is ready for television or film work, help choose the best projects to focus on (along with the agent), and help develop those projects through various drafts.
Managers, who typically take a 10% commission, can also attach themselves as a producer on a project. They can even produce projects when they don’t represent the writer, with many management companies having a production company in-house. What managers cannot do is solicit work for their clients. Instead, a manager sets meetings to introduce a client to the town while building their career and they can be involved in receiving offers. It’s on the agents to procure work for the client.
If you manage to get one (pun intended), here are some best practices to know as you start to collaborate and build that relationship.
Do You Need All Three?
The easy answer is “yes,” but nothing about the entertainment industry is easy. You absolutely should never negotiate a contract without a lawyer, and you should not sign anything a lawyer hasn’t read, so that’s a well-earned 5%.
Most agents only sign a writer who is already working, has a manager, or both. But since agents are the ones who can procure work for their clients, they’re pretty essential. At the same time, managers are there to help introduce and establish you to the industry. They’ll help you get an agent when they feel you’re ready. You’ll also often see more established writers drop their managers since offers roll in more regularly, but these are very high-level writers.
You can absolutely build a career without an agent or a manager, so long as you have a lawyer to help you understand and negotiate contracts. However, that path can be very difficult and will rely on you to do a lot more networking than other writers (who already do a lot of networking). Building a television career will be particularly difficult since you’ll have to find a way in through people you know, fellowships, or the like to establish yourself.
Filmmaking, on the other hand, is a little easier. You can shoot a film or television series on your own and put it online for free as many young talents have before. But with film, you can submit to more festivals and even raise financing for production, distribution, and marketing. So you don’t need all three, but if you want to focus on the writing, then these three individuals create the time to make that happen, and that seems worthwhile.
Once you find representation, make sure you know what’s expected of you so you can foster a great working relationship.