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Six Things Literary Agents Are Looking For

Every aspiring screenwriter, at one point or another, has the same frustrations. The same questions.

“How do I sign with an agent?”

“Do I write something personal or something marketable?”

“Will I get in trouble with the FBI if they look at my search history?”

We can’t really help you with the third question, but for guidance on the first two, Launch Pad recently recently hosted a conversation with agent David Boxerbaum, a partner at Verve and one of the top spec screenplay-selling agents in Hollywood, as part of the Launch Pad Insider Series.

Here are a few things we learned from that chat: 

Great Characters and Dialogue Stand Out

Too often, burgeoning screenwriters handicap themselves before they ever put pen to paper by exhaustively searching for “that next big idea.” The high-concept twist that will take them and their career to the next level.

But, is that what agents are really on the lookout for?

“I’ll take a high-concept, great action, big movie any day, but… something that’s more personal, that really has great characters and dialogue, that really stands out to me, that’s what usually the longevity of a career comes from.”

If you want to get noticed for your writing, it’s not so much about the big idea, the quips and one-liners, or the action. Creating strong characters and natural dialogue comes first.

“I have found in my career that I’ve the most success betting on writers, directors, and filmmakers that have the most effort put into that part of their writing.”

Write What You’re Passionate About

Hand-in-hand with writers agonizing over that next big concept is the question of: Well, what should I write?

There’s a constant push-pull of writing to your voice or trying to write something more commercial. A nagging fear of selecting a marketable genre. But, according to Boxerbaum, trying to write for the marketplace is never a good idea.

“It’s smart to begin knowing who you are and where your strength is as a writer. So, if your strength is in a certain genre, own it, know it, and write from where your strength is… Never write from a place of what I think people want to read or should be reading.”

There are some genres that can be tough sells, sure. Boxerbaum cites Westerns and small, low-budget dramas as examples, but “they’re the ones that win the Academy Awards. Or they’re the ones that get made at the streamers… There’s always a path to production.”

A strong sample that shows what you do well is the most important calling card you can have as an emerging writer, regardless of genre.

“If it’s a small biography, if it’s a big action movie, if it’s a small horror movie or it’s a big horror movie, whatever it may be, you write what you’re passionate about.”

Great Voices Find Their Way 

“We’re always looking for that next great voice.”

Getting someone in the industry to read your screenplay is an uphill climb. And, the frustrating thing is it seems like every writer who has ‘made it’ got there in a completely different way. Personal connections, screenplay competitions, query letters, film festivals, industry coverage, online script databases. The list goes on.

It’s true; there’s no guaranteed path to get your script out there. But, the good news is, whatever path you choose, there’s one vital and hopeful truth.

“Great voices find their way to my desk.”

Quality material rises and finds its way. Agents, managers, and producers aren’t rooting for you to fail. Every script they open, they’re hoping to discover the next great writer.

Wherever a script starts, however circuitous its path, truly great scripts will always work their way up the ladder.

Own A Room

“There is so much more than just putting pen to paper in this process. Especially today when the competition is at its height.”

Being good on the page is important, but there’s more to the job than that.

“Half the job of a writer is writing the great material, having the great script, having the voice. All that. The other half… is being able to own a room.”

For more introverted writers, this can be a little daunting. But, not to worry. It’s not about being an actor or putting on a performance. It’s about being able to speak confidently about your script, your ideas, and your career.

“There’s many of my clients who really love the art of the sale. The art of getting into a room… Going in there and pitching yourself.”

It’s About The Career

So, let’s say you have that sample. That one calling card script that shows off who you are and what you can do as a writer. Are you ready to get out there and get an agent?

“If you walk into the room and just say, ‘oh I’m so happy you read that one script of mine, now sell it, go do something with it, and I have nothing else on my plate to do afterwards…’ To me, you haven’t taken the necessary steps to take on representation yet… Where you see yourself as an artist is an important question to know.”

It’s not just about that one spec script. Because, as Boxerbaum puts it:

“97% of the time… that first thing doesn’t sell. You have to go into it as an artist, as a writer, as a content creator having a thick skin, knowing that this is just the beginning.”

Beyond that first script, whether or not it’s one of the lucky few that sells, it’s about the kind of writer you want to be, the kind of filmmaker you want to be. Agents are there to be your partners. To help you rise through the ranks in the creative space.

“It’s not about just selling a script… It’s always been about the voice for me and the career.”

The Power Is In Your Hands

The road to getting representation can be long, lonely, and frustrating. But, when it comes down to it, it’s about doing the work. About not giving up and always pressing forward.

“Great writers write… Continue to churn out new material and continue to hone your craft… Never give up on your craft. Hone your craft. Continue to work on it, and be proud of what you accomplished today because it’s far more than what you accomplished yesterday.”

“The power is always in your hand to write great material. Great material will find its way.”

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Brian T. Arnold is a screenwriter repped by Verve Talent Agency (including by David Boxerbaum. Hi, David!) and Romark Entertainment. He won the Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition and was featured on the Hit List and the Young & Hungry List. Arnold also studied improv and sketch comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, wrote for a sketch team at iO West (R.I.P.), and wrote for the CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase.