Unmanageable

Recently in my humble blog, reader Matt provided some insightful commentary regarding spec scripts and managers.  This got me thinking about my own opinions on the matter.

In short, managers suck.

There, I said it.  And of course, if I’d had better luck with reps, I’d be singing a very different tune.  Sour grapes?  Maybe a few.  But be careful or you may accidentally bite down on the same ones I did.

Here’s the thing — the management field is one gigantic conflict of interest.  On one hand, you’ve got the producers who will buy your material.  On the other hand, you’ve got the agents who will sell your material — agents who are legally barred from attaching themselves to a client’s project.  So far, so good.  (Or good enough.)  But then, in the middle, you’ve got the managers, who frequently function as both agents AND producers. 

Managers often develop a screenplay with you like a producer will, they’ll shop it around town like an agent, then they’ll frequently attach themselves AS producers if the script sells, in which case they collect not only their 10-15% commission from your script sale, but whatever producer’s fees they negotiate with the prodco or studio. 

When I landed my first manager, I had no problem with this… at least until I realized that he was much more interested in my writing his ideas, rather than my writing my own.  One failed spec (based on his idea) later, we parted ways.  I realized that I had just spent the better part of a year writing a piece of shit that he convinced me — or maybe I convinced myself — would sell.  From now on, I was marching to my own drummer, no matter how erratic the beat became.

Of course, did I really learn from my mistake?  Nooooooooooo.

A few years later I signed with Manager #2 on the strength of the Wedding Comedy, then in its first incarnation.  After pitching him scores of new ideas, he threw one of his at me — and I dug it.  A lot.  So I developed it with him and the Producer he actually worked for.  The production company had recently — at that time — shepherded an Academy Award-nominated indie to the big screen, so I figured I was in good hands.  They gave me notes, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and eventually we were done.  Manager #2 went out with the script, it almost sold, I got a lot of meetings off of it…

… and then the beginning of the end commenced.  Manager #2 hated all of my follow-up ideas.  He would pitch me ideas that he and the Producer concocted; increasingly demoralized by their rejection of the loglines that excited me, I would take a half-hearted stab at their stories and give up.  My heart was in my own ideas, but he didn’t want anything to do with them.  But he was my manager.  Who was working for whom, here?

I found out the answer when I went to a meeting with Manager #2’s Producer, who actually said to the exec we were meeting with, “Yeah, we paid writers to develop for a while.  Then we figured we might as well create a management arm and develop scripts for free.” 

He said this with me literally sitting there in between them.  Like I wasn’t even there.   And at that moment, I realized that I was possibly the world’s biggest sucker.  Everything suddenly became clear: I was trapped in development hell, AND I WASN’T EVEN GETTING PAID FOR IT. 

I really liked Manager #2 as a person — he was a super nice guy, and I’d like to think that he believed in me as writer.  Trouble is, he was working for the Producer, who I realized was really wearing the pants in that relationship.  At the end of the day, that organization did not have my best interests in mind; they wanted me to write scripts that they could produce, and if my obsessions and interests didn’t jibe with theirs, then tough.  So I got out.

To make matters worse, I realized after I’d escaped that the screenplay I developed with them was suddenly radioactive; even though it was legally mine according to the terms of our contract, the fact that they’d had so much inflluence  on it (to say nothing of that fact that it was based on their original idea) fatally tainted it for me.  It’s possibly the best script I’ve written so far, and I can’t get myself to send it out anymore.

Of course, I have no one to blame but myself in this situation.  I could have just told them to go screw themselves and written the scripts that I wanted to write… but I was their client, and if I was writing a script they didn’t want to represent, then what would happen?  I wanted to be a good sport, and in the end I wasted a ridiculous amount of time playing along.

In light of all this, I resolved to never have a manager again.   No more of this conflict-of-interest B.S.  But who knows — maybe a management powerhouse like Benderspink or Circle of Confusion would be easier to work with than a lower profile manager with something to prove.  And there’s also that inevitable truism: it’s almost always easier to land a manager than an agent. 

This is where you need to pay attention, because one day, you may meet a manager who loves your work.  He’ll take you to lunch and say, “I’ve got this terrific idea and I think you’d be perfect to write it.  Because you are an awesome writer.”

Hopefully he’s half-right — hopefully you ARE an awesome writer.  But you are most definitely not perfect to write this idea, because you should have plenty of your own that need writing before you consider developing somebody else’s for free. 

Remember that.  Seriously.

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22 Comments on “Unmanageable”

  1. Mike Says:

    So, what’s a writer to do?

    You can’t get an agent without a referral. You can’t get a referral without an agent. Production companies won’t give you the time of day without one or the other. Seems the only sensible thing to do is quit.

    NOT!

    NEVER!

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Seems from what all I have read about first-time writers making a sale is they were in the right place at the right time. Or. They knew the right person at the right time. So, networking is probably the best, non-traditional way of making it.

    Now, I don’t live in Lala-land, far from it, but through the miracle of the internet I can ‘internet-work’ and create opportunities that way. WD, you live in the LA area. You already know people. You’ve had meetings with these blokes. Keep them in the loop. Send them your ideas. If they’re not interested, ask if they know of someone who is looking for a Wedding Comedy, etc.

    Just an outsider’s two-cents. Just don’t let the bastards beat you.

    Keep Writing,
    Mike

  2. Matt Says:

    Will,

    That post you linked to is just ridiculous. There has been one writer on recent history who worked without an agent — Steve Zaillian. He wrote Schindler’s List. And now he’s with Endeavor anyway. So you need an agent. And a lawyer. The end.

    WD — your experience is all too common. But the big-gun managers — BenderSpink, Mosaic, Principato-Young, Management 360, Brillstein, all have production deals at studios or financiers. When you’re with one of these guys, they can throw a lot of work your way — a project they control at Warner’s needs a polish, believe me, they’re not going outside the company. The big managers also can navigate your career through the provincialism of the agencies — if you’re at ICM, they can get your script to an actor at CAA. Sometimes.

    But these companies are as hard to reach as agents. So what to do?

    I have no idea. It’s fucking really hard. And it doesn’t get easier your entire career. I’m up for a rewrite right now that an A-Lister wanted but the studio wouldn’t meet his quote.

    There’s only one lesson from this: DO NOT DEVELOP FOR FREE. EVER. Unless the idea is a studio exec’s who’s already run it up the flagpole. Remember, with these sketch managers, it’s no skin off their back to have you writing for free, giving you notes, etc. etc. It’s a win-win for them. It’s virtually always a lose-lose for you, because if they’re not part of a big company, the chance they even have the connections to sell your script are well…hopefully about Biden’s chances of becoming Veep.

    WD, you sound like you’re a step ahead because you’ve had some generals, maybe still have a few e-mails — when you’re ready, you show these people your script. If they like it well enough, they’ll help you find an agent lickety-split. There’s nothing a young C.E. loves more than discovering talent. You’re a huge step ahead.

    Jesus, I have a pitch this afternoon!

    all best guys
    matt

  3. William Says:

    Matt — Always a treat to hear your take on things. Good luck with the pitch.

    I want to boost a question to the top that got buried in an older post and never got answered.

    WD — hope you don’t think I’m hijacking your site, I know you wanted to get Matt’s take on my question too. So here it is:

    “Okay, Matt I have a question for you (this can be answered by anyone who feels qualified to answer:

    Is it better to hone in on a certain type/genre of writing (say, for instance, I’m good at writing the crime/dark/gritty stuff) and that be “what you do” or should you cast the net out there and take a stab at many genres in order to get work and stay employed.

    I know the answer for me, I’m just curious what everyone’s take on this is. BTW dark stuff is always a tough sell from what I have seen.”

  4. Matt Says:

    William,

    In terms of assignments, everyone has lists of different writers in genres. So if a production company is looking for a re-write on a romantic comedy, they have their assistant put together a list of all the writers who have written romcoms and move on from there. So you basically get known for one thing. And then have to throw down with all the other writers out there who are also known for that one thing.

    But you can always re-invent yourself with a spec. That’s the John August route. He went from writing family comedies, to Go. Then he did some action stuff. Then he specced Big Fish. If you’re creating your own material, it doesn’t really matter.

    But you’re going to have to live in your genre at the beginning of your career. And don’t think that means you need to write exactly TO genre. Guys who get hired to write a superhero movie don’t necessarily have a superhero sample; maybe they have a dark crime drama with rich characters, and the studio is looking to turn an existing property into Batman. Boom. Or you write a tiny comedy with great dialogue, and the studio is looking for someone to polish up a broad family comedy.

    I’ve found that all writers want to write in all genres. The action guys want to do a family movie, the comedy guys want to write NO COUNTRY, the drama guys want to write an off-beat comedy. But it’s not as easy as you think to jump around — take a look at your best script. That’s the genre you should be writing in.

    Matt

  5. WriterDad Says:

    Mike — thanks for the encouragement! Nah, I may bitch and whine a little, but I ain’t giving up just yet. They can’t get rid of me that easily. 🙂

    William — no worries about hijacking the site. Yeah, I wanted to hear Matt’s response too, and hell, I’m happy to have folks having conversations around here. It’s all good!

    As for the link, I was going to second Matt on that one. Having an agent — or a manager, truth be told — working on your behalf definitely makes you legit in the eyes of many. And when I briefly had an agent, he was awesome; his assistant would schedule and confirm my meetings and I’d drive to wherever and everybody actually knew I was coming. I’ve heard of writers just using an attorney, but since most entertainment lawyers charge a ridiculous amount of money per hour, that’s not economically feasible for most young writers. The fact is, even an agent at a tiny boutique agency has access to far more people than you or I could ever reach on our own — a good one certainly earns his commission pimping your work. And, as much as I hate the idea at the moment, if I finally find the right manager for me, he’ll be just as invaluable. It occurred to me after I posted last night that finding a rep is like dating: just ’cause you break up with a horrible girlfriend doesn’t mean you’re not gonna go out ever again. You just need a little time alone to enjoy the silence. 🙂 But at least now I have a better sense of what to avoid when I reenter the pool, number one of which is writing for free.

    (And, incidentally, everything I’m saying is based on trying to navigate the Hollywood system as a screenwriter. It might be way different than trying to break through as a writer-director in more indie-oriented NYC. I’d guess it is.)

    Matt — I’d like to think I’m making progress, and yeah, I do have a stack of contacts that I plan on hitting up as soon as I finish my next script. Trouble is, it’s been so long since I’ve met with some of those execs (at least a year), that I’m half-afraid they’ve all moved on and I’ll be at square one again. But shit, I called square one my home for a loooong time — I’ll just have to work extra hard to step out of it again. Hope your pitch went well!

  6. Scott E. Says:

    Say what you want, but I still believe in NATIONAL GUARD… The Statute of Liberty Has Run Out.

  7. WriterDad Says:

    Scott E — *Groan* 🙂 If I’m ever hard up for blogging material, I’ll have to post a few pages from that steaming pile… I like to say it’s the funniest script I ever wrote — and it’s not a comedy.

  8. clive Says:

    WriterDad

    What an excellent article, I’m glad I found both it and your blog… your take on managers is astute and is similar to my experiences with some UK based producers. How easy it becomes for screenwriters to be drawn into what is essentially an “employee” relationship, where we end up working on other people’s ideas simply because they assure us that it’s the way to build a career… and yet, how hard it is to actually get paid for this work.

    My general experience is that deep down many managers and low level producers are frustrated creatives who often see the writer as an extension of the word processor… “Hey, here are the ideas, here are the notes… go type that up for me.”

    Hey, and thanks for the link out to my rant about agents:

    Matt,

    You make some interesting points… the only problem is “ridiculous” is matter of perspective. Of course an unknown writer without an agent is going to have problems getting access to the large, hardcore producers and studios in Hollywood. I can see how from that perspective the suggestion of not getting an agent would seem ridiculous. However, that’s not the only way to work as a screenwriter and Hollywood isn’t the entire industry… as it happens I’m English, I live in Milano, Italy and I’ve twelve years experience of writing and producing movies in Europe.

    Now my experience is that it’s actually fairly easy, in Europe, for a screenwriter to take on a producer’s role and build co-productions with already established directors and producers. So, just three weeks ago I was in a meeting with an Oscar nominated director to discuss a co-production of one of my scripts. All of which was set up and arranged without either an agent or a manager. Of course, when it comes to contracts and negotiation I’ll hand the process over to my entertainment lawyer… but the need for a middle man/woman in the sales process just isn’t needed.

    I happen to believe that this way of working isn’t a purely European approach and that any screenwriter could decide to take a more active control of their careers… but that’s another issue.

    But let’s suppose for a second that a writer invests five years of their life in either strategy; either chasing an agent or working as their own producer… what are the likely outcomes.

    Well, in five years the writer may or may not have secured an agent… they may have stumbled into development hell where they are writing other people’s ideas for no money… they may have secured an agent who is getting them meetings. However, the chances are they don’t have a film in production… and if they have it’s currently being rewritten by half a dozen other writers.

    In the same number of years that the above writer has taken to get to the point where they are a relative unknown in Hollywood, a writer working as a writer/producer is probably in the middle of the release of their first $3M-$7M picture, directed by an established european director, with genuinely high class european acting talent… in other words they have a picture that’s ready to take to Cannes, Venice, Locarno, Sundance, Berlin and Toronto.

    The real question is… which of the two writers is going to get the high level meetings at Cannes , the unknown with an agent or the writer/producer with a film in the festival?

    It’s a matter of choice and temperament at the end of the day… some writers don’t have the skills or the self confidence to pull together deals for themselves and to them I’s agree with you, get an agent. But, for anyone who is frustrated by the stupidity of the “system” as it stands there are other options… I guess in many respects it depends why you became a screenwriter in the first place, to create a career in Hollywood or to make the films you believe in… to do the latter means you have to have more control and retain a little artistic integrity.

    But like I said… it’s a matter of taste and perspective

  9. William Says:

    Thanks guys. This is all invaluable info.

    I will second Dave’s nomination, Matt we need you to blog your wisdom.

    Re: The Indie Scene in NYC, it’s a grind but it’s a valuable learning ground. There’s a sort of Darwinism at play here. Everyone’s in the same boat, no one has any money and you spend a lot of time begging but you make friends for life and they will help you with your projects and vice versa. It’s a hustle but you can get a film made. Well, maybe you could. Right now, no one wants to make anything. Let’s put it this way, no one is getting rich even the little films that could. Those filmmakers still have their day jobs.

    I haven’t even ventured into the manager/agent territory but that might have to change because of my new family. I was working as a freelance editor (another tough way to make a living) for a while but that’s not an option any more. My studio is at home and I can’t have clients coming in and out with my son here. So now it’s trying to find the balance of taking care of him, writing my ass off (which has been difficult) and staying focused. If my writing is good enough to attract representation I wouldn’t balk. Best case scenario: rewriting gigs to pay for my specs becoming a reality and finally getting somewhere with my career.

    And I do agree with you about that link above. I think having an agent legitimizes you and gets phone calls returned. Either way, it’s a tough nut to crack.

  10. WriterDad Says:

    Clive, thanks for the kind words! Your response to Matt provides a fascinating counterpoint in the discussion, and I think I better understand where you’re coming from now. After living in Southern California for over ten years, I now realize that many times — not always, but many times — there’s a giant difference between trying to get a movie made and trying to establish a career. If you’re hellbent on the former and going the indie route, then yeah, I could absolutely see why you’d argue against chasing an agent. But if you’re pursuing the latter, finding a rep is pretty much a necessary evil — at least in the mainstream Hollywood system. When I moved out here, I decided that my goal was to make a living writing, and that certainly has influenced the choices I’ve made ever since. It’s funny — after years and years of trying to build that career, I now find myself working with producers and trying to actually make a movie… and it almost feels alien to me! Hope you keep reading…

    William — thanks for describing the biz on the right coast. I sometimes wonder how I would have fared if I’d gone to NYU or SUNY Purchase (the school I was going to attend until I chose SUNY Buffalo instead) and subsequently moved to NYC to break into film there. I do know that I wouldn’t be the expert parallel parker I am today if I did — hell, I suppose I wouldn’t even have a car now. 🙂 And man, I hear you about the whole day job/family/writing/focus thing, though I suppose you already knew that since that’s why I started the blog. I hope you get a break on at least one of those fronts…

  11. matt Says:

    If you want to work with in Hollywood, you need an agent. My agency also reps a ton of European writer/directors both here and abroad, so unless you’re in a real tiny indie world, I stand by my use of the word “ridiculous.”

  12. clive Says:

    Hey WriterDad

    Always glad to provide a counterpoint… and I’m always interested in other perspectives.

    I think one of the things that’s hardest to explain to an American readership is that the European film scene IS an independent scene… except at the top end where there is a distinct blurring between Hollywood and Europe. (And unlike the US scene which has been bought up and sold for scrap by the studios… it’s a scene that still makes ground breaking movies for grown ups)

    Where there is a cross over, is say a company like Eon who make the Bond movies. They have a working relationship with Columbia… they groom writers in the Eon Screenwriting Workshop as a development tool to pitch $54M plus movies specifically for Columbia’s slate.

    Now, it’s impossible to get onto the ESW program without agency representation… so by refusing to have an agent I have to accept that door is closed to me.

    However, as I said, the European scene is largely independent… and it’s scene with a wealth of soft-funding. In that environment the role of agents as gatekeepers is much less important… and it is possible to just talk to someone at one of the major festivals… to set up a meeting and to pitch projects, all without an agent.

    I’m sure that in the short run Matt will earn more than I will… possibly in long term as well… however, I’m making the kind of films I want to make right now… films that it would be impossible for me to make in LA as a relatively unknown screenwriter.

    It’s a choice we all make… and if Matt feels it’s a ridiculous choice he’s certainly welcome to that perspective… but a perspective is all it is. All I know is that given the choice between having an obituary that read “He won Cannes Plam D’or for best screenplay in 2009 and 2011 for the seminal European films ‘X’ and ‘Y'”… and one that read “he sure drove a nice car from all the money he made rewriting a list of instantly forgettable action flicks for Warner Bros”

  13. matt Says:

    This is a false dichotomy.

    Five of the last ten Palm d’or winners are represented by a major U.S. agency. So is the guy who won the Bear at Berlin this year, as well as the guy who won an Oscar for best foreign film.

    You may feel artistically superior because you don’t have an agent. But this is nonsense. Agents represent artists too, not just the guys who re-write action movies. It’s short-sighted beliefs like yours that discourage more independently minded filmmakers from trying to find success in Los Angeles, when in fact we need people like that out here more than ever.

  14. William Says:

    Clive — I’m glad you chimed in to give your opinion and the European film market POV. There are a lot of things I dislike about the American system but that’s neither here nor there. There are also a lot of things I love and hold close. Unfortunately, for the most part, that sensibility died about 30 years ago.

    I think Europe has been responsible for a catalog of films with great artistry that has informed my personal taste and aesthetic over the years. You’re saying some interesting things here but I gotta say, that last paragraph, you lost me. The value of talent is so nebulous so if you think winning an award is the true measure and that’s the dream you’re chasing, I can see we are at a serious impasse here. That’s the gravy, the afterthought.

    I don’t know what kind of writing Matt is responsible for or WriterDad for that matter but I do know that having a screenwriting career is a long haul and is a grind more often than not. This is a conversation about the business of screenwriting not the content of the writing.

    Over the years I’ve found that it’s about working, the more you do the better you get at it. There’s so much compromise in the business that I know personally my taste probably coincide with yours. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. I’ve been to your site and appreciate your enthusiasm but when opinion turns into philosophy or some Dogma-like credo, I’m out of there. If I can make X amount of dollars doing a rewrite and that’s going to finance some personal project and put food on my table, why wouldn’t I do that? That said, the gig would have to be right for me, not some endless assignment that goes on for a year where I get nickel and dimed on doing another pass or worse, for free which is probably de rigueur. If it takes someone five years and three screenplays to get to a point in a career where they have some clout and start doing more of what they want to do that’s cool too. We’re big boys. We all know the odds but we still do it anyway.

    At the end of the day it has to be what you’re up for. I’ll take the hit financially speaking on the budget if it means more control. I know me and I know if I’m losing sleep, not showering, not spending time with my son and losing my hair it better be for something I can walk away saying that it’s mine and I poured every ounce of blood into it. But that’s me.

    Inspirational music UP and slow fade.

  15. clive Says:

    As screenwriters we are faced with a number of decisions… these decision are about why we write scripts, what kind of movies we make, what our financial and career aspirations are.

    My argument has always been that screenwriters have more choices than are commonly presented.

    Matt’s argument is that there is only one way… get an agent and become an employee of various producers and studios.

    All I’m saying is that there are other choices…

    Matt believes that I’m encouraging people not to go to Hollywood… and he’s right in that. I don’t think working in Hollywood needs to be a career goal in and of itself… unless that’s what a writer really, really wants.

    What I believe is that regardless of what other choices a screenwriter makes they should always have one script project they are planning to either produce or co-produce.

    I don’t care whether the budget is zero dollars and it’s all shot on 8mm… or it’s a $10M European co-production that you pulled together at Cannes… without your agent. A task that you achieve by having a script you are passionate about and then finding some other people who will share that passion.

    My personal experience is that films happen when a group of like minded individuals find a project that they all believe in and all work toward making that film a reality. That is a process that can happen with or without the intervention of agents… and the truth is that an agent’s only function in the process is to bring the creative people together. If that process can be accomplished without an agent… then what’s the point of them?

    I personally don’t care whether people have agents or not… I do care that people get to the point in their careers where they think they can not have a career until they have secured representation… getting an agent isn’t a career goal, at best it’s a means to an end… at worse it’s forming a relationship that will steer your career away from making the films that inspired you to write in the first place and towards whoever is paying the most money.

    Where this argument gets really interesting is when you start looking at it from a purely business perspective…

    Sure, you can make some spectacular money and also win the Palm D’Or as a writer, with an agent…

    However, the maths changes once you start to compare the income of a successful producer with that of a successful screenwriter.

    Anyone who argues that the choice to build a career as a producer is more financially limiting than building a career purely as a screenwriter isn’t looking clearly at the figures.

    Screenwriters have pretty much always sold their talents far too cheaply and undervalued their role as a creative force in the industry. That’s what’s really at stake here…

  16. k. Says:

    This confirms almost every bad thing I’ve suspected about managers. They waste a lot of time but in my experience, have little tangible aid to offer. The ones I’ve met always have vague connections to someone or another at a network or a production company, but it’s never anything that seems worth the effort to rewrite the same script 15-16 times.

  17. matt Says:

    K ==

    A good point I forgot to make, from I lesson I wish I knew when I was starting out: don’t keep rewriting for a manager OR agent who shows interest. I once spent almost a year re-writing a script for an agent who had hip-pocketed me. And he still didn’t sign me.

    Upon showing representation a script, they should offer to sign you — they might have a few notes, which you can take or leave — but it’s a real trap when they tell you they like your writing, you’re just maybe one rewrite away from getting signed. Because it’s never just one rewrite.

    Many times in Hollywood I’ve found constant notes are just another form of rejection.

  18. WriterDad Says:

    “Many times in Hollywood I’ve found constant notes are just another form of rejection.”

    *Sigh* Ain’t THAT the truth…

    One thing that I don’t think anybody’s mentioned — unfortunately, it seems like managers become more and more unavoidable every year. They may end up becoming essential for success in the studio system (even more so than now), in which case it’ll be even more critical to steer clear of the exploiters. If that’s possible, of course.

    By the way — K, welcome to Thunderdome. 🙂

  19. Colin Says:

    “Managers often develop a screenplay with you like a producer will, they’ll shop it around town like an agent, then they’ll frequently attach themselves AS producers if the script sells, in which case they collect not only their 10-15% commission from your script sale, but whatever producer’s fees they negotiate with the prodco or studio. ”

    Nope. If they’re producers, they don’t commission you on that project.

  20. WriterDad Says:

    Colin, that was the way my deal was with both of my managers, and many screemwriters I know have had the same situation with theirs. Maybe we all really did have crappy reps (well, obviously, I guess), but it’s been my understanding that that double-dipping is one of the controversies surrounding managers in general.

  21. matt Says:

    Colin — you’re totally wrong. The goal of managers is to produce. That’s why the top-tier ones all have first-look deals at studios, and are attached to produce most of their clients’ projects.


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