Matt’s Column – “How Do I Write a Script that Attracts an Agent?”

Here’s something that will hopefully happen fairly regularly in the future — a guest column from reader Matt. Unlike my previous guest, he didn’t even have to sleep with me to land this gig. He only had to achieve what I and many of you reading this blog dream of: breaking through and making a living in the screen trade. Take it away, Matt…

WD offered me some space to detail the last year of my life when I went from writing my fourth spec (the first three went nowhere) to getting an agent and my first work as a professional screenwriter. This column will be the stuff I wish someone had told me before I was signed and in the first few months of my career. If there’s anything specific you’d like me to address please make note of it in the Comments. Schedule permitting, we’d like to do a couple times a month. Here we go.

The question I am asked with the most frequency is HOW DO I GET AN AGENT? There is no helpful answer to this question. You either get an agent from a connection passing the script along or a manager passing the script along. You get a manager through a very witty query letter or the recommendation of a connection. If you live in Los Angeles and are reasonably extroverted, it isn’t too hard to find someone young and hungry to take a look at your script.

The real question should be HOW DO I WRITE A SCRIPT THAT ATTRACTS AN AGENT? To be honest, 95% of that answer lies within your own talent. You’re either good or you’re not, and no amount of blogs, books, or practice will change that. But many writers, myself included, are probably good enough to achieve some success, but are going about things ass-backwards. So here is my step-by-step guide (with digressions) to writing the script that will get you an agent.

Wait. There’s just one step.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the tragedy of most lives is people never do what they’re best at. And it’s the same with most writers, I’m afraid. I believe that most writers are simply writing the wrong script. Maybe it’s because they’re writing for the marketplace. Maybe they’re just scared. But unless you write from the basic, essential core of your writing DNA, a long career just isn’t going to be in the cards.

What is your writing DNA? Thankfully, you can process your own genome with one simple answer:

What is the most important movie in your life? Not your favorite movie, not even the movie you’ve seen the most — I mean what is the one movie that you saw and decided I Want To Make Movies! For Kevin Smith, it was SLACKER. For Martin Scorsese it was FACES. And with both of their first movies, they made stuff heavily influenced by that — Smith with CLERKS, Scorsese with WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (writing in your favorite genre is something Scorsese sticks to — his next movie, MEAN STREETS, was a re-telling of his favorite Italian movie, I VITELLONI).

Now that you have that movie in your mind, drop whatever you’re working on and write a movie like that. I can’t tell you how many amateur writers — myself included — don’t write a movie like their most important movie. I wrote a kid’s comedy, a romantic comedy and an action comedy until I realized that my most Important Movie was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. “But wait,” my brain said, “There is no chance anyone would ever buy an ultra-violent satirical fantasia in this day and age.” I was right: no one bought the fucker. But there was so much passion — Kubrick had been so encoded into my writing DNA — and originality (we are most original when we are grounded in the past and ourselves) that it got me an agent and my first job.

Moral of the story: don’t write broad comedies if your Most Important Movie is STAR WARS. Don’t write thrillers if it’s JERRY MAGUIRE. Stop writing what you think will sell. Stop writing what you think people want. Write the exact movie YOU are dying to see.

If you do that, and if you have talent, you will have a career. Because the point of that first script — and by first I mean the one that gets you attention — is not to sell. It’s to attract attention and get you work. And the only way that’s going to happen is to nurture your voice. Go forth!

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24 Comments on “Matt’s Column – “How Do I Write a Script that Attracts an Agent?””

  1. William Says:

    Thanks Matt and WD for making this happen. Real good stuff here.

    I found that my DNA (hard wired from years of Scorsese and Kubrick) prevents me from writing outside of what I think works for me — familial dramas, crime, noir and weird alternate universe familial, crimey noir dramas (whatever that is.) I’ve tried it but every time I set out to do something outside of my zone a funny thing happens. These elements start to seep in and before I know it I’m writing what I just described. Fine with me.

    Matt — I’m hoping what happened to you will happen to me.

  2. K. Says:

    Writer Dad,

    You inspired me to start a blog!

    Here goes…

    obscuremoments.wordpress.com

  3. WriterDad Says:

    K — nice to be an inspiration! Happy blogging; I’ll be checking it out…

    William — it’s funny how the DNA gets hardwired like that. Ever since reading Matt’s post, I’ve been mulling over what I’d pick as my Most Important Movie… and I can’t decide. My true MIM is probably the original HALLOWEEN — that was the one that made me decide as a kid, yes, this is what I want to do with my life — but nostalgia aside, that isn’t really who I am almost 20 years later.

    I would have to say that my MIM as an adult is either THE GRADUATE or ELECTION; the flawed characters and the mixture of different comedy styles, shot through with a touch of melancholy, in both of those movies still speaks to me every time I watch them. It’s a much more subtle kind of humor than the broad, crowd-pleasing stuff that I’ve been encouraged to write in the past couple of years. Maybe it’s time to put Matt’s theory to the test…

    Anyway, what would anyone else define as their MIM?

  4. K. Says:

    I can’t differentiate what film has been a film that’s been ‘important’ to me rather than my ‘favorite’ as they seem to go hand in hand.

    If I had to pick one it would be either STRANGER THAN PARADISE or PARIS, TEXAS. Paris, Texas had a major impact on me when I was young and in Film School but it’s one that I haven’t watching in years, having binged on it so much, Stranger, though I keep revisiting.

    I think Matt’s theory is true to an extent but here is my experience: the current project I wrote that we’re raising money for is more akin in tone to Stranger than Paradise but every agent thats got it has seemed to pass on it, even thought the script was recommended to them by some big filmmakers.

    I’m finding that i’ve written a film true to myself and one I want to see, it has many fans, successful filmmakers and writers who have championed it and tried their best to push it out there for me but all these agents and money people seem to pass on it.

    What does it all mean!?

    Thanks for the encouragement on the blogging front WriterDad

    K.

  5. WriterDad Says:

    K — Over the years, I’ve definitely come to differentiate between a favorite movie and and important one for me. For example, FLASH GORDON is one of my favorite movies (he said, clearing his throat and staring at the ground in mild embarrassment), but my love of that flick is completely superficial; TAXI DRIVER, on the other hand, makes me want to rush back to the computer and fire up Final Draft every time I watch it. I may love both movies equally, but only one of them really thrills my soul on an artistic level, ya know?

    As for your project, I would guess that it just hasn’t landed on the right person’s desk yet. That’s a trite answer, I know, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s true more often than not… Don’t give up! At least you have a script you wrote from your heart — better that than something you wrote with cynical commercial aspirations that still doesn’t sell.

  6. Matt Says:

    William — though my post was about staying true to yourself, I should warn you that family dramas and alternative universe stories are the hardest two genres to not only sell, but to get attention for — namely because so few of those movies are ever made.

    K. — Not to be overly dubious, but I am trying to get correct information out to near-pro writers: if you have a script that is being recommended to an agent by a big-time filmmaker — AND you have a desire to work in the studio system — it’s really a no-brainer from a representative point-of-view. Perhaps the problem is that your script is not strongly within a genre; Jarmusch’s work is fair sui generis.

    WD — You should spend some time trying to write the next ELECTION. Here’s why: with a “smart” comedy script, you actually have more options than with a “broad” comedy script. Though smart comedies aren’t generally made within the studio system (Election being an exception; The Graduate was independently financed), a great smart comedy will secure you work doing character re-write/polishes on boneheaded broad comedies; a sample like that is sort of like a gift that keeps on giving A broad comedy won’t necessarily get you much work if it doesn’t sell. And Lord knows, what sells is completely unpredictable.

  7. K. Says:

    Matt – Yes, my work is not genre and I’ve till now not written a genre film, which proves your theory I’ve just written what’s true to me. However, this is the very reason why I’ve contemplated writing something very commercial in the past just to get an agent.

    It just bugs me because all these filmmakers I’ve managed to turn on to this film have gone out of their way to introduce me to agents and other producers and it keeps getting rejected.

    Actually, maybe I should rephrase my question, where does one go without genre?

    Thanks for all the advice. Do you have a site we can see Matt?

    WD – Thanks again for the encouragement!

    K.

  8. K. Says:

    WD- Okay, the film that makes me run to the keyboard is Man Without a Past by Aki Kaurismaki. It fills me with so much optimism, joy and love I cant contain it. Even just thinking about it now is giving me propulsion.

    K.

  9. Matt Says:

    K. — Your work must be really out there if you’re having such a problem. That said, when I think of Karuismaki and Jarmusch, I think of very minimalistic, deadpan dialogue that doesn’t work as well on the page as it does on the screen. Maybe that’s part of it.

    Have these filmmakers recommended you to THEIR agents? A strong recommendation from a valued client is pretty much a lock, from my experience. Getting a producer and financing is much, much harder.

    And it’s not important to write a strict genre film — just a sample that shows strength in what a studio may be looking for: strong characters, dynamic setpieces, exciting plotting, etc.

  10. K. Says:

    Matt – I don’t think it’s that ‘out there’, it is definitely very minimalist, and probably just a touch more dramatic than both Jarmusch and Kaurismaki, but you are very right, their films, as well as my stuff is very nuanced and doesn’t feel the same on page and screen.

    Regarding the filmmakers, yes one of them, who’s been nominated for BAFTAS for both her features, and absolutely loved my script pushed it to her agent at ICM, they passed, she then decided that it may suit her previous agent at a boutique agency better and was really sure that the previous agent would take it, that agent too, passed. This filmmaker has been very supportive of me, and like most of these people who’ve tried to help like the work because they thought it has a voice.

    Hope I’m not boring you but the issue is, I find that most ‘creatives’ in the industry love it, the agents and financiers don’t, we’ve managed to secure a massive casting director and a great cast through them all of whom are attached off the love of the script. The creatives, the filmmakers, the actors, the casting directors etc all think it has a ‘voice’ and is refreshing, the agents and bigwigs think can’t seem to get it. The funny thing is it’s a very very simply little film. Maybe the minimalism is the issue, but I’m not ready to alter what feels natural.

    Sorry to keep bombarding you.

    Thanks for your help.

    K.

    PS: The producer of one of my MIMs (not telling which one) loved my script, he doesn’t make small films anymore but is there giving me advice and moral support whenever I need it.

  11. WriterDad Says:

    Matt — thanks for the encouragement re: ELECTION and shooting for “smart” comedy. It’s definitely the type of humor that I most respond to (lumping in black comedy a’la HEATHERS, too), though it feels like the mainstream system is more about NORBIT and shit like that, unfortunately. I can appreciate a good Farrellyesque spit-take or kick to the balls, but one of the reasons I idolize Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor is their ability to juxtapose the occasional low-brow gag with really smart jokes — kind of like Woody Allen (my all-time hero) did in the glory days…

    K — sounds like you have a pretty frustrating situation. I’ve gotten the criticism of “this feels really small” on a couple of scripts, too, which really pissed me off in light of Judd Apatow’s rise to the top — it’s not like the man is writing and directing BATMAN or anything in terms of scope.

  12. K. Says:

    Wow, quite the blogparty we have going on here…

    WD – Frustrating indeed, I know exactly what you’re saying. Even thought it has only been a day this whole blogging thing has given me a new sense of calm by unloading my anxiety. By the way, I wrote my second post! Woo Hoo! That’s more that I’ve written on my next script today.

    By the way,Are you going to buy Chinese Democracy or wait till the trilogy boxset arrives in 2016 to hear the full feel the full assault?

    Have a good days sirs.

  13. K. Says:

    There seems to be some bug in Safari, every time I expand the text box to write a comment midway I lose some of what I’ve written from view and end up retyping bits, sorry for the typos.

  14. William Says:

    I’m late to the party here but I did want to jump in.

    Re: MIM.

    So many, so many. For me I would say the “one” was RAGING BULL. That was an out of body experience for me. The lack of sentimentality. De Niro’s performance. Brutal subculture. New York. Relentless and unflinching.

    Another was THE DEER HUNTER. The brotherly/friendship undercurrent in my writing was seeded firmly with that film.

    TAXI DRIVER. Again, Schrader/Scorsese. WD — I’m with you on this one. Visceral. What more can you say? I also just put The Man Without a Past in my queue.

    So many films have blown my mind that I guess I have a lot to work with but there’s definitely a collection that I gravitate to and go back to as a source of inspiration. Weird that I was into such a serious film experience at such a young age but I guess if you crack my head open you’ll find some answers.

    If I would have to say a film that would be a guiding post for where I’m at now I would say THE CONVERSATION. To this day I think it is THE example of how to make character, story and theme work in a paranoid thriller setting.

    K — It looks like you have great resources and a serious mentor in place. Keep pushing it. It will come to fruition.

    I would like to add more on the subject of genre and selling a genre screenplay because it’s something I’ve found myself at war with for some time now. I just can’t find the time to write something well thought out right now. Hopefully you guys can bear with me because this is a great thread. Lots to discuss.

  15. WriterDad Says:

    William — jeez, maybe you and I DO share the same brain. When I was really young (14 or so) I discovered Scorsese and Coppola and idolized them for… well, ever. I haven’t seen THE CONVERSATION in years, but I recently picked up the DVD, so I’m looking forward to digging in again. While we’re on the Hackman tip, have you ever seen NIGHT MOVES? I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it before, but I loooove that movie… when I imagine writing a drama-thriller with a ’70s vibe, that’s always the one I imagine using as my template.

  16. William Says:

    Must be an east coast thing. NIGHT MOVES was a film I always had on my mental queue but have yet to actually see it in it’s entirety.

    I don’t think we’re alone regarding the 70’s Admiration Society. In a lot of ways I absorbed those films at a young age. To the point where even though I do have more current influences that decade of filmmaking set the bar pretty high in my mind.

  17. WriterDad Says:

    You gotta see NIGHT MOVES from beginning to end. Hackman is the man in that one… though, of course, he’s the man in just about everything he’s in.

    Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of love for ’70s cinema out there. I wonder if film school kids today look at it the same way that I (and you, obviously) looked at it in our formative years.

    “Film school kids today” — Jesus, I’m becoming my dad…

  18. William Says:

    I just queued up NIGHT MOVES. Hackman is absolutely the man. SCARECROW is another great one with him too.

    I think kids look back with a lot of romanticism on the 70’s. It’s been filtered through pop culture, critiqued to death, trashed and admired. For us, I think we were responding directly to the films in a real direct, visceral way. They had a tone that triggered something in us. Some cynical, some more nihilistic. I think it was a direct result to a sanitized cinema that everyone was used to at the time. Whatever it was it shaped the way I saw the world around me and the way I saw films. Don’t get me wrong, I was nuts about THE BLUES BROTHERS (which was on cable last night) and ANIMAL HOUSE too. That was the flip side of the coin. I think we were formulating a very adult aesthetic. SNL, those films, what was going on culturally. It all added to it.

    I mean I saw RAGING BULL in the theater with my mother in 1980. No tape, no DVD. Big and brutal on the screen. I was 13 years old. That was the tail end of an era. At least I can claim that. Yeeeeeeeeeeeah!

  19. William Says:

    Okay, back to genre.

    IMHO when it comes to what sells my feeling about the industry is this; no one knows what they want until you give it to them. Straight genre writing can be really mechanical. There are many examples of screenplays that sell but the writing is lazy and uninspiring not to mention a one note. When I can feel the devices in the trailer then we have a problem. Just my opinion.

    I should warn you that family dramas and alternative universe stories are the hardest two genres to not only sell, but to get attention for — namely because so few of those movies are ever made.

    You should spend some time trying to write the next ELECTION. Here’s why: with a “smart” comedy script, you actually have more options than with a “broad” comedy script. Though smart comedies aren’t generally made within the studio system (Election being an exception; The Graduate was independently financed), a great smart comedy will secure you work doing character re-write/polishes on boneheaded broad comedies; a sample like that is sort of like a gift that keeps on giving A broad comedy won’t necessarily get you much work if it doesn’t sell. And Lord knows, what sells is completely unpredictable.

    Matt — In your opinion, doesn’t the advice you gave WD about writing a smart script vs a broad script apply to all genres? Wouldn’t my character writing skills give my the chops to rewrite a big crime thriller?

    I guess what I really want to know and it’s something I’ve been curious about for a long time is, how do you guys in industry town view your careers? Do you have a set plan in place of what you want to accomplish in, say, five years? Are you looking to make a career out of doing rewrites and polishes or is that just a stepping stone to bigger and better things? Or is it just a free for all?

    I ask this because I’m trying to navigate my career and not waste a lot of time going down dead ends. That in itself is just as challenging as writing a salable screenplay.
    I’m not trying to be an a-hole here I guess I’m just trying to get different takes on a viable career. It’s all for nothing if you don’t have the goods though.

  20. matt Says:

    “Matt — In your opinion, doesn’t the advice you gave WD about writing a smart script vs a broad script apply to all genres? Wouldn’t my character writing skills give my the chops to rewrite a big crime thriller?”

    It really depends what genre your spec is. The difference between your alternative universe story and WD writing a smart comedy is that they don’t make any alternative universe stories but they do make dumb comedies that need to be polished or improved. You need to demonstrate skills within a genre you can see yourself working in, and if you’re script doesn’t fit into a studio genre template, it makes it that much more difficult to get work off a sample. Writing a smart comedy is particularly smart because you will get a zillion offers to rewrite all the dumb laffers languishing in development. Same with a really tight thriller.

    “Do you have a set plan in place of what you want to accomplish in, say, five years? Are you looking to make a career out of doing rewrites and polishes or is that just a stepping stone to bigger and better things? Or is it just a free for all?”

    It’s a free-for-all. Some guys work on studio stuff for half a year and write originals the rest of the time; others do studio stuff all the time. Most writers worth their salt prefer to write originals, and supplement their originality jones with re-writes and assignments. The thing to remember: until you are an A-List screenwriter, the assignment world is really, really uninspiring.

    Here’s my advice: do not worry about your career at all. You have very little control over who likes your script, who reads your script, and why you are hired for any given job. The only thing you can control is the quality of your work. Write the best script you can in a genre you can see yourself working in for at least the first two years of your career. If it’s good enough, your career will easily flow from there.

  21. William Says:

    Hey Matt — I really appreciate the solid, no bullshit comments.

    The thing to remember: until you are an A-List screenwriter, the assignment world is really, really uninspiring.

    Yeah, that’s the depressing part but I guess if you can learn by writing more and get paid to do it that can work out but it can also be a draining and soul crushing journey too.

    Okay, so here’s the conundrum. I find myself always teetering on the same fence when I entertain the idea of writing a screenplay that I feel I can write, sell and let go of without having the dying urge to want to be attached as a director. The conflict is; am I writing the most salable screenplay or am I writing the best screenplay I can write?

    Let me explain. Example, endings. I tend to write with some minor ambiguity but definitely on a path to a final place. I find genre writing needs to have a defined ending with no ambiguity. So am I writing the ending that is true to the story and my instincts or to what the industry standard is begging for in order to sell a script. I guess within here lies the talent part — to get them both to align.

    Here’s my advice: do not worry about your career at all. You have very little control over who likes your script, who reads your script, and why you are hired for any given job. The only thing you can control is the quality of your work. Write the best script you can in a genre you can see yourself working in for at least the first two years of your career. If it’s good enough, your career will easily flow from there.

    Very true. Good stuff.

  22. matt Says:

    “Let me explain. Example, endings. I tend to write with some minor ambiguity but definitely on a path to a final place. I find genre writing needs to have a defined ending with no ambiguity. So am I writing the ending that is true to the story and my instincts or to what the industry standard is begging for in order to sell a script. I guess within here lies the talent part — to get them both to align.”

    Worrying about that shit is a waste of time. Most scripts sell because of the concept, not because of the quality of the writing, the characters, or the ending. In fact, unless you are writing a high-concept comedy with fantasy elements or a really big thriller, the chance of selling any spec screenplay is very small. I cannot re-iterate enough that most writers don’t break into the business by selling a spec. Which goes back to my original post — write the very best script you can. If it’s really good, someone will find you.

  23. William Says:

    Thanks again Matt.

  24. temple oak Says:

    More on the favourite/ important division. I think that the division is not that easy. Its too error prone a process I think.
    How many will be out there who don’t have a action movie among his favourites?
    Personally I worship SOLARIS, STALKER. I am enchanted with their play of ideas. But at the same time the BOURNE trilogy may be something that I am ready to watch again rather than tarkovsky. I adore FORREST GUMP and TERMS of ENDEARMENT and I feel that they are much more tough to write than a thriller.
    And regarding the film that made you decide to become a screen writer…hey can everyone so confidently pick out a single one? Is it such a ‘bang’ moment for everyone that you see a movie and it suddenly occur to you what you want? For me, after all these years I cant pick that day when it occurred to me first and when I decided about it finally.


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