Thursday, September 20, 2012

Agents and Managers – What’s the Difference?

Most aspiring screenwriters are heavily focused on getting an agent. Most, in fact, focus too much on this when they really should be concentrating on becoming better writers and getting to know people in the business, but that’s another post. Traditionally, getting an agent has been considered the first step in becoming a professional screenwriter.

But over the last fifteen years or so, a somewhat new type of representation has become commonplace: the manager. Many pros these days have both. (Currently I only have an agent but I’ve had a manager in the past.) And many new writers wonder what the difference is.

Legally, the difference is that agents are licensed by the State of California and allowed to solicit work on your behalf. Managers are not licensed and therefore barred from soliciting work. However most do anyway and few writers report a manager that finds them a job!

Another major difference is that agents, if they are legitimate*, are franchised by the Writers Guild of America. This provides protections for the writer, such as limiting agent commissions to a maximum of 10% and allowing the writer to get out of the agency contract if the agent fails to find them work for 90 days (though that rule is seldom needed… few agents would try to force an unhappy writer to stay at the agency.)

So in practice one of the big differences is that agents have specific rules they have to play by and managers do not. That makes signing with a manager a more risky proposition. (And FYI: common practice is that managers take 10% to represent screenwriters. 15% is standard for actors.)

Another big difference that has practical implications is that agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This prevents a lot of conflict of interest. Many managers are managers so that they can also produce. Many management companies are also production companies.

This has advantages and disadvantages for the writer. On the one hand, if the managers are good at producing and the production company gets a lot of movies made, it gives you preferred access to them as buyers. And, if a manager is attached to a script as producer, they shouldn’t take a commission on any sale, saving you your 10%.

On the other hand there’s that pesky conflict of interest. Some of the big management companies are known for only pushing clients’ material if they want to produce it. If they’re not interested in producing, the client is ignored. Also, having a manager attached to a script as a producer could be a negative when others may be considering buying that script. At the very least, they’re going to have to pay your manager and share credit with them. Any attachments (including director or movie star) can help or hurt – it all depends on how the buyer feels about working with that person. And if your script does sell, your manager will likely be more interested in their producing deal than your writing deal.

So when you are meeting with a potential manager you should discuss under what conditions they will come onto your projects as producer, what they bring to the table in those situations, and what happens when they aren’t going to produce. Writers’ feelings vary about what answers they hope to get to these questions, but at least you’ll be informed.

The difference you’ll hear most is that managers provide career counseling that agents don’t. These days, this is usually true. In fact, I believe managers arose partly because agents were taking on more clients and doing less career counseling. Most just don’t have time anymore to give you extensive feedback on your spec scripts, for example. They want to be out selling your material.

That’s where (good) managers come in. They will generally be a lot more available to read and give feedback on material, coach you in preparation for pitches, and discuss possible long-term career plans. Of course good agents are involved in these things as well, but the manager should give you more time.

Another crucial difference is that it’s usually easier to get a manager than an agent, especially for a new writer. And, managers often help their new writers find an agent. If you get both, whichever order you get them in, you do want to make sure they can work together. Because they’ll need to. The ideal manager-agent pair has several clients in common so they have an established relationship.

So do you need a manager? As the saying goes, “A good manager is worth more than their commission, a bad manager is worth nothing.” It is certainly possible to be a working writer without a manager – or even an agent. On the other hand, if you could double your income wouldn’t you be willing to give up 10% of the results in return?

If you are considering signing with a manager, you will want to meet with them and discuss the things I’ve mentioned as well as how they think they can help you get to where you want to go in your career. You’ll also want to research their company and what they’ve produced (if they produce). In the end, whether to sign will be a judgment call. Just remember: in the long run it’ll be your talent, work ethic, interpersonal skills and luck that will determine how your career goes, not your representation.


*If you are considering signing with a small agent at an unknown agency, you should definitely be sure they are franchised by the WGA – you can find out on the Guild website. If they are not, it is a huge warning sign.


In other news, I have re-launched my Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe, with some revisions. Please check it out and consider becoming a backer. There are several rewards that might be of interest to an aspiring writer or filmmaker!

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