Notes on Finding an Agent

Highlights from Scribe Lounge's AMA with Emma Obank.

I’m still a while away from trying to find an agent, but last Monday, I watched Scribe Lounge’s AMA with Emma Obank — a literary agent at Casarotto Ramsay. Here are some of the highlights, with the usual caveat that quotes have been edited and re-ordered for clarity.

Step 1: Building Your Portfolio

What do you need to send?

I like to read a couple of things. Ideally a TV sample, because a film sample takes two hours out of my day… so TV — especially thirty minutes — is what I like to look at. But don’t think too long and hard about it. If your best piece of work is a film, send the film, because you want to send what you are most proud of. If you’re a writer-director, send links to your work as well.

Tell the stories you want to tell.

Don’t think about what the agent wants. Think about your best piece of work and the best demonstration of your voice. I get sent a lot of stuff which is chasing the ghost of something that’s been very successful — you know, people writing a female-led, Fleabag type of sitcom because they think that’s what commissioners want. You need to tell your own story and write what you want to be telling, not what you think other people want to commission.

A lot of times I’ve been sent scripts to consider for representation that I know are never going to get made by a new writer because the budget would just be phenomenal. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just about proving that you can write dialogue and character and story.

Are credits and competitions important?

It totally depends. There are clients that I’ve signed with not a competition or credit to their name. The work was just incredible. But it helps boost your chances. All of the agents are looking at stuff like BAFTA Rocliffe, and whoever wins bursaries like the Dancing Ledge one… Everyone will be watching those, and if you can say you have been selected or shortlisted for an initiative or a scheme or a competition, it will definitely make your email stand out.

Step 2: Finding Agents

Look at agents who look after people whose work you admire.

I remember when I was trying to get into the industry, I called around production companies and agencies and trying to get hold of someone. Don’t be afraid to do that. Call up the agencies and say: I’m a young, horror movie writer. Who at your agency is looking for clients in that genre?

Aim for newer agents. (This was my favourite tip from the whole session.)

When I was starting out, I wasn’t on Casarotto’s website for ages. So you can ring up the agencies and say: are there any assistants who are starting to build their lists? Because if you write to the CEO of Curtis Brown, their inboxes are out of control. Your email might go astray. It’s really useful as a newer writer to try and approach younger people because they have more time and the space… It’s really worth it trying to find those people. At every agency — the big ones at least — there’ll be two or three people who are starting to move through.

Also: think about what type of agent you’re looking for.

There are agents who are very business focused, and there are agents who are very creative, and you have people who are kind of in-between.

The more creative agents are more hands on: they will give you feedback on your work, and help get it as good as possible before sending it out. On the other hand, more business-focused agents will leave you to it, and concentrate more on the contract management side of things.

Step 3: Getting in Touch

What should go in your first email?

I find it difficult when people just say: hi, here’s a synopsis for this idea, do you want to read this? I want to know about who you are as well as the synopsis.

Be confident in your email. That email is everything. You know people say it takes somebody three seconds to look at a CV? It’s the same thing with an agent’s inbox. We’re looking for buzzwords like: I was selected for this competition, or I was shortlisted for this. I’ve met with this person and that person. Use these buzzwords that makes an agent think: oh, this person knows what they’re doing. This person has clearly put themselves out there.

Right now, you guys can be building your own profile by putting yourselves up for these schemes and initiatives. There’s so many out there at the minute. And if you can get shortlisted or long-listed, that’s something that you can say that’s more than just about the work that you’re writing. Don’t be afraid to boast your accomplishments, because it’s not just about the ideas that you have, it’s about demonstrating that you’re proactively trying to advance your career.

Avoid rookie mistakes.

Do your homework. That’s what I always say. Like when approaching agents, there’s loads of mistakes that people make. One is emailing every agent at the same agency, because we all talk to one another. The other is [writing one email and sending it to multiple agencies at once]. You need to be really targeted in your approach. It’s the same as when you’re going for a job.

Step 3b: Keep Going

Don’t be afraid to follow up…

It’s really difficult to write back to everyone. It would be a full-time job. So if you don’t hear back, do follow up with people two or three weeks later and say: sorry, I know you must be really busy, but just checking that you got this? No worries if you don’t have the capacity, but is there someone else who I might be able to write to at your company that you’d recommend?

… even if it’s a year later.

I have signed people who I have accidentally rejected before. It does happen! That day when they emailed me I was feeling stressed, so I thought I’m gonna go back and just say: I’m too busy and I don’t have time. And then a year later they’re doing really well and a broadcaster wants to make their show. It can happen. Sometimes you just catch people on the wrong day. So don’t be afraid to go back to somebody. But do leave a bit of time.

Step 4: The First Meeting

Be confident.

When you don’t have an agent, there’s a fear about meeting with them. You almost feel like it’s a job interview and that they hold all the cards — but that is absolutely not the case. You guys hold the cards too, because if you’ve got the meeting with the agent, they’re clearly keen on you. So have that confidence that you don’t need to convince them that you’re good. You’ve got the meeting, so you guys have the power as well, maybe even more so. Don’t forget that.

Know what your career plans are.

For me, I just want to know what they want to do, and how I can be helpful. It’s really useful for us to know if you’ve met any producers before and who they are and if you liked them or if you didn’t like them… All the rep conversations I have are low-key and informal and just like a chat about what they want to do, what they want to get out of their careers. Are they interested in directing as well? Do they just want to write their own stuff and be an auteur, or do they want to do writers’ rooms and write episodes of other people’s shows? We just want to get a flavour of your ambition and how we can help, and if so, if we are the right fit to help.

And be nice!

It’s also important that we get on. There are a few people that I’ve met who have brilliant work, but I just can’t see myself being able to navigate tricky conversations with them — as an agent, sometimes you have to let people down… So there has to be an element for me of being able to get on with them and being able to speak truth to one another… You have to be able to get on a human level, because you are going to be working together and going through so much together for such a long time hopefully.

Step 5: Working Together

What do you expect from your clients?

When it’s someone new, I expect them to be generating ideas. If I sign somebody and they have just one great script, then it’s really difficult for me to build momentum, because that one script might only be suitable for a certain type of project. Whereas if somebody has a catalogue of three or four scripts — that also span different genres if they have the capability to do so — it means [I can suggest them for way more things].

But the ideas don’t even have to be finished:

When we first sign a client we go out really wide with that project, which leads to loads of general meetings. If that writer has other ideas in their head, they can pitch those ideas, and the production company might say: “look, we’re not going to go for that script that your agent sent us, but actually we love this idea and we’d love to commission you to write this.”

I’ve heard this a lot. In that From Mind to Page course I mentioned last week, Maddy said that she aims to come up with one new treatment a month for this very reason.

Relatedly, once you’ve got going, it might help to mix things up:

Most of my clients are multi-hyphenates in terms of genres, they write lots of different things. And I find that works really well for me, because I can put them up for more stuff. And you know, the genres are blending so much nowadays. When I started at Casarotto, working as a comedy agent’s assistant, we were very separate to everyone else. We were out on our own, just doing the comedy thing. Whereas now, even the clients who are signed as comedy writers are doing everything, because there’s a big genre mash-up trend at the minute. I would say it’s up to you, but I personally think it’s good to have a variety of work in terms of style and tone.

I note that this varies slightly from e.g. the advice offered in this thread. I think my approach will be to focus on gag-heavy narrative comedy to start with, but with some variety within that. (For example: my current project is more autobiographical, while my next one is a sci-fi mystery.)

Final Thoughts

Use this time to write to producers and say: can I meet you for a cup of coffee virtually? It would be really great to get some feedback on my work. And like I said about going to junior agents, there will be development assistants and development co-ordinators who are really hungry to give some feedback on a script. Make those connections, because then maybe they can connect you to somebody who is on their level an agency or a management company. So use this time to write, send your work to production companies, also submit to any competitions that you can… Just use the time to try and build your network, because that’s what it’s all about really.

Sounds like a solid plan. Just need to finish that script first…

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