One of the services I offer is an email / fax blast service to agents and managers. A member who recently used the service found an agent who would like to represent him and he asked me how to deal with the process of selecting an agent. There are many agents out there who probably aren’t worth signing with so it’s not as simple as “sign with anyone who will have you.”
First, read this post: How to decide if you should option your screenplay to a producer. This post covers a lot of the same ground.
Then, check out this post: How do you get an agent for your screenplay? (And why you don’t need one!). It’s all about how to actually get an agent in the first place but also why you don’t need one. Writers, especially new writers, think that getting an agent is the holy grail of screenwriting. I wish it were that simple. I’ve had many agents and managers over the years and not one single penny I’ve earned as a screenwriter was the result of something my agent did. Read that sentence again and let that sink in. Results may vary, but realize that you’re probably going to have to continue to market your screenplays yourself even with an agent or manager.
Anyway, to answer the question at hand…
Meeting (or talking on the phone) with an agent for the first time is a lot like a first date. Ask a lot of questions and try and spend most of the time just listening. You’re going to want to figure out if your personalities will mesh. When you sign with an agent you’re typically going to sign with them for at least a year and that means they become you’re representation for that time period like it or not. So it’s important that you get along with them on a personal level.
One thing that I would ask is if the agent/agency has any working writers as clients. If they do, find out their names and ask if you can email them. If they don’t, it might not be a deal breaker. It’s quite possible that as a new writer your only opportunities to sign with an agent will be signing with an agent who’s also new. This can work to your advantage, too, because it means that your agent must find work for some of his writers in order to make a living, so he’s potentially very hungry. If an agent has a bunch of working writers already, it’s quite possible that you won’t get much of his attention. Be careful, though, I have talked with many agents who earn most of their money by representing commercial actors and run their literary department almost as a hobby. This is not an ideal situation.
I would ask them exactly what they think they can do for your career and how long it’s going to take. Write this stuff down if you sign with him/her and go back to it later and see if they’ve actually accomplished what they said they would. It’s important to set expectations and set some goals.
I would ask them exactly what they expect me to do. I would ask them how I can be a good client. It might be as simple as keep writing a good spec every 6 months so they have fresh material to send out.
There should be goals and expectations on both sides of the relationship. These will be very important in determining when and if the relationship should be ended.
Assuming the agent likes you and decides to sign you, they will present you with a contract. In California it’s a contract that’s pretty well regulated by the Government so there shouldn’t be anything too tricky in it. I would always try and shorten the time frame as much as possible. Some agents will sign you for 1 year but many will want 2 years and won’t go any less. More than 2 years however, seems unreasonable, so I wouldn’t go any longer than 2 years. As with any legal document, if you don’t understand anything in the agent’s contract always seek the advice of a qualified entertainment attorney.
Overall it’s really a judgement call. Do you “click” with this person? Do you think they can help take your career to the next level? If the answer is “yes” then it’s probably worth signing with them and seeing what they can do for you. But be honest with yourself and if you can’t answer “yes” to these two questions, seriously consider if maybe this isn’t the right agent for you.
I often get questions like, “If I find the deal does my agent still get her 10%?” The answer is a definite yes. And why wouldn’t she? She’s going to spend time and energy negotiating the deal, so that’s part of what she’s earning. But mainly as your legal representation she’s entitled to this money. Some of the time she will get the work for you, but some of the time you’ll get the work for yourself and the commissions are still split 90%-10%.
One side note, while agents and managers are similar, there are also some clear distinctions. What I’ve written about here really applies to agents but much of it can be applied to deciding if you should sign with a manager, too. Managers aren’t regulated like agents are so be more cautious when dealing with a manager or signing a document that they present to you. In general, managers aren’t supposed to solicit work for you, they simply provide career counseling and guidance, so make sure you have a clear understanding of what the manager is planning on doing to help you build your career.