The usual route to finding a talent agent involves sending out headshots or reels (if you are an actor or model) or query letters and screenplays (if you are a writer) or query letters and reels (if you are a director or producer) or CDs (if you are a musician).
The key to being represented as an artist is for an agent to be convinced that he or she can sell you. In my book, “I Followed My Bliss to Bankruptcy, What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Hollywood,” I discuss how most agency rejection comes, not because of a lack of talent, but because an agent cannot clearly see how to sell the artist. This is the central hurdle artists need to overcome.
What does it mean for an agent to believe he can sell you? It means that he clearly sees where you fit in the business. He must either know someone looking buy what you are selling or he must believe that he can convince someone to buy you because you represent a type that is in demand.
What many people do not understand about Hollywood is that it is not just about talent. You may be a very talented actor, writer, director, or even a strikingly beautiful model, but that does not mean an agent will believe he can sell you. What is important to understand is that the agent’s job is a marketing job. They would do well to change their names from talent agents to marketing agents. The best way to understand what an agent looks for and how they do their job is to look at how other products are sold in other industries.
Many artists pride themselves on being different, new, or innovative. They have written a screenplay like no other. They have a style like no one you have ever seen before. From a marketing perspective such newness can spell disaster. How hard is it to get someone to buy something they have ever heard of before? And how expensive is it to get people to know and understand something brand new? Will it work? Does it last? Who can fix it? Will it be around in the future? Does it do what it claims? Is it worth my money? Why buy that when I can buy the one I have used for years? If it is so great, how come no one ever thought of it before?
One example I recently came across was in Bed Bath and Beyond. I was standing in line with my daughter and saw there was an item on display that claimed to replace dryer sheets. From all appearances, it was a small pink rubber ball with little dull spikes on it. It claimed to last for years and to save hundreds of dollars in fabric softener. They were selling a set of two for $9.95.
When we see something like that we can have different opinions. Some of us will buy it based on the novelty of it-we like new things and want to try them out. If they work, great; we will tell our friends. If they do not, cool; we may or may not tell our friends. But the vast majority of people will only come to buy or use a new item after it has been proven-after a few demonstration ads on TV or a segment on the Today Show where some expert claims the dryer ball to be the greatest thing since hamburgers. Over time, more may come on board if the new thing proves to be better than what they are using. That is why when dryer sheets first came out, they mailed them free to millions of people to try in their own homes. Through actual experience, they won people over.
New and different to an agent is very much like the dryer ball. Will it sell? How long? What is the market? How do I sell it and where? What are the risks to my reputation for recommending it if it is not a hit?
If, however, an item is similar to known successful brands, there is more faith the item will sell. That is why there are tons of MP3 players on the market. The Ipod may have been the first and may still be the best selling, but the fact that people know there is a market for Ipods or vampire book or coffee chains, means the chances of developing more and more to reach different segments is possible. Make your MP3 player hold more, costs less, play more formats, etc, and you can steal off a bit of business from Apple.
But, on the other hand, if your MP3 player costs the same, holds the same, and does the same as Ipod, why would anyone bring yours to market? The only reason would be if there is such a demand that Ipod can not keep up. Such is the case with the Twilight Saga. People can read books faster than Stephanie Meyer can write them. So to fill the gap between her releases, there has sprung up a slew of teen angst vampire love books all over Barnes and Noble. Some of these “sagas” have four, five or six books in the series already. They sit on the shelves next to Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, awaiting the wave of dedicated vampire love story reading girls and ladies to crave again. They are designed similarly to the Twilight books, but promise a bit more sex, more abs or more grit. They take place in college instead of high school, or in the office, or a hospital. You get the point. They are “like Twilight, but different enough to stave off lawsuits.” Likewise, an actor who fits the same type as Taylor Lautner, Keira Knightley, or Natalie Portman could more easily get booked based on the number of films made for actors of that type and the fact that Taylor, Keira and Natalie can not possibly do all those roles themselves.
An agent looks for a client in the same way that any marketer looks at a product it wants to sell. That is why fourteen agents passed on Twilight before one finally accepted it. Twilight was the first rule breaker to get though. Afterwards, every agent went looking for something like Twilight-that is, until the market flooded. Once it floods, being able to sell “another teenage vampire love story” becomes difficult and all the agents go on to the next thing.
So, how do you apply this information to help you get an agent? Let us tackle this by craft. Each discipline has its own angles that lead to agents.
If you are a writer, write the best screenplay you can in the genre you enjoy writing the most. Then write another in the same genre. Many writers make the mistake of thinking the way to impress Hollywood is to show their versatility. In reality, it is a surefire way to confuse an agent and even lose representation if you already have it. Agents and studios need to know who you are and what you do. You either do comedy, drama or action, romance, adventure, etc. You do not do one for one script and another for the next. Being a one trick pony keeps the agent from being confused when he is talking about you. Agents can sell forks and they can sell spoons, but they can not sell sporks or foons because no one buys them. No one buys them because films cost too much money to experiment with. So choose your genre carefully because, if you make it as a writer, you will be writing that genre for a while.
Next, get your screenplay out to agents, producers, and contests. Your agent and producer list can come from the Writer’s Guild of America West (WGAW), which can be found on their website. The WGA lists shows agents and producers who are open to receiving unsolicited screenplays. You can send copies to them and follow up with emails and phone calls. Placing or winning a well respected writing contest will also open doors for you to connect with agents, lawyers, producers and other executives. Such connections can lead to referrals and it is always easier to get an agent via a referral.
Referrals are the best way to get an agent and referrals can come from anywhere. A friend of a relative could get someone to read your screenplay. If you studied writing formally and impressed your professors, most likely early referrals will come from them. A producer who liked your work, but did not feel it right for their company might be willing to refer you to an agent. Or you could hire a lawyer to represent you and he could recommend an agent. All of these are legitimate ways to be referred to an agent.
In the meantime, it can help to start a blog and put your writing out into the world. Get people interested in your stories and perhaps even write for a web series. Doing so can grab the attention of agents who browse the web looking for talent regularly. With the advent of the web and blogging, you can create and instantly publish your stories to a world-wide audience and demonstrate your marketability if you are having trouble convincing agents to rep you. And like the free dryer sheets in the mail, giving away some of what you have can show the quality and style you bring to the table as well develop your fan base.
Although many of these methods apply to actors, models, musicians, and directors as well, we will take a look at those artists in the next article as they have other unique needs to address.
Update 3/7/2013: (The 2nd edition of What I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Hollywood available now exclusively on Kindle for only $4.99. Get yours now. Click here. Kindle e-books can be read on I-phone, I-pod, I-pad, Android, Mac and PC with the free Kindle App.)