If there ever was a profession related to screenwriting it would be that of the agent. One reason the concept of the agent is so misunderstood is that most people rely mainly on peripheral insights to determine what exactly screenwriting agents do. In other words, they draw their conclusions based on cursory mentions of agents in trade publications. Their insights are not based on actual experience with agents. As such, they do not possess a completely accurate insight into how the writer/agent relationship works.
To shed a little light on the duties screenwriting agents perform, here is a short overview:
In the most basic of definitions, screenwriting agents are sales people. They sell screenplays or the sell writers. The latter point bears a closer explanation. Not all screenplays that are produced are original material written on spec and sold to a studio. Often, the studio will acquire material and then would need a screenplay produced. The most basic example of this would be acquiring the rights to a book and “converting” it into a screenplay. Studios no longer keep writers on staff for such duties. They call screenwriting agents to send over recommended writers to handle the assignment.
Producers will generally not negotiate directly with the writer. They will discuss business with the screenwriting agents. The terms of the hiring would be discussed among the screenwriting agents and the writers. Ultimately, the writer has the final say on whether or not a job is accepted. However, writers are well advised to listen to screenwriting agents when the agents are provided solid and reliable advice.
Of course, screenwriting agents so also handle the sale of spec scripts. This is not, however, the bulk of their duties since so few spec scripts are options per year much less outright purchased. So, it should not come as much of a surprise that screenwriting agents sell writers more than they sell screenplays.
Screenwriting agents do not provide overall career counseling advice to their writers. Such would be the work of a business manager as opposed to an agent. Actually, there are several other duties a business manager handles. Selling screenplays would not be one of them. Well, officially they are not supposed to handle direct sales….
No discussion of screenwriting agents would be complete without mentioning steps on how to get an agent. Most will be very cynical about the notion of sending query letters to agents. In all honesty, it is hard to get a response through letters of inquiry. However, this does not mean you abandon the process. Rather, you stick with the process but consider it a secondary approach.
The best first approach would be to visit pitchfests in the Los Angeles area where you can meet one on one with an agent. These events are held regularly in the Hollywood area and the events are even being expanded into online formats. For those that might not be aware of how to meet screenwriting agents, these events could be the very best options.