Updated: Apr 12
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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have Marc Pariser, a very special guest. He is an agent from CAA and William Morris.
Marc: Recovering agent.
Geoffrey: Recovering agent. I wanted to get you on here so we could talk about how a screenwriter can get an agent. But first, I’d like to hear a little bit about your origin story.
Marc: Prior to joining the entertainment industry directly, I began as a professional artist. I was a freelance fashion illustrator and a layout artist of an animation studio. In animation, I was working on a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, so in that sense I was in the business, but certainly not on the radar. After a few years of doing that, I decided that wasn’t the right path for me. I took a look around me and decided the entertainment industry looked like one of the more interesting places to spend my life. I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do in the business, so I joined the training program at ICM and went to work in the mailroom xeroxing scripts.
Geoffrey: You started on the bottom, that’s amazing!
Marc: It was the standard traditional story. My thinking was, if I got into the agency side, that would give me a good overview of the business because agents work with everybody. I just naturally gravitated toward representing writers. I always liked working more with writers, and it turned out I really enjoyed that. I was an agent for 25 years after that. After ICM, I went to a small place and got recruited by William Morris. I spent a bunch of years at William Morris and got recruited by CAA, and that’s been my career now for decades. I took a little break from the business for a few years, worked in the start-up world, and now I’m back representing writers and directors, as a manager.
Geoffrey: You have seen it, you have lived it, you have breathed it. I look forward to any of the nuggets you can drop for our listeners today.
Marc: I caught the virus, the show business virus. That was a pandemic for a certain percentage of the population long before COVID.
Geoffrey: The burning question, of course, that every writer has in the back of their minds is, “How do I land that Hollywood/LA agent?” We talked a little bit about this, and you said that’s actually not the right question to be asking. I was wondering if you could guide our listeners into what they really should be considering when it comes to an agent.
Marc: Let me start by saying, in general, when you’re looking for answers in this business or life in general, the answers and guidance you get all depend on the questions you ask. Step number one is figuring out the right questions. I will also say, as a prelude, that in these days when the business has become larger, broader, and more complex than it used to be, you need to develop the skills and interest in marketing yourself. Whether it’s to an agent, manager, producer, studio, or whatever because you are your business. You are the product… A portion of your brain has to be reserved for being a salesperson.
Marc: The idea that creatives have to sell themselves tends to offend some creatives because they consider themselves artists. This is still a business.
Geoffrey: It’s not called ‘show art’, it’s called ‘show business’. It’s absolutely true, Marc. I write blogs and I talk a lot about not just being an artist but being a craftsman, looking at it as a craft, and being able to brand yourself. By branding yourself, as you said, you’re able to sell yourself. It’s absolutely accurate, 100%.
Marc: If you want to make a living at your craft, or your art if you will, then you’re a for-profit business. If you want to create art and you don’t need to earn any money with it, then you’re an artist. That’s the distinction, and most people I come across actually want to make a living at it because they need to make a living and they don’t want to do something else. So you have to approach it as a business. Having said that, this is probably the hardest time ever to get an agent, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the business has grown, evolved, and expanded. As the business has grown, so has the number of people trying to enter the business. Competition has increased exponentially. COVID has affected production. The WGA battle with the agencies has affected representation. Managers have become more popular for writers. For most of the time, I was an agent, I writer having a manager was a rare thing, now it’s routine.
Geoffrey: Because managers aren’t federally regulated. I think that’s one of the issues. Some managers are really great and can help your career, but there are some managers who shouldn’t be doing it because they’re borderline predators.
Marc: It’s the same thing for agents and agencies, there are good ones and there’s not good ones. You have to operate as the CEO or HR department of a company because you have to evaluate everybody you’re considering getting into business with, including producers and anybody else. I always tell writers, when you’re being interviewed by an agent, producer, or studio exec, it’s a two-way interview. If you feel they’re not the right person to share your vision, either for a project or a career, then don’t get into business with them, even if they want to sign you.
Geoffrey: So many writers can hit that desperate phase where they’re just trying to get that agent and they think that’s going to take their career in the right direction. But like you said, you can get the wrong agent that cannot help your career at all and can actually do the opposite. When you’re in these interviewing processes, [it’s important] to come from a place of confidence and power and do not come from a place of desperation, so you are making the right decisions. This is good stuff.
Marc: The first thing before you go get an agent or a manager for that matter; I’ll talk about both because these days the right manager can help you get an agent; step number one is you have to be ready. You used the word ‘craft’ a minute ago, which is really important because, frequently, people’s first script turns out to be pretty decent because there’s a level of energy, passion, enthusiasm, and naivete [behind it]. When you have to take on an assignment of somebody else’s idea, hopefully, you love the idea and develop some passion for it, but you’re mostly relying on craft. If you’ve written one script or even two scripts, no good agent or good manager can really make a judgment about the level of craft you’ve achieved off of one piece of material. You need to prove yourself. If you send a script to an agent and they read it and they like it, first of all, no good agent will sign you off of one script. I did that early in my career and you find out very quickly that’s usually a mistake. If they say, “Gee, I really love this script, what else do you have that I can read?” If you don’t have something else ready, or 3-5 things ready, if it’s a good agent you’ll have lost them. You have to have written enough things. The more you’ve written, the better it is. Not just in developing and gaining confidence in your craft, but it also shows the agent that you’re a self-starter, how ambitious you are, that you’re not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, that you’re business-minded and realistic, and you know what’s required of you. The agent is not looking to sign a great writer, what the agent is looking for is to sign a great writer that will have a long-term successful career, meaning they’ll earn money. The agent is looking for the home run, not the base hit.
You have to be ready, and then you have to figure out “what kind of agent do I need?” If you haven’t sold or optioned your first script, or gotten a movie made, or no anybody in town, it’s not likely you’re the person that CAA, UTA, or William Morris wants. They sign all the stars…These days, they don’t want to spend their time developing talent. Their attitude is, let the small indie agents develop you, then if you begin to get hot, they’ll steal you away.
Geoffrey: Yeah, how about that?
Marc: Having said that, if you’re determined to go to an agency like that, you don’t go to the senior agents because they don’t sign young start-ups like that, they sign the stars. What you want to do is go to the person in the lit department that’s the youngest and hungriest, the one that just got promoted out of the mailroom and just got his agent stripes. That’s the person who’s going to be the hungriest and work the hardest because those people are looking for clients that will become stars so the two of you can grow together.
Geoffrey: I love that Marc; you want to find that hungry guy. When I write on spec, I research a producer or director to send it to, to make sure I’m writing within their genre and budget that they write for. I research that person and make sure this is something they want, I send a query letter to them, so I have a better chance of them liking it and getting optioned. It’s exactly the same thing, you’re researching where you want to go.
Marc: More than twenty years ago, you couldn’t go online and research anybody. These days, you can look up everybody.
Geoffrey: You can go right on IMDb Pro and find anybody.
Marc: You can find anybody. You can look at people’s client list so you can see who they like to represent. Some people prefer comedy writers, some people prefer drama [writers]. Producers have genres they prefer to produce in.
Geoffrey: What about writers that don’t want to try and go for CAA or William Morris? What if they’re going for the smaller agencies?
Marc: There are lots of legitimate agencies that are boutique shops and midsize places like Innovative, Paradigm, or APA. There are smaller indie places like Capital of Stalwart and Rothman Brecher that have been around for decades, literally. They are journeymen and women that have great writers. There’s choices out there.
Geoffrey: If you go for one of the boutique shops do you feel there’s a better chance? Or are they just as difficult?
Marc: It just depends. It’s always difficult because you’re always looking for the representatives that are in the business and representing working people. They’ve all got limits on their time and attention. The same things apply: if you’re going to the smaller place, you want to go with the younger agents, but you also should not ignore the assistants. This is true whether you’re trying to get an agent or get to a producer/studio exec, the assistants are the next line of the company infantry. They’re looking for ways to prove themselves so they can get promoted to the next level. If they bring a fantastic writer to the agent they work for, that’s a plus for them. The very first script I ever sold, I sold while I was in the mailroom at ICM.
Geoffrey: That’s fantastic, Marc, oh my god! Did it get produced?
Marc: It did not get produced, but it kicked off the career. He ended up writing a couple of Clint Eastwood movies, so I got in my little Volkswagen Beetle and schlepped down to Huntington Beach, where he was living, I introduced myself and he became my first client while I was in the mailroom at ICM.
Geoffrey: Absolutely amazing, wow! That’s the secret, right there, to the industry.
Marc: Never overlook anybody at any level, you never know where the break is going to come from.
Geoffrey: It sounds like you just have to be savvy.
Marc: I heard one showrunner describe it as, you have to be able to outsmart the business. The business is like a country club. If you want to be a member of a country club, if you can afford to write the check, you can become a member. Show business doesn’t work that way. We need new members every year, just like a country club does, but we what we do is we post a guard at the gate to keep people out, even though we’re looking for new people every year. We actually put up barriers, so you have to figure out how to get through the side door or the backdoor. The people that try to go through the front door, that allow themselves to get swatted away, aren’t going to make it in the business anyway.
Geoffrey: That’s a great point. That’s really true. If you’re savvy enough to get an agent, then you’re going to make it. You’re just going to go there. Just getting read is so difficult.
Marc: What people need to understand is breaking into the business is difficult, no matter what part of the business you’re trying to break into. I was hired by a small agency that did not have lit department, when I left ICM. They hired me, a total unknown in the agency world, to help them build a lit department. Now my task is to go out into the community and introduce myself and the agency. And of course, the business being what it is, who’s going to give a shit about me or the company I work for? Three times a week, I would go out to a different studio, walk around, and knock on doors of producers and executives. But I didn’t have drive-on. I didn’t have an appointment, so I couldn’t get on the lot. Most of my contemporaries would drive up to the gate of the studio and say they were from such-and-such agency. The guards would say, “You’re not on the list here,” so they’d start yelling and screaming, “Don’t you know who I am?! Don’t you know I work for William Morris?! How dare you not let me on!” I thought to myself, who do they let onto the lot without question? They let messengers on the lot. So every time I wanted to go onto the studio, I would put a script in