Full admission: a few days ago this was going to be a much, much different kind of post. One that I’d much, MUCH rather write. Because this shit infuriates me. I wanted nothing less than a complete disemboweling of a field of veritable swine.
Instead – thanks to my levelheaded lawyer and the desire to turn this absolute shitshow into some kind of positive – we’re going to take this in a different direction. You and I are going to make a wrong situation right and make this world, in some infinitesimally small way, better for writers. As opposed to, you know, burning down the whole fucking thing. And let’s cut to the quick. There’s no reason to draw this out, as there’s very little gray area here.
Some background, and I’m going to be purposefully vague here to protect identities for legal and moral reasons:
An aspiring screenwriter friend of mine who lives in a foreign country wrote me last week with some troubling news. She’d met a fellow aspiring writer (hereforeartthou known as “Writer”) who had representation in Los Angeles – a manager who was working on their behalf from afar. A miracle! How many writers abroad are able to get representation anywhere, much less the hub of the film universe, Los Angeles? Especially when they’d never even BEEN to Los Angeles? This was one of those once-in-a-lifetime stories: Writer writes script, sends it out to prospective agents and managers on a wing and a prayer, and lands representation right smack in the Mecca of the industry.
Except, as you’ve probably guessed, that was not the case. As my friend dug deeper, she peeled away the layers of a story we’re all too familiar with.
As Writer continued, it was clear that something was terribly fucked. Originally, Writer had sent out its script to the world and heard back from this “management company”, which of course offered a myriad of services that these small installations pretend to focus on when they don’t actually know what they’re doing – management, distribution, production, coverage; you name a facet of the industry, they claim to be able to provide you with access to it (RED FLAG). They offered to represent Writer, but they had terms. First of all, there was a contract to sign. Then, they had some financial stipulations (RED FLAG). One of the more questionable aspects was that Writer was to pay for coverage/notes for any script they submit (RED FLAG). Another facet of the agreement was that Writer would pay a monthly retainer to the company (RED FLAG) that would cover all manner of “administrative costs” (RED FLAG), “representation costs” (RED FLAG) and “postage concerns” (RED FLAG RED FLAG RED FLAG).
Writer, feeling (appropriately) that something was amiss here, started doing a little research. Writer scoured Google, finding several threads on several film and screenwriting-centric sites/message boards about this very company and their shady practices – warnings just like the one you’re reading now. Sufficiently disturbed, Writer brought up these discussions to its potential new manager. The manager responded rudely and forcefully (RED FLAG) that this was “the way business is done” (HOLYFUCKINGREDFLAG) and that Writer had a deal on the table that they could either take or leave (RED FLAG). As an added bonus, the manager made the claim that the monthly fees were pocket change to them – they certainly didn’t NEED to be in business with Writer (RRRRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD FFFFFFFFFFFLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGG).
Writer had a long talk with itself. The money was something it couldn’t really afford on the regular. The manager’s tone and pitch seemed iffy. The evidence from other aspiring writers that abounded on the Internet made it seem as though this company wasn’t reputable.
But what were Writer’s other options? They liked Writer’s writing. They were one of the only, if not THE only, companies to respond to Writer. And though it was costly…can you really put a price on HAVING representation? IN LOS ANGELES?
So Writer made the decision a lot of us might have made – it signed with the manager.
Over the next three years, Writer forked over $120 PER MONTH in fees to the manager, dubbed a “retainer for services”, that were charged in addition to the 10% commission the company would receive from any of Writer’s paying jobs (RED FLAG). The manager claimed to have been submitting Writers scripts for consideration at various industry outlets, though Writer found this difficult to verify and the Manager was never clear as to who their contacts were within the industry or to whom Writer’s work had actually been submitted (RED FLAG). Each time Writer was asked to do a rewrite of their work based on the manager’s notes, they incurred FURTHER fees for coverage (RED FLAG). Lastly, Writer was charged on several occasions between $500-850 for the manager to pitch their material at various networking events, festivals and conferences (JESUSGODDAMNMOTHERFUCKINGCHRIST). In said three years, Writer never had direct contact with industry professionals outside the management company (RED FLAG). Also over the course of the said three years, all of Writer’s questions, objections and complaints were met with the same response: “This is just the way business is done.” (GGGGGGGGGGGAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH).
I think you all get the picture by now. And though the basic principles that I’m about to lay out for you have been previous laid out over and over and over, time and time again, they’re worth repeating. Because they are universal. And they are true. And they SHOULD BE FOLLOWED AT ALL TIMES, WITHOUT EXCEPTION. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS. THESE ARE EXCEPTIONLESS.
1. NO ETHICAL, REPUTABLE CREATIVE REPRESENTATIVE – NOT AGENTS, NOT MANAGERS, NOT LAWYERS, NO ONE – WORKS ON ANYTHING OTHER THAN COMMISSION. NONE OF YOUR REPRESENTATIVES SHOULD ASK FOR, NOR SHOULD THEY MAKE, A SINGLE SOLITARY CENT UNTIL YOU GET PAID FIRST. NEVER. NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER.
2. THOUGH YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR REPRESENTATIVES WILL ALWAYS FUNCTION BEST AS A PARTNERSHIP, AT THE END OF THE DAY, THEY ARE HIRED BY YOU. THEY WORK FOR YOU AND FOR YOUR INTERESTS. NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
3. ETHICAL, REPUTABLE REPRESENTATIVES DO NOT CHARGE FEES FOR ANYTHING. THEIR FEES ARE COVERED BY THEIR COMMISSIONS. ANY AND ALL COSTS INCURRED IN REPRESENTING YOU ARE THEIR RESPONSIBILITY AND COVERED UNDER BUSINESS OPERATING COSTS, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE “COST OF DOING BUSINESS”.
(Note to Industry Pros Who Aren’t Scumbags: Please feel free to add to these in the Comments; these are merely the most important points off the top of my head without belaboring the point. Thanks.)
As a practical example, I am lucky enough to have entered into a business relationship with both Mosaic (one of the largest management/production companies) and the William Morris Endeavor Agency (one of the largest agencies). I pay each of them 10% from any money I make from any writing project on which they represent me. In the case of Mosaic, if I ever get paid for writing services on a project that originates from the company, they do not take 10% and they become producers. In addition, I pay my lawyer 5% of every project on which they broker the deal.
That’s it. It’s no simpler and no more complicated than the above. And THAT is how business is ACTUALLY done. Any writer working with ethical, reputable representation will tell you exactly the same. Therein, anyone operating OUTSIDE these confines is, in my opinion, operating unethically and disreputably. And anyone who operates outside the above should be absolutely and positively avoided like the plague – because they will not be working FOR YOU. They will be working FOR THEMSELVES IN SPITE OF YOU. That is an incredibly important distinction to always remember.
And what about my friend’s friend? Well, they’re spoken of as the faceless, all-encompassing “Writer” for many reasons, not the least of which is that this could be almost any of the aspiring out there. The Aspiring Writer is not stupid, is not willfully ignorant, is not even necessarily naive. They are excited and hopeful and absolutely dying to matter. Like anyone working their way into a particular profession, it takes time to figure out the playing field and how to navigate it. And part of the process of doing so entails making mistakes, some more painful than others. There’s nothing more gratifying than hearing that someone likes your work. Couple that with having (seemingly) no other options, and that can be a recipe for a terribly unfortunate decision, however understandable through hindsight.
And a lot of times that’s where this ends – with an unfortunate story that leaves us all feeling angry and vengeful and probably more than a little sad, unable to do little more than commiserate.
Not this time.
I have been in contact with Writer, and I have told it all the same things that I’ve said in this post. I’ve offered my thoughts and advice and perhaps some direction for the future. I also promised to try to help if I could, and that’s where I’d like YOU, my industry friends, to come along for the ride.
If you’re a writer or an agent or a manager or a producer or a studio exec or anyone involved with the creative thrust of the industry, help Writer out. We can’t get Writer’s money back, but we can help put Writer on the right path. If you can read one or both of Writer’s scripts and give notes, or you can read them and pass them along to your other contacts, or you’re willing to offer advice or counseling or anything within the realm of your professional landscape, get in touch with me. I’m not saying that Writer needs a handout or that you should promise representation or that you should offer Writer money – I’m saying that Writer deserves the foot in the door that they never got in the first place. Think of helping this Writer as, philosophically, helping ALL the Writers.
Additionally, help spread the word. Already been spreading the word? Awesome. Keep at it. This unacceptable fleecing of amateur artists is something that has to stop. Call out these bastards. Warn your friends and colleagues as to the pitfalls of dealing with ANYONE in this industry who isn’t above board. Help them to establish relationships with those who are.
Start with Writer. It’s as good a time as any.