The Business of Screenwriting: “I don’t have to smell it to sell it”

We are sitting in a Beverly Hills restaurant. It’s a lunch meeting with our new agent. We haven’t officially signed with the agency — one of the Big Four — still in our mutual testing out ‘hip pocket’ phase. We have just finished what we think is a killer action-comedy spec. This meeting is about getting our agent’s reaction to the script.

We schmooze, then get down to brass tacks.

“Guys, about the script… not sure I get it.”

We argue our case. It’s a buddy picture. Two great leads. Extremely high concept.

Our agent shrugs.

“Hey, opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.”

He laughs. We don’t.

“Look, here’s the thing. I don’t have to smell it to sell it.”

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Okay, let’s just stop for a second. Hollywood likes catch phrases. It figures. After all, the movie business is built around loglines and taglines. Indeed when Lew Wasserman was head of the MCA talent agency, they had a saying among the agents: “Dress British, think Yiddish.”

Fine. You can have catch phrases. But when it comes to a writer’s creative output, do you really want a representative who doesn’t get your sensibilities? A writer doesn’t need their agent or manager to be a friend. But shouldn’t you find someone who at least has some grasp of who you are and what you’re trying to be as a writer?

We decide to pursue another agent. And that script the agent could ‘smell’? It lands us at CAA. The script gets optioned several times. And I still get calls, as recently as two months ago, about reviving it.

So what’s the lesson?

Agents and managers are in the business of sales. That’s their gig and God bless ’em for it. But if you have any hope of establishing and keeping a working relationship with a rep for any decent length of time, make sure you’re both on the same page creatively. They may say “I don’t have to smell it to sell it.” But honestly, how much enthusiasm will they really have for the project?

Much better to find a rep who says this: “I believe in you.”

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted December 9, 2010]

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