A few weeks back, I received an email from a very talented writer I had the good fortune to work with some years ago:
“Is it appropriate for writers to query agents and managers with the current virus? Is it callous, thoughtless or plain stupid?”
It’s not the first communication I’ve gotten on this topic in the past few weeks, which led me to think that there must be quite a few writers out there contemplating this.
With the onset of COVID-19, everything changed for so many in the industry. After all, just a month ago all of us industry observers were waiting with baited breath to see whether the WGA’s negotiations of a new contract with the AMPTP would be successful, in which case work would continue uninterrupted, or exasperating, in which case a strike, or work stoppage, would have been expected.
Back in February, I quietly started telling clients engaged in a representation search that they would be best served to put down their queries and set their overtures on ice in order to see how things played out first. With work stoppage looming, we knew that both managers and agents were busy getting their writers out for early staffing opportunities, in a staffing season that started significantly earlier than ones that came before it due to this unique circumstance. Back then, in what now feels like a different lifetime, I advised my writers to wait: Either staffing would continue as normal, there would be no work stoppage, and then they could approach managers and agents again in the summer, once the dust had settled, or a writer’s strike would commence, leaving reps little to do but develop their client’s new content but unable to aggressive staff, pitch or sell, in which case, at least as far as reps were concerned, it would have been fair game.
But now… Yeah, that’s all changed.
I imagine that no one reading this would need me to break down how COVID-19 has changed the western world in just a few weeks: Quarantines (mandatory or voluntary) shelter-in-place and safer-at-home seem to have touched every business of our day-to-day life, not to mention the business world itself, and, as far as representation is concerned, agents and the agencies they are working for, are all feeling the pain.
While working from home should be just as much of a possibility for agents as it would be for anyone else, there isn’t that much for agents to do if selling and negotiating is not happening in the same capacity. Agents, unlike managers, do work for companies that provide them with salaries, and salaries are that much harder to maintain when all regular revenue streams are suddenly and temporarily dead. Therefore, it didn’t take long for some agencies to start announcing layoffs. First, Paradigm, who only this past month signed the WGA’s agreement, cut 20% of its workforce, with some top lit agents among those getting the ax. Endeavor, parent company of WME, had its own round of layoffs. And after that? ICM, APA and Verve have all already announced salary cuts across the board, as well as other cost-cutting measures such as temporary layoffs. More agencies are expected to follow suit.
While not of the same volume, we have seen a few quieter layoffs within some of the salary-paying management firms. Some managers operating under a management firm’s umbrella have been cut, and are suddenly without a home.
What does that mean for a writer seeking representation? I am, historically, a manager-first sort of person. I deeply believe that, while it is true that your first rep should be anyone who is passionate about you and capable of advocating for you in the professional space, in my experience, and in most cases, that will end up being a manager, rather than an agent, first. Want to find out more? Check out my previous blogpost How to Get a Screenwriting Manager. At this moment, most agents who are still holding a job but working from home are mostly going to be occupied with either making a quick sale for an existing client, keeping their job in tact, or figuring out their next career steps. In all likelihood, this is not the time when agents will have the luxury of bringing new talent onto their client rosters.
Managers, however, are a different beast. With most having come up without the safety net of a salary, having to first build a formidable client list that then secured their spot and their desk at a salary-paying firm (and, for the record, not all management firms pay a salary to their managers), they tend to be more adapt during challenging times like these. Management, conceptually, requires some serious self-starting initiative, so while I am sure that managers will be busy developing content with their clients, setting whatever meetings and unearthing any opportunity that they can, they may also try to find more to fill their time with, time that was previously occupied by breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks meetings, that, in the new normal, have become a thing of the past.
Does that mean they will be reading content in mass, looking to inflate their rosters by significant numbers? Full disclosure, I have heard one manager say: “Everyone’s home. Everyone’s reading.” But with some managers suddenly having to learn how to balance doing their jobs with educating their kids, I am not certain that this is true across the board. Still, I would not be surprised if, over the coming weeks and maybe months we will find managers taking on a bit more reading, maybe even proactively seeking out material, as they set out to find exciting new talent and new work to get out there, once the town is once again up and running.
This doesn’t mean that the Alan Gasmers or Aaron Kaplans of the world will suddenly be opening their doors wide for new talent, but I do suspect that we will soon start to hear of more managers potentially taking material by referral, maybe even handpicking a logline from a query letter or two as they seek to make good use of time suddenly available to them. I have already heard that there are now more managers taking pitches via Roadmap Writers and Stage 32 than ever.
All of which is a very long way to answer the question posed by the writer: So should writers be reaching out to managers and trying stimulate some interest, in the hopes of securing representation, at this time?
While I would not prioritize pursuing agents at this time because of the circumstance highlighted above, I do think that there is an argument too be made for this being a good time to make a list of managers to reach out to, in highly targeted and tailored queries, and see where those gets you. You can also use services such as Stage 32, Roadmap Writers and Virtual Pitch Fest and see if you are sensing a higher level of interest from those reps putting themselves out there in search of new material to read and new writers to work with.
Of course, we are all eagerly awaiting the return of the old normal. Writers room are itching to get started. Production is eager to come back to life. But during this unique, unprecedented time, it’s up to the writer to be a self-starter in her own right, and seek out whatever new opportunities just may come.
Author of Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches from Focal Press and Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career published in 2014, I am a career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. My clients include working film and television writers, writers who sold feature specs, original pilots and pitches to major studios and networks, as well as contest winners, television writing program participants, feature film lab participants and fellows, and emerging screenwriters just...