AN INTERVIEW WITH GOD: A Chat with Writer/Producer Ken Aguado

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet God and ask any question you’d like? That’s the essential premise of writer/producer Ken Aguado’s new film, An Interview with God. Ken has a track-record in Hollywood spanning 25 years. In addition to his work as a producer and screenwriter, Ken is the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible and a contributor to this site.

Ken recently sat down with me to discuss the faith film market, how to keep a story you’re passionate about contained, and the balance between message and entertainment.

Angela Bourassa: Hi, Ken. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Ken Aguado: Nice to talk to you. As you know, I’ve been a big fan of your site for years and years.

Angela Bourassa: That’s always nice to hear. So let’s dive in. Is this the first feature length script you ever wrote? 

Ken Aguado: Yes, that’s right, my first script. I was a late bloomer.

Angela Bourassa: How did your experience as a producer inform your writing process? 

Ken Aguado: Really, it was very helpful. When I was thinking about what I might want to write, I knew I didn’t want it to be a superhero film or some other epic. First of all, those kinds of films are really hard to get made, despite the fact that they seem to be everywhere. And I didn’t have access to some well-known IP to adapt, so that was a disadvantage. And, probably like many first-time writers, I wanted to write something meaningful and from the heart. The producer in me knew that the place where dramas were still getting made was in the faith film space. So that’s what I chose.

Angela Bourassa: There does seem to be quite a bit of opportunity, relatively speaking, in the faith film market for interested writers. What advice would you give to a writer crafting a faith-based screenplay, both from a producer’s and a writer’s perspective?

Ken Aguado: Yes, it’s a huge underserved marketplace. And the dramas in that space are usually low budget — under $2.5 million — and many have grossed $30 million to $80 million at the US box office. As for my advice, I think you first must have an affinity for the topic. Most screenwriters I know are not attracted to the genre. Assuming you are, it would be ideal to find a beloved novel or true story to adapt. That always gives you a leg up in the marketplace. But, again, that also means you must be attuned to that part of the marketplace. I had some very specific ideas I wanted to tackle, so my process was to go original.

Angela Bourassa: Was there anything about the writing process that surprised you?

Ken Aguado: I’ve developed so many scripts in my life and worked with so many writers, so I think I already had a good appreciation for the process. I have enormous respect for screenwriters. Weirdly, I probably learned more about myself in the process than screenwriting, per se. For example, one of the underappreciated skills a screenwriter must have is the ability to put their butt in the chair for months at a time and grind through draft after draft. So, I learned that I probably became a producer because I didn’t have that skill! The work-around for me was to write really, really fast, and that’s what I did. I wrote my script in about six weeks, mostly between the quiet time of Thanksgiving through the new year.

Oscar nominee David Strathairn, Ken Aguado, and Brenton Thwaites. Photo by Cara Howe

Angela Bourassa: In this story, you do a great job of continually raising the stakes by strategically revealing important bits of information throughout the story. You also purposefully mislead the audience about one aspect of the story and then reveal your twist near the midpoint. So my question is, how did you go about plotting out the story? Were you aiming for a big reveal every however-many pages, or did the structure work itself out in a more organic way?

Ken Aguado: Let me first say that I’m not a fan of most faith films I see. While I appreciate their message and intent, many of them play more like 90-minute “prayer rallies” than cinema. I am a Hollywood guy, so I vowed that my version of a faith film would contain the narrative values I love. An Interview with God is really more of a character mystery than anything else, with two to three major plot twists along the way, including the one big misdirection you cite. The film is not what most people are expecting, based on the concept.

To plot the film, I just did a two to three page outline, by acts, with the twists, by acts. Maybe I didn’t know better! But I am not a big believer in the 20 page outlines that some writers do. And, as a producer, I never like to get those long outlines from the writers I work with, although they might do a detailed outline for themselves. As it turned out, my script ended up very close to the layout I did in my outline.

Angela Bourassa: The premise of getting a chance to ask God all of your questions is so enticing. I’d imagine it could have been very easy to make this a 200-page script with all the various topics you might be tempted to include. And I know that’s a problem that writers in all genres face when they’re delving into a world that personally fascinates them. How did you go about crafting the interview scenes so that they kept pushing the story forward?

Ken Aguado: That’s a great question and the short answer is that I was very mindful of not letting my personal obsessions get the better of me. The long answer is that my general inclination is to underwrite, and I did not let the dialogue go “naturalistic,” which tends to eat up the page count as characters fumble to communicate. The scenes are very focused and play more like a tennis match or battle of wills. And, as a producer, I wanted the option of making this film for very low cost, so I limited my first draft to 90 pages. The shooting draft ended up at 99 pages, after I incorporated notes and expanded the scope a bit.

Angela Bourassa: Final question. What advice would you offer to someone who wants to use their script to get across a particular message? Not necessarily a religious message, but any sort of moral or lesson.

Ken Aguado: That’s another great question. In one sense, all screenwriters should have a message, or theme, in their work, even though most commercial films and series are pretty simplistic such as, “Good triumphs over evil” or, “To find love, you must first love yourself.” I think “message” becomes a problem when the viewer senses more agenda than entertainment. I like to half-joke that the plot of every film or TV series is just people we like not getting the things they want. But this is another way of saying, stay focused on creating compelling characters and give us a reason to turn the page. This is what I tried to do with An Interview with God. And if the film also makes you think, that’d be fine with me.

An Interview with God will be in theaters nationwide from August 20-22. Find tickets here.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

Ken’s Top 10: Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

Sorry, this article is not about screenwriting. Well, some of it is, but it’s really about familiarizing yourself with some well-known tips about how to become a screenwriter. Talent is only one component of the process. Thomas Edison formulated that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This article is about that sweaty 90%. Here’s the balmy truth.

1. Want to write a script? First read a script.

Hopefully the reason for this is self-evident. If you want to be a writer, try to read other scripts that have sold and/or been made — preferably recently. Sure, read Citizen Kane too, but you will be writing for the current marketplace, so read what’s getting sold and getting made now.

2. Learn how to write clearly.

It pains me to include this one, but I read many screenplays by aspiring writers who possess a tenuous grasp of the English language and struggle with clear and effective writing. I’m sympathetic. But even if you never learned in school, it’s time to start educating yourself. And, I will confess, this is what I did when I was starting out. I’m still learning.

 

3. Learn the proper form of a screenplay.

This is another one I shouldn’t have to mention, but I also read many beginner screenplays that are poorly formatted or not traditionally formatted. This is not just a matter of style, it’s a matter of clarity. It involves things like how to clearly introduce characters and establish locations and describe actions. Not having these elements buttoned down is sign of a rank amateur.

4. Know your talent.

I’ve seen many writers struggle but fail because they mistakenly believe their talent lives in one genre or another. For example, they think of themselves as comedy writers only to discover (years later) that their marketable talent is writing thrillers. Screenwriter Paul Guay likes to say that the sweet spot for a screenwriter is to find the intersection of what they can write, what they love, and what they can sell. Always listen to Paul.

5. Choose your best idea.

This is usually related to #4, above. Sometimes a writer will come to me with ten ideas for scripts and ask what he or she should write. It’s great that a writer has so many ideas, but it also feels kind of random. If I don’t want to hear every one of the ten ideas my usual reply is “Which one do you love the most?” But in truth, the answer lies in #4 on this list.

6. Have a point of view.

This is another way of saying “Write what you know” or “Learn what you don’t know.” This is not just about story. Yes, of course you should know something about the medical profession if your lead character will be a doctor, but it’s more than this. Try to have something to say about the human condition that is unique to your point of view, even if your story is about non-humans, like Finding Nemo. Having a “personal voice” is a highly sought-after quality in Hollywood right now.

7. Understand the elements of a complete narrative.

This might be one of the most pervasive and fundamental problems I see with aspiring screenwriters. They just don’t fully understand what qualifies as a complete narrative, or at least they haven’t done so for a given story they want to write. These elements should include things like a defined and active protagonist who we care about. A challenging and eventful journey. A defined antagonist. And so on. As I said, this is not an article about how to write. For more information, screenwriter Doug Eboch has written a great article about this topic. You can read it here. Doug’s blog about screenwriting is a wealth of information. Read it.

8. Write every day.

Schedule time in your daily life to write. Much of writing is about personal discipline. Writers are experts at coming up with excuses as to why they can’t write. Don’t be one of them, and putting your butt in the chair on a regular schedule is what it takes, even if you have no great ideas to write on any given day.

9. Work from a solid outline.

Few things make me cringe, but I do when I hear a writer tell me, “I just have to start writing. I’ll find my story that way.” No. Just, no.

10. Finish the first draft.

Francis Ford Coppola was famous for advocating that all screenwriters should power through to the end of a first draft and not worry about making everything perfect in a first draft. This is not meant to negate all the previous nine tips. Just the opposite. This tip is in addition to the above nine. Francis’ point is that all writing is rewriting, and the world is full of aspiring screenwriter who never actually become screenwriters because they just can’t seem to finish a first draft.

Please let me know what you think. Did I leave anything off this list?

Read more of Ken’s Top 10 lists here.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado.

Ken’s Top 10: Things I Love to See in a Script 

by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

Admittedly, my last article — Ken’s Top 10: Annoying Things I See in Scripts — was kind of cranky. That’s not who I am, and really, isn’t there enough complaining on the internet? As my penance, here is the flip side — a list of things that I love to see when I read a screenplay. I’m staying positive, people.

1. A screenplay with an appealing main character.

Call me old-fashioned, but I want a screenwriter to give me a reason to care about a main character. For some of you this may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how often I read scripts where the writer has failed to make a compelling case for why the main character is worthy of my interest.

2. A screenplay that knows what it wants to be.

Perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the current film and television business is that many productions are intended to reach a global audience. And sometimes a film or television series for everyone is a film or series for no one (see, for example, Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad). So I love a script that commits to what it wants to be and is concerned only with being the best, unique version of itself. I’m thinking of films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina, or a series like The Americans. They may not always be the most commercial, but at least they don’t feel like they were written by the marketing department.

3. A screenplay that pulls me through the story.

Give me a reason to turn the pages. In other words, what am I hoping to learn or see or know? In general, every story is about someone we like not getting the things they want. When they get what they want, the story is over. So what does the main character want, and what prevents them from attaining it? Concern for this dilemma is usually ever-present in the scripts I love.

4. A few good plot twists.

What story doesn’t benefit from having a few good surprises along the way? Nothing is duller than a script that unfolds exactly as expected. Hopefully this is not controversial. Predictability – you never want to see that comin’.

5. A screenplay with a personal voice.

Stories with a personal voice are all the rage in Hollywood these days: a script where the individual personality or “world view” of the writer shines through. It’s the thing that make a Joss Whedon script different from a Coen brothers script. More than anything else, this makes a screenplay memorable for me.

6. A script that takes me into an unfamiliar world.

Who would deny that one of the great pleasures of films like The Godfather or The Martian is the experience of being taken inside an unfamiliar and fascinating world? But even if the story is about a typical middle-class family, I love a screenplay that can take me inside the lives of authentic characters with intimate detail. I love feeling like that proverbial fly on the wall when I read a script.

7. A screenplay with a satisfying ending.

Orson Welles famously said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I love this quote more for what it says about life than anything else. Yes, we live in an era where “dark” is in, especially in television, but I am looking for art that perfects life. If I want failure and frustration, well, I get plenty of that for free in my own life.

8. The conflict of powerful equals.

This is another way of saying a great protagonist with a well-matched antagonist. This is where the best comedy and drama comes from. A defined and sympathetic protagonist, with a clear goal or inner need and a strong antagonist (or challenging force) that opposes the protagonist. It’s one of my delicious pleasures when reading a screenplay. Just remember that every character is the hero of their own existence.

9. A screenplay with great expository dialogue.

Now I’m getting kind of wonky, but I always appreciate good expository dialogue that doesn’t seem like expository dialogue. It’s very hard to do well, and there are screenwriters I consider very talented who can’t always pull it off. For my money, Aaron Sorkin is the master. But tell me who you like.

10. A script that pays attention to supporting characters.

I love a screenplay where colorful supporting characters pop up from time to time. Unfortunately, when a film or series is edited, these smaller roles are in mortal jeopardy unless they are relevant to the plot. Take a look at some of Ron Shelton’s work (Bull Durham, for example). I love the vivid supporting characters Ron always creates to populate his stories.

Thanks for playing Ken’s Top 10. Please tell me what you love to see in a script.

Read more of Ken’s Top 10 lists here.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado

Ken’s Top 10: Annoying Things I See In Scripts

by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

I’ve been a production executive and producer for several decades, so needless to say I’ve read a lot of scripts. Despite the mileage, I like to pride myself on having never succumbed to cynicism; I know that screenwriting is a tough job and anyone who can get the job done has my sincere admiration.

That said, I have my cranky side, and there are a handful of things I’m just tired of seeing when I read a script. I’m not just talking about bad dialogue or unclear actions and descriptions, most of which I chalk up to… let’s call it “unprofessionalism.”  No, I’m talking about the bad habits, tropes, and clichés that I see often enough for it to drive me nuts.

I’m sure you have your list, but without further delay here’s mine:

1. A female lead described as “beautiful, but doesn’t know it.”

I’ve met some beautiful women in my life. Trust me, they all know it. I’m sure this goes hand in hand with why we see so many film and television romances where the pretty gal falls for the “schlub.” Think about who’s usually doing the writing and do the math.

2. A male lead described as “struggling with inner demons.”

For some reason this character is always sitting alone at the bar, nursing a drink. My hunch is that some writers believe this makes their character sound “deep.” But to me it sounds like the only actor who is right for the role will be Mickey Rourke.

3. A screenwriter who loves the sound of his or her own voice.

Usually this manifests in dialogue that goes on and on and on. Even if the dialogue is good, I always find it a little self-indulgent. I’m talking about you, Quentin Tarantino.

4. Too much description of a character’s inner state of mind.

This is a corollary to #2, above. A little is okay, but it’s usually a sign of lazy writing. If you like to describe your characters’ inner life, such as “struggling with inner demons,” please consider writing a novel instead.

5. Characters who are not introduced or established properly.

This is mostly a rookie mistake but I see it so often I’m starting to worry I’m reading too many rookie scripts. There are rules for establishing characters for the first time in a screenplay and for establishing their presences in scenes. Learn them.

6. Characters with similar-sounding names.

This is a pretty well-known piece of advice. Kevin, Kent, and Ken don’t belong in the same script, unless it’s supposed to be a gag that we can’t tell one from the other.

7. Female characters who have a boy’s nickname.

Okay, admittedly this one is kind of petty, but you’d be amazed how often I see Samantha called “Sam,” Louise called “Lou,” and Josephine called “Jo.” It’s just trite.

8. Working-class characters who are portrayed with wildly unrealistic lifestyles.

Really, enough is enough. Unless you’re writing a script about Rupert Murdoch, please stop portraying characters who can actually earn a living in publishing. Also, characters who can afford to live in a loft or brownstone in New York City are more properly referred to as “the one-percent.”

9. Soundtrack suggestions.

Unless you’re writing a musical or a specific song is relevant to the plot, just don’t do it. And while it’s on my mind, don’t sent me your mix tape.

10. Too many suggested camera angles.

You can get away with a few if they are well-justified, but unless you are directing and financing the film yourself, be very judicious with their use. There are other ways of accomplishing the same thing without making your script read like a shot list.

Okay, so I’ve shown you mine. Please share your thoughts below.

Read more of Ken’s Top 10 lists here.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado

Ken’s Top 10: Tips for Choosing a Script Concept

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

“What should I write?”

It’s the first question every writer asks themselves before they embark on a new project. Very often the answer to this question starts with a flash of inspiration that leads to a story the writer “just has to tell.” And while I would never want to be the guy who throws cold water on that flame, I can tell you this is not always the best plan for someone who wants to be a working professional. Inspiration alone is just too unreliable a source, unless you’re not worried about paying the bills. There are plenty of other considerations, and here are my top ten. Of course, you need not act on every one of these tips. It’s kind of like The Ten Commandments: obey six out of the ten and you still might make it to heaven. (Or did I miss that day in Sunday School?)

1. Start with a list of your four or five best story ideas.

If you have only one idea, you’re not a writer. You’re a hobbyist. A list of ideas will be the pool you draw from before you decide what to write. Of course this begs the question, what qualifies as a story idea? There’s a lot of debate about this topic amongst professional writers and educators. But my suggestion is to write a compelling logline for each story idea as a pathway to figuring this out. LA Screenwriter has posted many articles on crafting a logline, and of course there’s The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-wrote with screenwriter Doug Eboch. Doug and I spend ten pages in our book describing how to craft a good logline – a good indication of how complex it can be. Ideally, a good logline will be high-concept — one that embodies both succinctness and commercial considerations. Even if your idea is not high-concept, you should be able to express it in a way that sounds compelling. If you can’t do this, toss the idea.

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2. Know your talent.

What are you best at writing? Comedy? Drama? There’s the old maxim, “Write what you know.” This doesn’t mean you can’t write a story set in space if you’ve never been an astronaut. Of course it’s possible to educate yourself about a topic. But here’s the better advice. No matter what the topic, try to bring some of your own knowledge and life perspective into your story. For example, George Lucas could have easily written Star Wars with Han Solo as the lead, and arguably that was the more obvious choice. But, having grown up in a small town, dreaming of a bigger life, Lucas chose Luke Skywalker for the lead, and that choice was much more authentic. You might think this advice is obvious, but you’d be amazed how many scripts I read where the writer seems to have no affinity for the topic or characters they are writing about. This is especially true for younger writers, where a lack of life experience can be a huge handicap.

3. Observe the marketplace.

Look at the films and television shows that are getting made and doing well, and use that as a barometer for what to choose. That’s the business you’re in. I’m not saying you should only write superhero movies, and in some ways doing so could be exactly the wrong choice. But you need to be able to justify how your story will fit into the current marketplace. I promise you that everyone in a position to produce your script will be concerned about this.

Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) likes to say that the story you choose is like a Venn diagram. And the intersection of “what you love,” “what you can write,” and “what you can sell” is the sweet spot you’re looking for. Paul’s a smart guy. Listen to him.

4. Look for existing intellectual property, or something in the public domain.

There’s no requirement that script you write must be original. And if you’re not good at coming up with your own ideas, consider acquiring the rights to something you love and think is viable. This might be a novel, short story, comic book, or something else. Or you can find a famous story or character in the public domain and rework it into something fresh. This latter suggestion can be a great way to access something well-known for free. Here’s a great list of stories in the public domain.

5. Think like a producer.

Yes, for some of you this means losing some IQ points, but I’m sure you have a few to spare. Thinking like a producer means considering all the facets a buyer or financier will consider when it comes time to write a check. These facets include casting, locations, budget, setting, international appeal, and so on. So your epic tale about an Inuit boy growing up in 1920s Alaska probably fails this test.

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6. Think of a good title.

Some writers start with a good title and develop a story from there. This is not required, but a good, memorable title can be helpful in marketing your project. A good title tends to be either provocative, descriptive or echo/amplify some aspect of the core concept of your story. Oblique titles are not ideal. The last thing you want is an exchange like this:

Development Executive: “I read a great script over the weekend.”

Producer: “Yeah? What was it called?”

Development Executive: “Um, I forget.”

Be memorable.

7. Test market your ideas.

Always run your story ideas by your trusted friends and representatives. I know a lot of writers hate to do this, most likely because they love their ideas and don’t want someone like me telling them, “Hmmm, I don’t know….” You should fight this impulse. First, you’re not required to take the advice you get, and even if you don’t you might glean some insight. Second, the last thing your agent wants is for you to drop a completed script on their desk that they have no idea how to sell.

As for what to test market, see #1 above about learning how to craft a great logline.

8. Develop with a producer.

Related to #7 above, consider testing your ideas with the goal of developing your new script with a good producer in the mix. Of course, this assumes you know a good producer, but there are a few good reasons to find the right one. First, instead of just having a sounding board for your initial story idea, you will have someone professional to consult with all along the way. Second, when it comes time to get your script into the marketplace and produced, well, you already have someone who is vested and who will help.

One note: Before you head down this path, make sure you have an understanding between you and your producer about the nature of the working relationship. Your business relationship on the project can last years, so always consult your entertainment attorney about the content of this understanding.

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9. Learn to recognize genuine enthusiasm in others.

When you float your list of potential story ideas, learn to tell the difference between polite encouragement and genuine enthusiasm. Most of the people you enlist to help evaluate your ideas will be inclined to be polite and supportive. This does you little good if the goal is to write a killer script. What you want to see is real enthusiasm for your ideas. Believe me, when you see it, you will know.

10. Follow your passion.

At the end of the day, you must love what you write, if only to finish the damn thing. As screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama) says, “If you choose an idea you are passionate about, you will throw your heart and soul into writing it – and that means you will be most likely to do your best work.” This advice is not intended to negate the nine tips that preceded it. In fact, if you can cover some of these other bases, it’s possible it will fuel your passion for your own ideas. After all, it’s not just about the passion you feel for writing it, but also the passion you will feel when you sell your script and get it made. That’s the goal, right?

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado. LA Screenwriter readers can get 30% off The Hollywood Pitching Bible by buying here with coupon code ATWAMKK4

Ken’s Top 10: Film Industry Networking Tips

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by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

Networking – it’s a mystery. Or at least it seems to be, based on the number of times I’m asked about the topic. This might be a reflection of how impenetrable the process seems to the uninitiated, or it might just be a proxy for how hard it is to break into the entertainment industry. After all, showbiz is famously about “who you know,” and networking is one of the ways you get to know them.

In any case, I have found that the people who ask me about networking tend to fall into one of two categories (or both). The first kind of person is one for whom the social customs of showbiz just seem to be a great unknown. This is totally rational. If you’re new to the biz, why would you know it? The second kind of person is one for whom any social setting is cause for panic. Some people are just shy or uncomfortable in groups of people that number more than two. Most of my tips below are advice for the former kind of person, but it’s possible it might also help with the latter kind, if only as a confidence-builder. I hope so.

First of all, let’s make one thing very clear. Networking is not about selling your script, or getting an agent, or making deals. Yes, it’s about these things – eventually. But the main goal of networking is to meet people and form long term relationships. The sooner you understand this, the sooner your goals will seem more attainable. Here are my top ten film industry networking tips:

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1. Know Where to Go

Look for social settings that attract the kinds of industry people you want to meet. Film festivals, screenings, seminars, and various film or TV events are all obvious destinations. Night clubs, not so much. Of course you’re looking for events where established entertainment professionals mingle and are accessible. So, for example, a screening or panel event may not be ideal, unless it’s followed by a reception. One avenue people often forget about is working for, or helping organize, events or festivals. If you can find your way into working for a top event, you can often form relationships with significant people in a work setting, and that’s a great way to bond with them.

2. Know Why You’re There

Networking is work. You’re not there to party. You’re there to make new contacts. In general, networking events are not ideal places to bring a date or a spouse, especially if your date or spouse does not have the same career goals as you. You don’t bring a date to work, do you? If you do decide to bring an accomplice, have a prearranged understanding with them that allows you to “work the room” solo, meeting up at a later time. Everyone has a cell phone so this is easy to coordinate. Lastly, dress appropriately for the event, and don’t get drunk.

3. Know How to Set Goals

Set realistic goals. Think about who you hope to meet. Get lists of attendees in advance, if available, and know who they are. Who or what kind of person do you want to meet? Remember, you don’t have to meet everyone. If you get to know one or two significant people at an event, that’s a good day. You are not in the volume business. Play the long game.

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4. Know How to Approach Someone

Unless you’re a stalker, rules of etiquette apply. If the person of interest is talking to someone else, wait patiently for an opening and don’t interrupt. When the person you want to meet is available, ask if you may speak to them. If they say yes, introduce yourself politely and briefly. Tell them your name and what you do. “I’m a film student at USC,” or “I’m a filmmaker who just completed their first feature,” or “I’m a screenwriter” is enough. Do not tell them your life story and don’t pretend you are their best friend. Know what you’re going to say before you approach them. Which brings me to the next tip…

5. Know Something

Be knowledgeable about industry news and who’s who. Know about movies and television. Be interesting. Have a point of view, but stay away from politics and religion. Be an expert in the field you want to pursue. Lastly, be prepared for the question, “So, what are you working on?”

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6. Know What Not to Ask

Do not ask the people you meet to read your script or look at your film, and do not hand them a resume. In fact, don’t bring any of those things to events, unless it’s required by the event itself. Don’t ask for any favors when you first meet someone.

7. Know How to Ask for Help

Instead of asking for favors, here’s a trick: The best strategy is to ask for “advice.” So, for example, “Can you offer any advice about how I can get people to read my script?” is better than “Can you read my script?” If you master this approach, you will be amazed how well it works and the doors it might open.

8. Know When to Move On

Read the signals and know when it’s time to say thanks and goodbye. Ask the person you’re talking to if you can write to them with a follow up question or two. Most people will say yes, even if they have no intention of replying. If they say yes, ask for their business card or email address. You can give them your card too, but always ask first. Networking events are not an excuse to hand everyone you meet a business card.

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9. Know How to Follow Up

Follow up with the people you meet. Send them a “thank you” or “nice to meet you” note. Don’t overwhelm them with emails, questions, jokes, or anything, um, inappropriate. Friend them on Facebook or Linkedin. Let the relationship take its natural path. If the relationship takes hold, ask to meet with them in their office or for a cup of coffee at some later date. Bingo, you now have a new contact in the entertainment industry.

10. Know How to Relax

Networking can be stressful for some, especially if you are the second kind of person I mentioned in my introduction. If I’m describing you, the only advice I can offer is to remember that you’re trying to do something you love. Focus on your passion for your craft and the rest will come.

~

Ken Aguado is a producer and co-author, along with Douglas Eboch, of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Ken @kaguado. LA Screenwriter readers can get 30% off The Hollywood Pitching Bible by buying here with coupon code ATWAMKK4

5 Tips for Writing Documentaries and Non-Fiction Programming

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

by Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

There’s an entire universe of media that’s sometimes overlooked by aspiring screenwriters: writing for documentary films and non-fiction television programming. We’re living in the golden age of documentaries, and there’s never been more opportunity. Every year there are dozens of terrific documentaries released and hundreds of hours of non-fiction television programming – everything from Ancient Aliens to American Masters. Many of the narrative skills for traditional screenwriting are also applicable when writing non-fiction. Storytelling is storytelling. But there are some fundamental differences in approach.

The major difference between the two kinds of writing is that most documentary writing is performed after some or most of the film has been shot. So essentially, it’s the reverse of writing fiction for film and television. Instead, the documentary screenwriter considers a topic, evaluates the available media on that topic, and then conforms “reality” and “facts” into something contained, comprehensible, and satisfying – three things that facts and reality typically lack.

Here are some general steps to consider when writing documentaries.

1. Know your scope.

What kind of project are you making? Is it a five-minute short, a two-hour film, a ten-hour series like Making a Murderer, or something else? Most documentary productions will have some notion of what they intend from the start, but not always. If you already have distribution, it’s usually prescribed in the delivery requirements, down to the second. For example, a one-hour documentary broadcast on PBS requires a total runtime of 56:46. A one-hour episode of a documentary series on A&E runs 42:54. And so on.

But if distribution is not set, there might be some decisions to make about the final scope of the project, based on the breadth of the subject matter, how much source material is available or actually shot, and the best distribution opportunities in the marketplace. If the final film is for festival distribution, be aware that most festivals define “short” versus “feature” very specifically – often over/under 45 or 50 minutes. Most festivals prefer to program shorter documentaries, so keep that in mind.

2. Know your format.

If you’ve only ever written in Final Draft, the format of most documentary scripts will seem a little strange. Most documentary scripts will use a two to four column format with column headings along the lines of “clip/timecode,” “dialog/narration,” and “video/graphic.” The narrative is built by filling in the required information horizontally across each column then continuing down the page describing the next moment or scenes in the film. In other words, at any given moment in the film, the writer identifies the source material, what the audience hears, and what they will see, respectively. This provides a blueprint for the editor to cut it all together.

Keep in mind that many of the elements that appear in the script may not yet exist, including narration, graphics, transitions, B-roll, and archival materials. In their script, the writer might even suggest what additional materials should be shot so as to create a coherent and compelling narrative.

A sample script page from Ken Aguado's recent documentary, Miracle on 42nd Street.
A sample script page from Ken Aguado’s recent documentary, Miracle on 42nd Street.

3. Know your arc.

It’s rare that reality presents itself in an organized way, so it’s the job of the documentary writer to find it. Documentary writing is all about finding the “story” in the “reality.” In the early stages, the most you can hope for is a sense of the dramatic arc – beginning, middle, and end. Or, if you prefer, act one, two and three.

Keep in mind, if you’re doing a project with a long, serialized story like The Jinx, this arc might run many hours. Alternately, if you were writing a non-fiction series like How it’s Made, each episode is really its own stand-alone, 21-minute short . Once the overall “shape” of the narrative makes sense, the writer can drill down into specifics.

4. Know your point of view.

This is where things start to get tricky, because it’s where the writer must convert people, facts, and actions into things like “characters,” “conflicts,” and “order.” Who or what will we be following in the story? Of course, to some degree, the point of view might be baked into what’s been shot. For example, if you were writing an episode of Deadliest Catch, you might have limited narrative options because all the available media follows the crew of crab fishermen.

The reason point of view is tricky is because inherent in point of view is the bias of the filmmakers. Bias is natural, and perhaps we are most biased when we don’t acknowledge our own biases. But you’re making choices. For example, if you’re telling a story about the lead contamination of the Flint, Michigan water supply, are you telling the story of a victim, the city’s provisional emergency managers, the state governor who appointed them, all of these, or something else? You get a very different story depending on the point of view. If you’re making the wonderful series Planet Earth or the film March of the Penguins, the narrative bias might be no more than a subtle pro-ecology message. Or, you could be Michael Moore, whose films have an activist agenda.

In any case, point of view is inherent in all filmmaking, either by accident or on purpose. The first real act of documentary writing will be sifting through a sea of facts and then deciding on some mix of the following: Who (or what) we are following, what journey they’re on, what stands in the way of that journey, and what it really means. This applies even when the topic is something relatively straightforward and chronological, such as Ken Burn’s The Civil War or The Vietnam War. Burns will be the first to tell you, it’s all about storytelling (meaning creating a narrative) and it’s all about choices – what you show and what you leave out. (So, I will forgive Burns for not including more Django Reinhardt in his amazing series, Jazz.)

5. Know your style.

This last aspect of non-fiction writing I call “style,” although that’s kind of a catch-all term. By style I mean what devices or artifice will be used in the telling of the story. It could be many things: animation, graphics, narration, structural tricks, section breaks, timeline shifts, split screen, slow motion, fast motion, dramatic reenactments, recurring visual motifs, and so on. Each of these stylistic choices might be delineated by the screenwriter in the script. While most fictional, narrative films make more-limited use of these stylistic elements, many documentaries embrace their use throughout, depending on the subject matter. Ideally, the writer’s narrative decisions will determine many of these choices. For example, dramatic reenactment is unlikely to be used in a documentary unless you’re portraying something “historical” in nature, right? But who knows, maybe you’ll be the first.

~

Ken Aguado is a studio executive, producer and author.  His producer credits include The Salton Sea, (Warner Bros.), Sexual Life (Showtime).  His most recent films are the documentary Miracle on 42nd Street (2017) and An Interview with God (2018), which he also wrote. Ken is also the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, now in it’s 3rd Edition. 

How to Get an Agent – Part Three

by Douglas Eboch (@dougeboch) & Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

In part one and part two of this series, we discussed what the various talent representatives (agents, managers, and lawyers) do, and what you must do to attain representation. In this final piece, we’ll discuss how you can work your way into the industry in order to get noticed and land representation.

Part Three – Alternate Paths to Representation

Get an Entry-Level Job in the Biz

Very few people get to start their careers in their dream job, no matter what business they’re in. And this is certainly true in entertainment. You may have to take an entry-level job to get established and work your way up. These jobs can teach you about the business and give you access to the people who will ultimately help you find representation in your chosen field. And while working your way up, you may discover your natural talent (and opportunities) actually lie in some other job you didn’t anticipate. You may really be a great editor, sound mixer, development executive, or production manager at heart. Keep an open mind and always work hard and do your best. You won’t impress people if you act like you’re too good for the job you have.

For writers, working in development can help you make contacts and teach you a lot about writing. Many professional screenwriters got their first industry job as professional script readers. Ken Aguado, the co-author of this article, started out as a script reader. Doug Eboch, the other author, did script coverage as part of an internship.

Use the Platforms You Have Available to You

The media landscape today for aspiring filmmakers is now truly vast. It encompasses not just film and television, but streaming short-form, unscripted media like reality programming and non-fiction programming, web-series, documentaries, sports programming, news programming, mobile programming, gaming, and so on. Also, virtual reality and augmented reality programming are on the horizon and may soon be viable careers. Whenever there is disruption in the media landscape as we are experiencing now, there are always new opportunities for emerging filmmakers to get their foot in the door— if you know where to look.

Enter Contests and Apply for Mentorships/Fellowships

For filmmakers, there are a few other paths to getting attention for your work. For example, there are dozens of mentorship programs and filmmaking workshops. Many of these programs are sponsored by the various guilds and are specifically intended to develop new talent. Some are sponsored by studios and networks. Some of these programs are specifically aimed at providing opportunities for minorities and women, but most are not. In any case, most of these programs are highly competitive, so demonstrating real talent in your desired field is still a necessity, as we discussed earlier.

If you want to be a screenwriter, you can enter screenwriting contests. Placing in one of the top contests can help get your work noticed and talent validated. Most of the finalists in the Nicholl Fellowship contest get offers of representation. Just be aware that there are only a handful of these contests that matter. Many others will just separate you from your application fee with little upside if you win. Good in a Room has a list of some of the best ones. But be prepared. Know what is getting made and read those scripts. LA Screenwriter offers a truly vast selection of produced film and TV scripts you can read.

There are also director’s labs offered by organizations like Sundance and Film Independent that can help young filmmakers get their first or second feature off the ground.

If the goal is to develop your portfolio, there are numerous grants available from foundations, governments, and other organizations. Many of these grants range from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands of dollars. Just be aware that many grants come with very specific requirements related to subject matter and who can apply. Check out Film Daily for a comprehensive list.

Enter Festivals

For directors, entering film festivals may give you some indication of where your work stands, and getting into a good one can give your work some credibility. There are literally hundreds of film festivals around the world, some quite specialized. For a good list and to apply, try Without a Box and Film Freeway.

The Best Paths for TV Writers

Most aspiring television writers enter the business today through one of two ways. The first is becoming a writers’ assistant. Being the assistant who sits in the writers’ room and takes notes educates you on the way television shows get written and gives you tons of access to the writing staff. But being the assistant to a showrunner or even an office PA can also give you access. And if you do a good job and impress the writers with your hard work and intelligence, they will likely offer to read your work and possibly refer you to their representatives.

The second way into television writing is through the fellowship programs offered by many of the studios and broadcast networks. These are designed to match talented aspiring writers with entry-level writing jobs. If you get into one of these programs, it is likely television literary agents will want to read your work.

What It Takes to Succeed as a Writer or Director

Many directors get their initial directing opportunity by proving themselves in another area first. Sometimes they’ve been very successful writers or cinematographers, assistant directors, or producers who have leveraged their success to move into the director’s chair. For example, a writer many have written an excellent screenplay and attached themselves to direct it. Many actors have moved into directing using their contacts and favors to help them succeed at this rare and critical opportunity.

Other directors have worked their way into Hollywood feature or television gigs by creating an impressive body of independent directing work. Very often this means directing at least one feature film. Few directors are able to break into the feature film business if they’ve directed only a couple of short films, a music video, or a spec commercial. But it’s not impossible. Sometimes a collective body of short-form work (perhaps a large body of commercial work) can be enough if it consistently demonstrates a mastery of things like narrative, tone, technical skills, acting, and other less tangible qualities, such as commercial intent.

If you want to be a writer, you will probably need at least two great screenplays of the same genre under your belt. And it might take you several attempts to master the skills or learn where the sweet spot is for your talent. If you plan to seek representation, all the more reason to make sure you’ve done a variety of work and made it the best it can be. “Breaking” a new writer is a lot of work for an agent or manager, and your first deal is usually pretty small. Representatives want clients that will have a long-term career, not one-hit wonders.

And here’s the kicker — after you get representation, you will still have to produce great material and network. So really, stop worrying about how you get an agent or manager and just start building your career.

If you make your own success, the agents, managers, and—more importantly, a career—will come to you.

~

Screenwriter Douglas Eboch and producer Ken Aguado are the co-authors of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Doug @dougeboch and Ken @kaguado.

How to Get an Agent – Part Two

by Douglas Eboch (@dougeboch) & Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

In part one of this article, we summarized what the various representatives do in Hollywood. Now let’s get back to our original question: “How do I get an agent?” As we said last time, this is actually a placeholder for the real question: “How do I get work?”

The short answer is: do great work. Not just good work, great work.

So problem solved, right? Okay, maybe not, but the point is this: if you want to get work as an artist in the entertainment business, no one will hire you unless you’ve already demonstrated substantial skills in your field. For aspiring directors, this means directing an impressive piece of filmmaking. For aspiring writers, it means writing fantastic spec screenplays. And so on.

Moreover, if you’re looking to get a job based on this sample media “résumé” you’ve created, the work you create must not only be great but should also reflect the “commercial” values of the kind of work you hope to get paid to do.

If you’re trying to get representation, there’s another layer of complication. This is because, with the exception of lawyers, most representatives only get paid if their client gets paid. This means they will only take on clients who can either make them money now or have a significant possibility of doing so in the very near future. So, if you’ve never made a dime in your desired profession, maybe you can see the problem.

Part Two – Breaking In

The truth is, most aspiring filmmakers do not yet have representation because their work is not yet of high enough quality to attract representation. And it’s not just fledgling artists that are seeking representation. Many established artists are looking for agents (and work) as well, so new artists are competing with many seasoned pros. All the more reason you must make sure your work stands out from the pack.

We know what the follow up question will be: “How do you know when your work is good enough? What is good?”

We cover this topic in detail in our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, but the short answer is this: learn your craft, practice your craft, and accept that every artist loses perspective about his or her own work, so you must seek out honest feedback about your work from trusted friends. Understand that your first attempts are not likely to be of professional quality. It takes time and practice to master something as difficult as filmmaking. And lastly, never market your work until your work is the best it can be.

You’re Great. Now What?

So, let’s say you’re a writer with many terrific scripts or a director with a great film or killer reel. What do you do next?

Well, as we’ve said, the real goal is to work, right? If you were able to pull it together to actually direct a film, you probably had to convince someone your project had merit, even if your family or friends financed the film. That’s a start.

Let’s lay out a few strategies for cracking the business.

Greetings from Hollywood!

If your goal is to be part of the mainstream entertainment industry, your first step should be moving to Los Angeles or New York. That’s where 90% of the business lives and works. Some initial contacts can be made by long-distance phone call, e-mail, or snail mail, but that will only take you so far. There are pockets of active production elsewhere in North America—in places like Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Toronto, and Vancouver—but most of the creative decisions on those productions are made in NY or LA.

Querying

If you’re looking for an agent, both the DGA and WGA websites have lists of signatory agencies. These are not lists of every agency out there, but rather lists of the ones that have agreed to abide by certain practices. The problem is that most top agencies will not accept unsolicited submissions. This means you will get your script or reel back with a polite but unambiguous form letter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

There are some agencies that will accept unsolicited submissions, usually after you send a query letter or email describing your qualifications and what you intend to submit. We have seen lists of these agencies online — in fact the WGA website includes such a list — but often the lists are wildly inaccurate, out of date, or contain agencies we’ve never heard of.

Conversely, there may be agencies out there that aren’t on the list that would still look at your work. The only way to be sure is to start making calls. Agencies get these calls a hundred times a day, and the person who answers the phone will answer the question in thirty seconds. If they do accept unsolicited materials, sometimes they will require you to sign a release form before they consider your work. But this cold-call route to representation is the hardest way to go. Very, very few artists get an agent this way.

It’s Who You Know

The truth is that almost all filmmakers (even working ones) get representation as a result of a referral from a current client of the agent or manager, another representative (e.g. your attorney or manager refers you to an agent), a producer, an executive, or some other established member of the entertainment community.

So if you think you need an agent to get your work to producers, you’re thinking of it backwards. You might need a producer to get your work to an agent!

But be aware that even with these kinds of referrals, it is still very hard to get representation. This is because the entertainment industry has changed oved the past twenty years, and most top agencies will only agree to represent artists they consider “bookable”—the ones production companies are eager to hire.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. You shouldn’t assume that getting an agent is your only, or even best, strategy for getting started in showbiz. And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you will get a job. Plenty of established artists with agents can’t get a job.

Your Other Options – Managers, Producers, and Lawyers

Yes, we know we said that agents are the only kind of representative legally empowered to seek work for the clients. But we also said there is some overlap with other forms of representation. The reality is that, for many artists, a manager will end up performing many of the same duties as an agent. And because managers can also produce their client’s work, there is added incentive for them to seek out new clients. But managers aren’t the only ones who can produce. You know who else can produce? That’s right — producers. Managers and producers are usually more receptive to discovering new talent that comes their way through other means.

And don’t forget about lawyers. The truth is that an attorney is very often the very first representation an artist will have. Why? Because you can always get an entertainment attorney to represent you— if you pay them. And, not surprisingly, most entertainment attorneys know many agents and managers. But don’t wait for your first deal to come along before finding a good lawyer. Make it one of your goals to connect with one as soon as possible, before you need their services.

This is known as networking. But good networking doesn’t mean cornering a lawyer or producer at a party and assaulting him or her with your “elevator pitch.” It means getting involved in the business and meeting other people with similar interests and aspirations. People who will support you, look at your work, and when they see something great, tell others about it.

This is why doing exceptional work is so important. Perhaps you’ve heard the maxim, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your front door”? The same is true in showbiz, which is why it is crucial that you’ve taken the time and effort to create the best work possible. When people in the industry see truly great work, they are excited to pass it on. After all, they are all anxious to get credit for helping to discover the next big thing!

In part three (coming next Friday), we will talk about alternate routes into the business and how to get noticed.

~

Screenwriter Douglas Eboch and producer Ken Aguado are the co-authors of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Doug @dougeboch and Ken @kaguado.

How to Get an Agent – Part One

by Douglas Eboch (@dougeboch) & Ken Aguado (@kaguado)

As established members of the entertainment community, we are frequently asked to speak to aspiring filmmakers. And with the success of our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the number of speaking invitations has greatly increased. We are now regularly invited to speak at numerous entertainment industry events, festivals, film schools and conferences.

No matter what the topic of the event, inevitably the dialogue with the audience veers onto our views about the industry in general and life in the biz. Overwhelmingly, there’s one question we get asked more than any other: “How do I get an agent?”

Often the question is asked with such intense interest that we sometimes wonder if the rest of our lecture has been “filler” for the audience who are just waiting to get to this topic. Because of the overwhelming concern with this question, we are presenting this in-depth, three-part article on the topic for the benefit of LA Screenwriter readers.

Part One – What Your Representatives Do

There is a common belief among aspiring filmmakers that getting an agent is the key to launching a successful career. And it’s not hard to see why — the primary role that agents play in Hollywood is the intermediary between artists (writer, directors, actors, etc.) and the people who can hire them (studios, networks, production companies, etc.). And because few aspiring filmmakers have deep contacts in showbiz, they want an agent to be their conduit to the people who can jump-start their careers and get them work.

So, when we get asked the question, “How do I get an agent,” we know that what the audience really wants to know is, “How do I get work or sell something in the biz?” Because it’s really one question masquerading as another, our answer is both more complicated and probably less satisfying than the asker hoped.

How do aspiring filmmakers get that first job in their chosen field? We will get to that. But the short answer is, you may not need an agent to work, nor does having an agent guarantee you will get work.

Who Are These Representatives?

Before we discuss getting representation, let’s regroup and make sure everyone knows the differences between the familiar Hollywood “representatives” — agents, managers, and lawyers — what they do, and how they earn a living. Notice that we put the word representatives in quotes. There’s a good reason for this that has nothing to do with us being smarmy.

What do agents, managers, and lawyers do in Hollywood? There is a lot of confusion on this topic, often due to the overlap in what these representatives actually do in the real world.

In California and New York (but not all states), agents are licensed, bonded, and allowed to solicit work on behalf of their clients. Managers and lawyers are not licensed to solicit work for their clients (although lawyers are licensed to practice law and regulated by the state bar associations where they practice). This is why we used quotation marks above when we described them all as representatives. While agents, managers and lawyers are all “representatives” in the colloquial sense, only agents are legally authorized to represent their clients to solicit work on their behalf.

So if they are not procuring work for their clients, what do managers and lawyers do? Managers are supposed to provide what can generally be described as career guidance for their clients. Lawyers provide legal advice, and negotiate and draft contracts for their clients.

What Do Representatives Charge?

For their services, agents charge 10% of their client’s income as their commission. This number is a maximum dictated by the state license. Managers for writers and directors are usually paid the same percentage (actors sometimes pay a 15% commission to their managers), though unlike agents there is no rule as to what a manager’s commission must be. Lawyers typically charge 5% or bill hourly. If you are just starting out, you can expect to be billed an hourly rate by most entertainment attorneys. While there’s no universal rate, many charge between $350 and $700 an hour, and very often it is money well spent. If you are going to discuss obtaining legal services from any attorney, be sure to ask up front what their services will cost. Their rates are sometimes negotiable.

Other Important Distinctions

Entertainment attorneys are specialists and you should never hire a non-entertainment attorney to represent you in showbiz matters. Beginners are often tempted to do so to save money. Doing so can leave you woefully unarmed in a negotiation and end up costing you much more in the long run.

Agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This is intended to prevent a conflict of interest. Their only job should be finding their clients work, and they are supposed to have the client’s best interests at heart.

Managers, being unregulated, have no such restrictions and many managers use this freedom to work as producers on their client’s work or can even produce projects without their client’s involvement. In fact, many management companies are also active production companies. Because they are allowed to perform this dual role, there has been a proliferation of management companies in the entertainment business over the past few decades. Many of these new managers are former agents.

Some managers will also help their clients develop their material, though this service varies from manager to manager. Most agents act primarily as salespeople and do not want to spend their time giving feedback on their clients’ work. But again, this depends on the individual agent’s preferences.

Now that you understand the division of services that the various representatives perform, you should know that, in practice, there is considerable overlap between all three jobs. Managers often do solicit work, agents often do give career guidance, and lawyers sometimes make project submissions and help their clients get work. Clients never complain about this overlap because, well, why would they? Clients just want to work. As a client, you’re probably best served by letting your representatives do these things, even if technically they’re not supposed to.

In part two of this series, we will discuss how you actually go about acquiring these representatives.

~

Screenwriter Douglas Eboch and producer Ken Aguado are the co-authors of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Follow Doug @dougeboch and Ken @kaguado.

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