The Mail I Get Rerun – I Don’t Want to Find You an Agent

Here’s a golden oldie from a few years back…

I got an email today from a guy who says he’s been writing scripts and entering competitions for the last five years, ever since he got his MFA from York Univeristy in Toronto.  He can’t get seem to get any “reputable agents” to read his work.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. So here is my very presumptuous request: I’d like to send you one of my scripts. Read it when you have a moment — even if its a year from now. If you like it good, you can refer me to your agent. If you don’t, no harm, no foul.

I assure you that it will NOT be a waste of your time.

I get this request, oh, about 80 times a month. It makes no sense to me.  So, to all eighty of you getting ready to write me the same email next month, here’s why it’s a dumb idea to ask me to read your script and refer it to my agent.

1) I’m a writer, I’m trying to market and sell my own work, not yours

2)  It’s not my job to screen potential clients for my agent.  Finding clients is his job. I like to think he works for me rather than the other way around.  Besides, I want him spending his time on the phone getting me work, not looking for new clients who will divert his full attention from me, me, me.  (That’s not to say I haven’t recommended clients to my agent… I have, many times. He’s even signed a few. But they were close friends of mine or people whom I’ve worked with and admire).

3)  I’m not a studio or network development executive. I don’t care if you’ve written a good script.  I’m not hiring writers. If I was, I’d hire myselfAri-Gold-in-Entourage

4)  When I am looking for writers to hire on staff or invite in to pitch for episodic TV assignments, I only read writing samples that come through agents. Why?  Well, we said it best in our book, “Successful Television Writing” —

You probably think that’s because we’re a close-knit group of elitist jerks who want to horde all the money and opportunities for ourselves, and agents are just one more gigantic obstacle
we’ve come up with to keep you out.

You’re right. Sort of. Agents are the first line of defense for us. They read through all the crap to find the very best people, the writers they can make a living on. And the only way an agent is going to make a living

The great thing about this system, for us, is that the agent has a real motivation to find the best writers out there, saving us the trouble. Because let’s face it, elitist jerks like us don’t want work any harder than we have to.

But agents do more than save us extra work. They also protect us. That doesn’t mean they’ll take a bullet for us or taste our food to make sure it isn’t poisoned. But they’ll make pretty sure we don’t get sued.

We’ll give you an example of what we’re talking about. Let’s say you sent us a script a month ago in which the hero of our show loses his memory. Then you turn on the TV this week, and
what do you see on our show? A story about the hero losing his memory. You’re going to think we stole it and sue our asses.There are a lot of similar themes in stories being developed all the time, and a television professional, will understand that. A professional will also understand that the development process is much longer than a month, and that our script was probably written long before yours showed up in the mail. And a professional will figure that we’ve probably been pitched fifty amnesia stories, because it’s a terrible cliche, right up there with evil doubles and the return of long-lost siblings, that’s eventually done on every show.

But without an agent representing you, and vouching for you, we have no assurance that you are, indeed, a professional.

Which leads me to my next point. 

5) I don’t want to read your script because I may be working on something similar.  I don’t want to get accused of stealing your ideas.

So no, don’t send me your script. Don’t try to send it to any other professional writer, either.  It’s a stupid idea.

Okay, so that’s what I told him. And here’s his response:

Your use of the word “professional” here implies that you regard me as an amateur.
Your used of the word “stupid” needs no comment. Well, it’s true that I’m not a professional
in the sense that I never got paid for my screenwriting up to now. However,
as I indicated in my (very polite) message to you, I have a long career
behind me as a journalist. I was hoping for a more mature response from you
on that basis alone — at least a response that does not belabor the obvious.

james-bond-secret-agent-007-black-&-white-silo_618697You’d think he would have put his journalism skills to use and a) read
my blog before emailing me and discovered  the many, many posts where I discuss the
pointlessness of sending your scripts and series ideas to me and b) he would have
researched the industry a bit and realized sending his script to a screenwriter was not the best way to find an agent or break into the business. He goes on to say:

Would you have been so patronizing if I had a name other than
Mohamed? Or if I was not a Canadian? Perhaps not. At any rate, your comments
are duly noted and I wish you continuing success with Diagnosis Murder
and whatever else it is that you do.

Ah yes, the last gasp of the desperate… the racism, sexism,  ageism, or xenophobia card. To be honest, I didn’t even notice his name or where he came from. I didn’t bother to read that part of his original email since I had absolutely no intention of contacting him about his screenplays. But you’ll notice that rather than learn from his mistake, and accept that his proposal  might have been wrong-headed, he has to flail around for some other, hidden reason that I won’t read his scripts. With an attitude like that, it’s not surprising to me he’s been entering his scripts into competitions for five years instead of selling them.

The Mail I Get – Career Advice Edition

question-markI get lots and lots of questions asking for career advice from readers. Here are a few that came in recently.

Q: Wanted to ping you for some advice, if you don’t mind.  I think I’m ready to live by my pen/keyboard starting this summer. My house is already paid off, I’ll have about a year’s worth of savings in the bank, and I’ve figured out the costs of healthcare and retirement already. This is a new world for me, as I’ve been in a stable job in corporate America for the least 22 years, so it’s a big jump and one that I’m excited about but also nervous as well. I’d like to make sure I understand all the pro’s and con’s to be sure my exit plan from Intel is solid. From your perspective, what are the risks/benefits and if you were about to make a decision like this, what are some of the things you’d want to have in place prior?”

I’ve been doing this my whole life… so I am probably the wrong guy to ask for transitional advice.  The pros and cons are basically that you have to be entirely self-motivated and relentless about generating work & opportunities for yourself. You have no boss to drive you…and no company’s resources to back you up. It’s your own time and money. You’ll need to surround yourself with top professionals … lawyers, accountants, agents, copyeditors, etc…. that you can trust to handle your business affairs. And you will have to be a harsh task master on yourself to keep churning out material and drumming up new business. Don’t expect to succeed overnight. It’s going to take a while.Get Answers Button

Q: Since you’re a Tv producer cant you view my Tv show script and break it into the Tv biz? I mean I’m just carious.”

No, I can’t.

Q: I’m 42 years old and live in NYC.  Because of some personal issues I dealt with in my twenties and thirties, I’m a late bloomer. […] I would appreciate it if you could give me some straight talk about whether or not I am too old to consider a career in TV writing. I work as a copywriter, and I understand the next step is to work hard on specs for my portfolio. However, if the opportunity has passed because of my age, I would rather let go and focus on something else.”

Age has nothing to do with it if you write an incredible, kick-ass spec screenplay and episodic sample. But I would be deceiving you if I said ageism isn’t a issue in TV. The networks and studios do favor the young, so if you’re good, but not great, your age will knock you out of the running. But if the development execs love your scripts, they will look past a few gray hairs.

The Lost Ella Clah Pilot

Ella Clah cover
The cover for “Aimee & David Thurlo’s Ella Clah: The Pilot Script.” The paperback, nook and kobo editions will be available soon.

Aimee & David Thurlo‘s Ella Clah, a Navajo Police special investigator, is one of the most enduring and popular characters in detective fiction today. Ella’s dedicated fans have long dreamed of the bestselling, critically acclaimed series coming to television…and it almost happened.

In 2001, CBS commissioned a pilot script, a sample episode of a proposed series, from William Rabkin and yours truly. Sadly, the Ella Clah pilot ultimately wasn’t produced, but ever since, the script has been hotly sought-after by fans. So we decided that it was time, at long last, to make that rare pilot script available to fans… along with the original sales treatment, six episode ideas, a foreword by the Thurlos, and a detailed account from Bill and me about how we approach our adaptation and what our plans were for the TV series. The book is called Aimee & David Thurlo’s Ella Clah: The Pilot Script and is now available on Kindle and Kobo (Paperback and Nook editions are coming soon) Here’s an excerpt from our introduction…

It was the end of the 2000-2001 TV season. CSI had become an unexpected hit on CBS. Every network was suddenly looking for a new spin on the traditional cop show and we thought we had one in Aimée & David Thurlo’s Ella Clah novels…but we’d have to make some big changes to pull it off.

In the books, Ella is an ex-FBI agent working as a special investigator in the Navajo nation’s police force. It was a character, and a world, that we hadn’t seen on television before. And we knew we never would. That’s because the concept had three big strikes against it: the setting was rural, the stories were all about Native Americans, and the lead was a woman. Remember, this was twelve years before Justified and Longmire, both of which are on networks that had yet to produce an episodic drama series, and there hadn’t been a hit, female-lead cop show since Cagney & Lacey.

Despite those major drawbacks, we believed there had to be a way we could make Ella Clah work within the current television landscape. So we went back to the books and analyzed what the key elements were that attracted us to them. And, not surprisingly, it came down to Ella herself, a woman torn between two different cultures; mainstream America and the Navajo nation…

To find out more, you’ll have to read the book. We hope it’s an exciting story for Ella Clah fans and aspiring TV screenwriters alike…and a cool peek behind-the-scenes of network television.

Screenwriting Yoda Shares his Wisdom

Screenwriting Professor Richard Walter
Screenwriting Professor Richard Walter

It’s easier to win admission to the Harvard Medical School than a seat in Professor Walter’s legendary screenwriting seminars at UCLA

Richard Walter was my screenwriting professor at UCLA…and, in large part thanks to what I learned from him, I’ve had a long and successful career as a TV writer/producer and screenwriter. His former students have taken Hollywood by storm…just in the last four years, graduates of his seminars have won three Oscars and five Oscar nominations and have written ten movies for Steven Spielberg. Now, for the first time, he’s opening his acclaimed class to non-UCLA students for a special session June 24-Aug 2nd. Enrollment is limited…so sign up fast.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to corner Richard and get some of his insights into the bevy of “screenwriting gurus” out there, the state of movie & TV biz, and how the craft of screenwriting has changed in the last few years.

LEE: What can aspiring writers get from your class that they can’t get from the myriad of script gurus teaching courses out there?

RICHARD WALTER: For openers, this is an advanced screenwriting seminar at the UCLA film school – not a private for-profit weekend lecture—that is available both to UCLA and non-UCLA students alike. All students receive 8 college credits. It’s not a one-shot but an on-going six-week series of workshops light on lectures and heavy on in-class writing challenges and analysis of in-progress student pages. It is very much a hands-on writing seminar.

LEE: What will they gain from this class that they can’t derive from the 10,000 screenwriting books out there (including your own)?

RW: It’s a chance to put the principles from those 10,000 screenwriting books (including my own) into use, to try them out in the context of creating a dramatic narrative under the guidance of, well, me. The course is not about books about writing, nor is it even about writing; it is writing.

LEE: How should an aspiring writer judge the “merits” of a screenwriting teacher/guru/consultant. How do you find the “real” ones from the “hucksters?”

RW: Ask around, and ask for references. It can’t be about the marketing–only the writing. Run as fast as you can from anyone who even merely suggests that there’s a good chance after working with him that the writer will win representation and the script will sell.  There are truly excellent consultants available and affordable, and it’s becoming increasingly routine (and in my opinion also smart) to work with a consultant who can ask the hard questions before the studio asks them. One of the most damaging and common mistakes writers make is to show their scripts too soon, before they’re truly ready. I regularly refer writers to worthy consultants.

 LEE: Are Hollywood “pitchfests” useful or a swindle that takes advantage of aspiring writers?

RW: Swindle is a strong word. I’ll only say it’s not called screen-talking.

I’m sure it’s possible to make some connections and get a script considered, but the person doing the considering is likely not authorized to green-light any thing.  He can only pitch it to his bosses. What writer wants someone else pitching his story? The pitcher will likely blow it. “Oh yeah, and there’s something about an iceberg.” Consider also that writers have far greater control over a movie that starts as a spec script compared to one from a pitch.

LEE: How has the screenwriting business changed?

RW: There has never been a greater time to engage the screenwriting racket. When I came to town forty years ago there were seven studios and three broadcast networks. All of those are now toast. The action is in cable and the web, and it’s soaring. This is not the future; it is now. When does anyone see in a theater anything a thousandth as brilliant as a Homeland episode or one from Breaking Bad? This is the golden age of television, except it’s not television. There are exponentially more buyers now operating out of ever-growing companies. There is more product than ever, which means more opportunities for writers (also actors, directors, editors, cinematographers) and expanded offerings for consumers to choose. What’s not to like?

Also, at cable and the web, the producers are the writers and vice versa. They control. In those formats it is not the writer but the director who is “for hire.” There, the writer is the boss, as well she should be.

LEE: Are development executives looking for different things from a script than they were five or ten years ago? Do audiences have different expectations of stories and characters these days?

RW: No, and no. Narrative is narrative. It’s all about story. All audiences care about throughout the millennia is story. Make your screenplay tell a compelling story. Demonstrate in every script your strength as a storytellers

LEE: Are the principles you’re teaching applicable to TV as well as film? What if someone is more interested in writing a spec pilot than a spec feature?

RW: The principles apply to all dramatic narratives, including opera librettos and novels. The only difference between a spec pilot and a spec feature is that the latter is longer.

LEE: Is TV easier to break into than film? Or is it the other way around? And if so, why?

RW: The other way around. Why would anybody want to break into film? Film is in the midst of an unspeakable, smothering war against originality.

LEE:  Are studios and networks relying more on “proven” writers than newbies?

RW: Every experienced, established, successful, adored, wealthy writer without exception was once a newbie. Newbies should take heart in knowing that they are in great company

For further information on Professor Richard Walter’s Summer Class at UCLA visit:

To enroll and register students can visit:

To contact the UCLA Registrar’s office for summer classes directly, call (310) 825-4101.

If you have additional questions about Professor Walter’s class, please contact his media manager at or 678.644.4122.