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 Rerun – Stop Looking for a Short Cut

Here’s a golden oldie from yesteryear’s mailbag..

I received a polite email from a guy on the East Coast who says he has a great idea for an episodic legal drama:

Though I spend a great deal of my time developing and
selling creative concepts (for direct marketing applications), I’m not a script
writer.  I’m contacting you because I’m looking for a talented television writer
with industry credibility that might be interested in partnering to develop a
pilot. If you are interested in exploring this or know of a
writer who might be,  please let me know.

I get this offer several times a week from people outside the industry who have “great ideas” but just need a guy like me to partner up with.

To be blunt, why would I want to do that? What’s in it for me? I’ve got lots of ideas of my own and all you’d be doing is benefitting from my experience, my “industry credibility,”  and years of hard work. What do you bring to the table? An idea.  Sorry, but that’s not enough.

short-cut-mazeThere’s a saying in television, ideas are cheap and execution is everything. The networks  don’t buy ideas, they buy ability, experience, point-of-view, and a track record.  LOST is not a great idea — People shipwrecked on an island. It has been done a hundred times before. What ABC bought was hit-maker JJ Abrams doing people shipwrecked on an island.  NYPD BLUE is not a great idea. It’s cops in NY solving crimes. What ABC bought was Steven Bochco doing cops in NY solving crimes.  They also bought the proven ability of JJ Abrams and Steven Bochco to write and produce a series.

I know… that’s what you need me for, right? You need my “industry credibility” and “talent.”
But here’s the thing: there’s absolutely no upside in it for me, or any other established writer-producer, partnering up with you.  We didn’t work for years to establish “industry credibility” so someone else without any could take a shortcut and ride on our coat-tails.

If you were a bestselling novelist with an idea, that’s something else. You have something to offer beyond an idea.  You bring your name,  reputation, and proven track record as a storyteller. If you were a  famous actor, that’s something else. You bring your image,  your fans, and proven ability to draw a large audience.  If you were an ex-D.A., and your idea draws on your background in the field, then you have something to offer. You bring years worth of courtroom experience  and credibility in the field (for instance, I’ve partnered with cops before to pitch ideas based on their unique experiences).

I think you get my point.  Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m not interested.

That’s what I told him. Here’s his reply:

Feel the need to vent?  No problem!  Since we don’t each other, it can’t be
personal.  A simple, “not interested” would have done the trick though.
The television saying you mentioned….we say that same thing in
marketing and advertising!  Since I’m a professional in my chosen field too
(no, really), I receive numerous offers to partner from people looking to break
in.  Though it almost never goes anywhere, I usually offer some slight
encouragement.  The upside is so much greater than the downside and the cost to
let it play out is so insignificant… why not?

Instead of offering encouragement, I offer honesty and reality. Obviously, you didn’t want to hear either. You can’t expect to scrawl a drawing of a car on a napkin and sell it to Ford… why should you expect it to happen with a TV series idea? The way to break in is not to look for shortcuts, for a way to start at the top…which is what you are trying to do.  The way to break in is to write a terrific script, get hired as a freelancer on a show, get picked up on staff, then work your way up the writer/producer ladder until you reach the point in your career when someone from a studio or network calls and says “Hey, got any ideas for a series?”

As for the networks buying years of
experience and a track record……I sincerely hope that is true (means better
television).  The jury seems to be out though:  Overnight
successes…..Schwartz, who at 27 created The O.C….Trey Parker and Matt Stone
created South Park while they were still in college.

I figured that’s where you were coming from.  You didn’t do your homework.  Josh Schwartz worked on other shows and wrote other pilots before THE OC.  Parker and Stone made a short animated film, THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS,  that wowed the industry. That short film proved their skill as animators/writers/performers and  they got a series… based on that short film. They weren’t car salesmen from Topeka with a really great idea for an animated TV series.

What must I have been thinking when I contacted
you?  I mean…how on earth could a professional television writer really be
interested in what someone from outside the industry has to offer?
“. CSI, the No. 1 show was created by relative newcomer, Anthony
E. Zuiker…. CBS hired experienced writer-producers Carol Mendelsohn and Ann
Donahue to run the show…”

shortcutAgain, you aren’t doing your homework. Zuiker didn’t sell his idea by emailing producers with a come-on saying he had a great idea for a show and he just needed someone with “industry credibility” to sell it for him.  He wrote a script.  From the CSI Files Website:

Zuiker himself got his start when childhood friend Dustin Lee Abraham, now a CSI scribe but then an actor, would get Zuiker to
write him monologues for auditions. “I wrote a speech about a man, mentally
retarded, watching his wife give birth. He’s a degenerate gambler, and he went
into an announcing [mode, a play by play],” Zuiker says of the monologue that
got him attention in Hollywood. The speech was turned into a movie, The
, which was made for seven million dollars. It turned out to be
Zuiker’s gateway to Hollywood.

You’re wowed by what you think are strike-it-big-in-Hollywood-quick stories that really aren’t.  Stop looking for a short-cut.  The best way to sell a series is to write some great scripts. Don’t look for someone with “industry credibility,” earn some of your own instead.

UPDATE: 4/10/2014

Someone named Jerome read this post and actually sent me this question:

Hey Lee: I get where you are coming from regarding someone with what they believe is a great idea for a TV show wanting to partner up with you. But I wonder what if someone came to you with an idea that has never been done before in a TV show? And if that idea for a premise had never been done before and could be executed well then that may be a possible reason why someone would want to partner up with someone else? I guess I am saying this because whenever I hear many of the pilots that are going to premiere it is upon hearing the “premise” that I start to think this is another tired old idea that has been done before again and again.

This has to be a prank, right? I mean, how could anybody read this post and then send me that question? Assuming it’s not a prank, holy crap, some people are really DENSE. As I said before, ideas are cheap, execution is everything. A show about a cop teamed up with a robot has been done before. Many times. But Fox bought it because it was JJ Freaking Abrams who pitched it. They were buying him, and his team, not the idea. And JJ Freaking Abrams doesn’t need you to give him Your Idea For a Premise That Has Never Been Done Before. Because he’s JJ Freaking Abrams and can sell yet another show about a cop teamed with a robot without sharing a dime with you. Here’s his reply:

I get it ideas are cheap and though I wonder why NBC is launching that contest May 1st for anyone to enter in their “idea” for a sitcom and NBC will make and pay for numerous pilots from unknown unproven beginner people with no experience or credits?

There is a big difference between approaching a writer you dont know with your Idea For a Premise That Has Never Been Done Before and entering a contest hosted by a network…one presently mired at the bottom of the ratings and desperate for positive publicity. Let me ask you a question. Can you count how many times a network has had a contest soliciting sitcom ideas? I can. This is the one time. If I were you, I’d take advantage of it quick.

The New, Unimproved Monk

MMHH Cover

It wasn’t easy for me to walk away from writing the Monk books. After 15 novels over seven years, I’d become very attached to the characters. Monk, Natalie and the rest of the gang were always on my mind because I was always writing the books. But I decided it was time for a change (little did I know I’d soon be writing THE HEIST with Janet Evanovich!) And when I let my publisher know I was leaving, they told me they’d like to continue the series without me. They asked if I could recommend someone to pick up where I left off. I strongly recommended my friend Hy Conrad, a writer-producer on MONK and a terrific mystery plotter. He already knew the characters inside-and-out and had written some of the most beloved episodes of the TV series.  I knew the characters would be in very good hands with him, no matter what direction he decided to take the books. And that, of course, was the first, fundamental issue he had to deal with, as he explains in this guest post…

When it was announced I was taking over these novels, Monk fans started contacting me in droves, all asking the same question. Was I going to reboot the series, like a Batman or Spider-Man franchise, or just pick up where Lee Goldberg left off?

 To be honest, I never thought of rebooting. To me, the Monk characters are real. On the show, the other writers and I took Monk and Natalie to a certain place in their lives. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Lee continued to expand them, smoothing out little bumps and creating new ones.  I didn’t want to mess with that reality.

 In the new books, some things will naturally be different, because Lee and I are naturally different. For example, his Natalie knows a lot about architecture. Mine, not so much. His Monk is more obsessed with numbers and symmetry. Mine is a little more phobic.  I tried to insert some pop references into Natalie’s voice.  But the show never did many pop references and it doesn’t come naturally to me.

 In many ways, Lee strengthened the Monk franchise. For one thing, he knows San Francisco and the wonderful character of the town. We wrote the show in Summit, New Jersey, and, while we did have a San Francisco map, it was pinned on the far wall and no one wandered over there very often. I’ll try to do improve on our atmospheric quality, I promise.

 The same goes for forensics accuracy. Lee had called on a cadre of experts to make sure his details were right. Despite our own police consultant, the Monk writers tried not to burden ourselves with too many facts. At one point, the production team called to tell us our formula for bomb making was ridiculous. We replied, “Do you really want us broadcasting how to make a bomb?” That shut them up.

The good news is that we were sticklers for logic. We may not have known bomb making, but we insisted that the logic of every story always worked.  For example, when Monk was in a life-threatening predicament in Act Four, which he usually was, we knew we had to send Stottlemeyer in there to save the day.   In a lot of TV shows, the writers never ask, “Well, how did Stottlemeyer know Monk was in trouble?”  We did.  And sometimes it would take us a full day to answer the question.

 The other good news is that I was with the show from beginning to end, for all eight years. I was the mystery guy, while everyone else had come from the world of comedy. Along the way, I think I had some influence on the way Monk talked and interacted. In other words, he wound up a little bit like me, which makes writing for him a pleasure.

When I first told Monk creator/executive producer Andy Breckman that I was doing this, his response was, “Great. You can use some of the Monk stories we never got to do.”

Mr. Monk Helps Himself is one of those stories. I brought it into the writers’ room during season six. We played around with the idea until it morphed into something totally different—Mr. Monk Joins a Cult, guest-starring Howie Mandel. That’s how it happens in a roomful of writers. There are dozens of great plots, half thought through, buzzing around in our collective memory.

 I have to admit it’s nice to finally have the last word in what mysteries Monk solves and how he reacts.  I’ll try not to abuse the power.