I get contacted at least once or twice a week from an aspiring screenwriter telling me that they have written a fantastic script that is sure to be a blockbuster. Steven Spielberg (or Michael Bay, or Jerry Bruckheimer) is certainly going to pay them $1,000,000 for it and all they need is a lawyer to send the script into their offices. If I can help them, they will give me 10% of the sale price.
Well, doesn’t that sound like easy money? $100,000 just for submitting their script to a producer? And yet, I always turn down these requests. Why? Let me try to explain.
First, let’s acknowledge the obvious problem with a writer getting his script sold. There are simply way more scripts written then could possibly be made into movies. Every year, Hollywood releases between 400 and 500 new movies. Of these, about one-third are remakes, sequels, or based on other pre-existing material. So, considerably less than 400 movies per year are based on original screenplays. Yet every year hundreds of thousands of screenplays are registered with the Copyright Office or the WGA. That presents a problem. The studios, although large, do not have the manpower to read and evaluate all the scripts that are written every year. They need a way to filter out the bad scripts from the good ones so they don’t waste their time reading scripts which have no chance. And that’s where agents come in.
The agents (both big and small) are, in effect, Hollywood’s first filter. Since it is their job to submit scripts on behalf of their clients, they wean out the bad scripts from the good ones. Since they only get paid if they are able to sell a script, they have a financial incentive not to waste time on scripts that can’t get sold. The studios trust that if the agent has agreed to take that writer on as a client, then the script will show some potential. If they just took on as a client every writer who came to them and did not discriminate based on talent, then pretty soon producers would stop reading that agent’s submissions.
When writers ask me to submit their scripts directly to the producer, they are trying to avoid the filter process. But my thinking is that that the process of getting an agent, while difficult, is also necessary for most beginning writers. First, it acts as a reality check. Many writers start writing scripts with no real idea of what is required, whether it be the proper script format, or knowledge on hold to build the story to a climax. If the writer has a good story, an agent can assist the writer in honing the script. If the writer just submitted the unpolished work to a studio, it would most likely go right in the trash.
Another way an agent helps much more than a lawyer is knowledge of the market. The agent is responsible to know which studio is buying romantic comedies, and which producer is looking for a good horror script. If you just send a slasher script to Disney or a love story to Troma, you’re wasting your time.
Finally, I don’t submit scripts because I don’t see it as the work of an attorney. I can certainly help negotiate the deal points of a script contract (and enjoy doing so). But doing the work of putting the script in envelopes and mailing it to studios and producers is not why I got into law. That’s the work of an agent. And if I wanted to be an agent, I’d stop being a lawyer and open up a literary agency. But until that day (which will probably never come), I’m sorry, but I won’t submit your script.