|The Law Offices of Scott E. Schwimer Online
|Agents and Managers and Lawyers, Oh My! |
What's a writer to do?
From Scr(i)pt magazine, Vol. 4, No. 5 Back in the early days of talent agencies, agents were not required to be licensed. As the law changed and agencies evolved, the states licensed agents and regulated the amount of fees they could charge (the limit in California is 10 percent). As a result, managers (who are not required to be licensed) sprang onto the scene. While managers are prohibited to "procure employment," they are a viable option for a writer. Managers can submit material but must be very cautious not to overstep their boundaries when guiding a writer's career.
John Sloss, an entertainment attorney whose clients include filmmakers John Sayles, Richard Linklater (Slacker, The Newton Boys) and Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy). His executive-producer credits include Lone Star, Ulee's Gold and The Last Days of Disco.
Scott E. Schwimer, an entertainment attorney whose clients include two New York Times best sellers.
Lita Richardson, entertainment vice president at Magic Johnson Management Group and a licensed California attorney.Andrew Deane, manager, The Gold-Miller Company; his clients include Jim Carrey, Michael Petroni (winner of both the AFI and Writer's Guild Awards for Best New Screenwriter 1996), and Steve Rudnick & Leo Benvenuti (Spacejam). His executive producer credits include Whispers in the Dark.
Steven Wolfe, manager, Chairman/CEO of Sneak Preview Entertainment. Wolfe's producer credits include Relax, It’s Just Sex, Bird of Prey and Scorchers.
Ramses IsHak, literary agent, William Morris Agency. IsHak's clients include Max Adams (Excess Baggage); Victoria Strouse, a USC graduate whose script Mary Jane’s Last Dance was sold to MGM; and Troy Duffy, who just finished filming his debut feature, The Boondock Saints.
Paulara Hawkins, screenwriter/stand-up comic, managed by Magic Johnson Management Group.scr(i)pt: The first obstacle a writer labors with is getting an agent. What is the writer's relationship with their lawyer like, and what are your duties? scr(i)pt: The first obstacle a writer labors with is getting an agent. What is the writer's relationship with their lawyer like, and what are your duties?
Sloss: It depends on whether the writer has other representation, such as an agent or a manager. Our general orientation is to do whatever is necessary on behalf of our clients. I think writers have fewer overall concerns in their agreements than directors do, although they have plenty of concerns. The lion’s share of what we do for writers is really to protect them legally, to improve the terms of their agreement that aren’t settled by the agent before we get the paperwork.
scr(i)pt: Why does an aspiring writer with an entertainment attorney need an agent? scr(i)pt: Why does an aspiring writer with an entertainment attorney need an agent?
Sloss: Writers, more than anyone else in the Hollywood food-chain, probably benefit from agents because they tend to need to be employed. Writer-directors can go out and try to create their own projects. When writers do that, they have to sell spec scripts, which they can do through an agent or a lawyer, but if they’re looking to get hired to write something, then agents are generally in a better position to affect that than lawyers.
scr(i)pt: As a former entertainment attorney, how does your role as a manager differ from a lawyer? scr(i)pt: As a former entertainment attorney, how does your role as a manager differ from a lawyer?
Richardson: An entertainment attorney deals primarily with the legal transactions and negotiating the deal. Once a studio or network is interested in working with our client, then the attorney would negotiate the terms of the deal and draft up the paperwork. A manager is involved with their client’s career from the inception. A manager has to help the client develop or preserve their image, keeping their name out there and letting people know about the projects they’re involved in, as well as getting people interested in the project that the client wants to do. A manager comes into the picture a lot earlier on and is instrumental in helping to facilitate projects, although the agent typically finds the work. A manager's primary role is servicing the client, being the liaison between the public and the client.
scr(i)pt: If your client doesn’t have an agent?
Richardson: Our job is to help them find an agent. Managers are prohibited by the talent code from procuring employment for their clients because we're not licensed as agents. It's always best for the talent to have an agent, although we can submit projects.
scr(i)pt: What are the duties of an agent? scr(i)pt: What are the duties of an agent?
IsHak. Making the deal for the client, but it's also about the long term, making the right deal for their career. An agent is an adviser – you’re being paid a 10-percent commission to negotiate deals and think long-term, but it's also to be a sounding board for your client.
scr(i)pt: Why does a writer need an entertainment attorney? scr(i)pt: Why does a writer need an entertainment attorney?
Richardson: Attorneys are required in California to pursue continuing legal education, which means that we're constantly having to update our legal skills and learn what the latest is.
Schwimer: Most agents are too busy procuring employment to follow [changes in] the law. Oftentimes what I will inherit are horrendous agreements that need to be interpreted or renegotiated, because they were put to paper in such a way that they’re ambiguous or antiquated. Half the clients that come to me, come to me with a problem first.
scr(i)pt: How do you work with an agency’s "business affairs department?" If they are practically the same as a legal department, why should a writer have outside representation?
Sloss: I don’t think they’re as well trained as we are. They’re not licensed as attorneys, with the ethical constraints of attorneys. They aren’t constrained to have the same obligation to their clients -- their obligation is to their firm, to the agency.
Schwimer: Most of the clients I have that are with major agencies don’t necessarily trust the legal department at agencies. Oftentimes there's a conflict of interest. A great deal of my business comes from agent referral because the agent feels it's a good idea for the client to seek outside representation. When I get new writers who are represented by agents first, the writers themselves are very leery of spending money for an attorney, in addition to the agent.
scr(i)pt: Are aspiring writers savvy enough to know the difference? scr(i)pt: Are aspiring writers savvy enough to know the difference?
Sloss: Some writers are more savvy than others. Often writers see the appeal of not having to pay the extra 5 percent to a lawyer. Every once in a while you have cases like the Kim Basinger case, which sent shock waves throughout agencies. They’ll say everyone has to have a separate lawyer, everything has to be in writing, but then things get lax again. Sometimes the studios market potential clients by saying, 'We have our own in-house legal department, you won’t need a lawyer.' But if you confront them, they’ll say to a lawyer, 'We would never say that.'
scr(i)pt: What inspired you to submit projects on behalf of writers? scr(i)pt: What inspired you to submit projects on behalf of writers?
Schwimer: I'm a writer as well, and I personally find it repugnant that Hollywood is constantly looking for new material, meanwhile nobody will take an unsolicited submission. There is a wealth and abundance of good material out there that nobody is seeing. I try to get writers into the places they want to be considered. Of course, on the other side of the coin, my thoughts are that one out of 500 projects that somebody does lay their eyes on and does want to purchase or option, that the writer will already have their entertainment lawyer in place.
scr(i)pt: Do you ever worry about the quality of the scripts you’re submitting?
Schwimer: I don’t really care whether the screenplay is good or bad, because as far as I'm concerned, it's not for me to judge. As we all know, everybody has readers, and all the screenplays get covered. I'm not worried about them saying, 'Here comes another bad screenplay from Scott Schwimer,' because they're not going to see anything but the coverage. What I'm concerned about is getting it into the company, having it covered, and maybe that one script might come back with a recommend.
scr(i)pt: How do you work with the rest of the team -- be it with agents, managers or lawyers -- to help the writer's career? scr(i)pt: How do you work with the rest of the team -- be it with agents, managers or lawyers -- to help the writer's career?
Sloss: Hopefully we coordinate. You try to reach an understanding with the other representatives of who is going to handle what. Sometimes you may need to be the bad cop; sometimes you need to handle the minutia of a contract. It's different in every case.
Wolfe: We all have to work together really. I believe there's a big industry to cover, and one person on somebody’s team is not enough. It really takes a group of people coordinating together to help move a client forward in their career.
Deane: We're here to handle everything that the client would ever want to have taken care of -- to give overall career advice, planning to help develop specific ideas, pitches, scripts. Usually the agents don’t seem to have the time to put in all that work to promote their career on a day-to-day basis.
IsHak: Lawyers, I think, are essential. Most of my clients have attorneys-it makes my life easier, and I think it's better for the client. It gives you a third point of view. Also, for negotiations, I don’t have a law degree, nor do I pretend to be a lawyer, so I think it's crucial. A manager is a personal decision the client needs to make. It's a extension of an agent's job. Do we overlap sometimes in our duties? Yes. But a good manager can be very helpful in taking the burden off of an agent so that we're working hand in hand. I think managers are very helpful in a writer's career.
scr(i)pt. Who has more day-to-day involvement with the client? scr(i)pt. Who has more day-to-day involvement with the client?
Sloss: It depends on the client. Managers are supposed to be more involved in everyday life. I'd say I'm as involved with Kevin Smith day to day as his agent. I'd say I'm involved with Richard Linklater probably more day to day than his agent. I think Victor Nunez’s agent is more involved with him than I am.
scr(i)pt. scr(i)pt. Should writers take "writing assignments," or should they be concerned with working on their own original ideas?
IsHak. There are very few open writing assignments for a writer now that, in my opinion, will further their career. A lot of times, for rewrite assignments, they don’t even get credit, or they’ll share credit and you don’t know who wrote what. I always advise writers I represent to write their own material, to try to do originals or adaptations.
Wolfe: I think for a writer, they always need to be writing. They can’t sit back and wait for someone to pay them to do it. Often you can make more money with a spec script than you can with anything else.
scr(i)pt: How does the process of submitting a screenplay work? scr(i)pt: How does the process of submitting a screenplay work?
Deane: Usually a manager will sit down with the client and figure out what their overall career plan is, short- and long-term. One of them is usually placing them with an agent, so we figure out who the best agent might be for the specific client. Once the writer has material to send out, we sit down with the agent and form a game plan. It's either going out on a limited basis to producers, finding somebody who really responds to the material -- this is usually for things that are considered harder sells, independent fare or quirky studio films. Or you have a big, high-concept, slam-dunk commercial script, and you hype up the town and give it to one producer at each studio to take to the executives and try to pressure everyone to look at it as quickly as possible.
Richardson: I don’t send scripts to studios because I think that's like throwing them in the trash. Instead, through our interactions with the studios, we develop relationships with certain people. So in my dealings with them, I say, 'I represent so-and-so, and they have a script. If you have a chance, I'd love for you to take a look at it.'
Sloss: We've auctioned screenplays. If someone is a client and doesn’t have an agent, we certainly fulfill that function. But you can’t pay us to submit scripts. They have to be existing clients.
scr(i)pt: A lot was made of Troy Duffy’s quick rise to fame. Miramax purchased his script, bought him his own bar. Everything looked great, then the roof collapsed. Yet now things look good. lot was made of Troy Duffy’s quick rise to fame. Miramax purchased his script, bought him his own bar. Everything looked great, then the roof collapsed. Yet now things look good.
IsHak. Miramax put it in turnaround, and William Morris put it all back together with independent financing. Troy got the cast he wanted [Willem Dafoe, Billy Connolly, Sean Patrick Flanery], he got the budget he wanted, and he's off and running. It's a year later than we wanted, but we did it.
scr(i)pt: You stuck with him even when the deal went south. scr(i)pt: You stuck with him even when the deal went south.
IsHak. I'm extremely loyal. With Troy it became personal. This was a guy who had it all and fell quickly. The town was rooting for him and then cut him at the knees. I'm sure there were some people in town that wanted to see him fail. Of course, the agency wants to see him succeed, and more importantly, I want to see him succeed.
scr(i)pt: When the client is on top, so is the agent. When Troy fell, did you worry about how that would reflect on you? scr(i)pt: When the client is on top, so is the agent. When Troy fell, did you worry about how that would reflect on you?
IsHak. They'll never admit that. In this business, you have one client, you have many clients. I have clients that are doing really well, I have clients who are starting their careers. The bottom line is that agents will always have other clients, but a client only has their life. It's their career and you need to treat it as such. The most important thing to me is helping them. There are people who want to see agents fail -- that's Hollywood. When a client isn’t doing too well, the perception affects the agent -- that's why it was very personal for me. Troy's deal was unprecedented, that put me on the map.
scr(i)pt: How do you ensure that your client continues to work? scr(i)pt: How do you ensure that your client continues to work?
Richardson: Well, information is key. You need to know what's going on. You need to know what television shows and films are being produced, so that before they get cast, you can suggest your client for that project. You need to plant seeds.
Wolfe: I don’t think anyone can ensure that anybody is going to continue to work, but certainly if you believe in somebody, you can help to convince other people. If it's not their first time, their work speaks for itself.
Schwimer: If somebody has an agent, that's the agent's responsibility. What I do as a businessman, as an attorney, as a producer and a writer, is guide somebody in the decisions that they make, but I respect the agents and am deferential to their guidance of the client.
Deane: Make sure that everybody who should know about them does -- generally promoting their career, getting them to meet all the people they need to meet -- and make sure, with the agent, that they're get- ting put up for every conceivable writing assignment there is, making sure they’re always developing interesting, hopefully sellable, original ideas, and getting them out there to pitch those ideas.
IsHak: There's no way to ensure it. You need to be thinking "What’s the next job?" while they’re writing an assignment. You need to be thinking "What's the next thing?" if they're not thinking about it.