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Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got… an Agent

Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got… an Agent

Articles - Directing

“All agents are slime.” This
comment may reflect a commonly held view in Hollywood, but it’s
not a statement you would expect to hear from someone who spent
16 years as a highly successful agent. This was Gayla Nethercott’s
view when she was first invited to begin her career at a reputable
boutique agency in Los Angeles.

What changed her mind about agents and turned her
into one of the most hard-working advocates of screenwriters in
Hollywood? Writers. She fell for writers, their craft and their
creations—and then realized she also enjoyed making a deal.

Gayla Nethercott

For Nethercott, the path to agent had many detours,
taking her via l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and several occupations
including singer, book editor and television script supervisor.
The most direct road was the one on which she traveled in a pick-up
truck after a friend implored her to become a movie producer and
raise funds for a film about a punk rock band in L.A.. Although
the film remained inchoate, Nethercott’s career materialized and

Eventually Gayla moved from the boutique to join Broder,
Kurland, Webb & Uffner, one of the top six agencies in L.A.
in terms of amount and value of deals made and notoriety of clientele.
Broder provided a work environment that allowed her to operate independently,
with her own client list. Recently she opened Nethercott Associates
in Hollywood, where she works intensely with specific writers and
directors, as opposed to the large agency practice of handling at
least 40 to 50 clients simultaneously. She is now more fully involved
in overall career development, which to her is the most rewarding
part of the business.

When MM asked Gayla’s advice for
aspiring writers, she said she has good news and bad news. The bad
news is that it is still very difficult to break into the Hollywood
screenwriting business—almost as difficult as getting an agent.
The good news is that you can do it if you are willing to persevere.

And even writers who are less gifted can achieve their
goals. But what is the magic mixture of talent, perseverance, creativity
and salesmanship that will bring a writer through the tunnel of
impoverished obscurity into that lighted area where money, movies
and dreams are made? According to Nethercott, the mysterious alchemy
nearly always includes an agent.

Karen Holly (MM): New writers
need agents but can’t get them because they’re new writers. How
does one circumvent this conundrum?

Gayla Nethercott (GN): Agents usually
take new clients by referral only, so a new writer must make a
connection with an agent through any means available—even if the
connection is your cousin who works at a hair salon frequented
by a well-known producer who knows an agent. With 40 or 50 clients
already, most agents are so over-committed that without a specific
referral, they won’t take the time to read a new writer. They
need a compelling reason. If the agent is willing to sign you
up, do it. Later you can change agents if the situation isn’t
working. It’s much easier to get the second agent than the first.

MM: What would make an agent willing to
look at a new writer?

GN: A typical day in the life of an agent
includes working from 7 a.m. to midnight, receiving 75 to 100
phone calls, attempting to return them, initiating several dozen
promotional calls, having meetings at lunch, breakfast and dinner,
then going home and reading several scripts.

Given this scenario, agents are reluctant to take
on unknown writers who are initially harder to sell. This means
a writer must find a way to distinguish himself without resorting
to gimmicks or cutesy artifices. Writers should emphasize background
or experience that is interesting or unique—whether it is being
a buck private in the army, a dance hall instructor or a journalist
in Manchuria. Use anything that highlights marketability or interesting

MM: What do you look for in a writer?

GN: As an agent, and now as a manager who
reads every word of every draft my clients write, I look for work
that inspires me and that I instinctively know how to market.
Some successful agents don’t read any of the scripts they receive.
These are the agents who are primarily sales oriented, the people
who literally can sell ice to Eskimos. But I am not of that breed.

Beyond that I want a personal and artistic connection
with the writer or director. For me, the agent-client relationship
is not unlike a marriage where the parties have an intention to
create a long-term connection. That means I must have a passion
for the writer’s work because I am beginning to participate in
the design of a career that will mature over many years. I work
with my clients to create one-year, five-year and 10-year career
plans. It is a team effort, and part of my mission is to make
sure my client is employed and flourishing. I’m in it for the
long haul, not a quick, one-time bidding war.

On the other hand, I can’t totally disregard economics.
If a writer has a great script I don’t think I can sell, it will
be a harder decision for me. When I love the script, I figure
out a marketing strategy and sell it because I’m an incredibly
persistent person. I never give up.

MM: Have you loved a script but thought
it would be difficult to sell?

GN: Yes. One example was the script Phenomenon,
written by Gerald Di Pego, which eventually became the movie starring
John Travolta. I read the script in my kitchen one morning and
when I came to the last page, I was weeping. It was one of the
most moving, well-crafted scripts I’d ever read.

I knew it would be a tough sell because it was a
small, character-driven piece—almost too good—but I was committed
because I loved it. I submitted it to 37 producers and it was
turned down everywhere. Finally two producers took a short-term
option, and the script was sold the following weekend to Disney.
From there it went to John Travolta.

According to legend, John finished reading the script,
threw it against the wall and said, “I have to do this movie.”
Travolta agreed to squeeze the project into his overly full post-Pulp
schedule. Disney then gave the script to directors
who required Gerry Di Pego to rewrite the piece at least four
times. As legend also has it, when Travolta came to the studio
for the first table reading, he quickly rejected the re-writes
and demanded the original draft that he’d read.

I am forever grateful to John Travolta for recognizing
a great piece of work—and for going out of his way in interviews
to mention Gerry Di Pego. Writers are important, under-acknowledged
people. Ultimately Phenomenon was released 15 months after
the  script was sold and it went on to make over $100 million

MM: Any other specific advice for new 

GN: Keep in mind that the agent is your employee,
a person to whom you are paying 10 percent of your earnings. If
your agent doesn’t call you back for weeks, wake up. Something
is definitely wrong and you need to find out what or move on.
Writers need to recognize when they’re being lied to because many
agents do lie, unfortunately.

Writers must also learn to trust their own instincts
and find an agent with whom they have some connective tissue—even
if initially they sign with Dracula. You will have to believe
in yourself because you will face a lot of rejection, both in
the process of finding an agent and sometimes afterwards when
you witness the agent’s bad behavior.

Understand that perseverance is what pays. Chip
away at the apparently impossible. It’s a subjective process,
but Hollywood is a strange and wonderful town with a place for

Art Rutter

Art Rutter of the boutique firm Shapiro-Lichtman
Talent Agency
is another­ agent who deviates from the
commonly held perception of agents as heartless, dishonest cutthroats.
Although he has specialized in helping writers and directors with
careers in television, these days he finds his clients, with increasing
frequency, crossing over from feature films to television and
vice versa. In fact television, a potentially lucrative source
of steady income for writers, seems enamored of feature writers.

Rutter became interested in television while in
college and after graduation worked for ABC as a production
executive assigned to soap operas. Later he became a network
programming executive at the same network.

Eventually he realized he loved selling and negotiating
and wanted more involvement on the creative side. To redirect
his career he moved from New York to Los Angeles and took several
steps backward, becoming a trainee at the William Morris Agency.
He then moved to APA where he became a literary and television
packaging agent before finally chose a smaller firm that offered
room for more independent vision.

Rutter is an unusual agent because he does not
insist on referrals but actively pursues promising writers and
directors, and he is refreshingly entrepreneurial in his willingness
to consider new clients.

He researches potential clients (but does not use
Internet sources) and initiates a dialogue through letters or
personal introductions to the writer or director. Rutter also
breaks the traditional referral convention by responding to unsolicited
query letters that spark his attention.

MM: Can you give us an example of a
query that might provoke a response from you?

Art Rutter (AR): Recently I received
a letter from a writer who had graduated from Harvard Law School.
Because of the popularity of shows about lawyers, a writer who
has expertise in the legal field may have additional value and,
of course, several lawyers have managed to become successful
writers. But any special background or clever pitch that separates
a writer from the pack may have the potential to receive a response.

MM: What ultimately convinces you to
take on an unknown writer?

AR: It is important to remember that, although
entertainment is the arena of artists, it is still a business.
In the end everyone is trying to make money in a dysfunctional
industry which has no logic yet everyone wants to be in it.
Even when you are the creator of the project, ordinarily someone
else is the financial backer and distributor and all these elements
are necessary to bring a creation to life.

To stay in business an agent who takes on new
talent must have a list of clients who are also established
commercially in order to maintain financial balance. Especially
in television it’s difficult to launch a new writer because
there are already so many people who already have credits. An
unknown person has to show something outstanding and I have
to believe in both the product and the person. I have difficulty
selling something I don’t like.

Also, in series television a client not only needs
a great piece of material but also a great personality helps.
Many shows are written by a gang of writers sitting together
in a room; once you get your material through the door, it becomes
a question of personalities. Selling a feature spec script does
not require this constant interaction with the writer, so the
quality of product is most significant.

At the end of the day I have to look at the combination
of what I really like and what I think I can do to launch the
person’s career. That is the real task of an agent taking on
new persons—helping them succeed on the path they have chosen.

MM: What other factors are important
for writers and directors hoping to break into the industry?

AR: For any aspiring writer or director,
the importance of connections and networking cannot be overemphasized, whether in
television or feature films. A career path that provides the
maximum amount of industry connections gives an enormous advantage.
For a person interested in feature film, whether independent
or studio, it makes sense to work with a production company
or studio, even in the capacity of an assistant to a producer
or executive. Working in television production, even in a lower
level position such as a writer’s assistant, increases possibilities
for contacts and knowledge of how the business works. In either
film or television, a job in an agency is beneficial because
it’s an opportunity to find out who’s who and how the industry
really functions.

MM: Do you have any general advice for
aspiring auteurs?

AR: A person’s script or film is a calling
card. For both the auteur and the agent it is important that
the calling card be the best possible representation. I am an
agent who reads the material submitted to me. I don’t rely on
coverage and I give feedback and notes to the writer based on
my knowledge of the market and trends and competition. So I
need to have a good working relationship and good communication
with my clients.

It’s also important for a writer to be as prolific
as possible. Recently I had two young clients who had written
an outstanding script but it was their only television spec
piece. The script got them a meeting on a high-profile television
series and although the meeting went well, the executive in
charge of the production asked to read another piece of material.
Because they didn’t have a second piece, the job ultimately
went to a writer who was more prolific. They had gotten through
the door but unfortunately didn’t manage to stay inside.

Most importantly, once a new writer or director finds
an agent, forging a beneficial relationship is crucial. For me that
requires connecting with writers and directors with whom I can have
an honest relationship and an ongoing desire to participate in their
careers. MM

As an agent, Gayla Nethercott represented such clients
as Gerald Di Pego (Phenomenon, Message in a Bottle, Instinct),
Michael Blake (Dances with Wolves) and Walter Bernstein (Fail
Safe, The Front, Semi-Tough, Miss Evers’ Boys
). As a manager,
she continues to represent former clients such as Di Pego as well
as many promising new writers such as Cathy Lynn Brown, a winner
of the Heart of Austin Screenwriting Contest.

Art Rutter currently reps or has represented writers:
Seanne Kemp Kovach (Soul Food, the series) Michael Carrington
(The Simpsons, The Jamie Foxx Show), Mary Williams Vitallano
(Mad TV), Steve Maeda (X-Files), Cana Coen (Jag),
Jeff Mherman (Ally McBeal, Boy Meets World), Andy Cowan
(Seinfeld, 3rd Rock from the Sun) and directors: Richard
Compton (X-Files, Jag, The Fugitive) and Charles Winkler
(Rocky Marciano Story, The Chris Isaak Show).

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