By Noah Charney.
Over the last century, agents have established themselves as necessary middlemen between talent (writers, actors, directors, DOPs…) and producers who wish to work with such talent on projects for screens, large and small. Producers could have just called up the talent directly, but they didn’t. A tradition arose through which the talent said “talk to my agent” so that the agent could negotiate a better deal, and that was said so many times that producers largely stopped trying the direct approach. The agents sandwiched themselves into fold, securing their 15%. They were there for a reason—they almost inevitably secure a deal at least 15% more valuable than what the talent would’ve gotten negotiating on their own behalf, alone. They became power players and have been such ever since.
So what’s the problem, one might ask? The answer will be clear to screenwriters, from aspiring all the way up to not-quite-A-list. Agents work slowly. They are extremely selective. Getting one is necessary for a career writing for screen, but it’s a pain in the butt to find one who will take you on. And when they do take you on, unless you’re already a big name, they can be dismissive, marginalizing and frustratingly passive. Or at least they seem that way. It’s a cliché, one that can be found in movies—the B or C-list actor who longingly leaves messages on his agent’s answering machine (remember those?) about whether he’s found any auditions for them. In my own experience with film and TV agents, I was such a “small fish” that the agents didn’t do anything proactive for me that I was aware of. They were happy to negotiate contracts for deals that I brought to them (and take their 15%), but they weren’t out there beating the pavement on my behalf. That I was with one of the world’s biggest, most famous agencies looked good on paper, but I imagined I was assigned to the third intern next to the browning Ficus in the basement, and that was it.
The agent system remains firmly in place and it is formidable, but antiquated, like a rusting tank. Producers want new stories to develop for screen more than ever, thanks especially to VOD (video on demand, like Netflix). Yet agents provide a bottleneck on both sides of the equation. Producers feel that they should only seriously consider scripts that come from screenwriters with agents, the thought being that the agent separated the wheat from the chaff and will only pass the truly great scripts to the producers, so as not to waste their time. This leaves producers beholden to agents. On the flip side, there is a world of great stories that would make great movies and TV shows, not to mention an army of quality screenwriters, all overlooked because they are not attached to agents. There’s hardly a writer on the planet who will not let heave a sigh when discussing the search for representation. And even if and when you get it, as I mentioned, there’s no certainty that the scales will suddenly tip in your favor and producers will start bidding on your scripts.
Anything outside of this agent-selected flow of traffic is newsworthy. The docu-series, Project Greenlight, made headlines in 2001 because it was an open call script competition (financed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, among others) for a fully-financed feature film, no agent needed. Such democratic options, when a great script written by an unrepresented writer without much of a resume, are rare birds.
Then there is another zone, a sort of story limbo, in which a great story is written (or real life produces it), and the person who knows the story best is not a screenwriter. Take, for example, the Chilean mine disaster of 2010. I was in New York meeting with some book publishers to talk about a project of mine. Each of them had quickly written book proposals for the true story of the disaster and salvation of the trapped miners. The event had taken place a week earlier, but intrepid and sprightly writers had already produced book proposals. But the proposals were second-or-third-hand accounts (one of them would become the book that would become the film, The 33). What if one of the miners, or one of the rescue workers, had been able to tell their own story and present it to producers? In the current situation they would not have been able to do so. Their story was sequestered by a professional writer, who certainly did the work to produce a book on it, and a good one, but it was a found story, not told by someone with ownership of it because it happened to them. What if there were a way to allow even non-writers to present their stories to producers in order for the stories to be optioned (and then professional writers could be attached once the story was secured?) This happens sometimes when a magazine article is optioned for film. The author of the article gets credit, but professional screenwriters are brought in to do the actual writing. But the magazine writer is still writing about someone else’s story.
There’s an answer to all this on the horizon. It’s to find an alternative way to do what agents do, but in a more streamlined, democratic, inclusive way. Agents are looking for a reason to say no to potential new clients. My literary agent once told me that she receives some 300 unsolicited queries a week from writers looking for representation and she takes about 2 new authors a year. The numbers are bleak from the perspective of us writers. What if there were something in place of traditional agents?
A new enterprise seeks to fill just that role. It’s called Storyagent (https://www.storyagent.net/). It functions as an online platform through which storytellers (who could be professional writers or simply people with amazing stories to tell who will eventually require the assistance of a pro writer in order to tell it) can upload their stories—anything suitable for screens, from documentaries to docu-series to drama and feature film. These stories are secured in a blockchain so that there is never any doubt as to authorship and ownership. The upload is facilitated by a Q&A system in which the software asks questions that producers will need to know. What happens in each act? What’s the profile of the protagonist? Does the story require special effects? And so on. It walks you through, so that anyone can present their idea. You can then upload a spec script or treatment, or just go with the Q&A format. Storyagent employs a team of people, the Story Desk, to check over each story, to make sure they are sufficiently developed to present to producers. The platform crowdsources initial opinions on the stories or scripts from a pool of enthusiastic power users called Story Pros—they are open to recruiting more, so if you’re interested in the idea you should be in touch via the website. This element of crowdsourcing opinions from enthusiasts can provide valuable initial insights that help producers decide whether a story is right for them. Then these stories sit safely on the platform while producers can browse them, search by a variety of parameters (for example, looking for a comedy with a middle-aged female lead role), or even upload calls for specific story types (like political dramas or, in the current world mindset, uplifting true stories of finding cures for diseases). Producers can then option stories for development through the platform, automatically, with Storyagent ensuring more transparent copyright protection and ownership through blockchain technology. They also have built-in protection mechanisms, for instance limiting development periods for producers so writers don’t get trapped by being optioned and then nothing happens.
The founder of Storyagent, Tomi Cegnar, focuses on the democratizing element to the platform. “I think every human has an extraordinary story worth sharing. It might be a short dramatic event in their lives or an amazing whole life story. Everyone is welcome to the platform, where we can help them hone their stories and present them to an audience of producers eager to find their next big project.”
For now, this is an ingenious, forward-thinking alternative to the slow-motion, old-fashioned agent system with enormous potential. It’s just a matter of whether or not it catches on.
Dr. Noah Charney is a professor of art history, best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author and a frequent contributor to Film International. He will be running a Kickstarter campaign for a limited edition book and companion smartphone app called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to How to Teach Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day.