We were delighted when our screenwriter coaching client Imogen Dall recently signed with literary agent Andrew Mills at JAB Management. We sat down with Andrew and asked him to share with us some insight into being a literary agent and how he works with new writers.
There’s a lot of misunderstandings about what agents do and don’t do for their clients. Can you describe what you do as an agent?
I provide a full service management for a career. My job is to try and help my clients get from where they are to where they want to be. During that process it is to handle their contracts and payments, find work and place work, advise, introduce, encourage. I feed into nearly every draft or cut of every project, from the first idea hopefully until release. The ideal is to take on new talent and represent them until they or I retire.
What do you like most about being an agent?
I love working very closely with my clients, helping them develop their projects, finding partners for them to work with and of course the best moment is when you see something on screen. Seeing a director on set surrounded by crew and cameras, working over a scene with actors is a joy, it’s like setting them free. A writer hearing their words delievred by cast on stage or on screen likewise. All that work has come to this. Naturally this is even more rewarding with new or underrepresented voices, or a parent ‘returning’ to the industry, or for someone who has had a few knocks or lean years. When perseverance, hard work and determination are rewarded, this industry really can make dreams come true.
What do you find most frustrating about being an agent?
I don’t have the time to take on all the talent I would want to – I don’t believe in taking on lots of people and just seeing who makes it, I try to find people I believe can make it and who I can help. Obviously there’s a lack of finance in a large part of the UK film industry which often means projects languish while funds are found. And, although it is improving, there’s still a massive wall to knock down when breaking into television.
The most unpleasant part of agenting is seeing voices go unheard for reasons other than their level of talent. The DUK and BFI’s recent announcement is long overdue but very welcome as a first step towards more equal representation of voices and stories. My list is admittedly still skewed to white male but any new talent to JAB is unlikely to be. And if I expand JAB and reopen my list officially, I will commit to matching the BFI’s recent targets for representation, or better them.
What was the career path that led you to becoming an agent?
I graduated, moved to London, found a job at HMV and then began writing to anyone I could find in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I landed an interview to assist at a book agency after six months, who introduced me to their sister rights and film/tv agency where I was lucky enough to land my first job (2003). From there – assisting until feeling ready to begin representing, until finally solely representing. In my former companies I learned from some very talented and supportive agents with fantastic client lists and they enabled me to grow and then set up my own company, JAB, in 2013
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say are the qualities you have that allow you to do your job well?
There most certainly aren’t! It is vital to work as an assistant first, to learn the basics of contracts, make contacts, understand the industry as a whole. It’s more like an apprenticeship if you get a good home to start in, as I did. Or you move across from another side of the business. You have to be creative – to feed into projects and to contract constructively. You have to have great attention to detail. Mainly, you have to love the industry as it cannot be just a job, it is a lifestyle.
What routine, if any, do you start each working day with?
Check the bank accounts – clients love to be paid swiftly, so this is job one each morning, after a quick check of the emails of course. A surf of the obvious social networks for news, articles, information, stories, updates. Then it’s onwards with all the most pressing jobs that are ongoing. A lot of the role is chasing all sorts of people up on things.
Can you give us some idea of a typical working day?
There isn’t a typical day, as my client list is varied and the projects clients are working on are very different. The only typical things are really chasing up contracts, payments, meetings, reads… The day opens as above, and tends to end on a few calls in an attempt to move projects forwards, followed by listing out the jobs for the next day. Of course at 17.00 LA tends to take over the afternoon’s work but I often schedule those calls for after 8pm once my son is asleep. In between you’re basically as proactive or reactive as the day permits. If it’s quiet there’s always reading to do, or new people to make contact with, or old contacts to catch up with.
When you’re looking to expand your client list, how you do you find new writers?
I am lucky that most new clients now come through recommendations and introductions. I do get four or five approaches from ‘unsolicited’ talent each day, from around the world. That’s no reflection on me, it’s more a reflection of just how much new talent there is out there. I simply can’t consider or respond to every approach let alone read all the material, and admit I have to simply delete most emails if there isn’t a clear reason to save it – great idea, good credits, a personal note – for further reading when I have time. I do proactively encourage industry colleagues to think of me, especially the people who seem to understand what I want from/in a client and with a particular interest in satisfying the representation targets mentioned above. Ultimately, being a one man show for now, it really has to be someone I simply can’t say no to.
What should a new writer look for in an agent?
Great question! There seems to be an aura around agents – get one and your career is kicked off, that we are all powerful gatekeepers. Ideally talent should be looking for experience, a relevant client list (but not all the same) and someone who totally gets both their work and voice and what they want to do with their life. I am personally a bit suspicious of agents who are also producers, writers, and all sorts of other things as well… Ask yourself what you want an agent to do, and if you can answer that, you’re looking for the agent best placed to do it. Are you focusing on TV or film or both or more? Are you a writer working on commissions, or focusing on selling your own projects? Of course it’s rarely that clear cut, and writers especially surf the original / for hire, tv / film / stage / radio worlds, and on into genres, but it’s wise to have a focus in an overcrowded industry. A good agent can help you navigate all the various outlets for your stories.
What qualities do you look for in a new writer?
Hard work and dedication, they will need it. A true voice and hopefully something original. Someone I am (and the rest of the business) going to enjoy working with – collaborative, creative, open and honest. And ideally some sort of experience already.
But there’s no rule – someone who surprises you, some writing or directing you just can’t ignore. If we looked at Imogen as an example, I hope she won’t mind…! Imogen had some interesting credits, she was part of an established and respected professional development scheme, she had studied relevant areas – all showing her commitment, dedication and talent. But mainly it was because her sample was the first script I had read in a couple of years that actually made me laugh out loud. It was just joyful to read.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other?
All I really expect of my clients is that they commit to the industry. When they are paid to work, they will work hard and deliver as required. I expect them to be realistic about the industry and the audience. I hope they trust me to crack on with things, but be respectful of my time (or lack of it!).
A client should expect their agent to best advise them at all times – not dictate, but to give considered professional management of their projects and career, based on experience. They should trust that their agent is out meeting people, pushing scripts and ideas when appropriate and ideally not so busy with an over stuffed client list that nothing is happening behind the scenes. And of course that the client is the focus – not being pushed in directions they don’t want to go.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship?
If I am intrigued enough by an approach to read / view work, I will. If I like the work then we open a dialogue over email / phone about what else is on the horizon, ideas, plans, aims. I will most likely need to read and watch more work – earlier, rougher, new, whatever helps me understand the (potential) client. Then we’ll meet. Representation usually begins organically after that – we both have to get to know each other, trust needs to build on both sides, expectations need to be managed on both sides. We commit to each other, build the strongest possible work to make an introduction to the wider business – that great spec, the amazing short, and a handful of intriguing new ideas, and then we’re off!
At what stage in their career should new writers approach agents and start seeking representation?
If there’s one thing the industry loves it’s good news. Decent traction in a competition, a festival, a graduation – good times to then spark interest. You’ll have a body of work by then – a couple of great samples in the areas you want to get into. Hopefully a few contacts from festivals, talks, courses, correspondence. And a list of ideas as long as you can manage. The key tools for me with a new writer are a corking sample script and enough ideas to follow up with in a meeting. I don’t expect to place that sample necessarily, but it must convince readers there’s a talent there to get to know – well structured, captivating characters, believable dialogue. A great spec is an audition.
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation?
If I were to guess at what agents in general want from an approach, it would be short and succinct, it would say who you are and why you’ve chosen to write to ‘x’. It would mention the best sample for the agent to read and very briefly what it is and why. Any industry contacts who’ve put in a good word should be mentioned, along with a bit of your experience (cv attached!). I think three weeks is a fair wait before following up. Try not to cc all the agents you’re writing to (people do!), don’t write ‘Dear Sir’, do a spell check (people don’t!)… Think who best to write to – not much point writing to an agent with fifty a-list filmmakers who keep them very busy, but how about the junior agent in their busy office?
For me, the list feels comfortably full right now with new and established talent. That’s simply because I am fortunate enough to be kept very busy by my writers and filmmakers. Now and again I can open it up to new voices at which point the above is fine for me. But I am working on expansion plans, so this may change early 2018…
Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me?
Outdated gender and race portrayals are of no interest to me – I want to see a slice of modern life that is relevant to modern audiences. Without meaning to sound arrogant, you just have to be respectful that we don’t have a lot of time to consider writers or directors – we work for our clients full time and it isn’t our ‘job’ to read and respond to new talent. We WANT to do that, absolutely, there’s nothing more exciting than stumbling across work that really fires you. But the amount of emails I get that are basically presumptuous or rude – it just isn’t going to inspire you to get stuck in to their work. Oh, and retired hitmen movies. Don’t send me any more retired hitmen movies.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Root out ideas for your armory and focus on one or two really exciting speculative scripts and nail them. Either a) think logistically and make these projects with at least the potential to be made – consider budgets, audience, current trends in story / genre; or b), as I prefer, just go mad – write exactly what you want to write (however big, crazy, wonderful) but make it a masterclass in script basics – dialogue, structure, character arcs. For me the benefit of b) is you’re more likely to love the process which the readers will sense, and it’s a great way to show anyone who reads it who the true storyteller is behind the script. It might be too big and weird and joyful to make as your first credit, but if it stands out for readers, if it’s memorable, if it’s wonderfully constructed, maybe you’ll land those meetings, be thought of again in the future… and you never know, maybe it will just blow someone away.