I won't put a picture of Agent Matt up, partly because he operates from out of the shadows, and partly because I can't find one, but anyway, he's been my agent for a good five years now, I reckon, and he really is ver ver good. He is here now to answer the questions put to him ages ago, which he started answering, then went on holiday and forgot about, then Boz reminded me, and I reminded him, and now he's done them.
How and why did you become an agent?
It was pretty much an accident. I had just done an MA and was wondering what I wanted to do for a career when I got some work experience at an agency. And then, frankly, everyone kept leaving.... So I had started out as an assistant/reader, then a junior agent, and then was juggling a full list quite early on. Almost all agents start out as assistants, which is obviously a good training ground.
What qualities does a good agent need?
I suppose, like with most jobs, there’s an element of contradiction in being a good agent: you need to be hard-nosed but amenable, thick-skinned but sensitive, stubborn but diplomatic. In other words, there are different qualities needed when building relationships with clients and with producers, for instance. More generally, it helps to be good with names and faces, you need to be pretty organised (imagine having 30 clients working on say 3 or 4 different projects each with 3 or 4 more in the pipeline – that’s 240 entirely different projects to keep track of) and to have a good eye for detail. And obviously you need to know the right people (the ‘right’ people being different people for every writer), to know something of the mechanics of scriptwriting, and to have a pretty good understanding of writers’ agreements and contract law. (Those last few aren’t strictly ‘qualities’, I know.)
Do agents tend to stay being agents, or end up agenting for a bit and then moving on to different jobs in the media?
Personally, I can’t imagine doing something else now, but lots of agents take a break and turn up elsewhere, eg both the National Theatre’s associate director/literary manager and their literary contracts manager used to be agents and there are lots of ex-agents in the industry.
How many clients do you have to look after?
It varies, some agents might have less than 10, others might have upwards of 50. I suppose, to be crude, it would depend on how much money was being generated – my thinking would always be that I’d rather have a smaller list but with everyone working, rather than a big list with a handful of earners and lots of others struggling to compete for my time.
How often do you lie as part of your job?
Less than you might think. Obviously there are times when you don’t want to show all your cards, and you sometimes have to be creative in putting clients up for projects or levering for good deals, but that’s not really lying, is it? Is it?
How many places up the hatred pile are you from estate agents?
Before the previous question, I would have hoped the answer would be ‘quite a few’. Now, I’m not so sure.
Ari Gold: hero, role model or tosser?
A mixture of hero and tosser, but definitely not a role model. Murray from Flight of the Conchords is more of a personal hero for me.
Do you actively seek out new writers, or do you tend to have them recommended to you?
Both. Recommendations are always helpful (and will always push a script further up the ‘priority’ pile), but it’s also nice to be able to uncover an exciting new talent. When taking on a new writer, it’s almost more fun if they’re very new so that you’ve got a blank slate to start from, although their writing probably has to be that little bit more distinctive than if they already have a track record.
Have you ever put real slush in a slush pile?
Do you have certain times put aside for reading? How many scripts do you get round to reading at those times? How many are good?
Firstly, if anyone who reads James’ blog is still waiting for me to read their script, I’m really really really sorry for the delay. I try to take occasional reading days, but invariably these get taken up with reading clients’ scripts (some agents do lots of work with clients’ spec scripts, giving notes/feedback etc). I try to read scripts at evenings and weekends as much as possible, but my girlfriend gets mad at all the scripts cluttering up our flat. One thing that I think writers sometimes forget is that most agencies don’t employ external readers and they’re not actually obliged to read unsolicited scripts (unlike, say, the BBC or new writing theatres) so it inevitably takes a while to get a response.
What are the best ways to impress an agent? What are the worst?
At the risk of sounding obvious, the best way to impress an agent is to write a terrific script. One of the pleasures of representing writers (as opposed to actors, directors, technicians etc) is that writers always have the opportunity to display their wares – ie you can always show how good you are (rather than just having to submit a CV or a short film or a headshot or a showreel). So, in theory, good writing should always find a home. Although this might be wishful thinking on my part....
The worst way is to constantly chase for a response. Most agents do appreciate how frustrating it is waiting to hear back, but it sets alarm bells ringing in an agent’s head if they’re already getting hassle from a writer before even taking them on!
How long should someone wait after they've sent you a script to chase up yo lazy ass?
Hard to say, because every agent needs a different reading period. It’s fine to ask ‘how long before I might expect to hear?’ when you first make contact, but then don’t chase within that time period.
Have you ever veto-d anything on this blog?
Not as such, but occasionally I might have to gently remind James that he can’t really distribute copyrighted material illegally via his blog (eg Green Wing series 2 scripts as suggested last week).* He’s quite outspoken sometimes, but usually in quite a British way, so I don’t think he’s unwittingly made any enemies in the industry.** Not yet anyway.
What’s that on your shoe?
** This is true. I have made them entirely wittingly.