Finding My People: A basement-level writer's take on the WGA and ATA
April 19, 2019
I’m a WGA member and I didn’t have to leave my agent this week, because I don’t have one. And I think the story of why I don’t currently have one says something about why the Guild has merit to take on the ATA.
After graduating college in ’06 with a screenwriting degree, my first impulse was to get an agent. That was literally the first question I asked people who were willing to dole out advice: how do I get an agent? Turns out, the simplest way is to sell something. That sounds counterintuitive, and it probably is, but that’s what worked for me and for many others. After graduating, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. One year, I wrote / co-wrote 9 pilots. One of those pilots was co-written with an Israeli writer friend of mine via Skype. He messaged me on facebook one day to say Canal Plus wanted to buy it. I thought he was joking. He messaged me again to ask who my agent was so they could start to negotiate the deal. I didn’t have an agent. Not even close. But, I had a couple of mentors at that point, who both happened to be repped at a big-four agency and they called their agents to ask for a favor. Within a few hours, the man who would become my agent called me. He had been recently promoted, handled international deals, and was with a big agency. When he called, I told him a little bit about myself and the project, and THIS IS NOT MADE UP, he responded with, “I’ll call the studio tomorrow and tell them you have people now.” I had people now. For a 28-year-old who had spent the last 7 years hustling without so much as anyone offering to read, it was a freaking dream.
Well, as things tend to happen in this business, the project ultimately didn’t happen. But, my agent called me every day to update me. I got to pitch to execs and go through the experience of selling a show. Plus, I felt secure knowing I had “people” behind me. It was a wonderful time. Also around the same time, I was adapting another pilot I wrote into a webseries, and I was about to work as a writers’ assistant on a high-profile show. My boss had read one of my other pilots and liked it. A few months later he would offer me the freelance episode on that high-profile show. Two of my other pilots were being developed with producers. Things were happening.
And throughout all this, my agent and I emailed all the time and went out for drinks. I pitched him other ideas I had and sent him other scripts. He gave notes and wonderful feedback and advice. He was present and there when I needed him to be. I felt seen and heard. I felt like I had people, like he had said.
Then the show I was working on got canceled and I didn’t get to write that freelance episode. For the first time since I graduated, I wasn’t working. But, I was busy with the webseries and my other ventures (and planning a wedding, if I’m being honest). The pilots that were in development were suddenly put on hold. But, staffing season was around the corner. I was ready. I was excited. My agent took me out to breakfast so we could strategize. I told him the pilots I liked and he agreed with my sensibilities. At one point he asked if I could work on any show, what would it be. Before I could answer, he said he wanted to see if he could guess. He wrote down his answer on a napkin. We said the same show. I’d never felt more seen creatively. When I got home from breakfast, I made a chart (as my Virgo OCD brain loves to do) of the pilots I read and wanted to work on, as well as the pilots I had personal connections to. I didn’t need to meet on everything, but I had a solid list. I emailed it to him and anxiously wait for the meetings to start rolling in.
I got zero meetings that year. I’m not even sure if I was submitted anywhere.
Disappointment crashed down on me like a wave. This was supposed to be my year. I was about to turn 30, get married, and start my life as a full-fledged writer. All the pieces were in place, so what happened?
When I asked my agent why I wasn’t able to get a single meeting, his grumbled off some excuse about how studios were really pushing for diversity hires that year and they weren’t even looking at staff writers who weren’t diverse. “Not even for a meeting?” I questioned. No. Huh, weird. “But my “white straight male” friend just got hired on such and such show.” “He must’ve had a personal connection to the showrunner.” He didn’t. But I did. The showrunner said I hadn’t even been submitted. Weird. When I asked my agent what I should do, he suggested I go back to being an assistant. “That’s probably the only way you’re going to get staffed, honestly.” Ouch, that stung. But, okay. That was what I had to do. Go back to making less than 40k a year while working 60-hour weeks. Biting my tongue instead of being able to pitch. And watch less experienced people leapfrog over me. But, I had been doing it for nearly ten years at this point. What was another couple? I started working as a script coordinator and focused all my extra time to writing. Maybe next staffing season would be better.
It wasn’t. This time, my agent didn’t take me out to breakfast. This time he didn’t give as many notes on my sample. He might not have given any at all. And this time I know I wasn’t submitted because when I asked him to submit me to the show I was working on, which he said he did, I asked the showrunner and showrunner’s assistant directly and they both hadn’t received an email from him. It took him nearly a week before I was submitted and at that point, the show was staffed. It was shitty.
I continued to work as an assistant, I continued to write as much as I could, and I continued to call and email my agent about opportunities and advice, but his emails and calls were becoming less frequent. And then I was going out to pitch another pilot I had co-written and my writing partner’s manager said my agent wasn’t returning her calls, either. Things were not looking good. I felt like I didn’t have “people” anymore. I felt abandoned, right when I needed him most.
Since we were about to go into another staffing season and I didn’t want a repeat of the following two years, I decided to write my agent a very straightforward email asking why I was having such difficulty getting a hold of him and that perhaps if he couldn’t support me the way that he had in the past, I needed to move on. My hands literally shook as I sent the email.
He responded back almost right away. It was a lovely email in which he said how much he believed in me and knew I was going to have a successful career, but he was getting pressure from his department and didn’t have the bandwidth he would’ve liked for me. I expressed my gratitude and that was that. Nearly four years after what was supposed to be my “breakout year” I didn’t have a writing career and now I didn’t have an agent to help me get one. I lost “my people.”
But I kept writing. And I kept working as an assistant. And I had a baby. I felt frustrated, but not bitter. I learned how to advocate for myself. And I found my voice. I may not have had “people,” but I had myself and my community.
I’m a full-member of the WGA. I did not have an agent to part with this past week, but I support our guild. And now, they have supported me when I needed it most. With both the #WGAStaffingBoost and #WGASolidarityChallenge and the new WGA Staffing Board, I had multiple showrunners and production companies reach out to me to read my sample. And I just set my first meeting, of hopefully many to come. My fellow writers and myself have done more for my career in the past few days than my agent did in the four years I was with him. That’s not to say he isn’t an amazing human and I would never work with an agent again. Not at all. But, I am saying that it turns out I had “my people” all along.