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DOCUMENTARY TIP #6: Are Agents Necessary?

Here’s the scene: Two doc filmmakers have the rights to make a story about the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier and one of the largest warships in the world. They go to an agent to help them sell it. Turns out the agent feels that the filmmakers and the story are not ‘sexy’ enough to sell. It needs something more.

The agent knows that Mel Gibson loves the military. Only problem is, she also knows that he hates reality TV. The idea is pitched to Mel anyways, and while he admits he still hates reality TV, he likes the military so much that he decides to fund the project, which becomes the 10-part series on PBS called ‘Carrier’.

This is what an agent can help you with, what an agent can do for you. An agent’s job is to get you work, so they are out there daily looking at the marketplace, finding out what networks are buying and what they are willing to spend. This is really valuable info that many of us producers do not have at our fingertips. They can also be a very helpful liaison between producers and executives. Agents build relationships with the network execs and if they have good track records with a number of them, this can be very beneficial to your career.

An agent can set up pitches for you, and make your deals for you (be the ‘bad guy’ at the bargaining table so you don’t have to). Theoretically they should get you 10% more work (the standard agent percentage fee). They must always be passionate about your work, and be able to strategize on an individual basis about how to sell you. Don’t go in blindly – be discerning about who you align yourself with. Make sure you do a thorough check up on them, asking around about them and their track record by seeing whom they are connected to at networks, etc.

So if they can be so good for your career, then how the heck do you get one?  Well most of the time you will have to have made a film or project of critical acclaim—one that won awards, got theatrical distribution or was aired on a major network—to even get a foot in the door. And then it usually takes a connection or recommendation to get the agent’s attention. This could be a producer’s rep, an attorney, a manager, or another well-established producer. Once you get this meeting you got to have tape that shows the quality of your work, and if possible a ‘sizzle reel’ for the show(s) you are developing.

Well if that what it takes, then that probably disqualifies a lot of folks.  Well, guess what?  I got some good news for you—I recently attended a panel for network doc program execs, which included Discovery, Animal Planet, Sundance Channel, National Geographic and the History Channel.  Across the board they all said that an agent is NOT necessary for a producer to get in the door.

So while an agent can be good for your career, in the land of docs and reality TV, they are not required. And in the end, you never want to rely fully on someone else – always work hard at getting your own work out there and into production regardless of whether or not you have an agent.

To find out more about developing and producing your documentary ideas, check out our Documentary How To video and audio tutorials.  Coming soon, a new audio course about Pitching Your Documentary Ideas.