Breaking down gatekeeper blockades

Hi Dave – No, I’m not a comic. However, I’m a WGA screenwriter with a total focus on comedy screenplays. Can you tell me how to contact comedians’ agents without running into blockades? I mean the blockades typically set up by the gatekeepers of those agents. Best – HK

“Someone will get back with you… yeah… right.”

Hey HK – The bigger the comedian (think celebrity) the bigger the agency blockade will be. When you make a call without prior personal contact or a great reference, plan some extra time for holding, transfers and a final request to leave a voice message and “Someone will get back with you.”

Does anyone really know who that “someone” is? I doubt it because they rarely call back without the prior contact or reference. And unless you left a voice message with a great pitch (offer) that includes the opportunity for a lot of potential $$$’s (yeah, I’m jaded) you’ll spend a long time sitting by the phone waiting for that return call.

HK and I traded a couple emails and I remembered a past FAQ And Answer article about dealing with gatekeepers (the person who answers phone calls and forms a human blockade to keep you from speaking directly to an agent or celebrity). Except the suggestions in that article are different from the answers you’re looking for since it concerned comedians getting past gatekeepers to book paying gigs.

This week’s question is about contacting comedians and agents that would be interested in a screenplay.

But the theory is the same. You have to be SEEN and involved in the SCENE.

I know through experience from working at the LA and NYC Improv clubs (talent coordinator) that a lot of valuable entertainment industry contacts are made by networking. It’s being part of the scene. Not only did I get to work with many great comedians, but I also met a lot of agents, managers, producers and writers just by being in the clubs during shows. They’d come in to watch the comics, and then socialize (network) in the restaurant or bar areas after the show. Sometimes they were there because the comedians they already represent were performing, or they were looking for new talent.

On the lookout

And believe me a good agent or manager is always on the lookout for new talent. Some of them may claim to have a full roster and not accepting new clients, but if a performer simply blows them away and the agent or manager sees a good career opportunity for both of them, it’s their job to pursue it. That’s good business sense.

Now, to get back to today’s specific question…

I’ve also seen this with producers and writers looking to interest comedians and agents in a particular project. For instance, when I worked in LA I remember getting a LOT of calls from television and film people looking for comics that fit a specific “type.” The casting call could be for male or female, tall or small, fat or thin, black or white – or for whatever the TV or film part called for. They wanted to know if any comedians fitting the desired “type” would be on the show that night or if we could put together a live showcase (audition) during a future show.

That’s why you can sometimes go to a comedy club in LA or NYC and see a number of comedians in a row who are similar in type and only do a few minutes (3-5 minutes is norm) of material. They’re showcasing (auditioning) for someone in the audience.

After the showcase you can usually find everyone – comics and business execs – networking in club’s restaurant or bar. Business cards are exchanged and meetings are scheduled for agents and comedians who are right for the project.

The ones selected for these meetings and potential projects should have no problem getting past any gatekeepers. They’ve made a personal contact.

My point is that the comedians were SEEN because they’ve worked hard at becoming part of the SCENE. They were known by the club bookers as someone who fits what the writer, producer or casting person is looking for. That’s why the comics were called in for the showcase. It’s rare (in fact I’ve never seen it happen) that a booker will call in a comedian he’s never seen perform and knows nothing about for an important industry showcase.

It’s the same when you’re looking to hire talent or get them interested in a project such as a screenplay. Quit a few newcomers (amateurs) with stars in their eyes will jump at a chance to “be in a movie!” But the comedians who’ve been around for a while will not be so naïve. They understand it’s a business (at least they should). They might listen to a pitch if it’s from a reliable or known source (friends in the biz are always throwing ideas at each other) but if they’re really interested and have decent credits, they’ll probably have an agent you’ll end up pitching to before any deals are made.

Hang up the phone

So basically in your case, I’d forget about battling the gatekeepers by cold calling and scope out the comedians in person who you think would right for your screenplay. Become a part of the SCENE by going to the clubs and checking out their live performances. You might even discover a comic you’ve never heard of and further discover he’d be perfect for your film. Don’t be too aggressive (as a talent booker, that’s what turned me off the most). But take an opportunity to network after the show. Be professional and don’t come off like a stalker (you know what I mean) when you tell the comic about your project.

If the comedian is interested he can get you past any agency gatekeeper with one phone call requesting his agent talk with you. If you meet the agent and he thinks the project is right for his comedian client, he’ll have his gatekeeper set up a meeting.

Sound too simple? It’s really not and I shouldn’t make it sound that way because there are a LOT of people in the entertainment industry who practice the art of schmoozing. I assume that’s where the phrase, “Let’s do lunch,” was developed. But remember one thing:

No one would be doing it if it didn’t work.

If you’re already a known name with a big number ($$$’s) gatekeepers are no problem – you’ll get through. For everyone else (assuming talent and experience are already a “given”) it’s all about networking and contacts. Be part of the SCENE and there’s always a chance you’ll not only be SEEN but also HEARD.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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