How do emerging filmmakers get an agent, and what agents are looking for?

Matthew Bates, Sayle Screen, talks about the ins and outs of being an agent, client/agent relationships, and what agents look for when signing new talent.

14 June 2016


Matimba: We’re here with another podcast from BFI NET.WORK and I'm Matimba Kabalika. Welcome back if you’ve been here before, and if this is your first time, let me tell you what were up to. Around here we work to discover, develop and fund new and emerging filmmakers. So we wanted to bring you some of the people who hold the most influence and have the best understanding of the UK film industry.
Sayle Screen's Matthew Bates is one of the U.K.'s top agents. He reps well class established and emerging talent. His client list includes Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard, Fyzal Boulifa, and Rungano Nyoni. Here we talk about what it takes to catch the attention of a well-respected taste maker. Plus I got to meet the office dogs Sydney and Lotti. And just so you know, this one might contain a…a few rude words.
Marie: Oh no cos that sounds sexy!
Matimba: Yes and that will make people listen! The BFI gets sexy, and just so you know this one might have a couple of swear words. might? It does.
Because normally I do my little Oprah bit at the beginning, Matthew. 
Matthew: [inaudible 00:00:43] 
Matimba: But it's so lovely to be here with Matthew Bates at Sayle Screen, and we absolutely love your offices. 
Matthew: Thank you, I like my offices too. 
Matimba: Gorgeous, lots of light. 
Matthew: Light, and it's a quirky building with dogs. 
Matimba: Yes. Loving the dogs, they're very cute. And also we're kind of off the King's Road. 
Matthew: Yes, the once fashionable, now rather boring, Kings Road. Anyway, that's where we are. 
Matimba: So Matthew, can you talk to us a little bit about the role of an agent, as you see it, an overview, the role of an agent? 
Matthew: I do sometimes talk to new filmmakers and discuss the role of agents. The phrase that, I think, helps encapsulate it is the agents, whether they're agents for directors or whether they're agents for cinematographers or designers or even agents outside the film business for people like artists. What they're doing is they're working with creative clients, and so they're looking after the business side of a creative client's life. So that helps a creative client spend more time being creative. That's sort of overview of what agents do, but it kind of breaks down into four very separate headings of quite different things that I do as an agent. This is not comprehensive, but it sort of helps divide it up. 
First obvious thing is that we negotiate contracts for our clients. So anytime anyone is asked to do anything, a contract automatically sort of exists. I can say to my nephew, "Can you clean my car and I'll give you a fiver," that's a contract. So they can be very short things or they can be really complex things, optioning rights in a screenplay is a long detailed document. And the obvious, obvious thing that we negotiate is money, how much is someone going to get paid for the work that they're doing. An agent knows what ought to be in a contract, knows what money is right for certain types of work, and so we negotiate. 
The next thing, which is very different but important, is we give a kind of career guidance. We can take step back and do an overview of where a client is and where a client would like to go, and try to help find a path to get there, strategy and tactics. What else, we do a sort of...That's a dog coming into the room if anyone wants to know what that noise was. We actively promote our clients, for our writers and directors, relationships and being known in the industry is important, and so we go out there and we tell people about our clients, but also people come to us and say, "Tell us about your clients." 
And finally the thing that we do, which is also quite interesting and useful, is that we give a creative feedback. It can be for anything, from a phone call discussing the seedling of an idea through to reading somebodies completed first draft of a script. What I try to do with my creative feedback is to try to prevent people heading off down blind alleys with new ideas if I can see that something's just...there's just not a market for it or somebody's got off on the wrong foot, they may be something really interesting in a theme in something, but maybe they just haven't found the narrative to drive it, for somebody, just to try not to have people wasting much time and expectations. That's one thing to do, but also agents should be a very sort of soft place for clients to discuss ideas or to have someone read their work early on. We should be a much less daunting set of ears than a producer or a commissioner or something, that we ought to be very receptive and open to new things and not daunting. So those are the sort of four areas: creative feedback, promotion, career guidance, and contractual stuff, that's kind of what agents do under the banner of looking after the business side of people’s lives. 
Matimba: Such an exciting job.  
Matthew: Like lots of jobs, Matimba, a lot of. It feels like 97% versions of admin, 1% really exciting. 
Matimba: But exciting admin because it's like it's admin for people you've chosen. 
Matthew: Yeah, maybe it's the 20 years of doing it. No, of course, it's so varied. 
Matimba: I can imagine, but it's quite interesting because you...all the stuff that you've been talking about, I was just saying to Marie before we came, I was at an event on the weekend, and I was talking to this guy and he said, "I'm not with my agent anymore and I just need an agent, I just need anyone," and I was like, "Hmmm, okay..." and I often meet people who have that feeling like, "I just need an agent." And, I guess, for emerging film makers, especially when you've done a short that's had a lot of attention and stuff like that, everyone's like, "Okay, agent. I need an agent." So what advice would you give to a filmmaker in that position? 
Matthew: Having just run through all the things I do, and making them sound quite interesting and useful is difficult for me to say anything other than, yes, I can see why people feel they need an agent, but that stage for somebody who's had a short that's attracting a lot of attention, I can see the helpfulness of an agent. But I get, I'm slightly conflicted about the sort of urgency of it, and it does vary from case to case. And this, I'm so not categorical about this, but sometimes I think it's not unhelpful for new filmmakers to go out there and fight a few battles themselves, and I think sometimes that exercise is quite helpful. And I look at my clients and it's clear that quite a lot of them fought those battles and worked their way through without an agent before I came along, and I've heard it said, and I've been thinking about it since. If you're getting into the world of feature film and you know the film that you want to make, then you need a producer who's going to make it happen, and an agent can't make it happen, they can introduce you to people who can make it happen. 
Matimba: I think that's the best advice I've heard. It's interesting when you were talking about all the jobs that an agent does, and lots of agents have quite a few clients, so if you've got all those roles to do for quite a few people... 
Matthew: You need to be focused on new people. New people, again, it's impossible to use these generalisations, but they take up a lot of time, if they're not taking up a lot of time, it's probably a question why because you need to put a certain amount of energy into them. You're not going to reap any financial reward for that time, for really quite a long time, and there's a numbers game in this. You know that if you take people on at an early stage, quite a lot of them, for whatever reason, are not going to get to the point when they're going to be making you money. There's too much life stuff and luck that happens from when somebody say has a very good short through to when they're actually making money. How do people survive financially? Do they stay living in this country? Do they marry a millionaire and find they're never going to work? Too many things happen along the way, so an agent taking someone on at an early stage has in the back of their mind, "We may never get to that place where they're making lots of money. We can all work hard towards it, but this person may not go on to have a career." 
Matimba: Which brings me on nicely to talking about your client list because it's brilliant, it's not massive, it's brilliant. And I'm interested to know what it is that you're...what you personally look for when you take someone on? 
Matthew: The earlier stages...well, at any stage, there've probably three boxes which subconsciously or even sometimes very consciously I need to have ticked. The really obvious one is that sort of understanding that this person has an extraordinary talent. They have to be talented and that talent has to be extraordinary because the world in which we work is not a huge world, and only the unique, surprising, powerful voices are going to punch through. People love those voices, and as time goes on it doesn't mean to say I'm boxing myself off into a corner of only having weird, niche, art house people, but those kind of people, people love them and they will have them do much bigger commercial stuff down the road, so a strong voice. 
Another really crucial thing is a sense of commitment and reality about the business that they're going into because, as I've said, it's really unpredictable and harsh and slow. So in the early days, if, I think, someone doesn't grasp quite what a difficult world they're going into and isn't up for that fight, then I have a big question mark about them. But you can see from what they've been doing, whether they are engaged in that world already at some level, whether they've already begun to sort of make their own connections and meet people and really embed themselves in that world. Quite good to be unrealistic, but wildly unrealistic about what's going to happen. A bit of unrealism kind of smoothes the bumps. 
So those two things. The other thing which is worth people having in their heads is that the creative industries like screenwriting and directing are profoundly collaborative. And so what I also look for is somebody who I think other people will respond to on quite a personal level, and if I don't respond to them on a personal level then, again, alarm bells ring because I know that what really, really helps is that somebody is going to be, what the Americans call "good in a room." That people are going to want to see them and invite them back and think, "Oh goody, so-and-so is coming in today to talk about the story ideas, that will just be productive and enjoyable." So I do look for that sort of ability to get on with people, and be enjoyable to be around, and energetic, and inspirational just as a person. 
Matimba: It must be really important because, I think, it's almost like you've prepped because every time I'm about to ask you the next question you kind of lead into it. Which... 
Matthew: I promise I'm not looking at your piece of paper, Matimba. 
Matimba: It's about that client agent relationship and how that relationship works on both side in terms of the expectations. Can you talk a bit about...? 
Matthew: Yes. Well, again like loads of things I've been saying, there's no golden rules and every client has a very different relationship with every different agent, but I think there's a sort of bottom line which is that relationships between client and agent over time is surprisingly close. It's a relationship that depends heavily on mutual trust because when you're deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of people's lives, when somebody gets to the point where they've given up their day job and they are making their living through writing or directing, I know precisely how much money they are earning, when and how. Because of that I probably have an idea of how pressing their mortgage payments are, what their family lives are, how many children they've got. Yet all of these things you kind don't mean to, but you find that just on that quite day-to-day level you're involved in their lives. 
So there's that side of things, but also you're making career decisions together so if you don't trust each other then you're going to be thinking about, "He's just going off beam and making stupid mistakes," or a client may think of me, "Well, Matthew reckons I ought to go and work with these people, but actually I don't really believe what he's saying. Why would he know?" So there's a trust about decisions, and there's a trust about decisions too. I say, "I need X amount of money for you to be doing this job." If they think, "I don't believe in Matthews's ability to cut my fee," then they'll always wonder whether they've been paid the right amount. All these things are very kind of basic. So there's a deep level of trust between agents and clients, it's a quite essential cog in that kind of day-to-day life and you're in touch with them quite a lot about any number of aspects of their work, and sometimes even work blends sometimes into home life, inevitably. So it is, it's quite a sort's a business relationship, but it's one that's...that it has a lot of trust between people. 
Matimba: It's like a marriage. 
Matthew: It's not like a marriage, Matimba, because slightly ruthlessly at 6:00 on a Friday evening... 
Matimba: You don't care anymore. 
Matthew: I'm like...None of my clients should be listening to this. American agents, I see them emailing all weekend, and occasionally I will, of course, if things need doing, but it's my job. 
Matimba: Well, that's another interesting thing because Americans have like agents and feels like a whole different beast. Would you say? 
Matthew: It is a different beast in America because it's a bigger world, the money's much higher, the stakes are way higher. It's a machine that functions in an entirely different way to the U.K. machine, and if we're talking about U.K. film industry compared to Hollywood, they're not really comparable. Hollywood is a massive, well-funded machine that works in quite a specific way. Whereas...We're the best one in the world. The U.K. film industry is just a bit more random, and is more passion driven than financial driven in lots of ways. No one goes into the creative industries in the U.K. thinking, "This is the way to make my living." But plenty of people fight their way into the post rooms of CAA because as an agent at a big agency you can make enormous amounts of money. That's just one element of the American business, there's lots of money to be made in America, and so the thing works differently. And people in America are brilliant, they're very committed and very clever. Not that we're not all very committed and very clever over here, but they really sort of function at a high level. They impress me. 
Matimba: But I think something that you said earlier goes back to the point, because when you look at someone like Andrew and you choose someone like that because of their absolute brilliance, and that just translates into somebody who's world-class in every way, who kind of cuts the costs. So... 
Matthew: Yes, there have been times earlier in my life as an agent when I have wondered whether my natural interest in the more distinctive voices has meant that I might be building myself into a corner, but time has shown that the people who look really idiosyncratic are actually people who everyone loves. So just at the moment, for example, Andrea Arnold who's a fierce independent filmmaker. If I wanted or if Andrea wants, we could have her directing any television show in America. She has just directed episodes of Transparent, which is an amazing show and it's probably absolutely in the bullseye of the sort of television Andrea could be doing, but that's one thing. And I also look after extraordinary Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos who's utterly idiosyncratic, but again, and particularly because he's got very energetic American representation, the breadth of offers that he gets for film and television is really fascinating. 
Matimba: And is there, you don't have to name names, but has there ever been somebody that you thought, "I really wanted to represent them," and it didn't happen for whatever reason, and you think... 
Matthew: Yeah, definitely. But there's a lot of agents out there in the U.K. and they're clever, and I don't resent when...well, I'm always a bit crossing that in an effort to be competitive way. But there are really good people out there doing really interesting work, and I would enjoy working with them. So, yes, all the time. 
Matimba: There also must be stuff that didn't work out and you think, "Oh, actually..." 
Matthew: As agents you're approached all the time by new people, and you just have to think, "There'll be some that get away." Again, you kind of look over your shoulder and think, "They're making a film now. If I really put my foot down, I could have been representing them." You drive yourself mad doing that. 
Matimba: And what about, again, asking everybody to talk about, to kind of throw out a challenge...I keep using the word gauntlet, and I've got to stop, I'm out of control. Marie, you said, "Are you going to say gauntlet?" And I said, "No," and now I've said it, it's happened. 
Matthew: The gauntlet? 
Matimba: The gauntlet. So emerging filmmakers, I guess...because you've been doing your job for such a long time you get to see people coming through. What do you see is...what would the challenge be? 
Matthew: Gosh, it's really good question. It's a bit pathetic the way one always has a sort of touchstone film or title in one's mind anytime, but I have to say the thing that's in my head at the moment is Tangerine. There's no reason why a British filmmaker couldn't get out there and do something as surprising and bold and cheap as Tangerine. So does that answer your gauntlet question? 
Matimba: I don't know how Matthew's managed it, but it all sounds plaid because during this podcast we've mentioned Tangerine. I talk about Tangerine all the time, I'm absolutely obsessed. 
Matthew: But then we've become clichés then, until we've got to find something less obvious. 
Matimba: But I do see that film and you see the energy and you see just come out of it, and you kind feel...I know you can see what I'm doing here. 
Matthew: It's great fun, it's full of imagination, it gives you a boost of energy. Somebody's just rolled up their sleeves and said, "Okay, I'm carrying on." 
Matimba: Absolutely. 
Matthew: "And I'm just going to make something," and that's the challenge. It's a big challenge, but sometimes who dares wins, really. Less timidity, less trying to predict what's going to work and more fuck it. 
Matimba: I think I'm going to...I wonder if that could be BFI NET.WORK merchandise, "Less timidity, more fuck it." I just think that's what we need. 
Matthew: I think they'll let us in to the black-tie screenings with that on our back. 
Matimba: We could get some T-shirts made. 
Matthew: It's a done deal. 
Matimba: Thank you so much, that's the end of my questions. 
Matthew: Good. It's been an absolute pleasure. I hope it's not...I do my disclaimer, because this is only my way of looking at things. Other people listen to this say, "That's nonsense." But fine, other people see things in different ways. 
Matimba: No, what's going to happen is you're going to get approached by everyone now who wants you to represent them, and they're going to come with these wilds. 
Matthew: Bring it on. 
Matimba: Thanks to the musical talents of Rory Dempsey, the BFI NET.WORK team and producer Marie. We want to know what you think of the podcasts so tweet us @bfinetwork. Bye for now. 
I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. It's like a different person. I feel like you're seeing me naked or something. It's like all my madnesses are coming out.