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Ask Phil

Therapist and screenwriter Phil Stark answers reader questions about topics at the intersection of screenwriting and mental health. Got a question for Phil? Email him at

Ask Phil: Navigating the agent / client relationship.

Dear Phil:

My agent is driving me crazy! He won’t return my calls, my emails don't get any response, I’m not getting notes on my scripts, it’s like I don’t exist to him. I find myself thinking about it all day, and it’s stressing me out both emotionally and physically. I feel totally helpless and stuck. What can I do?

--Frustrated Client

Dear Frustrated Client,


I hear you on this one, Frustrated Client. The agent / client relationship you’re describing was one I struggled with for a long time. An agent’s job is to get their clients work, which is a business relationship that most people don’t experience in their chosen fields. I remember friends in other industries talking about their networking woes or salary negotiations and feeling relieved that I had an agent to do all that for me. However, now I see how that can become a trap. You’re walking around resentful and angry all day because you’ve farmed out responsibility for your career to your agent, you don’t like how it’s going, and you don’t know what to do about it.


The best way you can eliminate some of this frustration is by taking back the responsibility for your own career. Learn to be your own agent. Do more of your own networking, reach out to former co-workers for catch up chats, do the things you would want your agent to be doing for you. I wish I had done this earlier in my career. I was so eager to farm out all the networking to my agent that, if I saw a former co-worker sold a pilot, I would call my agent and tell them to give them a call instead of picking up the phone myself, because I didn’t want to seem desperate, or admit that I wasn’t working.


By putting in the work being your own agent you won’t be sitting around waiting for a phone call from your actual agent. And your actual agent will appreciate this! I think agents like working more for clients who hustle on their own rather than the ones who keep calling them to “check in” and “see what’s going on”.  A much better phone call to your agent would be about how you networked your way into talking to a show runner who’s between shows and is up for reading some of your material. Or asking a friend for an intro to a producer and setting your own meeting and then calling your agent to ask about any background about this producer you should know about going in. The worst phone calls to make are the weekly “what’s going on?” calls. In those situations you’re not bringing anything to the table.


Many creative types have a hard time pitching themselves. Something about the sensitivity of the artist, imposter syndrome, low self esteem, and many other factors that in my experience tend to appear more in creative types make promoting ourselves difficult. I used to approach this by externalizing a part of myself to become my own agent, to the point where I would draft emails to producers and executives talking about “My client, Phil Stark.” It was much easier for me to tell a producer about how great Phil’s new script was, how much Phil loves their show, and how Phil would be such a perfect fit on their staff, than it was for me to tell them about myself. After drafting these emails I’d go back and replace the Phil's with me’s and I's and be amazed at how confident I sounded. And I liked it!


You’ll notice that in these suggestions I haven’t mentioned writing at all. That’s something you should always be doing: brainstorming, revising, pitching, the never ending cycle of development. What I’m talking about here is the networking side of the business, and it’s a muscle you can develop. The more agenting you do for yourself, the more empowered you will feel, the more your agent will appreciate you hustling, and the more likely you’ll eventually feel less frustrated than you do right now. 

Phil Stark is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He is also an author and screenwriter, with credits such as Dude, Where’s My Car?, That ‘70s Show, and South Park, along with a book about talk therapy, Dude, Where’s My Car-tharsis?. Learn more about Phil at

Ask Phil: Learning to set professional boundaries.

Dear Phil:

I’m a newbie trying to break into the business. I’m currently writing a feature for a producer who I met at a pitch fest, and at first I was excited to have someone want me to write something, but this script has become a never-ending project. I keep getting notes, keep writing drafts, and keep thinking I’m finished, but there’s always another note to take and another draft to write. I know I should stand up for myself but I don’t have any credits to my name, and this could be a great opportunity for me. Help!

--Feeling Like a Pushover

Dear Feeling Like a Pushover,


The situation you find yourself in is, unfortunately, all too common. Who’s to say when a script is actually finished? It’s hard enough when you’re making this decision on your own. Throw in a producer with a passion for giving notes and I can see why you’re frustrated. This situation is a perfect example of the struggle to balance every day mental health issues with entertainment industry considerations, so thanks for the question.


What we’re dealing here with is a boundary issue. The concept of boundaries is something that comes up regularly in my clinical work. A boundary is a limit or space between you and another person, an understanding of what both people want or don’t want, and a mutual respect for that. I am assuming by your chosen name of Feeling Like a Pushover that this pushover feeling might extend beyond this specific example to other areas of your life. Situations where you want (or don't want) something and the person on the other side of the situation doesn’t respect that. You’re frustrated about not getting what you want, and have a hard time saying what you don't want. 


Working with clients dealing with issues like this involves putting them in uncomfortable positions. No, not Headstand with Lotus Legs. I’m talking about having them do something they find truly difficult: saying what they don’t want. On a practical level this is simple: when sometime asks something of you that you don’t want to do, you simply say no. Now, when I bring this up with clients who self identify as pushovers they often shudder or shake their head incredulously, as if I’m asking them to do something impossible. The reason they find it so difficult to say no is because they are scared of how the person is going to react. What if they get angry? What if they’re disappointed? What if they make me feel guilty? Well, the truth is that's exactly what they will do, because they know this will cause you to cave in and do what they want you to do. The work in therapy then becomes about separating how other people feel about you from how you feel about yourself. Sure, this person might be angry that you said no to them, and this can make you feel guilty or ashamed, but who’s really got the problem here? Have you really done anything to feel guilty or ashamed about? Usually you haven't. It’s the person who can’t respect your boundaries who, instead of feeling these feelings themselves, is making you feel them. 


Of course, this situation plays out differently considering the entertainment industry angle. Sure, you can tell your partner you don’t want to walk the dog in the morning, and they might react unpleasantly, but you’re coming at it from a place of equals, as two people in a relationship. What happens if you say no to this producer? Well, I’m guessing at first he’ll try to steamroll you, to convince you it’s not that much work, to dangle the carrot of possible future success in front of you. If that doesn’t work, there might be another attempt with more anger and threats, with bullying, the you’ll-never-work-in-this-town approach. I can see you nodding your head, Feeling Like a Pushover, but the truth is, we don’t know what will happen. Situations like this make me think of the classic bully / victim dynamic, where the bully keeps picking on their victim until they encounter resistance. This is the idea that it sometimes takes a punch to the nose to get the bully to back off. So my advice is, punch this producer in the nose! (METAPHOR ALERT). This punch will arrive in the form of a clear, direct statement, where you say something like, “I’m frustrated that this project is never ending, so I’m going to do one more draft, but after that, I’ll be moving on to other projects.” The more simply and directly you state your feelings, the harder it will be for the producer to twist your words against you. And honestly, if this producer continues to try to manipulate you, you might be better off quitting the project and moving on to a healthier situation. 


This is not just a work dynamic for you, Feeling Like a Pushover. It’s a life dynamic. So don’t feel like you have to solve your issue with this producer right away. Start small, with situations from your everyday life. Practice saying no, and why. Learning to say no to little things will prepare you to be able to say no to bigger things, and by practicing this you will be setting boundaries that will create happier situations in your work and your life. 


Phil Stark is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He is also an author and screenwriter, with credits such as Dude, Where’s My Car?, That ‘70s Show, and South Park, along with a book about talk therapy, Dude, Where’s My Car-tharsis?. Learn more about Phil at

Ask Phil: Writing partners have relationships issues too.

Dear Phil: 

I hate my writing partner! We can’t agree on anything, from third act twists to what to get for lunch, and I think our writing is suffering as a result. I don’t want to break up though, because the town sees us as a team and we have several projects we’re developing with producers, but I admit I fantasize about writing on my own. Help!

--Unhappy Writing Parter


Dear Unhappy Writing Partner,

Writing teams are an interesting type of relationship, something people outside the entertainment industry are often surprised by (you mean you have to split the money?). I work with writing teams in my capacity as a therapist, and while they have their unique considerations specific to the industry and the writing work, they are similar to romantic relationships in that we still have two people who must work at learning to communicate in ways that express their true feelings, with the hope that this is a step along the path to a happier and more successful relationship. 


It sounds like your issues go beyond than third act twists or creative disagreements. Perhaps it’s time to have a serious talk about the future of your partnership? I ask because this situation reminds me of something I work on with couples when they express similar unhappiness with their situations, which is the vocalization of a super scary word: Divorce. Mentioning it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it sure makes things serious all of a sudden. If you are truly interested in changing the relationship with your writing partner, be open and honest with how unhappy you are. Talk about your feelings and your fears without trying to anticipate or manage theirs. Mentioning the idea of breaking up will certainly be scary, but just hearing those words might open up an area of conversation that had been up until now avoided. It’s a record scratch moment that can give you and your partner the perspective to see the big picture.


I would also recommend, if you’re interesting, thinking about couples therapy. The approaches therapists use with romantic couples are often the same ones used with writing teams, in terms of open communication, honest assessment, and a place of safety to talk about scary topics. I would advise you to tell your writing partner what you’re telling me, get the truth out there, point out the elephant in the room, and see what shakes out. I’ve known several writing teams that have reached this point in their careers, and it’s a common development. Some of these writing teams were able to process and overcome their conflict and continue their work together in a more rewarding, enjoyable way. Some of these writing teams did indeed break up, and for each writer there was process of personal growth and career redefining that resulted in them being much happier eventually than they had been in the partnership. 


Unhappy Writing Partner, all relationships hit their own lulls or rocky patches, and eventually we get to the point where we have to take our heads out of the sand and confront the truth. The issue is how long it takes us to work up the courage to do this. Sure, it’s scary to think about the possible change that could occur as a result of breaking up with your writing partner, or even mentioning the idea, but from what I’m hearing you are craving some kind of change, and you’re finally getting to the point where the pain of your current situation is starting to outweigh the pain of confronting that change. So talk about the scary things with your partner in an honest way, and no matter what the results are, you will be better off for it. 


Phil Stark is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He is also an author and screenwriter, with credits such as Dude, Where’s My Car?, That ‘70s Show, and South Park, along with a book about talk therapy, Dude, Where’s My Car-tharsis?. Learn more about Phil at

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