The first part of this article on why building relationships is essential to achieving your industry goals was posted in March of 2020, just as Covid-19 was shutting things down. It didn’t feel right to publish this already completed Part Two, focused on how to build industry relationships through networking and real-life interactions, as we hunkered down and moved to life via Zoom and Clubhouse.
The writing conference I was scheduled to speak at in New York City in March 2020, obviously was cancelled. It was rescheduled for September 2021, only to go virtual. Scheduled for June 2022 and went online again. Now Story Expo is set for mid-September in Los Angeles – fingers crossed. Honestly, I was surprised that I could have great experiences at speaking engagements and teaching my online seminars – possibly even better while my A-List screenwriter guest speakers were stuck in lockdown and ever so available and eager to chat. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be face-to-face again.
I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for networking, but it is key to successful relationship building and that is essential to advancing a career for everyone in the industry. So crucial that I’ve written about this subject numerous times, from how to turn a cold query to scorching hot, to how to get an agent. It’s #2 on my list of the top three reasons you haven’t sold a script yet. I’ve given Practical Pointers on networking horizontally and vertically – peer to peer, as well as with those a level above you – with writers who are where you want to be, as well as with working industry professionals who can help you get there.
I’ve got a range of strategies for networking enthusiasts, as well as the networking adverse that apply whether you are in afloat in metaverse or floundering IRL, packed with real-life success stories.
Why Relationships Matter
In Part One, I spoke of my beloved Bill Goldman, creator of the wise and witty adage, and likely the most famous quote about the film industry, “Nobody knows anything.”
I had the temerity to add my own corollary:
Given that this is an industry filled with uncertainty, unknowns, and unpredictability, there is an inevitable amount of anxiety, thus:
Therefore, we like to work with people that we know.
It brings a level of comfort.
If there is any such thing as a corollary to a corollary, I would add:
If we can’t work with people who we know, then we want to work with people who people we know know.
That brings us to the awesome and awe-inspiring power of the People Who People Know Know, and how to harness that to build a career.
Relationships Superpower: Who You Know and Who You Know Knows
The power of people who people you know is infinite. Remember the theory “Six Degrees of Separation?” It contends that you are merely six introductions away from any other person on the planet.
If this is true, you should be able to begin making industry connections from no matter where you are, right now.
Here’s my favorite – and what may be the best story ever on the power of who you know knows:
When I was President of producer Debra Hill’s company, Debra’s assistant’s mother’s friend had a son who wanted to break into the movie business. Jeff had recently moved from his home in Richmond, Virginia to Los Angeles.
To make her mom happy, Debra’s assistant had lunch with the guy. After lunch, because he seemed like a good kid, was earnest and eager to work hard, she dragged me over to meet Jeff. I gave him a few minutes that he used to ask practical questions, and I did my best to offer good advice. He was thinking of paying to be a production assistant. No way! He seemed like a good kid. I offered him an internship.
Jeff did a bang up job that first day. As it happened, the tasks we gave him were pretty much throwing him into the proverbial “briar patch” and he happily gave it his all. Then we got a call that the movie Debra was in pre-production on needed a Production Assistant on the lot right away. Jeff was the only one who volunteered, as all the other interns felt learning a heck of a lot right where they were as my internship program taught fundamental industry skills, such as writing coverage.
Jeff did good as an Office PA. He went on to work on the movie and become King of the PAs. Ultimately, he was the very last PA on the film. When the film wrapped, Debra’s assistant was ready to move on, so we hired Jeff. He worked hard, made us laugh, and ultimately we promoted him to Story Editor. He worked hard. He read a lot. He built skills. He helped supervise the interns, including a bright and lovely young woman I hired.
When it came time for Jeff to be promoted, there was no open position in our company. So he used his relationship with us to get informational interviews, including one with an executive at the company of his dreams. Informational interviews ultimately turned into job interviews, building to the top tier. Turns out Jeff had done coverage for me on a script that he loved which just happened to be one of the exec’s favorites. Jeff was ready to speak articulately and passionately about the material. And he ultimately went from “great informational interview” to being hired.
Now Jeff was working at his dream company as an executive. Then he became a staff writer for them. When he wrote his first spec, he took me to lunch to catch up and then sent me the script. I read it and knew who would be the perfect match for him as an agent, and indeed, the agent signed him. Now, Jeff is a produced screenwriter multiple times, including Planes for Disney/Pixar, and most recently won a Daytime Emmy Award for his work on Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe. Oh, and he wound up marrying the bright and lovely intern. Who is now a successful film critic.
Four, count ‘em, four degrees of separation.
Jeff > Jeff’s Mom > Jeff’s Mom’s Friend > Her Daughter aka Debra’s Assistant > Me
It’s also an example of:
Luck = Opportunity + Preparation + Action x Excellence
Go back and reread that story and see how many ways Jeff created opportunities, was prepared when they came up, took action, and then excelled. Every time I casually dropped in the phrases such as, “he was a good guy,” “he worked hard,” and even, “he made us laugh,” are all ways Jeff made us open to working with “someone that we knew knew.”
Jeff stood out on his own merits, and he was “good to work with.” Right down to being asked to get the office fridge cleared of tons of old food and posting this notice:
When I asked Jeff for permission to share his story in this article, he replied:
I always say I got my start because of two Hollywood clichés: I knew someone, and I was at the right place at the right time. Of course, what happens from there is up to you. I’ve been very lucky, but there’s another cliché: Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. It’s proven true several times in my career.
Took the words right out of my mouth.
Relationships: Get out!
It is more challenging to form relationships from the comfort of your couch. So get up and get out!
I was invited to an industry event, pre-Covid. Little did I know what was in store for the world, much less what going would lead to. I wasn’t much in the mood, even though I knew it would probably be an enjoyable evening. Chances were, that by the end of that day I’d be still working, or I’d be tired from working. So I had to trick myself. As my invitation included a guest, I invited a Plus One. No way I’d bail if I had committed to going with someone.
It worked. And how! By applying all the same principles I’m encouraging you to follow. Read more about how my putting these pointers into practice worked here, because they work no matter where you are in your career.
Building Relationships: The Slow Burn
There’s much debate as to whether you can succeed in the industry without pulling up stakes and moving to Los Angeles. I’m not going to wade into that one, but I do believe you can build relationships from absolutely anywhere.
I recently read a script from a writer from Australia. That’s a 19-hour time difference from Los Angeles. He doesn’t have an agent or a manager – yet. But he does have a special skill. The Aussie excels at relationship building even when he can’t get face to face.
In 2011, I did a podcast as part of a series with industry pros. The Aussie connected with every single speaker. He reached out through LinkedIn. He reached out through Facebook. He didn’t just click a button and send a generic message; he put in added effort. He had made it personal and specific. And then… he didn’t ask for anything.
The Golden Rule of Networking is: "Give before you get."
The Aussie offered up connections in response to my interest in bringing my seminar to Australia. He signed up for a teleconference I was teaching. And somewhere along the way, he wound up offering to proof and edit my ScriptMag column and blogs. No one was in more need of a Grammar Nazi than I. (Than me?) Plus, as an up-and-coming screenwriter, he brought added insights from the POV of my readers.
For years, The Aussie made my writing grammatically correct, and added input to ensure my advice would be useful to writers everywhere. Always ready, willing and able. Always articulate and honest. Offering a kick in the pants as deadlines approached, and a great mixture of support and nudging. And, because the world is flat, we’ve become friends. We message, we email, and we occasionally talk on the phone.
It takes time and effort to cultivate true relationships. But the payoff is a connection where each person wants the other to succeed.
Did the Aussie put in the time? Heck yes. Did it pay off? I certainly hope so. I’ve offered up advice, support, and script notes. And when he asked me to read a revised draft, I was happy to oblige. When I saw a path to help that script move forward – with a producer I ran into at the industry event that I forced myself to attend – I leapt on it.
It’s still early days, with a rewrite in the offing, but I’m hopeful for what I call a win-win-win, the very best way to advance your career.
Relationships In Cyberspace
While it may be more challenging to build relationships in the various online platforms, it is not impossible, as long as you remember that the same rules apply.
My obsession with Mr. Goldman actually solidified a relationship I built through social media into a cool, real-life opportunity.
I happened to notice Tom Nunan’s articulate and insightful articles on film and TV trends for Forbes, following his impressive career running networks and studios, and producing award-winning films. I started reading and commenting, as they are truly sharp and insightful, and we struck up an online friendship. When he posted, Here’s What The Record-Breaking Debut Of “Squid Game” Means For IP In Hollywood, he referenced William Goldman, and his famed adage about Hollywood, I couldn’t help but message him to mention that indeed, Bill, a man who was very specific about his words, said “Nobody knows anything,” not once, but twice on the same page in Adventures in the Screen Trade. And in CAPS!
Tom immediately amended his article to reflect that, and lo and behold, I landed in Forbes, a feat I doubt I would have accomplished otherwise.
OK, my name is misspelled, but I’m in Forbes! This is a basic networking and relationship-building how-to example:
- I noticed Tom’s article in my feed. I read Tom’s article.
- I thought the piece offered perceptive observations about the industry.
- I took the time to comment.
- I let Tom know what I liked about his work.
- I was sincere and specific – two key attributes to complimenting someone.
- I wanted nothing in return.
- And repeat.
Another interesting article, another specific compliment. Without any agenda beyond my appreciation of his insights and his brevity – a skill I clearly lack.
We connected and became friends in the app that shall remain unnamed. I’ve since quoted him in my column, including in Be A Writer We Want to Work With, referencing his thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on how viewers would find and share entertainment going forth.
The Insta Connect
Writers may feel helpless about advancing their careers for a whole range of reasons. But writing costs virtually nothing. Filmmaking has never been so accessible. And mediums for connecting with others have never in the history of humankind been more abundant.
We’ve come a long way from carving symbols into rock faces to tell a story.
Can you get a movie made from an Instagram post?
This is such an incredible story, I’ll let the participants tell it in their own words.
In February 2019, Alanna Brown started following me on Instagram and liking my posts back. One day, I looked at her Instagram, and I started going through her posts and reading them. I had read 4,000+ scripts, so I had a reference point for good writing. I remember saying to myself, “This girl is different. She has a way of organizing her thoughts and telling stories. She has a way with words.”
This ignited a fire within me, and I started researching her. I saw a short film she made as a writer-director, and I really liked it. So I reached out to her and told her so, and we started talking on Instagram. She said, “I'd be happy to hear any notes or feedback you have for me. I won't be returning to this project, but I always like to get direction notes.” I shared my thoughts with her, and she thanked me for my comments. At that point, I asked her if she was interested in writing a feature script either with me or for me, for me to direct. I told her I owned a production company, had already directed/produced 26 short films, music videos, and commercials, and I had financing for my own directorial debut, I just need a great script.
Alanna told me she had a passion project called Trees Of Peace, and had been trying to make that for five years as a first-time writer/director. She asked if I would be interested in producing it. I told Alanna, “I don't want to lie to you. I'm not going to produce this. I am focused on my own directorial debut. I am willing to introduce you to people in the industry who can possibly finance and produce this, but I am not going to be able to do this. But I’m willing to read it as a writing sample since I’m thinking about hiring you.”
Alanna then sent me a 2-minute concept trailer she made for few thousand dollars. I was impressed by her determination, her can-do attitude, and her willingness to do the work. I loved the concept trailer. I read her script that night, and I was blown away. I knew at that moment I had an Oscar-worthy script in my hands. I also knew no studio was going to give a first-time director, who has only done one short and a 2-minute trailer, a chance to direct a feature film because no big name star will come on board and risk their career with an unknown writer/director. This film did not fit any genre and had all women leads. At the same time, I knew I had found that hidden gem every filmmaker is looking for. Deep down inside, I knew Alanna was ready to work in Hollywood.
I called her back the next day and said, “I changed my mind. I'll produce this.”
Ron Ray, producer, director, actor
Lead Producers Ron and Michelle Ray met writer/director Alanna Brown on Instagram in February 2019. Ron gave up his own directorial debut financing and used 100% of his own financing to produce Trees Of Peace.
The film went on to sweep American Black Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, African International Film Festival, Phoenix Film Festival, and Switzerland International Film Festival, and won many other awards, before Ron sold the film to Netflix.
Trees of Peace was released worldwide by Netflix in 191 countries, in 32 languages, on June 2022, and hit the Top 10 on Netflix worldwide in 60 countries in 5 days, including Number 9 in the US market, against star-driven, big-budget hit movies. Trees Of Peace landed on numerous “Best" lists, and currently boasts a 100% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 84% from the audience.
You can watch the trailer here:
I highly, highly recommend networking. I used to say that I was going to make it on merit, but this industry is not a meritocracy. It just is not, unfortunately. It is really, really about who you know. I’m an introverted person – I’m a writer and I like to sit in my little hidey-hole and write screenplays. And I said I wasn’t going to do that, go and schmooze. But it is absolutely necessary.
Find forums online, on Instagram, and on social media. Reach out to people. Find mentorship, find connections, and go to events. And keep in touch with people, not just as in, “Hey, what can you do for me?” – but build genuine relationships. Building a genuine relationship – is what will take you further than anything else.
What began as an Instagram interaction, launched Alanna's career.
Currently, she is writing for Starz Networks series Blindspotting, was hired by the Oscar-winning producers of Parasite and New Line, and just finished a pilot for Apple TV. Alanna is planning to direct her second feature, The 29th Accident, which was on the prestigious 2018 Blacklist.
Ron has outstanding instincts for recognizing talent and an unmatched determination to get movies made. Alanna is a gifted writer and director, who worked hard to showcase her abilities in a micro-budget short film and a proof of concept trailer. So what happened here is not a tale of luck or happenstance, but an inspirational story of connection and talent coming together to make things happen.
You can do it!
Relationships: The Dandelion Effect
I hope I’ve convinced you that relationship-building works. In the industry, it makes the world go round.
You can find tips here to create a Networking Action Plan and successfully build on relationships to get your foot in the door and advance your career.
But aside from all the advice and examples, have faith in what I call “The Dandelion Effect.”
Remember being a kid, making a wish on a dandelion and then blowing? Even if your wish doesn’t come true, here’s something a bit magical about all those little seeds with their own little spinning parachutes wafting off to unknown destinations to plant themselves, grow, blossom, and turn to seed all over again.
Did you know the seeds can travel up to five miles before reaching the ground and planting themselves, creating a new plant that will grow, flower and turn back to seeds?
Considered by many to be a lowly weed, it happens to be highly nutritious. This makes the dandelion the perfect metaphor for building relationships. While your wish won’t instantly come true, you have no idea where it will take you. It’s filled with rich possibilities that spread far and wide.
So take a leap and believe. Take a deep breath and blow.