In my last column, I talked about the first two essentials when you’re getting your foot in the door and want to get off on the right foot:
- Be Personable
- Be Collaborative
These are the fundamentals, but when the door opens, you need convince us that you belong here. Which brings us to Pointer Number 3:
Be Industry Savvy
Demonstrating that you have some knowledge of the industry and how it works goes a long way to upping our comfort level with new writers. Walk like a duck and talk like a duck if you wanna hang out in the pond. Because once you’re in the water, it’s sink or swim.
- Be conversant in the jargon.
- Be up to date on news and trends.
- Act like a professional before you become one.
Language and Lingo
Aspiring writers should be conversant in industry jargon. Screenwriter Terry Rossio has an excellent column entitled, “Tinsel Speak” to get you up to speed. I once went to a Hollywood Halloween party with script pages stapled to my outfit. When asked what I was dressed as, I replied, “I’m an element! I’m attached to the script.”
Talk the Talk
Another part of your job as aspiring writer is to keep informed by reading up on the day-to-day of the industry through the trades. This should help with your understanding of the jargon as well.
Right now, you should realize that the every aspect of the entertainment industry is in crisis because of Covid, from theatre chains facing bankruptcy to major agencies and studios slashing personnel at unprecedented numbers. While streamers flourish as we hunker down on our couches, the business is spiraling, causing rampant uncertainty. As Forbes Hollywood & Entertainment contributor, Tom Nunan, puts it, Hollywood is in “Free-Fall.”
In his latest article, “As Covid-19 Explodes, America’s Entertainment And Sports Industries Implode,” Nunan writes:
From the pandemic’s very beginning, it was abundantly clear that the way Americans would find and possibly share entertainment, would be utterly overhauled, reconsidered and in many ways, permanently changed.
Many writers see this as a dilemma over which stories they should pursue. To pandemic or not to pandemic? When it comes to Covid-related stories – my opinion and the general consensus is “no.” In tough times, we like our entertainment to offer an escape. Indeed, we may have well already had enough, with the productions cleverly shot during quarantine, such as Love In The Time of Corona. According to Rolling Stone, TV series returning to the air, are adapting their plot lines to various degrees to acknowledge or incorporate the Coronavirus.
The third, and possibly the strongest option, is to craft Covid-friendly material, meaning smaller casts and crews and fewer locations required. My opinion and the general consensus is “yes,” as the industry is struggling to get back to work safely, with complex on-set protocols in place.
Walk The Walk
As I’ve said before, the industry is all about politics. Prove you know the strict but unspoken rules every insider plays by, especially when you’re just getting your feet wet, and you will stand out from the crowd of aspiring writers. [feet in water?]
Lately, I've had conversations with “new" writers whose work I read and responded to strongly. Mostly, an emerging voice worth knowing. Occasionally, a well-executed and marketable concept that resonated with me. It takes a lot of passion for a producer to push that boulder up the hill.
A side effect of this abundance of email exchanges and phone conversations with up and coming writers, has been a wealth of fodder for this column.
To Hock Or Not To Hock? That is THE Question
I can’t begin the topic of Industry Savvy without addressing what may be new writers most asked question:
I’ve sent my requested material to Industry Pro, but it has been over a week and I have not heard back! What should I do? When can I call, email, send balloons or a sky writing message?
I see this question asked and answered all the time, and yet… writers keep asking.
Here is the definitive answer:
In about a month, drop a polite, succinct email that refreshes our memories about the material submitted – essentially, who, what, when and why.
That said, remember, for most people, just about everything is more complicated these. Those of us working in the industry are “most people” as well. So cut us a bit more slack than usual.
If you hear back that your material has not yet been read, be respectful, understanding and appreciative of the time it took to reply. The Savvy Points you earn in return go a long way toward buying good will.
A perfectly good idea – on a first reminder – is to attach a PDF of your material so we don’t have to dig through our email to find it again.
Real World Example:
A young writing team managed to wait 15 days before following up on a requested submission. They were ever so polite about it, but this did necessitate me writing a gracious and witty reply, because I am nice. And I am wry. And I think the combination makes the gentle slap on the wrist easier to swallow:
Hi guys, I appreciate you checking in. I have been inundated with clients, projects, an online screenwriting seminar, my column, and the craziness of these times. And in these times everything takes longer.
I am totally ok with the polite reminder. While two weeks seems like a long time to a writer, eager to hear back, in the industry it is a relatively short period of time. To be honest, you are down in the stack at the moment, and I am endeavoring to get there as best as I can.
You are welcome to nudge me again in two weeks. Admittedly, it was easier to keep track of the stack in the olden days when one was confronted with a literal stack o' scripts. However there were also many more brad injuries!
All right, I had to take the time to write the email instead of moving forwarded – my constant, moment-to-moment goal. But I received a lovely response from them, and we’re cool. Savvy Points!
The team waited a month before checking in again. And again, everyone was polite and understanding. Even though I haven’t been able to get to their material, they remained gracious and upbeat. By handling it deftly, rather than making me feel guilty, they made me feel good about myself and about them.
Savvy Points awarded!
This seems so simple to me, and yet… I see it violated all the time.
Do what I say. Pleaseandthankyou.
I am a highly specific person.
Having worked my way up from an agent’s assistant to an exec for busy producers to running production companies, I learned that being direct and explicit saves everyone time and effort – our biggest commodities. I will not waste yours. Please don’t waste mine.
If I write, “Please send me your material at the end of the month as I am buried under and afraid it will be lost in the virtual stack.” then do not hit reply and send the script. Please do as I requested, as it was truly in your best interest.
When I write, “As a fan of YOUR SCRIPT, I am reaching out to see if you have anything else I should read,” please do not reply with a boatload of scripts and pilots attached.
Having a fan of your work calls for an Industry Savvy response to keep the ball rolling. Mention some titles with their medium and genre and ogline. That enables me lets to request anything that grabs my interest and matches my needs. (An excellent reason to always have solid, honed loglines on hand! Find my Free Logline help and consults here.)
To me my email was perfectly clear, but I know writers get excited to hear from someone who liked their work. In the future, I will be savvier and it spell out: “Send me loglines.”
Prompt is Professional
I make a Herculean effort to respond promptly, given years of training from an agency desk on up, a path many in the industry follow. We expect the same. In fact, Industry Etiquette deems that a professional-to-professional call be returned within 24 hours. If not, it’s an insult.
I am utterly enjoying teaching my Screenwriting Elevated Monthly Online Seminar. I’m getting great feedback and having so much fun digging deep with these writers to up their skills, that I’m adding another session in the new year. Find out more and let me know your interest here.
Of course, I hold these top writers to professional standards.
So when I sent an email with the subject: “Exercises, Handouts, Reading & Questions! Please read and respond,” I meant read and respond promptly. Especially since the question was: “Would you add an extra half hour to each session for live Q & A with special surprise guest speakers? Trust me, if you’re able, it will be worth it! YES or NO?”
Without a rapid response from everyone, I was left waiting to ask A-List writers to come and speak. And I was not happy about waiting.
Prompt is professional.
Can You Fix It If You Flub Industry Savvy?
Real World Example:
A new writer whose project I flipped over for both concept and voice, has alternated from convincing me he’s savvy to scaring me off when it comes to the all-important “Be A Writer We Want To Work With.”
We had a comfortable and productive first phone call. Read more on the perils and the positives of notes here. Some of my notes were ones he had already considered, and I encouraged him to follow through on that instinct. Others were ones he was open to considering. Savvy Points awarded.
I followed up one month later, as the writer told me his script was on the desk of an agent, and I felt certain this agent would not respond. The writer was surprised a month had elapsed since both his submission and our call. And, indeed, no word from the agent. Not keeping track of your submissions = No Savvy Points.
The writer now had a revised draft he was happy to send my way. Although he missed out on an opportunity – plus Savvy Points – to reconnect with me, someone in the industry who was a fan of his work, when it was done.
I thought the notes he implemented were deftly executed and strengthened the script. However, we disagree in how we see the audience. The writer feels his real life experience, which sparked the idea, demands an adults-only theme and tone. The script has an abundance of explicit language and minor story elements that would make this an R-rated film. That seriously limits the audience.
I believe this story has a truly universal message and the potential to reach a broader audience. With minor modifications – tweaks that respect the integrity of the story – I’m convinced this could be a big, successful PG-13 film, with potential to appeal to the teen and adult audience, both male and female. That’s a huge slice of the demographic pie. And the larger the audience, the more opportunities to market the script – instrumental to me being able to do my job. Not awarding Savvy Points here.
As I said in my last column, I’m not looking for a writer to be a pushover – by all means fight for the integrity of your story. Hopefully, as hard as I will fight to get your story told.
Ultimately, we see the overall theme the same way. I think we agree on more than we disagree, but Mr. R-Rated might be more eager for a fight than open to getting his story to the screen. Sorry, no Savvy Points.
The email exchanges seemed fraught with miscommunication. Sometimes savvy, sometimes not. The uneven tone set me on edge and made me question whether this writer would pass the “Be Collaborative” test. Having helped many writers break in and set up their first projects, I know it that it takes extra effort, time and patience to work with someone new to the development process. I might be beyond the point in my career where I’m willing to have a green writer scream at me in a meeting, only to receive a calm reply from me and, ultimately, understand my point.
In my final email, I asked Mr. R to contact me to set another conversation post-election. As of this writing, ten days after, I haven’t heard from him. I know he has a busy day job and a family, but this looks like not so good at “Following Instructions.” Plus, Prompt is Professional, so no Savvy Points here either.
Perhaps if we were in the room together, à la Ye Olden Days, our communication would be more effective. I was upfront with Mr. R that he was likely to end up in my column. Now I’m thinking I’ve actually gotten a lot of out of writing about this. I may have set out to enlighten you, dear reader, but might have learned something myself in the process. Maybe the best way forward is to get as close as we can to being “in the room” in these times. I think I’ll set a Zoom call and see how that goes. I’m taking the Savvy Points here.
Many pro writers are notoriously bad at keeping track of the details of their career. I can’t tell you how many times a working writer mentioned a meeting they had with an executive and couldn’t remember their name. “Mike something?”
In their case, an agent and/or manager or is looking after them, but you should build this skill for yourself now.
I recommend that writers track every industry contact: names, dates, companies, projects, and other relevant info. When I was an executive, meeting everyone I could, I had a gigantic Word document that covered every encounter I had with an agent, manager or studio executive, even little details about them, from where we ate to where they went to school, plus every business call that followed, to keep it fresh in my memory. Because that’s how important it is.
Industry Savvy Is Invaluable
As for my story about Mr. R, the ending has not yet been written. Neither sink or swim. We shall see if my interest in the concept, my connection to the message, and the emerging talent I see here will outweigh concerns about working with a writer who is just getting his feet wet, and make me willing to dive in as a producer to push that boulder uphill.
So the answer to the question I posed, “Can you fix it if you flub Industry Savvy?” is a firm maybe.
I’ll keep you posted…