After sending out my last Big Ideas Newsletter, a lot of writers wrote back to me. This was a Valentine’s theme on avoiding the screenwriting heartbreaks. Some of replies were sweet Valentine’s wishes, but there were conversations as well. One that stood out was from a writer who shared:
“I don't have a problem with coming up with big, marketable ideas and recommended scripts. What I do have a problem with is getting them into the hands of executives.”
Not the first time I’ve heard this complaint.
While I empathize with the frustration, there is one powerful way to get your material read and to receive a response:
If writers devoted a modest percentage of the time they allocate to writing, rewriting, and – dare I say – the time spent in online writing groups, and directed it toward building relationships, I guarantee they will have a much greater chance of getting read by someone who counts.
No matter the amount of contests you enter, the number of query letters you send, the dollars spent on services that help you access people who count – the biggest impact will always come down to one thing:
Who You Know
I’m not putting down those other avenues. But think of it this way: You’ve done well in contests or paid for coverage and received good reviews or made a top scripts list. You may think that means the industry will come running. But you’d be wrong.
The truth is, it’s up to you to parlay those accolades and turn them into reads by industry insiders. The best way to get an enthusiastic read and an actual response is through relationships.
I’ve written about the importance of relationships before, from the power of turning a cold query hot, to how to get an agent. It’s Number 2 on my list of the top three reasons you haven’t sold a script. I’ve even listed Practical Pointers on how to network horizontally – peer to peer – as well as vertically – to a level above you – with writers who are where you want to be, as well as working industry professionals who can help you get there.
But maybe it’s time to write about it again. To be certain I convince you that the only sure game in town is the long game of relationship building, I’m going to hurl example after example at you from real life.
Relationships: The Heart and Soul of The Industry
One of the most often quoted film business adages is from the great William Goldman, who wrote about the realities of working in the industry in his book, Adventures In The Screen Trade. Of all the great lines he wrote over a stellar career, one of the most famous and oft quoted may well be, "Nobody knows anything."
In the book, Part One: Hollywood Realities, in the first chapter entitled, “The Powers That Be” you will find this:
If Mr. Goldman, a brilliant writer, thought this was important enough to say it twice – in ALL CAPS no less. In the first chapter. Pay attention!
In a business where “Nobody knows anything,” an industry filled with uncertainty, unknowns and unpredictability, there is an inevitable amount of anxiety. Thus, I respectfully add my own corollary to Bill's axiom:
Therefore, we like to work with people that we know.
It’s brings some comfort amidst the sea of angst we try to suppress.
And if there is such a 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 that we know know.
Admittedly awkward; but nonetheless true.
Here’s why it matters:
In truth, not networking and building relationships is not an option.
People who succeed in all areas of the industry know this far too well. I sincerely doubt that anyone who has done well in this business would fail to attribute their rise to relationships to one extent or another.
- The best way to get a job in the industry is to hear about it from someone in the industry and to be recommended by someone who knows the person who is hiring. This applies to assistant jobs all the way up to the top echelons.
- The best way to follow up on a job interview is by letting the person you met with know that you really want the job. How to do that? Having someone you’ve worked with, who knows the person you met with, call on your behalf and enthusiastically say great things about working with you. Again, this applies at the assistant level on up. Then again, they might place calls of their own to check with those you’ve worked with. I’ll be forever grateful to the studio executive who Debra Hill called after our terrific interview to run her company.
- Faced with filling a top crew position with someone they don’t know, a producer will call other producers who have worked with them and find out how they were to work with and what they were like on set.
- Key production positions, such as Directors of Photography or Production Designers, generally bring their own crews with them – folks they prefer to work because they’ve worked well with them in the past and know they can deliver.
Working professionals consider networking to literally be part of their jobs. Writers should too.
- The best way to parlay contest wins and other accomplishments is by reaching out to your industry relationships and updating them with your progress.
- The best way to get your script read is through a personal connection – a relationship with someone who is open or better still, eager to read your work. And – if it’s solid, professional-level, read-worthy – will use their relationships to pass it on.
- The best way to get an agent or manager is to be recommended by a client of theirs or someone in the industry they do business with. Again, they will only pass it on if the material is read-worthy, as the recommendation reflects on the person doing the recommending. They’re sticking their necks out and will only do it with material they believe is strong and a writer they feel confident will be professional.
- The best way to get staffed on a TV show is to have a relationship with the showrunner or someone on staff, or to be represented by the same agency representing the showrunner who will eagerly recommend one client to another in a position to hire them.
Start building relationships now.
Whether you have material ready or not, lay the groundwork for when you do have something truly read-worthy. If you start when you’re ready, it’s too late.
But what about talent?
Of course you need talent. If your work isn’t up to a professional level, getting read won’t advance you – in fact, it might harm you. There are no real second chances.
If you are a gifted writer, with great ideas and impressive execution, and your brilliance is confined to files sitting on your computer, all the talent in the world won’t help you advance. As the saying goes, “If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
The only way to advance through your talent is to get your work out into the world to people can do something about it. Relationships are the fastest and the most effective way to do that.
But what about luck?
Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca, who lived from 4 BC – AD 65, is remembered for one of his adages that rings true centuries later:
"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
In other words, we are not subject to the whims of Fate – we can make our own luck. By creating opportunities, being ready for them when they happen and taking action.
Chance encounters indeed can make a difference, but only if you take the chance are prepared for the opportunity, actively pursue it, and excel when you get your shot.
As I’m happily rewriting adages, I would say:
Luck is when preparation meets opportunity followed by action and excellent work.
Not as pithy, but here’s an example from my own life. I doubt I ever would have gotten into the industry without relationships. In my blog, Mentorship – A Powerful Hand Up, I revealed much of the story about how got in the door leading to my first industry job. But not all.
Here’s how I got my first ever gig.
Two guys walk into a bar…
Sounds like a joke, but it’s true. Lemme start at the beginning.
When I graduated college, I was eager to move to LA. My mother said, “That’s nice Barri, you have two degrees, but no marketable skills. If you want to move to Los Angeles, you need to save up $3000 dollars. You should become a dental hygienist or go to bartending school.”
I signed up for bartending school, posthaste! Graduated at the top of my class, by the way, passing both written and speed tests. The school helped you get your first job, from there I got my second. Put a map on the back of my door and as I saved up put pins further on the route from Clearwater, FL to Los Angeles, CA. About 2600 miles. Raised enough to move to LA.
While tending bar late one night, two young guys came in and were discussing the movie they had just seen. I chimed in, and soon we were all talking. One was working in postproduction, in the trailer department of Cannon Films. He offered me an internship and drew a picture of a Rivas Splicer (look it up) along with his phone number on a piece of register tape. I interned, worked hard, and got to know all the other editors on the floor. When a deadline came up that mean working round the clock, one of the other editors asked for me and I was hired to help. A short but intense gig – but my first industry paycheck!
Sure, it was lucky that those two guys walked into my bar. (BTW, the other guy went on to become a well-known screenwriter.) But if I hadn’t taken advantage of the opportunity, been prepared to discuss film and then worked so diligently, I would never have gotten hired.
Luck = Preparation + Opportunity + Action + Excellence
Next Month: Harness the Relationship Superpower: The Immense Power of Who You Know Knows