Monica Lee Bellais is a screenwriter/producer who has worked at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, Smithsonian Networks, Discovery Communications, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and TeleProductions International (TPI). Follow Monica on Twitter @CreativeMonica.
It’s your big day.
You’ve waited for the opportunity for months. You’ve practiced your pitch, the conversation, and even plotted out the most comfortable, yet professional looking t-shirt for the meeting. Let’s face it, unless you’re a development executive at a studio, you won’t be wearing a suit to the meeting, and even those guys and gals are casual. The glitzy business of show is rather informal in appearance.
Don’t be a diva!
The more time you spend being a diva in the lobby, the more time it takes away from the receptionists, the assistant or the executive who called you in for the meeting in the first place. You want everyone to know you’re amazing to work with and the only one who can do the project you were brought in to discuss.
You walk into their office and they offer you a drink. See what they offer and go for the easiest thing like water or black coffee. Don’t ask for a pinch of cream, two sweeteners, sprinkle of cinnamon or whatever it is you probably ordered at the coffee shop on the corner.
Short version – coffee black and quick thanks, then you’re good to go!
Trust me, years ago the first thing the producer would ask me was what I thought about the writer, director, actor or whomever the person was taking the meeting. If they treated me poorly, my Academy Award ® winning boss didn’t like it.
You’ve made it to the office. Time to rock it!
There are many rules to improv that apply to the development process, no matter what the genre may be. I’m not talking about how to write a screenplay by agreeing to every crappy idea people toss your way.
This is not a drill. Every single time the screenwriter takes that meet-and-greet general meeting, it’s a JOB INTERVIEW. I’m saying after YOU, the screenwriter, crafts the incredible, yet undiscovered project, start to shop it around to competitions, festivals, producers and financiers.
Sizing you up for down-the-road employment – either for the script you’ve just written, or a writing assignment.
Before you have the meeting with the producer at the trending production company, they have read the coverage of your spec screenplay. Think of this as the Cliff’s Notes version of the script you’ve worked months on developing just for this very moment.
Now let the producer lead!
If an executive in a pitch meeting says, “What if you change the character to (fill in the blank),” just nod your head, while counting to three before blowing your top, and reply with a positive, “Hey, that’s a good suggestion, what about this...” Then you fill in the blank and start the riff session.
You need a creative discussion. The best way to describe this conversation is think about when you were a kid. You’d point to a neighbor kid, assign a role, or a character and then other situations, then you would improvise the situation. This is why development is FUN. You have an opportunity to volley a creative idea across the table. Riffing on plot and character arcs. You’re saying, "Yes, I like your creative suggestions and I’ll take those and build on the storylines I have in place for my characters in the settings I’ve developed.”
You’ve been invited to the dance, but nothing stops the flow to a conversation than the “no, my idea is better” approach. I’ve seen this many times in development meetings in the feature space, as well as the non-fiction programming arena.
Most importantly, keep the conversation flowing.
Never, I mean NEVER say, “No, my idea is better.” You’ll get fired before they finish sipping their fancy coffee and you're chugging down the black coffee.
Producers, Executives, anyone with the morsel of power over your screenplay wants to give feedback, development notes, or their creative vision and their sensibilities to make what was your project, hopefully crossing into their newly acquired project.
If you want to get this thing made, and paid for your work – go for it. Just have the open conversation. Chances are the person on the other side of the table will have great suggestions; at least you’ve got their ear. You’re having a discussion about YOUR project before it becomes THEIR PROJECT.
As the screenwriter, you have toiled away on how to make the world interesting, unique, exciting that they miss big moments, or little moments that were a big oversight. Talking to a creative executive, producer or someone on the other side of the desk is the opportunity to further develop the story. Take this opportunity and embrace it. They may not love your screenplay, but they will like you as a writer. Sometimes liking you as a writer can keep the door open, rather than close it because they didn’t like the project. I’ve seen this many times. A producer brings in a screenwriter for a spec script. They develop a creative relationship and the next meeting turns into a commissioned project!
That inspiration triggers the path to writing a script that the writer falls in love with before handing the characters to others to modify, manipulate and hopefully enhance.
Find out everything you can about the project and their vision for it. The development process is a long one and many people will put their creative fingerprints on your work. This is fine! You’ll have to figure out a way to work with the styles of others and incorporate their sensibilities into your work.
If you're nervous about the meeting, don't be! The person on the other side of the desk is thinking the same thing, "Will my boss like this project?" No matter where the person is on the chain-of-command, there is still someone they report too. Even if the person you're meeting is the owner, they still have to answer to their accountant, or the studio as to why they option or green-light a project. We're all in it together!
Thank them for their time and bolt!
When you leave the office – don’t recap the meeting ten thousand times in your head. Roll with it. It’s out of your hands now.
Go back to your computer and start finishing your next project. The competition is huge out there. Keep finessing your craft! If something didn’t go the way you liked, or the producer made some suggestions that resonated with you, explore those ideas and see how to further develop the screenplay.
Stay true to yourself as a screenwriter.
No one knows you better than you know yourself. If you think there are weaknesses to the script, then there are. Others will spot them. Others will comment on them. Polish and get it in the best possible shape. Don’t start a rewrite or tweaking now. Make notes from your meeting so that you can followup with them later, or so you can brief your agent for their followup conversation.
Don’t wait for them to call you – keep charging forward to get your project in the hands of other readers. The most important thing you can continue to do is keep working on your craft as you build important relationships.
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