Susan Kouguell shares advice on the value of attending a screenwriting conference, from networking to learning.
You’ve probably heard the joke: “What’s the best way to Carnegie Hall? … Practice, practice, practice.” What’s the best way to break into the film business? Network, network, network.
Attending screenwriting conferences, as well as film and pitch festivals is a great way to network with other writers, as well as panelists and speakers, including agents and executives.
Agents and executives who agree to speak on panels know there are hungry writers in attendance looking for representation and getting their projects noticed, and often they are open to meeting new writers in order to find that new talent.
Over the last two decades, I’ve spoken on many screenwriting and film panels for organizations, including the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild, the Independent Feature Project, New York Women in Film and Television, and more. As a working screenwriter, I understand the excitement and anticipation of speaking to panelists. It can be nerve-wracking, trying to get attention but stay calm and focused. And professional.
The following anecdote is excerpted from my book The Savvy Screenwriters: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out!
THE BADGE IS ON THE OTHER CHEST
Years ago, two of my short films were shown at the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) in New York City. I remember the nerve-wracking wait among the crowd of other screenwriters and filmmakers to meet executives. When I finally got my chance, I asked them if it was okay to pitch my project. It was all very civilized.
A few years later I found myself on the other side. I was a buyer for Warner Bros. seeking acquisitions and directing talent at the IFFM. I was given the green buyer’s ID badge. I saw it as a badge. Screenwriters and filmmakers saw it as a target. I soon learned that “green” means “go,” as in attack. Literally.
Filmmakers and screenwriters zeroed in on me—they pointed at my green badge and shouted phrases from their pitches in desperate attempts to snare my attention. I understood their desperation as they fought through a crowd of other filmmakers and screenwriters clamoring for attention from executives and agents—and knowing that this could be their one shot at making contact.
The surge of screenwriters and filmmakers fell into three groups: the underconfident, the misguided, and the overconfident.
THE UNDERCONFIDENT FILMMAKERS/SCREENWRITERS
They would open their pitches with a whole string of apologies seemingly designed to provide me with every excuse I needed not to see their film or read their script. They’d say: “I know that you’re not interested in my film or my script, and you probably don’t have time and it’s not really finished, and I’m not really sure I like it anyhow, but maybe you’ll want to come to my screening or read my script.” I’d think, no, I’ll go get a cup of coffee instead.
THE MISGUIDED FILMMAKERS/SCREENWRITERS
They would zero in on my green badge and grab their opportunity—launching into a long and involved pitch without asking me if I would like to hear it. They would keep talking and talking despite the fact that I’d made it clear from their first words that theirs was not a project that Warner Bros. would ever consider. It became embarrassing, like being the subject of a case of mistaken identity.
Maybe I was too polite. I should have firmly interrupted them and said, “You’ve got the wrong person. Don’t waste your time or my time pitching to me. You should be pitching to that person over there who can really help you. And, in the future, ask executives if they are interested in hearing a pitch. If they say yes, make it brief and exciting.”
THE OVERCONFIDENT FILMMAKERS/SCREENWRITERS
I walked in the door, anxious to get to a screening on time. The usual surge of screenwriters and filmmakers approached me—pressing flyers on me, inviting me to their screenings, shouting and interrupting each other in their clamor for my attention. Understanding their desperation, I tried to stop for each one on my way to the screening room. One guy certainly made a lasting impression as I was listening to another filmmaker’s pitch. He stepped between us, pushed my hair away from where it accidentally was covering my green ID badge and shouted at me that I should be more accessible. I will always remember him, but not in the way he wanted me to.
I was even followed into the ladies’ room by an eager female filmmaker who kept pitching after I had politely but firmly closed the stall door. I later learned that, by virtue of my gender, I was among the lucky ones. A less-fortunate male buyer told me of an encounter he had at the urinal. As he zipped up his fly, a filmmaker approached him and impulsively asked, “Are you interested in shorts?”
There are definitely right and wrong places and times to pitch.
BEFORE THE EVENT
Create an announcement. Compose a one-sheet or postcard. Do what best fits your budget. Your announcement should contain the following:
- A great pitch. Describe your project in one or two attention-grabbing sentences.
- A very brief bio highlighting your most important credits.
- Your contact information, and website if you have one.
- You can include an eye-catching graphic, but the content is the most important.
DURING THE EVENT
- When meeting an executive be brief and polite. Introduce yourself, hand them your business card and announcement, and ask for their business card. After the meeting be sure to write a note to yourself on the back of the card to remind you of your conversation. (Trust me, once the event is over it’s unlikely that you’ll recall exactly what was said to whom.)
- Don’t stalk the executive.
- Don’t pitch your project to an executive unless you are asked to.
- Don’t hand an executive a script unless it is requested. Generally, if the executive is interested you will be asked to send it.
AFTER THE EVENT
Follow up with an “It was nice to meet you” note. If you didn’t have the opportunity to meet the targeted executive, send a letter or email introducing yourself and your project; state that you attended that event and regret not having had the opportunity to meet. You can enclose your project’s announcement with your note.
Enjoy your time at these events. In my experience, and I’ve been told the same by my Su-City Pictures East clients and students, that by staying in the moment and avoid being frantic, it will enable you to successfully network.
Susan will be presenting the workshop ‘What Film Executives Really Look for in a Script that Sells’ August 24, 2019 at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City.