God, we love to hear ourselves talk. How unbelievably lucky is everyone within earshot when we decide to share some of our wisdom and just plain cleverness? We almost can’t get enough of it, and would talk about ourselves and our brilliant thoughts and observations endlessly—except it turns out that just about everyone in the world likes to hear themselves talk as much as we do, even if they haven’t gotten around to creating their own podcasts yet. Why do we mention this? Because inside this truth is one of the secrets to reaching the first rung on the Hollywood ladder.
The key to that secret is good manners. Seriously. We’re not talking about the benign insincerity you need to actually work in Hollywood. We’re talking about the manners you need to get here. Real, honest-to-God social graces.
The problem is that success in Hollywood is heavily dependent on broadcasting your own personal “Cult of Me.” Self-deprecation and a quiet agreeability may win friends and influence people in some parts of this great land, but once you hit the Los Angeles County line, you’re plunging into a seething mosh pit of loudmouthed self-aggrandizement. Yet, you need the people who do hear your desperate cries to like you. Judging by the emails we get, being polite AND pushy is a tiny needle to thread. It’s an indispensable skill that is in short, short supply.
Here’s the catch-22. Aspiring writers need to be—absolutely must be—pushy. Nobody really wants to take your call. Nobody really wants to read another %@&$ spec script. Nobody really wants to meet you. And the really perverse thing is that Hollywood’s magnificent indifference to your efforts has nothing to do with you.
The challenge facing the aspiring writer is to break through the noise that surrounds all of us who are actually working in Hollywood and get read. It’s a heartbreaking scenario: You’ve done the work and written the dozen or so crappy scripts that we all seem to need to get out of our system before the good ones arrive. You’ve finally got your Golden Ticket script in hand. You’re so excited to finally have something to be pushy ABOUT that you have a dozen FedEx® envelopes cocked and loaded in your home office, you’ve already identified the cool yet casual shirt you might wear to the BIG MEETING, and you’ve checked the cell service in your neighborhood so you’ll be sure to get THE CALL. You’ve entered contests and cold-called agencies and studios and, of course, nothing happens. You wait patiently, then impatiently, until the frustration becomes excruciating.
Then the truth sets in: You’ve got the goods, but no one to sell them to.
Man, do we identify with the problem. Not only do we still feel it from time to time, but it wasn’t all that long ago that we were in EXACTLY the same position. So, believe us when we tell you what we’ve learned: Blow your horn, but don’t blow your chances with poor manners.
- Don’t ask someone to submit something to his agent 10 minutes after you first meet him.
- Don’t ask someone to read your script just because you have a mutual friend.
- Do embrace the simple truth: You have nothing to offer. You are asking a favor. It’s a favor you probably can’t return. Even if you do become the next David E. Kelley, you probably won’t hire them because they read your script back when. You’ll hire the best writers you can, or at least the writers approved by the network, studios and the producer’s mother.
Nevertheless, despite all these impediments, people will read you if you handle things right. Why? Because someone, long ago, did the same favor for them. It’s giving back, plain and simple. So here’s the big tip, the answer to this conundrum of needing something you don’t really have any right to ask for:
- Don’t ask them to read you at all. Ask for something else. Ask them for advice.
Because when you ask anyone for advice, what you’re really doing is asking them to talk about themselves. It’s an invitation to tell the stories of how they got through their wannabe stage, of agents who wouldn’t read them, of executives who wouldn’t talk to them, of the clever way they finally beat the system and made it up the Hollywood ladder. Ask anybody what they think you should do and they’ll tell you—for as long as you’ll listen. Which you, smart reader, will do with infinite patience because, as we all know, the best conversationalist is someone who shuts up and lets us talk about ourselves.
That’s when the magic occurs.
Suddenly, before you have to ask them to do you a favor, they will most likely freely offer to help you out. Now that it’s their idea, not something they’ve been shamed into, the odds of that script actually being read increase exponentially. So does the chance of a call to that guy they know, to recommend you to their agent, to hook you up with another acquaintance—whatever it is they can think of to do for you.
If they don’t offer, you’ve still learned from their experiences, hopefully. And you have a connection. Someone you can contact in the future for more advice. Someone who will speak well of you should your name ever come up.
Either way, that first rung on the ladder gets closer, and all you did was humbly ask for a little advice. All because you listened to them and made them feel smart, knowledgeable and useful.
That’s more than good manners: It’s a powerful tool.
Sam and Jim Go to Hollywood - Part comedy, part tragedy, it's the life of a writing team trying to make it in Hollywood. We've sold movies, we're in the Writer's Guild, we've pitched TV shows to networks, but we're still working on our big break. Our show is about writing, Hollywood and our experiences on the way to... We wish we knew what. Follow Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn on Twitter @havensam and @HavenJim.
Originally published in Script Magazine July/August 2007
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