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Troubleshooting Your Industry Career: The Conversation

Not long ago, we were talking to a successful writer about his methodology and asked, “When do you take no for an answer?”

“When they call Security,” he replied.

We like that answer but would add some advice to temper it: many of us are driven by such dogged determination that we think if we just keep pushing through to our objective, keep pitching – hell, keep talking – we’ll bend the studios, the networks, the Suits, the guys with the power to say yes, to our will and triumph.

Certainly we must be driven by an unshakable conviction that we’ll succeed. A few years back, when we co-wrote, directed and executive produced the Hugo and Nebula Award nominated STAR TREK NEW VOYAGES episode “World Enough and Time” starring George Takei (which you can watch at, Marc’s mantra to himself was, “I am made of iron and nothing will stop me.”

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But we also must moderate that single-minded drive with an awareness that we are not the only folks in the universe who truly exist. In other words, the people we are pitching are as human as we are and deserve to be treated as such -- not just as means to an end.

Many of us, when we approach the Entertainment Industry, see communication as a series of monologues. As a writer, we pitch a story. As an actor, we present a scene. As a producer, we create a package to entice investors, name actors and a director with some clout.

The fact is, almost every serious alliance is based on a series of conversations. A monologue implies that our focus is on our own need – it’s all about “the sale.” A conversation acknowledges the needs of the buyer, our potential ally – and it’s about our products or skills being a match.

(And incidentally, the way you know it’s a conversation is that every now and then someone other than you is talking.)

The beginning of every conversation is research. As a writer approaching a buyer, does your choice take into account the buyer’s targeted demographic, understanding that all of the machinery of their business (funding, marketing, etc.) is designed to suit a specific audience? Have you taken into account their average budgets? Their taste?

Failing in this task often not only means a failed sale, but an offended buyer – who has very little time to waste and will not be eager to have you in again, even if you later make the adjustment.

If research should fail? Ask questions. Assistants are frequently thought of as “gatekeepers” and it’s true, but writers often use the word as an insult, as if the assistant’s job is to keep everyone (and that means you) the heck out.

This is not the case at all. They are well schooled in their employers’ needs and tastes, and are there only to screen out that which is inappropriate, not to deflect potential treasures. It’s a business -- they want and need wonderful product.

An assistant can help you find out if your work is indeed a match… or perhaps might be with a slight adjustment. And as they are often the front-line readers, they can (and often do) keep a worthy project from falling through the cracks with their overworked bosses.

That said, we must all recall that assistants are frequently as overworked as their bosses -- and have more to read than is humanly possible, with their reading piles growing daily (though actually they’re not piles anymore; they’re PDF files on Kindles and Nooks and iPads and hard drives).

So given this, beyond having something of merit, how can you keep their attention and enroll them in your quest?

Again, remember it’s a conversation! Place yourself in their overworked shoes and talk to them as though they were:

  1. Well-intentioned, and
  2. A reflection of yourself in that same job.

If you hear phones ringing and ringing in the background, that’s not the time to go on at length. If however it seems relatively quiet (for the moment), keep in mind you’re talking to a fellow human who generally prefers to be seen as more than a pipeline for other people’s needs. Be sympathetic. If it sounds crazy-busy, comment on it in a friendly way. If they’re not excessively reserved, ask them about their objectives and dreams. For instance, if they’re working for a producer, ask if they’re training to be a producer too.

Again, do this only if the office is quiet at that point; early in the morning or late in the day is best. And don’t be flustered if you get the boss instead of the assistant; that’s when they tend to answer their own phones.

Beyond this, always get the assistant’s name, and use it the next time you call. (“Hi, Amy, it’s Marc. We spoke last Tuesday…”) The fact you’re paying attention to who they are will help them return the favor.

Remember, you’re not just seeking a sale, you’re seeking a match. If you and the assistant connect, it’s a fairly good sign you’re on the right track and your time investment in pursuing this company has some possibility of paying off.

Or even if you fail, assistants not only change jobs but frequently rise at astonishing rates. If they love your work today but can’t convince their bosses, tomorrow they themselves may be in a position to buy. Keep track of them – they’re your fans.

Additionally, if they accept your script or query, do not assume you’ve had your say, delivered your monologue and now it’s in their court – YOU follow up! It’s your responsibility to be sure that your work is not inadvertently buried in the pile.

It’s your responsibility to inform them of any “new news” – the script winning a contest or drawing the interest of a star – which would make their marketing job an easier one.

It’s also your responsibility to know WHEN following up is appropriate. Whenever you submit anything, ask, “Given your current workload, when might be a realistic time for me to follow up?”

This is a back and forth conversation. It is seeking and helping to create connections – communities – that will stand the test of time over an entire career.

This comes equally into play when you’re in front of the buyer. If you’re pitching a story, always begin with a quick, one or two-minute summary of the heart of your piece – not the plot, but what it’s about at CORE. This will tell your over-busy listener if it’s worth both your time to continue. If not, part of the conversation is to discover why -- not challenging them or trying to prove they’re wrong and you’re right, but instead learning their reasoning. What you learn from this will tell you if you have anything else that might be a better fit.

Even if you have nothing that sparks at that time, the fact that you listen without defensiveness, that you hear, is a very big deal. It keeps the door open. It presents you as likeable, personable, present -- and something more than a selling machine.

It’s a simple equation. People like to work with people they like – and no one wants to feel that they are seen merely as a road or impediment to your objective.

Taking this a step further, let’s say you’ve sold your script, but rewrites are required. (NOTE: rewrites are ALWAYS required.) The buyer or executive states a concern and suggests a fix. Has this now become their monologue, an inflexible dictate, given the fact that they now have the power?

No. It’s just the beginning of another conversation.

In most cases the note-givers are quite experienced and accurately sense when something is awry, but they are not writers. Their suggestions are meant to be helpful, not written in stone.

It’s your job to ask questions until you’re completely clear on the concern beneath the note, and then only make changes that truly improve the work in your eyes as well as theirs. Listen carefully to any requested changes that would impact budget or other key concerns, and be part of the brainstorming to find solutions. Make whatever alterations would aid your buyer with the financing and sale… and let them know when a suggested change would tear out the heart of your story.

We should add that these techniques won’t always guarantee you’ll see eye-to-eye with the producer, director, star or executive – writers get fired every day for “creative differences.”

But being able to engage in a friendly, direct and detailed conversation at every stage of the relationship will at least insure that communication is a two-way street – and help you get your work considered, sold and made.

Join Marc Scott Zicree and Elaine Zicree live at The Writers Store in Burbank, CA 10:30am to 12:30pm on June 16, 2012 for their class, Troubleshooting Your Hollywood Career.

Working both together and individually, writer-producer-directors Marc Scott Zicree and Elaine Zicree have sold over 100 teleplays, screenplays and pilots to every major studio and network, including landmark stories for such shows as STAR TREK– THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE, THE NEW TWILIGHT ZONE, BABYLON 5, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, FOREVER KNIGHT, SLIDERS, LIBERTY’S KIDS, SUPERFRIENDS, HE-MAN, REAL GHOSTBUSTERS and SMURFS. Their work has been nominated for the American Book Award, Humanitas Prize, Diane Thomas Award, and Hugo and Nebula Awards, and they’ve won the TV Guide Award, prestigious Hamptons Prize and 2011 Rondo and Saturn Awards.