Breaking & Entering: Call to Action

Every day we are bombarded with advertising, emails, and social media blasts that implore, beg and urge us to sign up, speak out, protest, donate, watch, like, fan, follow, share and buy, buy, buy.

Marketers claim that it takes seven interactions to get someone to take action. As a signer of petitions and donor to causes and charities, it’s clear that this is a popular theory. The daily deluge that floods my inbox got me thinking about which exhortations effectively persuaded me to do what they wanted and which fell flat. Personal, specific, and compelling solicitations are the most successful. And repetition works.

Repetition works.

As a writer, once you have mastered how to write a screenplay, your prime objective should be connecting with people in the industry who can advance your career. Use these same marketing principles to create your own call to action that gets results.

Don’t Be A Stranger                                                            

The unknown outsider shouting “gimme, gimme, gimme” gets about as much response as the guy on the sidewalk Please Take Action to Help Me!waving a giant arrow.

Interact with industry insiders whenever the opportunity arises. It’s easy to think of a new contact as a chance to get anything and everything you can, but if you want to build a successful relationship of any kind, aren’t the best ones a two-way street?

Social media is a great avenue for sparking a connection, but it’s up to you to stoke the fire. I’m fortunate to be a part of an intimate and well-curated Facebook screenwriting group. I’ve gotten to know many of these folks, and not only offered up advice as appropriate, but asked for their opinions and guidance as well. I sought help with my ScriptMag column title and what they came up with was far better than my attempts. I regularly ask for input on topics they think worthy of a column, and seek volunteers to proof and critique articles before I post them. With all this back and forth, we’ve gotten to know each other. Relationships have been established. If one of those writers asked me for a favor, and it was in my power to make it happen, you can bet I’d be happy to take action.

If you want to stand out from the hungry hoards, ask not what your contact can do for you, but what you can do for your contact. It doesn’t have to be big, but it should be authentic. We’re ordinary folks with our own struggles, doubts, and desire for affirmation. You never know where it will lead.

At the Los Angeles Screenwriters World in September, I decided to go to the mixer. I was in the mood to mix. I ran into a writer I knew. She was trying to find the friend she’d come with, so I tagged along. Soon, I was in small group, and introductions were made. We were chatting away when I discovered I was talking to someone who had just retweeted my ScriptMag column and had commented specifically on what she thought was a cool way of thinking about theme. I was so flattered, I nearly blushed and wound up giving her a big hug. It meant so much to me to meet a reader. Will I connect with her? Done.

Personalizing Is Key

This isn’t easy for me to admit, but as of this writing there are 347 people waiting to connect with me on LinkedIn. If you are one of them, please accept my blanket apology. But know that you share in the blame. Why? Every person who I already know gets a quick response. Anyone who takes the time to write me a personal note gets a prompt reply. Everyone who puts forth the effort of a single computer click that sends an automatically generated generic request will simply have to wait. I’m not playing a numbers game. I want to know who is connecting with me, and why we should know each other before I take action.

I actually look at profiles, see if we have common interests, then send back a personal note. If I simply can’t figure out why someone would want to connect with me – like the very persistent landscape architect who can’t seem to accept that at this moment I have no landscape to architect – I’m not likely to connect. Tell me why we should know each other. If we’ve met, remind me.

The same applies to query letters. When you slam them out there, like a batting cage machine spitting baseballs, it Take Aim and target your actions!shows. “Dear Sir or Madame, I think my script is a perfect fit for ‘insert-your-production-company’s-name-here.’”

Take aim. Target your queries to a specific individual for an express reason. You have a project in a genre that they are active in; you’ve read that they are a newly minted exec which means they’re looking to make their mark with new writers; you’ve heard them speak and discovered what they are looking for. Your odds for getting a hit go way up.

The Seventh Time IS The Charm

I’m not suggesting you badger someone to death by sending them the same query time and again, but think about the power of having six unique interactions with someone before you ever send them a query!Lucky Sevens!

Just like in the “real” world, it takes time and finesse to build relationships, but it’s an investment with rich rewards.

So how can you get to that magic number?

One of my interns once told me that the internship program head suggested they keep in touch with their newfound industry contacts by sending a Halloween card. Seriously? You might as well drop me a note about what you had for lunch. Get to the point. Better yet: have one.

Make each interaction meaningful:

Tell us something newsworthy and professional. We’re not likely to care that you finished a first draft, who is reading your script, or that you got complimentary coverage. Let us know that you’ve just won or placed in a screenwriting contest, been accepted into an exclusive writing program or signed with a manager. It shows that you are a writer making inroads.

Share something of interest. Meaning of interest to the person you are contacting, hopefully of mutual interest. Send a link to a pertinent article, note a mention in the trades, or remark on their conference appearance. It shows that you are following the industry.

A little authentic buttering up never hurts. Gushy compliments that feel like pick-up lines are more creepy than compelling. Thanking someone for their insights at a Pitch-a-Palooza stands out. You’re implementing them? Even better. Congratulate them on a new job or promotion, a project being set up, or a great review. It shows that you are paying attention.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want. Concrete requests are more likely to get a response. You are far less likely to hear back when you toss out a handful of loglines in the hopes that one will hit the mark, plead “can you help me” – yes, that is in quotation marks as it is from a query – or ask to “ask a few questions” about the industry. Ditto the quotes; I only spared you the typo within that short sentence.

One Facebook relationship was born out of a writer liking my Big Ideas for Screenwriters Facebook page, commenting on my posts, and our interacting on my personal page. He became someone I felt I knew. After more than a year, when he asked if I’d look at a script, AND the idea interested me, I sent him a release and read his material. The project wasn’t for me, but the writer was appreciative that I’d taken a look and responded. When he asked for a manager recommendation, I offered one up – no guarantees. That manager is now reading a second script from this writer.

Coincidence? I think not.

Be Irresistible

Everything above is merely groundwork. Ultimately, you have to deliver the goods. And they better be delicious.Charlie the Tuna Didn't Get Any Action!

Poor, misguided Charlie the Tuna continually tried to impress the folks at Starkist with his good taste, only to have his fish friend tell him time and again, “Starkist isn’t looking for tunas with good taste, Charlie. Starkist is looking for tunas that taste good.” Hollywood is not so very different.

A great idea for a movie is the “Big Fish” that everyone in the industry is hunting for. And it is the best possible way for an aspiring writer to break in.

But not just any fish will do.

Hollywood wants stories that taste good. That doesn’t mean dumbed down. Quite the contrary. You need both the sizzle and the steak. Certainly, The King’s Speech is every bit as smart as it is good entertainment. I call these captivating concepts “Hooky Ideas.”

Hooky Ideas lure in industry interest. Nothing tastes better in the film industry than a great idea for a movie. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is casting their net for that elusive catch.

Convince us you are tasty:

Your new contact is constantly bombarded with ideas from every direction imaginable and plows through tons of mediocrity. Your idea should make eyes widen and pulses quicken.

You are one of a kind. Your idea is concept-driven, clever, and has an element that is utterly unique.

You understand what makes a compelling story. There’s a hero we can root for, with a tangible goal, conflict that stands in his way and stakes if he fails.

You are savvy. Your idea is pitchable, marketable, and castable.

These qualities may spark some outrage. You’re trying to break into the film business, right? Sorry, but you cannot sell an execution dependent project in a query or a pitch. Their deliciousness is in the details. You can’t break in with something with that has nothing new to offer. You can’t break in without a strong story. You can’t break in with something that won’t find an audience.

If your idea doesn’t meet those requirements, then don’t blow a relationship you’ve been cultivating by sending it their way. Better to wait until you have an idea that shows you understand the business that you are trying to break into.

Sell no wine before it’s time.

In the industry, every “ask” is calling in a favor or spending a chit. And unless you are very, very powerful, you only have so many of them. I would never, ever ask anyone in the industry to read a script or hear a pitch that I didn’t believe in down to my toes. My reputation depends on it. I want to be known as “that girl producer with good taste, the one with great projects, the one who always sends us material that we like.”

Orson WellesNear the end of his career, the great Orson Welles, once a boy genius, was reduced to hocking wine in commercials for Paul Masson Vineyards. The ads boosted sales by one-third. In his stentorian voice, he espoused the winery slogan, “We will sell no wine before it’s time.” A sad state for Orson; but not a bad motto.

Never send out material that isn’t ready for industry eyes. Don’t kid yourself that you can send a revised draft later. Or have your next query met with equal enthusiasm. As they say in the dandruff commercials, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Spend your hard-earned currency wisely.

As a screenwriter, you are searching for a passionate champion for your project. Your call to action must get us to sit up and take notice if you want results. And, as in screenplays, a great set up demands a great payoff. If you’ve succeeded on all other counts, even if this idea isn’t the right idea for us, you now have a relationship in the industry and you should have a chance at a second shot.

Umm, now that I’m at the end of this column, make that 423 pending LinkedIn invitations. Time for me to take action.

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2 thoughts on “Breaking & Entering: Call to Action

  1. rariospromotions

    Thanks Barri,

    I personally found this article both educational and insightful. As you mentioned here I have personally made some of these mistakes but at the same time I have worked at building a solid foundation with those that I have come to know. It is not an easy task but with lots of effort and as you said “not only looking at what the other guy can do for you” a person can be successful. Thanks again I always look forward to reading your blogs!

    R.A. Rios

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