BREAKING & ENTERING: Inside Screenwriting Industry Politics

A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.

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BREAKING & ENTERING: Inside Screenwriting Industry Politics by Barri Evins | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwritingIn this seemingly endless election season, you may be just as sick and tired of politics as I am, but this fact isn’t up for debate: The film industry is all about politics. Not the donkey versus the elephant kind versus whatever the green symbol is, but it is a political minefield out there, kiddos. If you’re hoping to survive, it helps to grasp the lay of the land.

Most aspiring writers are focused on the politics of getting into the business, such as: “How long do I have to wait before bugging someone who requested material?” Answer: You may send a very polite email after three to four weeks, acknowledging that they’re busy, perhaps attaching another copy for their convenience, so they don’t have to dig through email to find it.

But once inside, every bit of the business is about politics.

Arm yourself with an understanding of inside industry politics and be a better player.

No Such Thing As Free Trade

You might think that once you are inside the industry it’s one big happy family. It is far more of a dysfunctional one, filled with strict, yet unspoken rules you must navigate in every encounter.

The most common aspiring writer misconception is that everyone knows everyone. True, it is a small industry in the scheme of things, and it can be astonishing how many people are connected without the need for six degrees of separation. But “Hollywood” is not a little hamlet.

The most crippling misconception is that if someone in the industry is even remotely connected to someone else, then they can ask for a favor. As in, “Can you ask that exec that you are connected to on LinkedIn to read my script?” Like it’s

No.

Big.

Deal.

You, the aspiring writer, may have already blown it, if you’re making a “Big Ask” without a really strong relationship as a foundation – including them knowing and being a fan of your work. Making this request out of the blue makes you seem like an amateur.

Strike One.

If you have a solid relationship with the your insider contact, you are still putting the “Askee” in an awkward position.

Strike Two.

I would not even attempt to stop you from asking. After all, you need to get your foot in the door. I get it. But grasping the politics of Hollywood can help keep you from being thrown out of the game.

The Politics Of Relationships                                          

In the industry, we are all acutely aware of the importance of relationships. They drive the business. You could have stellar material, but without relationships, you’re going nowhere.

Keep Playing The Politics Game to Move ForwardThis is why savvy and successful industry professionals devote significant time and effort to building relationships. And as the players constantly change, there are always new people to meet. Aside from the in-office meeting, we are building relationships by breaking bread: breakfast, lunch, drinks, and dinner. A particularly ambitious young executive was once known for booking two breakfast meetings every morning. That’s a lot of eggs to stomach, but his over-the-top relationship-building technique was quietly admired.

The currency of Hollywood is having something of value to offer the other guy. There’s no calling up to say, “Hiya, how was your weekend?” It needs to be worth the time of both parties. That translates to: Having meaningful business to do with “New Acquaintance” so the relationship flourishes and grows.

While it might seem like a casual, getting-to-know-you, first date-esque encounter, in reality, information gathering is the top priority of the meeting – discovering what the other guy is looking for in order to get into business with them.

Between agents, studio executives, and production company executives sought after information includes:

What kinds of projects or clients are you looking for?

Do you have a favorite genre or genres?

Is there a project in need of a re-write?

Do you have an open assignment?

Is there an opportunity to work together (packaging to increase the marketability) on a project?

The fruits of the information gathering in the get-to-know-you meeting enables you to prove to the other guy you have something valuable to bring to the table:

A production company exec may be working on a project with a new writer, promising enough to merit representation. If they are a fit with what an agent or manager who is open to new clients is looking for – such as a preferred genre – and the writer has the making of a potentially “good” client, the exec may pass on the material to the rep. If the writer gets signed, it’s a win-win-win. The agent has a client with a project that has a producer behind it. The writer’s dream of representation has come true. The clever exec has earned the respect of the agent, the writer’s gratitude, and the leverage to get a look at the writer’s next spec from the agent.

A production company exec has a project it hopes to take to studios. Adding a director or star would make the project more appealing to a buyer. If the exec can learn from the exec running the star or director’s company what might float their boat, they can submit the material in hopes of forming a partnership that advances the project.

A studio exec has open assignments – projects that need a rewrite. If the agent has clients that are known for the genre or who can deliver the particular quality needed in the script – make it scarier, add dimension to the characters, up the action – they submit a writing sample, hoping their client is a good fit and can meet on the project and land the job. In larger agencies, this information is tracked and shared in the hopes of filling as many assignments as possible.

Sounds rather simple when you spell out. But it’s not. We’re not selling cars here – this is highly objective. It is a big and deeply personal commitment when someone takes on a project or a career.

Playing the game successfully – bringing the other guy something they need, want and desire, cements relationships. Orchestrating this positive connection is no mean feat.

Capture lightning in a bottle, and you’ll prove you are a worthwhile relationship. You get to pass “Go” and keep playing the game. ‘Cause that’s your job.

Come close, where there is a favorable response overall, “I’d like to read something else by this writer,” but no love connection, and you will get another at bat.

Completely miss the mark once and your taste and your worth are in question.

Strike out again and you’re liable to be deemed a waste of time. Why would anyone bother to return your calls? Game over.

One time, I thought I was playing the game to perfection, according to the rules I’ve laid out here, when suddenly making a New Acquaintance turned into a speeding snowball, picking up speed and girth, spinning out of control and likely to crush me. Can you stop an avalanche? Read this terrifying tale and see if you can spot the misstep.

The Politics Of The Ask

Every time an aspiring writer requests that an industry connection pass along their material to someone else, they are asking them to put their reputation on the line and jeopardize a relationship.

The Big Ask means that I have to crowbar the material into my reading schedule, and it’s not going to come before higher priority scripts such as projects. If I don’t fully believe in something, I will not pass it along, as it is a reflection of me. If I read your material and I don’t flip over it, feel comfortable enough to call in a favor from the person you are trying to get it to, and feel confident that it meets their needs, then I have put in the time and now must go through the pain of turning you down and crushing your dreams. Fun, fun, fun. Not.

While you may be certain your material will be a massive hit, and anyone would be lucky to get their hands on it, chances are… it’s not. Sorry for hitting you with the brutal truth. Hey, it’s not you; it’s the business. A business where even the most talented and experienced prognosticators of box office success fail often and fail big.

Ben-Hur. Paramount‘s production budget: $100 million. Opening weekend a painful $11.4 million. In the Variety rundown of the weekend, Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations called it, “the bomb of the summer.” Ben hurt.

Self-confidence is good, but make no predictions. Just prove it.

The odds you have a big spec sale on your hands are astronomically slim. Chances are you may have an interesting concept, a facility for dialogue or characterization, or perhaps show the beginnings of the sought-after “distinctive voice.” This is not such a bad place to start. Unless you’re boasting about a franchise, a comic, prequels, spin-offs and a line of robotic toys. See above.

Let’s assume that you have something that is commercially viable and marketable and/or shows significant writing ability.

The Politics of Cashing In A FavorNow your Askee must call in a chit.

I think of chits like poker chips, they represent something of value and can be held onto in the event of a really great hand, cashed in or frittered away. As ordinary, hard working industry players, we have only so many chits per relationship. How many depends on the relationship. And who knows when I will really need one for myself?

Here’s where the politics comes in.

There is a distinct hierarchy of Industry relationships that influences the politics between individuals. As with the wedding cake, the higher up we go, the smaller the tiers.

Acquaintances – These are a dime a dozen. You’ve met, gathered info, but there’s no bond. If you see each other at a social occasion, screening, or film fest, you will give them a big “Hollywood Hello!” Gregarious, yet oh so fake. You might not even like this person, but “Hey there!” Although they might not stop schmoozing long enough to dump their drink on you if you were on fire. Once you’ve met them, you don’t need to socialize again, just build toward a working relationship.

Hokey Pokey Pals – I had to create another category when building this cake to fit those relationships that are neither here nor there. You’re not in; you’re not out. A certain amount of courtesy is expected. You might dump each other’s calls, having an assistant return after business hours, hoping to go “Tag, you’re it!” as their boss isn’t interested or even available for a conversation, but still wants to maintain the façade of courtesy, and the illusion that you are important to them, by returning all calls within 24 hours. If you do wind up chatting, your Pal may screech to their assistant, “Get a lunch on the books with Barri Evins!” Sounds politically correct, but so not going to happen. It’s like being on the back burner, the second string, just in case the other guy is on an upward trajectory and you might need them later on.

In Business Buddies – This is where strong relationships are formed. We’re in the trenches together on a project, trying to get the best rewrite possible, pitching to buyers, strategizing how to get the project made. We connect frequently. Otherwise it’s an insult. But when there’s no longer active business going on, it becomes quite clear how the popular bye-bye, “Love you! Mean it!” was really, truly flippant.

Inside Industry PoliticsBusiness Buddies – This relationship has some foundation. You’ve tried to get in business together even if it didn’t succeed. You’ve been acquaintances, possibly working your way up together. Perhaps one person did a big favor for the other and it helped cement the relationship. There’s a long history. Favors are exchanged willingly when mutually advantageous. You would get together for a breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks again if appropriate, such as one person getting a new job and you need to do some info gathering to see if you can get into business together.

Mentees/Mentors – This can be a long-lasting and meaningful industry relationship. I’ve been fortunate to have many former interns go on to become successful as executives, writers, and literary agents. The best bonds last, even if the mentee seemingly outgrows the need for the mentor. The best cases scenario is that it remains a two-way street. You might not know about these relationships unless, like the first agent I worked for, you have an incredible memory for what I call “The Begats.” As in the Biblical reference: to Father or to bring into the world. Here this means: Joe started as an assistant for Jane at The Agency, then he went to work at Ms. X’s ProdCo, then he worked his way up at Big Studio under Top Exec. Knowing someone’s begats illuminates their close relationship history.

Friends – Longstanding relationships that likely include several, or all of the above phases and progressed from the professional to the personal. It might even go back to being assistants at the same time. These are folks you actually hang out with, trust emphatically, and can tell the truth to. These are your “peeps,” and you will only get so many of them in a career. You ask each other for significant favors, “Help! I need a fresh set of eyes on this script.” You value their opinion. You do significant favors for each other because you are rooting for the other guy to succeed. They owe you, you owe them; we’re not keeping score – well not too closely. If they say “LY/MI!” they actually mean it, or you two are sharing and inside joke about the insincerity of the industry.

Of course, these categories are not immutable, and are highly nuanced. Think of this as a vast, interconnected web with the complexity of the brain’s neural pathways and the infinite tentacle-like connections of a retro horror movie hive creature. Though perhaps less confusing than the political caucuses.

This is what an industry insider has in their head when you ask them to ask someone for a favor. Not so simple, eh?

The politics of The Ask are incredibly complex, but sometimes you have to ask, even if you risk political incorrectness. I‘ve found a solution that works quite nicely in the industry and in life. When making an ask, I always include:

“Would you be comfortable?”

Whether it is reading material, passing the material on or asking someone to be a job reference for you, asking, “Would you be comfortable?” opens the door to a dignified out for The Askee. It is simple, yet ever so courteous. It makes you seem savvy and sensitive. It shows that you get that this is all political. It might even help you move up a notch in the hierarchy.

My name is Barri Evins, and I approved this message.

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