NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: How I Got to Hollywood – Networking 101

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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Navigating Hollywood isn’t just about knowing the literal roads to take. It’s also about the figurative one. It takes a little bit off fate and a WHOLE lotta networking to get here. Remember, there are a million roads in to this industry and your story will be different from everyone else’s. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from hearing them though. Here’s mine…

MANNY GOES TO AUSTIN…

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter

In 2006, while in film school, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Austin Screenwriter’s Conference. I strongly suggest it to anyone who’s serious about getting ahead as a writer. It’s probably THE best place for a writer to do some serious networking as well as learn a thing or two about the business and what it takes to survive in it.

Austin is also a hotbed for great food and WAY too much drinking. Everything’s bigger in Texas, right?

The first night we were there, we ended up drinking heavily with the screenwriters of Wedding Crashers and then walking the main drag. As one of the writers’ put it, there was no better inspiration for debauchery than 6th Street at two in the morning on a Friday night.

That night, back at the hotel, tragedy hit. Coming out of the bathroom, I stubbed my toe on the door. It was one of those weird timing accidents. A one-in-a-billion shot. The damage was, to put it lightly, severe. It was so bad that I had to spend the rest of the conference limping around, unable to wear closed toed shoes. It didn’t help that we were staying in a hotel several blocks away from the conference.

Why am I telling you this?

Oddly enough, this injury would indirectly end with me getting a job in Hollywood. Bare with me… We’ll get there, just know that every now and then, fate deals you a really weird hand.

I OWE MY ENTIRE CAREER TO WRITER/DIRECTOR JESSICA BENDINGER

While in film school, we spent every Monday night playing pool at this dive bar a couple of blocks from the film school. On this particular night, a group of us were talking about movies (no shit) when my best friend at the time started bugging me to go see this new movie about gymnastics called Stick It. I politely declined with a manly, “I ain’t gonna go see no chick flick about gymnastics.”

At the time, I was not aware Stick It! was written and directed by the writer of Bring it On. At the same time, my group of friends were not aware that I secretly enjoyed Bring it On.

Like I said, I watch everything.

Anyway, a few months later, the best friend and I were at Blockbuster (remember those?) and saw Stick It on the shelf. Tired of hearing about it, we grabbed it. It also helped that I saw the “From the writer of…” on the DVD cover. I sat on my laptop while it played and found myself slowly paying more attention to the big screen rather than the small screen.

Not gonna lie… I liked it. There was one scene in particular that I became enamored with: The training montage. Jessica had found a way to take a beloved trope and completely make it original.

Credits roll. Another movie that I’ve seen, right? Why think anything else about it. Cut to two weeks later when, as luck would have it, I found myself standing in front of Jessica herself.

PANELS, PANELS, PANELS

Jessica Bendinger on panel

Jessica Bendinger on panel

Austin’s conference is just one panel after another. There are so many panels and such few precious hours, that you really have to pick and choose where you’re going to spend your time. Nevermind fitting in all of the parties (that have free booze and food) AND the films from the film festival. It’s jam packed.

When you arrive at the conference to check in and get your badge, they give you a booklet with all of the panels and bios of the screenwriters that are there to conduct them. Once in my room, I flipped through, saw Jessica’s bio and had to laugh. I called my best friend and teased her that her new BFF was at the conference.

Jessica was doing two panels. The second one, about first time directors, grabbed my attention and I put that on the list.

FATE STEPS IN… LITERALLY

On this particular morning, I was in the process of limping, very slowly, to my first panel of the day. On the way, I was met by two of my friends that were on their way to the second. We did the whole Which panel are you going to? bit and they informed me that mine had been cancelled.

Son-of-a-bitch. I did not want to limp back to the hotel, just to limp back to the conference later. “Come with us!” They said. “We’re going to a panel on pitching.”

Pitching wasn’t on my radar but that seemed way easier than the alternative… So I went. “Who’s doing the panel?” I asked.

“John August and Jessica Bendinger.”

I chuckled. Wouldn’t you know it?

TIPS ON NETWORKING

TIP #1: KNOW YOUR SHIT.

It’s easy. Really. It is. Especially with everyone having the internet in their pocket. IMDB, Google, (if you’re lucky enough to know someone) Studio System. The information is out there.

Know it.

During the panel it was mentioned that John August had a blog that helped screenwriters. It was 2006 – a year before the iPhone, but I had a Palm Treo, so I pulled up John’s site as soon as they mentioned it and bookmarked it. IF I had the chance to talk to him, I didn’t want to sound like an idiot if his site came up in the conversation. Spoiler Alert: I never did talk to John that year so his site never came up, but years later I would interview him and I was all over that shit.

It was also mentioned that Jessica had written a couple of posts for the site and had popped up in the message boards from time to time. Important thing to note!

TIP #2: FIND AN IN.

As is the standard, the panel eventually opened up to questions from the audience. Someone asked Jessica how tough it was to pitch her films because Bring it On and Stick It were hardly aimed at the mainstream demographic.

She stated the obvious: “It wasn’t easy. She relayed a story about one studio executive passing on Bring it On because, and I quote, “Chicks don’t go to the movies.”

Sigh.

Good news though, now I had my in.

TIP #3: BE GENUINE.

I decided I had a question for Jessica but I didn’t want to ask it among the masses. Because I loved it so much, I really wanted to know how she wrote that training montage on the page. Did she just put in “kaleidoscope training montage” or did she describe each one? Also, to be honest, I wanted to meet her because at this point I’d jumped on the Bendinger band wagon like my best friend. She was pretty awesome.

NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: How I Got to Hollywood - Networking 101 by Manny Fonseca | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

I went up to her afterwards prepared to introduce myself. I never had the chance. She saw me, smiled and put her hand out: “Hi, I’m Jessica, how are you?”

I shook her hand and said the following:

“You know, there was a question about your demographic and I just wanted to let you know that I’m 28, straight and have seen both Bring it On AND Stick It.”

She laughed and then I added:

“And not for masturbatory reasons either!”

That made her laugh way harder. Thank God because, looking back on it now, it could have gone really badly. Case in point:

TIP #4: DON’T BE CREEPY!

Three years later I would find myself in Austin again, with Jessica. We were at an event together and there was a very well known screenwriter in attendance as well. I was super excited to meet him, because I was a huge fan of his work. Apparently, Jessica and he had never really met before so after she introduced herself, she introduced me.

He asked her about her films and she mentioned the titles.

He then made a similar joke that I had in 2006, except WAAAAAY creepier. No charm. Just awkwardness. Jessica laughed it off politely, but it made me realize that she probably got that joke a lot. I’m super happy I pulled it off with a decent amount of charm. At least I hope so. She remained my friend, so I guess it wasn’t a total fail. But it coulda been.

TIP #5: TRY TO BE ORIGINAL.

Jessica answered my question… She wrote out every part of the montage in detail, then suggested I come to her panel the next day. I told her I’d had planned on it and explained that I sort of “fell” into this one.

The next day I showed up expecting to reintroduce myself. There was no need. She knew who I was by name and asked me what I thought of the panels and which one I liked better (It was the one on pitching).

The day before, I had a genuine question, on this day I just had something I wanted to know for me.

The Rock Brought It

The Rock Brought It

“Hey, I have a  weird question for you,” I said.

“Shoot.”

“What did you think of The Rock’s performance of your dialog in Be Cool?

After she stopped laughing, she told me that no one had ever asked her that before. See? Like I said, it pays to see everything. As for her answer… Well… It was just for me.

I had another goal for this conversation. A more important goal. Get her contact information.

TIP #6: IF ALL ELSE FAILS, PULL A KEVIN SMITH.

Kevin Smith told the story of how he met his future wife on the first Evening with Kevin Smith DVD. In that story he talks about the message boards on his site. After being interviewed by then USA Today reporter, Jennifer Schwalbach, she asked him that if she ever had any questions for him, could she ask them on the message boards and would he answer?

Obviously, I remembered this and thought it was a good way to ask to reach out to someone, publically, rather than go right for “can I have your email?”

Remember the day before? I learned that she popped in to Jown August’s site? So I asked her, much the same way Schwalbach asked Smith.

“Just hit me up on MySpace,” she said. Did I mention it was 2006?

TIP #7: Follow-Up.

After I returned to school, I sent Jessica a polite email telling her that it was great meeting her and that I really enjoyed the conference. She wrote back and we chit-chatted about screenwriting.

Don’t be pushy and don’t start filling their email with millions of messages.

See Tip #4.

Eventually, Jessica would sit on my thesis committee for my Master’s degree and give me some of the best lessons in screenwriting I’ve ever gotten.

EPILOGUE

As I stated above, I ended up back in Austin for the 2009 conference. I’d just graduated and decided to go back to the conference to try and make some connections. This time I wasn’t going for the panels, I was going for the networking at the parties.

As it happened, I found out Jessica was going to be there as well.

Through her, I ended up meeting someone who worked at Final Draft. He’d put together a dinner and wanted to know if Jessica could attend. He knew I had better access to her. There were a couple of producers (also speaking at the conference) he wanted to introduce her to. As it turned out, he was also inviting me.

Jake Kasdan promoting The TV Set.

Jake Kasdan promoting The TV Set.

Networking achievement unlocked.

I ended up hanging with those producers well into the early hours attending several parties that I shouldn’t have been let into as I did not have the “super badge.” Thanks to them, I got to meet Woody Harrelson and my number one screenwriting hero, Shane Black.

After the conference, I did what I always did… Followed up. One of the producers suggested I come out to L.A. and do an internship for a couple of months. He would even make some calls on my behalf.

Thanks to him, I got an internship at Irwin Winkler’s company, Winkler Films.

STAYING IN HOLLYWOOD

Not wanting to put all of my eggs in one basket, I applied (via the UTA Joblist) all over the place for internships. I ended up getting an internship at another production company. After two months, THAT internship turned into a full time job.

I came to Hollywood with a suitcase, a backpack and my laptop. By the time the paying gig came around, I had JUST enough money for a one way ticket home. I started getting paid, borrowed some money from my dad and found an apartment in about ten days.

Shaun moved me to my new apartment in Hollywood on Friday, July 30, 2010. It only took one trip. I didn’t have power, internet, or TV until Monday. I signed my lease, dumped my shit in the door, then ran across the street to the Roosevelt Hotel because, believe it or not, I had scheduled a pitchfest for that day and I had to go listen to pitches.

The first few months in my apartment, I slept on an air mattress and ate off plates I picked up at the dollar store. I didn’t have a TV so I bought a Slingbox, hooked it up to my cable box and watched TV on my laptop.

All because I stubbed my toe, didn’t want to limp back to the hotel and ended up meeting Jessica Bendinger.

BONUS FEATURES

That friend at Final Draft? He would be the reason I ended up working for the company years later. I reached him out to him after the job at the production company started to implode (more on THAT story later).

The production company I worked full time for? The President of Production at the time I was hired ended up leaving at the end of 2010. The guy that would replace him is the producer I still work with today and arguably my closest friend in the business.

As for the producer I met in Austin that acted as my bridge from Detroit to Los Angeles? Well, that’s an interesting story in and of itself… One best told another time.

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2 thoughts on “NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: How I Got to Hollywood – Networking 101

  1. NealR

    Great story and tips! (And I can’t wait to read the future stories that you hinted at.)

    (BTW: I believe it’s “bear” not “bare” [“Bare with me… We’ll get there…”].)

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