YOUR TV GUIDE: Crush Those Big Meetings

Tawnya Bhattacharya is currently a writer/co-producer on NBC’s The Night Shift, and formerly wrote on TNT’s Perception, The Client List at Lifetime and on USA’s Fairly Legal, with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. Follow Tawnya on Twitter @ScriptAnatomy.

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It’s 2015, a New Year full of new hopes and dreams. As writers, I imagine all of you might hope for one of the same things my writing partner, Ali Laventhol (co-writer of this article), and I do this year and every year… that the blood, sweat, and tears suffered during the creative process will land you meetings that will lead to something happening in your career. Well, guess what? Even when you do get that great meeting because of your great writing, your job isn’t over. Nowadays you have to be good in a room, too. You have to sell yourself much like you do when you go on a first online date. And let’s be honest, meetings and online dating aren’t that different. Two total strangers sitting down, sharing a bottle of water, trying to decide if they want to spend a huge chunk of time together doing something pretty intimate. As the small talk flies, the inner dialogue can be brutal:  Am I smart enough? Why isn’t he/she laughing at my joke? Did I wear the wrong thing? I can’t believe I just said that. I’m an idiot.

Meetings can be stressful. But if you were hoping all you’d have to do is ride the coattails of your awesome script that speaks for itself, it’s time to accept the truth: your TV writing career rests partly on your ability to pitch in a room. But don’t fret, because we’ve put together a few tips to help you…

CRUSH THAT BIG MEETING

We’ll start with the obvious: getting there. You never know how far the parking is from the meeting itself and you never know if your GPS is familiar with the weird streets on the lot and you really never know about traffic in L.A. – so get there early. The worst way to start a meeting is with you showing up late, out of breath, out of body and mind because you just ran a mile from the parking structure. And come on, who wants to run in those nifty new meeting shoes anyway?

pitch meetingsSpeaking of shoes, what do I wear?  As a writer, no one expects you to sport a suit or a dress. But no one wants you to show up unshowered and in your pajamas, either. We’ve heard of writers dressing the part (like wearing hip-hop fashion for a meeting on a hip-hop show) but this is rare and probably unnecessary. Just stick with clothes that make you feel comfortable, creative and presentable. Avoid anything that makes you feel stiff, less than your best, or like you’re wearing a costume. The Ali / Tawnya standard is jeans, boots or nice summery heels, and a nice blouse or… a rock-n-roll t-shirt. Our male friends typically go with a collared shirt, dark jeans, nice shoes. Meeting attire is a question our Script Anatomy students ask us a lot. So for the fun of it, after our most recent panel in November, we asked some former Script Anatomy panelists — all working writers, assistants, or coordinators — some questions for this blog, including what they wear for meetings, and here is what they said:

I always tell people that in meetings you have to be able to tell the story of your life and what you wear is part of that. Most executives aren’t artists, but they love hanging out with them; they don’t really want you to be another suit, they know enough of those already. My first big pitch at CAA I wore a suit but my stories were all about my life growing up in a small, surf town in the middle of nowhere. The agents all remarked that they never would have expected those stories to come out of my mouth. Afterwards Ann Blanchard pulled me aside and asked my why I wore a suit. I told her I wanted to “get dressed up for you guys.” She said she would rather have me wear a hoodie to our sales meetings than a suit. “You’re the talent, you can wear whatever the hell you want.” ~ Miles Orion Feld, writer,“The Noise” (CBS Studios and the CW with Fred Durst,)“Wicked Games” (CBS Studios and the CW, based on the book of the same name).

I try to wear something that’s a little nicer than what I would be wearing as a writer in the room. Basically something that’s casual/trendy, so nice pants and a cute top. I also try to wear at least one thing that’s memorable – bigger earrings or a necklace. I feel like bright colors are always a good idea, too. ~ Katie Gruel, Staff Writer, “Dominion” (Syfy)

Whatever makes me feel most comfortable and confident on the given day. It always changes, but generally something casual, yet polished. Oh!  And hand sanitizer—not because of germs, but because it keeps nerve-induced, sweaty palms dry. ~ Nikki Schiefelbein, Producer, “Mozart in the Jungle”

The very first meeting I ever took was with a very well known showrunner and his head of production, and I was working as a lawyer at the time. I went to the meeting wearing wearing a blue blazer with jeans and a sweater. When I got there, the showrunner was in sweats. I felt completely overdressed. Afterwards, I got a call from my reps. “What did you wear to that meeting?” they asked. I told them. Apparently, the head of production had called and mentioned that I had been wearing a suit, which my reps told me I shouldn’t do again. I didn’t get that job, and never wore another blazer to a meeting. ~ Warren Hsu Leonard, Executive Story Editor, “How to get Away with Murder” (ABC)

Who am I meeting with? There’s a fine line between thorough preparation and Google-stalking. We recommend finding out as much as you can about the person, by any means within the limits of the law. How long has this person been at this company? Where else have they worked? What shows have they covered or developed or produced? Who might you know in common? Where did they go to school? Do your kids happen to go to the same school? What are their interests? Whether it’s through a mutual friend or acquaintance, a show on their list of credits, or the town they grew up in, find some small way to break the ice and connect… this will help you relax, feel confident, and remind you that all you’re really doing is having a conversation with another human being. We asked our former Script Anatomy panelists how they prepare for meetings:

I once researched an exec that I was meeting with and discovered that she had an old blog online, and one of the entries was actually about how to take a meeting in Hollywood. I basically followed her advice for our meeting, and it went great. You won’t get that lucky all of the time, but I’ve found that it’s definitely worth the time to research the people you’re meeting with. ~ Warren Hsu Leonard, Executive Story Editor, “How to get Away with Murder” (ABC)

I feel like shows often are looking for different people to write the various voices within the show, so I try to find one particular character that I can relate to, and I focus my pitches on that specific character. ~ Katie Gruel, Staff Writer, “Dominion” (Syfy)

What kind of meeting is it?  Are you trying to get repped? Get staffed? Sell a series?  There are different ways to approach agent/manager meetings, general meetings, staffing meetings, and pitch meetings. Let’s break it down.

Agent/Manager meetings. The relationship you have with your representation is extremely important, so these meetings are as much about your take on them as it is about their take on you. But when you’ve been trying to break in for what feels like forever, it’s tempting to walk into these meetings with the “please like me, please rep me, please sign me” attitude. Drop that and realize that you’re trying to figure out if this person will be the best fit to help advance your career. Do they get you? Do they understand your goals?  Are they strategic in a way that suits you? Are they really passionate about your writing?  This is critical. Because if they’re not, they won’t be passionate about selling you. And if you end up with this agent or manager, that will be their job: to sell you. So in this meeting, show them how they may do that. Which brings us to the next question: What is your brand? Who are you as a writer? What makes your POV unique? What is your personal story? What makes you stand out from everyone else? Be very clear about this and be sure to communicate it to your potential agent or manager in this meeting. It’s not enough to know that you’re a drama writer or a comedy writer, or even that you’re a character writer or a procedural expert. Go deeper. Maybe your first husband cheated with your best friend and you therefore like to write about themes of betrayal. Or perhaps you moved around a lot as a kid and you like to write stories about fitting in. Or maybe you’re a two-guy writing team who likes to write about brotherhood. Or maybe you used to work on Capital Hill and you think you could write the hell out of House of Cards or Scandal. Bottom line: Let them know how they’ll be able to sell you, and listen to see if they’re the right person to do so.

General meetings. These are broad stroke slash getting-to-know-you kind of meetings. An executive might take a general with you because they liked your script and although they can’t do anything with it now, they want to keep you in mind for upcoming opportunities. They want to put a face with a name, and they take the general to make sure you “present well” before they endorse you at some future point in time. For a general, the focus of the meeting will be partly on you — your background, your brand, the types of things you’ve written, shows you love. And it might also be partly on their company — which shows they’re developing, which shows they have on the air, etc. You don’t have to watch every episode of all of their shows, but be conversant enough to drop a tidbit like, “I find the mother/daughter relationship in (show x) really compelling because I was raised by a single mom, too.” Walking out of a general, you hope the person you met with has a strong sense of who you are as a writer and why you might be good for their company someday down the road.

Staffing meetings. This might be a meeting with the production company or producers, a studio, network or showrunner. Ultimately the showrunner meeting is the most important and the most involved, but any one of the people in any one of these meetings may have the ability to take your name off the staffing list, so act accordingly… it all counts!

If you’re meeting on a new pilot, you’ll want to know the script backwards and forward. Talk about the characters, relationships, conflicts, and where you see potential storylines going. Be positive. Be complimentary. What did you love?  Imagine you’re in their shoes: You’ve been through the million and one steps it takes to get a show on the air and you’re finally hiring a staff. Your best-case scenario is to end up with a room full of writers who not only know what they’re doing, but who are really passionate about the show and have a ton of ideas. So prove that you have ideas by pitching a few. Tell them why you relate to the characters; maybe even include a brief anecdote from your life that illustrates your point. If you can craft an organic segue between your personal background and the show, that’s a huge plus. In one of our meetings, Tawnya was talking about her background and how she grew up in a reservation town and very naturally pitched a case idea for the show that revolved around jurisdictional conflicts between tribal and state police. It proved successful because we got the job.

If you’re meeting on an existing show, watch every episode. Of course if it’s CSI season 13, this may not be realistic. If you’re meeting with the creator or existing showrunner, the above advice applies. (Be positive. Be complimentary. What do you love about it?  How do you relate?)  However, if you’re meeting with someone who’s taking over — perhaps a new showrunner hired to revamp the show (which was the case on our first two staffing jobs), then be prepared to talk about what you like about the show and how it could be improved. Is the sister the most interesting character but you feel she’s underused?  Say so and then pitch a few storyline ideas for her, emphasizing why you think making her more of a focal point would improve the show. Remember the rule of thumb, though: only offer up fixes and improvements if asked! We asked our writer friends what they do when taking a meeting for a show they don’t like. Here is some advice from our Script Anatomy panelists:

I’ve been lucky and have been truly excited for the creative possibilities for every show I’ve met on. I think that comes from having writing samples that came from my heart and imagination—I’ve never been swayed by people telling me that I need to write a certain thing—I think your samples automatically align you with shows in your wheelhouse. ~ Nikki Schiefelbein, producer “Mozart in the Jungle” (Amazon)

A show I don’t like?! I like EVERY show. At least that’s what you tell them. It’s a job! And make sure you actually have watched it before the meeting! ~ Allison Rymer, Script Coordinator “Proof” (TNT)

I thankfully haven’t had this happen to me yet, but an agent did offer to put me up for a job on a show that was completely off tone for me. I politely declined, but thanked her for even considering putting me up for it because it was such a huge vote of confidence from her. I reminded her the type of shows I like and begged her to keep me in mind for other opportunities. I think it’s okay to be picky sometimes, so long as you’re always respectful when passing. ~ Danny Tolli, writers assistant “Stalker” (CBS)

We had a very important exec give us some advice about staffing meetings once. He said, “You have to sound smart without sounding like you’re trying to sound smart.”  Hmm. Ok. At the time, his advice sounded complicated. Maybe even impossible. But all he was really saying is this: As a TV writer, you’re already passionate about story and you think intelligently about it all the time. So do that, don’t be phony about it, and you’ll be fine.

Pitch meetings. These meetings will focus less on you and more on the series you’re trying to sell. For a full pitch meeting, you’ll want to have your pitch partially or mostly memorized. It’s okay to refer to your notes, but the better you know it the better you’ll pitch it, especially when you’re nervous. On the other hand, they’re buying a great idea – they’re not buying your flawless presentation skills, so don’t worry about it too much. It’s more important to love your concept, your world, your characters, etc. Pitch the characters as if they’re the most fabulous, interesting friends you’ve ever had. Some people say start your pitch with the teaser, others say start with the inspiration or the hook or the main character or the world. There really are no rules. Every pitch has its own way in. Start with what excites you the most, and go from there. And make sure it’s specific, unique and not general. For instance you wouldn’t want to say: “I’ve loved comics since I was a kid so that’s why I wrote this.” So? Hundreds of writers can say that. But if you can say “I wrote this piece because I was the sole survivor of a plane crash and struggled with both survivor’s guilt and a God complex and this is the story of my life in the aftermath and how I became a real life superhero and saved others to save myself…”   Wow, I’m hooked! After your pitch, be prepared to field questions. Try to guess which aspects of your series they might want to know more about, and have answers ready. Oh, and don’t be surprised if the people you are pitching to are looking at their notepads and writing most the time. Sometimes that happens.

Running the meeting. Some people are better at running a meeting then others. We’ve had meetings that stay on track, effortlessly covering all crucial topics – and others where the exec or showrunner talked about everything under the sun, except the actual show. In these cases, be prepared to take the reins and steer the conversation back to what’s important. If you do this in an organic, tactful way, you’ll make sure to walk out having expressed the nuggets that may get you the job while still feeling like it was a graceful conversation.

Ending the meeting. We’ve been caught in a few situations where a great meeting lasted a little too long, and the final ten minutes felt like all the air was let out of the helium balloon. Since then, we’ve learned to watch for the natural loss of momentum after you’ve talked about all the important stuff, and to be the one to end it. You’ll leave on a positive note that way, as opposed to a flat note that leaves you wondering if the entire meeting sucked.

Always take the water. Even if you think you’re not thirsty, or you think that you’re so nervous you’ll probably spill if you try to take a sip during the meeting… Because believe us when we say dry mouth and coughing fits, although rare, are not pretty.

Managing your expectations. There’s a pretty broad spectrum when it comes to the importance of any given meeting. On one end, there are critical meetings that you MUST NAIL in order to make something big happen. On the opposite end there are the meetings that mean absolutely nothing and are only happening as a favor to someone else in an office far, far away. This is the meeting that isn’t worth your time, gasoline or clean outfit, and no matter how brilliant you are, you will walk out feeling played. It can be frustrating. When this happens, shake it off and remember that even if nothing comes of it now, having a stellar meeting can potentially lay the groundwork for future opportunities. Build your relationships. They matter. And if one job comes out of every handful of these meetings that feel pointless, that’s usually all you need. We asked our panelists about their worst meetings and what they did to get through them…

My worst meeting was when I hit some unforeseen traffic and was late. Even though it was only a few minutes, it completely threw me off.  I was nervous, and I felt bad the whole time so I didn’t feel like I was totally present in the meeting and I didn’t put my best foot forward. ~  Katie Gruel, Staff Writer, “Dominion” (Syfy)

My worst meeting was with a showrunner who within the first two minutes told me I wasn’t getting the job because they had no need for a staff writer. He was just impressed with my material and wanted to meet me in person. I had spent hours preparing and was excited to discuss my ideas with him, so I felt completely derailed. I tried putting on my best poker face, even though I wanted to run out of the room. I decided half way through it that even though he wasn’t considering me for this season, I still wanted to give a good first impression in the case he needed someone later in their order or if the show got a season two. ~ Danny Tolli, writers assistant, “Stalker” (CBS)

Worst meeting was when I was up for a job, and I could tell within minutes that they’d already given the job to someone else. You just know the person interviewing you is completely uninterested. At that point I just wish that they would say, thanks but no thanks, and send me on my way.  ~ Allison Rymer, Script Coordinator, “Proof” (TNT)

Following up. Usually, it’s best to send a brief thank you/follow up email after a general meeting, or a meeting with a production company or studio/network exec – BUT NOT AFTER A SHOWRUNNER MEETING. Once you’ve had a great showrunner meeting, let your agent or manager handle the follow up. You can always follow up if you didn’t get the job, and you’ll have plenty of chances to follow up in person if you did. Okay, so now that you know what to do… go have a great meeting!

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