WHAT Are You Thinking? Tips to Break Into the Film Business

I’m late night gorging on trash TV instead of reading a script, watching a movie or even catching up on sleep. Hulu is apparently determined to keep me awake, no matter how repetitive the commercials. Because just below the video is written, “What are you thinking?” Haunting. Those very same words have been running through my brain for months.WHAT are you thinking?

Hulu is trying to get me to post a clip to Facebook and comment on it. As if Facebook isn’t a big enough distraction when I’m sitting at my desk trying to write a witty column or a brilliant chapter. But when I see those words staring at me endlessly, there’s only one thing that comes to mind – ghastly blunders I’ve seen aspiring screenwriters make in the face of honest to goodness chances to get a foot in the door – wasted, misplayed, shredded into tiny little bits and whisked away by the breeze. Do not pass go, do not make the most out of the break you claim you’re dying for.

WHAT are you thinking?

Handed a chance to seize the day, these writers didn’t carpe a thing. Avoid these blunders and learn to play it just right so you’re prepared to break into the film business when the door swings open.

Only the big fish is worth hauling into the boat.  

Fresh out of screenwriting school, a bright and determined young man talks his way into an internship with me. He’s had plenty of dull chores to do, as well as some amazing perks including auditing my seminar. And I reworked his query letter with him, draft after draft, until it shined. He started sending it out, and lo and behold, it got responses!

Same beloved intern writes me concerned about a reply he got from an assistant at a midsize agency. The assistant explained he was not allowed to accept unsolicited submissions, adding the oft-cited legal language attempting to protect the agency: any future project bearing any similarity to his work would be purely coincidental.

All utterly standard.

Here’s the shocker. The assistant goes out of his way and takes the time to offer the young writer a bit of honest, inside perspective. He explains that he gets a hundred similar emails each month, that the spec market is flooded, that blind submissions don’t get movies made, agents get movies made, and if a blind submission led to a sale it would be a tremendous stroke of luck. He added, “With that said, if you would like any advice about the business side of the industry then I will be more than happy to correspond with you, but for the sake of reading and submitting original materials of yours, I would suggest looking elsewhere.”

My intern looks this guy up and finds that he’s only been an assistant for a few months. He decides that he won’t bother contacting him again.

WHAT was he thinking? Recognize an open door when you see it! Never blow off an offer to cultivate an industry relationship. Even with someone at the bottom of the food chain. Especially with someone at the bottom of the food chain. They’re the ones who are hungry.

Within a year the assistant will likely be a young agent hungry for clients. He could be running a production company for a movie star repped by the agency or working at a studio. In ten years he could be head of feature lit. In fact, I met the head of feature lit at that very agency when we were both assistants. “Do you think you will be able to reach him then?“ I asked my intern.

As for the assistant’s harsh assessment that so distressed my intern, the assistant was telling it like it is. Query letters might not take you straight to red carpets, but they are an essential tool in your arsenal and can get results that lead to successes, especially when smartly targeted. In this case, the query worked like a charm. I guarantee you the writer would never have gotten a lengthy response and an open door if he hadn’t had a professional, well-written query and a solid, commercial idea.

Ah, now I can just sit back and relax.

I was speaking with a writer interested in bringing the Big Ideas Seminar to her city. Thousands of miles from Hollywood, building industry relationships was challenging. She mentioned a script of hers did well in a major competition. “Congratulations,” I said.  “Are people contacting you?” “Yes,” she replied, “I’ve gotten several emails from producers.” “That’s wonderful! What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m forwarding them straight to my manager.”

WHAT was she thinking? Throwing away a great opportunity to build professional relationships with people in the industry who were contacting her. You are and will always be your own best representative, even with a team of powerful agents, masterful managers, and fancy lawyers on your side.

By forwarding the letters, she was handing the young manager an opportunity to build those relationships. And what if she ever parted ways with him? Those relationships would be his, not hers.

I insisted she write a gracious, polished note to each person who had contacted her, thanking them for their interest in her script, hopefully taking another step by doing some homework and commenting on their company and its films or projects. And concluding with the fact that her manager would be contacting them and sending them her script.

She sent the emails off immediately.

The topper? Within months the writer did choose to part ways with her manager. Good thing she had built some industry relationships of her own.

Given an inch, take a mile. Or two. Or three.

I get it, you’re handed a long sought-after opportunity; you want to pounce like a ravenous jaguar.

Take a breath. Have a snack. And step back from the carcass. That’s a person on the other side, and they’d appreciate being treated like one rather than just a steppingstone. We don’t like feeling ambushed. It’s apt to do more harm than good.

A screenwriting professor contacted me to suggest I do a guest lecture. I was flattered and wrote back. No response. Odd. After an appropriate interval I dropped another nice note. Again, no response. Then he contacted me pitching two projects of his. I chose one. He sent both. Given his unprofessional as well as impolite behavior, and the enormous amount of scripts I have to read, I must admit I opted to read neither.

WHAT was he thinking? Never, ever send a synopsis or script that hasn’t been specifically requested. Don’t send four loglines when I’ve told you what kind of material is of interest to me and asked you to pick the best match out of what you have. Or for that matter, cram a bunch of projects into a single query. One means one.

Don’t push the boundaries. In the long run, you’ll get further.

Why bother?

A year ago a writer contacted me via a query. I read her script and responded in a timely fashion, (four weeks later!) passing on the idea as not the right match for me but expressing several sincere and very specific compliments about her writing. I added, “Please don’t hesitate to contact me again in the future with any new projects you have. I’d be happy to read something from you again.”

And that was it. The writer never responded. She could have built an industry relationship, but why bother?

WHAT was she thinking? Thank someone for their time or gracious response. You could go on to pitch another idea or mention a new project you’re about to complete. Ask what kind of material the pro is seeking. A little politeness, a bit of effort, and you’ve paved the way for future contact.

Writers getting it right.

Have there been writers who’ve played their hand well? You betcha!

A writing team with agency representation contacted me. Their letter was polished and professional, and there was something in the arena that piqued my interest so I requested the script. I didn’t go for the story, but I replied cordially and they replied cordially. It left a good taste in my mouth.

When they had a new project and contacted me again, I was happy to take a look.  These guys had the savvy to develop connections. They were a little further along in their careers. Coincidence? I think not.

WHAT were they thinking? Building relationships is priceless. You can pout over a pass, or you can choose not to take it personally, act like a pro, and turn today’s “no” into a future “yes.”

Little things mean a lot. “Thank you for your thoughtful response.” “Thank you so much, Ms. Evins (bonus points for spelling!) for the prompt read and quick response. I truly appreciate you taking the time!” “Thank you for your time and consideration.”

It’s actually that simple. You might add that you hope you can contact the exec in the future. If we truly responded to your writing, we’re now likely even open to reading your work again.

WHAT am I thinking? I’m not out to bag on these writers. Or even complain. I just want you to do better.

Build relationships with everyone you can; even the little fish grows up. Always be your own best advocate. Practice the preachings of Emily Post as well as industry etiquette.  Make the most of every opportunity to break in. Act like a professional and you’ll likely be treated as one.

Carpe diem! Hmmm, maybe I should post that to Facebook.

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9 thoughts on “WHAT Are You Thinking? Tips to Break Into the Film Business

  1. Pingback: Writers on the Verge: How to Succeed in Screenwriting - The DON'T List - Script Magazine - nonlinear post

  2. kaylafinley

    Oh I love this. I’m trying to find a job as an attorney in a small city. At this point, even a TINY open door, meaning making a friend that has a lawyer friend, is worth the effort. The more people you know, the wider your reach becomes because you now have some sort of access to all the people they know. It’s so weird to me that people in the entertainment industry don’t see it the same way!

    1. Barri Evinsbarrievins Post author

      Thanks Kayla. I believe that all entertainment industry professionals realize the importance of building relationships. You can’t be successful without building strong relationships. Good luck in your search!

  3. Leona Heraty

    Thanks Barri for the great article! You’re right, courtesy and good manners never go out of style! We must treat others as we wish to be treated and act like professionals at all times. 🙂

  4. cphillips103

    This is a good article. Writers often forget that part of the business is about building and maintaining relationships.

    The problem is that when someone passes on an idea, the writer takes it personally. The idea might simply be outside of what the Producer or Agent is looking for at that moment. The fact that they respond at all is an opportunity to keep the door open.

    -Christopher Phillips

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