The Secret of Success: Contacts

Well, it’s the holiday season again: Time for all good screenwriters to start typing up those query letters addressed to the North Pole. Yes, many of you have already sent your “wish list” to Santa — asking for a new BlackBerry or, better yet, “$100,000 against a cool million” for your latest spec script. After all, you’re writing directly to St. Nick because you know the secret of success. Contacts.

We’ve all heard it before: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But I’m here to tell you that, when it comes to contacts, most of what you’ve heard about Hollywood is dead wrong. It’s not about the contacts you have. It’s about the contacts you make. And you make them based on the quality of your work, not on “who you know.” You want powerful advocates who admire your work, not people who are helping you simply because your second cousin knows Brad Pitt.

When I was growing up, my father was vice president for a major corporation. Part of his job was to meet celebrities and organize charity events, or get their endorsements for his company’s products. One day he’d be talking to Eleanor Roosevelt on the telephone, the next he’d be having lunch with My Fair Lady star Rex Harrison, or meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy. I was so jealous!

But when it came to meeting famous people, my father couldn’t have been less impressed. It was like pulling teeth for me to find out which superstar he’d had lunch with that day. You see, my father’s a class act, and doesn’t “name drop” or exploit his contacts for personal gain. So when I grew up, after I graduated from NYU film school and was looking for my first job in the movie business, he wouldn’t let me use any of his contacts. In short, I was in exactly the same position you probably are (or have been). I didn’t know anyone in the film business. I was on my own.

But that didn’t stop me. First, I did my homework. I learned everything I could about the movie stars and directors I most admired. Then I started writing letters to them. Letters to people like actor Jimmy Stewart, director Frank Capra, and dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly. And what happened?

I got personal answers. Encouraging letters. From almost every celebrity I wrote to. In those days, it wasn’t easy to find contact addresses for famous people. It’s a heck of a lot easier now.

Soon, I applied my letter-writing skills to my career. I started writing query letters to stars and directors asking if they’d read my screenplays or books. My ultimate purpose? To see if they might want to “attach” themselves to the project.

What did I talk about in those letters? I showed that I had really done my homework about their life, films and careers. I never said just the obvious: that I admired their performance in their most famous film from a zillion years ago. Instead, I complimented them on things they don’t usually hear: a lesser-known film performance, or perhaps some specific aspect of an interview they gave in a newspaper. If I mentioned one of their famous films, I talked about their performance in it in a very specific way, instead of just saying it was “great.”

Of course, my business letters aren’t “gushing” fan mail. They are business-like, and contain my pitch, and I work very hard on my pitch. But I really think about who I’m writing to, and why. I think about what their needs are, and what’s important to them in their work and their life. There’s nothing “generic” about any letter I send to an actor, director, or film producer. And I never say things I don’t mean in order to “flatter” them. Neither should you.

So. If you write the right kind of query letter to a star, you don’t necessarily need a personal referral (though it can help) in order to get noticed. Even if you have a friend who knows a major Hollywood player, do you really want to exploit that friendship by asking him or her to submit your script to them as a favor to you? If you value your friendships, maybe not.

And even if your friend is happy to do you that favor, the star receiving the script probably knows it was sent over mostly as a favor — rather than on the basis of the script’s merit. What would you rather have? Your script’s arriving on Tom Cruise’s desk simply because his dry cleaner did you a favor? Or the script being sent to Cruise because somebody powerful in the film business loves your screenplay, knows Tom Cruise, and tells him it’s something he ought to read? You may say it doesn’t matter how it gets there, as long as it does. I disagree.

The truth is, it’s not really your “contacts” that lead to success as a screenwriter, it’s the quality of your work. It’s much better to have contacts and referrals that you earn, through the merits of your work, than ones that are handed to you merely as a “favor” or through happenstance. No matter who you are and no matter what your background, if you’re talented, you can make contacts for yourself. The right kind of contacts, for the right reasons.