In the Real World, lunch is a meal that people eat to provide their body and mind sustenance for the remainder of their work day. In Hollywood, lunch has virtually nothing to do with food… but everything else.
What happens at a Hollywood lunch meeting?
* You schmooze: You swap a thin veneer of information about your respective personal histories. As a writer, remember this: No matter what your background is, their background is inherently more interesting. Tip: Google your lunch partner. Then steer conversation toward talking points related to their personal history accompanied by your surprised and appreciative comments.
* You gossip: This is tricky. You don’t really want to bad mouth actual people in Hollywood [a poor reputation to develop], but if your lunch partner wants to dish, you provide them room to share their inside dirt [it's a power thing]. Key phrases to utter: “Really… no way… you don’t say.” Bonus points for shaking head, widening eyes, and smirks.
* You rubberneck: Know how people spend most of their time in a conversation looking anywhere but at you? In Hollywood, this dynamic is exacerbated by the fact your lunch partner isn’t just generically looking away due to some psychological deficiency, but rather specifically checking things out: Who just came in? Who left? Who got up? Who went to the men’s room? Who went to the ladies’ room? Who crossed to visit whom at what table? Seriously, you have to get used to the person with whom you’re having lunch spending at least half their time rubbernecking, making sure to see and be seen.
* You listen to the specials: Always delivered by impossibly beautiful waiters who are, of course, wannabe actors. Their names are invariably Cole or Brianna, and the specials almost always involve hazelnuts, squash, or arugula.
* You don’t flinch at the menu: Entrees at $30, salads at $18, sodas at $4. In the Real World, these are astronomical prices. In Hollywood, this is chump change. Besides you aren’t actually paying for lunch [see below].
* You order your meal: Perhaps the single most complicated decision you’ll make. There is a mysterious algorithm known by a select few involving a combination of who you’re meeting with, where you’re meeting, what project you’re meeting about, what their lifestyle choices are, what genre of project you’re discussing, and what image you are attempting to convey. For instance, if you’re having lunch with a svelte female exec with sallow eye sockets about a project involving lesbian lovers, chances are you do not want to order the veal piccata. On the other hand, if the lunch is with an every-other-word-swearing, sweat-dripping-gesticulating producer of an action film, raw beet gnocchi is not the preferred choice.
* You fake text: Invariably your lunch partner will have forgotten to turn off their phone, so they will receive at least one “I’m sorry, but I have to take this” call, email or text. Do not sit there staring at them dumbly as they go about their business. Instead pick up your phone and pretend to text someone, shaking or nodding your head for effect, even if you’re only actually checking the latest post on DailyKos.
* You don’t actually eat your food: When Cole or Brianna delivers your meal, you may make one comment about how good it looks. The rest of your lunch, you spend picking at the food. You never eat more than 50% of what’s on your plate, let alone the whole thing. That is just like totally gross in a town where bulimia is a religion and calories are considered evil.
* You never offer to pay for lunch: If you are meeting with a studio executive or producer, the assumption is they are working the relationship with a writer, not the other way around. So when the bill arrives, you keep your gaze locked firmly on their face — even if they’re rubbernecking — and wait for them to slide the bill to their side of the table. When you stand up to leave, that’s when you thank them for lunch.
* You deal with valet parking: If you have a respectable car by Hollywood standards, then you wait outside with your lunch partner to make sure they see your wheels. If you do not have a respectable car, you have a few options. You may choose not to valet park. When you exit, act like you just got a phone call, bid your lunch partner good-bye, then saunter off down the sidewalk on your ‘call.’ To be really safe, you can tell your lunch partner you forgot something inside and wait for them to leave. But if you do valet park and your car is a 1978 Ford Fairmont, the key is to let them give the valet guy or gal their ticket first before you, so they can vamoose before the valet guy rattles up in your junk heap.
* You call your agent and/or manager: Give them a blow-by-blow account. They will follow up with a phone call to your lunch partner. Hopefully you will get invited for a formal meeting on the project in question. Then once they sign off on you taking it on, guess what? It’s time for another lunch.
And you do the whole ritual all over again.
Of course you’re asking, “What about the actual business of the lunch meeting?”
Oh yeah. That.
If it’s a ‘meet-and-greet,’ you’re just your personable best. Basically they’re sizing you up to see whether they connect with you, can imagine working with you on for months on end on a project.
If it’s specific to a project, these conversations are always exploratory in nature. That is you’re never actually pitching a project full bore at a lunch. Yes, there are times where one thing leads to another, and they find themselves mentioning another project or you happen to bring up something you’re working on, and suddenly you find yourself in an interactive improvisational pseudo-story meeting. But beware: If you’re there ostensibly to discuss Project A and you veer off onto Project B, that likely doesn’t help your chances with the former. Producers and studio executives are notoriously busy, and generally about the business of problem-solving. They are looking to plug you in as a writer into this slot. You start talking about that story, your lunch partner can totally lose of sight of you for the aforementioned slot.
If you need a visual reference, here’s an over-the-top one from the movie The Big Picture:
[Originally posted April 14, 2011]
The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.