We spend so much time here focusing on writing a great script, as well we should because that is such a critical piece of the Hollywood screenwriting puzzle. The quality of the scripts we write, whether on spec or assignment, is hugely important. They are bottom line, career changing kind of deals.
But there are other dynamics involved in working as a professional screenwriter that have nothing to do with your actual ability at crafting a story and translating said story onto the page. Here are some of key items:
* Know how to talk to Hollywood players: Whether they are studio execs or producers, directors or actors, it behooves you to become comfortable conversing with people you will perceive to be somehow ‘bigger’ than yourself. Of course, if their name is Spielberg, Di Caprio or Bruckheimer, for all intents and purposes they are bigger than you (not existentially, but professionally). Other than conditioning your gag reflex so you do not immediately hurl on their Guccis when you are introduced, the first rule of thumb in these type of meetings is this: God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason. Almost every ‘powerful’ person I’ve met in Hollywood seems to have a default operating system set to chatter. They enjoy talking about themselves. Play to their comfort zone: Let them take the lead in the conversation. Combine that with the fact that by listening you can learn much more about the person with whom you are meeting and the project you’re discussing, you can almost never go wrong in going ears first, mouth second.
Note: It’s almost a lock cinch you will have to work on this as your default setting will be to nervously babble on about the first things that pop into your head — Traffic! Coffee! My cat! — in order to fill space, but trust me… don’t do that.
* Know the basics of the business: At the very least, you should have a working understanding of how the movie business works. Acquisition. Development. Production. Post. Marketing. Distribution. Where you plug in. What journey your script has lying ahead of it.
Note: You don’t have to know everything about the business, but the more you understand the world a studio exec, producer or director lives in, the innumerable hassles and issues they have to handle, the less likely you will have a script notes moment like this: “Lemme get this straight: You want to have a scene that involves boats with children, animals, snow, and helicopters?” — eyes bugged out, glaring at your for not having a clue about what it takes to produce a movie.
* Know the players: If you’re smart, you’ll be able to assign names to key development execs at the studios. Also big producers. And while you’re at it, top agents and managers. These are the people who dominate the script world. Everyone you meet with in Hollywood will know these players. If you can do more than stare blankly into space when a name is mentioned, two points for you.
Note: I know what you’re thinking. If I don’t know a name, I can just nod my head as if I do know who they are talking about. This is dangerous territory, my friend, the equivalent of Russian roulette. When a studio exec or producer meets with a writer, they are sizing you up. Would you rather get caught in a lie or simply admit, “Sorry, don’t know the name.” Opt for the latter. Your excuse? Smile sheepishly, shrug, and say, “I pretty much focus on writing stories.” As long as you convey a modicum of what The Biz is about, the “My job is to write stories” card is an ironclad defense.
* Know the deals: You probably think Hollywood is all about scripts and talent, movies and TV shows. Actually on one level what it’s really about is deals. Who bought what. Who signed with whom. Who agreed to do this with that. As confirmation of this fact, check out Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. Peruse the headlines: How many of them are deal announcements? Most of them. And if it makes the headlines in the trades, you can be sure that whoever you are meeting with knows about the litany of that day’s transactions.
Note: You don’t have to know the details of the deal, in fact in some ways it’s better if you don’t. Them: “And what about that spec deal for ‘Slinky: The Movie’”? You: “Yeah, Universal?” Them: “Universal and what were they thinking. Two hundred million on ‘Battleship,’ dump ‘Ouija Board,’ then buy ‘Slinky’? What I hear is going on is…” And off they go with their insider info. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite dynamics: Someone who knows something someone else doesn’t, then gets to display their knowledge. Allowing them to fill in the details makes them feel good about themselves… which in turn makes them feel good about you.
* Know when to take charge: Here’s the thing: Most of them know about this much about story. You, as a writer, know THIS much about story. Despite all their bravado, intimate knowledge of the business, and ability to network, once the subject turns to the project itself, that’s when the table turns. They want you to handle the problems, they want you to be confident, they want you to know your stuff. Whether it’s a pitch, OWA or script notes meeting, at some point it’s your baby. Everything else is just preparation for this moment. When it comes, you need to approach it like it’s in your wheelhouse. You swing with confidence and knock that fat fastball out of the ballpark. Power respects power. And if they feel like you know what you’re doing and what you’re saying makes sense to them, chances are you will their comfort level.
Note: Knowing your stuff means really knowing your stuff. In preparation for these type of meetings, you must immerse yourself into the story universe, engage your characters, and work out a coherent take on the project. There are no short-cuts here, you just need to do the hard work to break the story. This is what they are paying you for.
I suppose there’s some sort of algorithm wherein the better the writer you are, the less ancillary details like the above you need to know. If such an algorithm exists, I never figured it out. I do know this: If you consistently write great scripts, you could be a mime who dresses like Sasquatch and farts in their faces… and they would hire you again and again.
So write great scripts? Absolutely. That is the numero uno prime directive. But the way you are perceived as a writer can be heavily influenced by your understanding of The Biz and basic human psychology. In other words, it’s not just about the script.
[Originally posted October 13, 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.