A few days ago, Jeff Willis, VP of Business Affairs and Production Administration at The Weinstein Company, responded to the question below. His tweets offer some excellent advice for any writer attempting to break into the entertainment industry. Reprinted by permission.
Here are 15 things that, after ten years in this industry, I wish I had known/would have helped when I first started writing:
Don’t freak out if it takes someone a few days to call you back. Or a month to read the script your rep sent over. It happens all the time.
The more you freak out, the more desperate you seem. And the more desperate you seem, the less it motivates people to want to work with you.
Let things run their course. If it was meant to be, it’ll happen.
Making a movie isn’t just assembling a jigsaw puzzle. It’s assembling a jigsaw puzzle out of a box of pieces from twenty different puzzles.
Precious few of those pieces are things the writer has control over. See #1 about patience and not freaking out.
Projects fail more often than they succeed. If you expect your hard work to consistently pay off, this is the wrong business for you.
A no can be anything from no response to “We love your work but our slate is full!” to “It’s almost there, we just need a few more changes!”
Don’t mistake flattery, politeness, encouragement or hype for a ‘yes.’ The only ‘yes’ is when they commit to you like you are to them.
Act like a professional. Present people with a work product that looks like you took at least a few seconds to make sure it looks good.
Write something so good that the reader hardly notices or cares about minor typos, stylistic quirks, or the little nuances of formatting.
No professional will hold minor stuff like regular vs. underlined vs. bold sluglines against you. Especially not if the script is good.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
If you expect a clear steady path, or that success is a guaranteed byproduct of hard work + time, again, this is the wrong business for you.
There are a lot of intangibles in this business you have no control over and can’t course correct for with only harder work or longer hours.
It’s natural to want a system, to apply a set of criteria that – when met – guarantees success. But this business doesn’t work like that.
The harder you try to fit industry success into an objective blueprint, the further from the actual industry you’ll find yourself.
And yes, that last tweet was a subtweet directed in part at the cottage industry that profits from convincing you a blueprint exists.
You don’t have to be a UPM or a budgeting expert… but outside of development when you’re actively headed into actual production (1/3)
the biggest most common notes BY FAR are “We can’t afford [that].” And “We don’t have [that]. We have to make due w/ [this] instead.” (2/3)
Writers who can address those notes are incredibly valuable. Writers who can’t find themselves very quickly replaced. (3/3)
Everyone wants to make a great movie. But logistics like location availability and set design costs trump artistic merit 95% of the time.
The other 5% is for Tarantino, Spielberg, and others who have proven track records. NOTE: None of that 5% is allocated to writers.
You need to be able to distance yourself from your work. It’s hard but it’s the key to not letting your insides eat you alive when you fail.
It’s also the key to not sounding like a defensive jackass when people try to tell you what didn’t work for them in the script.
Not everyone is particularly eloquent when giving notes. But lack of eloquence and sensitivity does not equal a malicious personal attack.
Ultimately, no matter how abrasive the notes, it’s one person not liking one script. A writing career involves many people and many scripts.
This is especially true when sending a script out. Stagnating while you wait for replies is the worst. Write something else while you wait.
You should never be in a total holding pattern on everything you’re doing. If you find yourself there, time to start writing something new.
Execs always have multiple irons in the fire and only focus on one when it’s clear there’s serious interest. Writers should do the same.
It’s mutually beneficial relationships with people who will one day, over the long term, be able to help each other out as you both rise.
Don’t treat networking as a perfunctory introduction at an event, or as a means to a quick follow-up in hopes of stuff happening NOW.
Most of the top execs and reps are connected to other top execs and reps after years of rising up together. Develop your network over time.
This business is so much more frustrating when you go it alone. Make friends that will counsel you through both success and failure.Ten great, dependable industry friends are way more helpful to your career than 1,500 contacts in your Outlook that you barely speak with.
Don’t just network to collect business cards. Collect real relationships.
Even if you’re dealing with an exec who gave you a stupid note, try to figure out WHY that suggestion was made.
The industry may be full of really smart people, but not all of them understand HOW to fix a problem they see in the script.
Rather than dismissing their note or thinking they’re idiots, try to understand what it is that’s causing concern and find a compromise.
Lots of talented writers lose out on jobs because they’re difficult to work with and don’t understand that a lot of input goes into a movie.
Being talented isn’t enough. In addition to being a great writer, you also have to be a decent human being that people want to work with.
There are precious few writers who make careers out of selling nothing but their own specs. And even they have to incorporate notes.
The vast majority of paid writing gigs are opportunities to write based on someone else’s source material, draft, concept, suggestions, etc.
If you can’t get excited about someone else’s input, the company isn’t going to get excited about paying to bring you on board the project.
Even if you have to ask your reps to explain the deal to you like a child, you should know what you’re getting into before you join up.
And that’s not exclusive to writing. Same goes for your insurance, mortgage, medical diagnoses… don’t just gloss over this stuff.
This is your business, your work, your career, your life. Take the time to understand the nuances of what you’re agreeing to.
Even if you have a rep you 100% trust, don’t just take their word for it. Educate yourself on what it means to sign that agreement.
This industry is like a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and it’s not hard to verify the truth of someone’s statement.
You don’t want to be the person who gets caught in a lie. Be honest about your accomplishments and don’t worry about impressing anyone.
Reputation is important and much harder gained than lost. A good reputation is better for you than a long list of dubious credits on IMDB.
And that’s my fifteen things. Ten years of experience summarized in less than 30 minutes, for your reading enjoyment.
If I were you, I’d print out these 15 items and post them on the wall.
About Jeff Willis: Jeff has spent the past decade working in studio business affairs and production management. He started his career as an assistant at Beacon Pictures (BRING IT ON, AIR FORCE ONE), then moved on to work with startup production companies Our Stories Films (WHO’S YOUR CADDY, JUMPING THE BROOM) and Troika Pictures (THE CALL). He’s been with The Weinstein Company (DJANGO UNCHAINED, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK) for the past four years and currently serves as their Vice President of Business Affairs & Production Administration. Jeff is also a screenwriter; his first produced feature (THE RIGHT GIRL, written with Bob Saenz (@bobsnz)) is in post-production and due to air on Pixl TV and ABC Family in the coming months.
You may follow Jeff on Twitter: @jwillis81.