From bedroom to HBO Part II
As I’ve written before, there’s no one way to be a screenwriter. But there are some common prerequisites:
- You must know how to write a story.
- You must know how to network.
- You must know how to work.
Plenty has been written (here and elsewhere) about how to write a story. And there will be more to come about how to work. If you have missed it, here is the first part of this series: How to Be a Screenwriter – The Craft.
I Think I Can Write, But Now What?
In From Bedroom to HBO – Part 1, I detailed how I studied and learned the craft. The pages, the hours, the books, the scripts. But it would all be for nothing if I didn’t get my work out into the world. And to get my script into people’s hands, I needed to meet people.
When I first started writing, I was living in Atlanta. There weren’t many groups or events for screenwriters at the time, but there were a few, and I looked up every single one. Some were homegrown, and others were meetups from sites like The Blcklst.
I attended one or two of these a week, but I was meeting the same people, and they were all writers, and most of them were aspiring like me. I’m still in touch with a handful of folks from those meetups. Some write professionally, others have moved on, or just do it as a hobby. But at the time, nobody was getting paid to do it, and I noticed that the ones that wanted to were moving elsewhere.
The Decision To Move to Los Angeles
One of the most significant decisions I made for my screenwriting career was moving to Los Angeles. It’s a question that comes up all the time, and if you’re wondering if it’s the right call for you, here are a number of articles that explore the intricacies of that decision.
- Making The Move To Los Angeles as a Writer
- Bad Reasons Screenwriters Give For Not Moving To Los Angeles
- But Do I Really Have To Live In LA?
In my case, there were a number of factors that went into the decision, both personal and professional, but the most significant factor was the fact that physically being in Los Angeles put me in the middle of the largest opportunity stream I could find.
You can’t control how and when opportunities will arise, but you can control putting yourself in situations where they do. Those opportunities exist in a stream. The more they come around, the larger the stream. For my situation, Los Angeles provided a bigger stream than I otherwise had access to. In essence, I’d get more chances for happy accidents. Here are some of those chances:
- One of my closest professional friends I met at the grocery store.
- When I flew to the Austin Film Festival, half the plane was full of people also attending the festival from LA.
- The very coffee that led to my first job happened because we lived in the same neighborhood.
How Not To Network
This is where I did everything wrong. My approach was scattershot, and I was just looking for things that I wanted, rather than seeking to provide value. The only reason I had a modicum of success here it was because I was doing nothing else. Even a broken watch is right twice a day.
Looking For Work
The first thing I did after I moved was apply to jobs at an assistant level, looking for ins at Lit Management Companies, Lit Agencies, and even trying to get on as Writer’s Assistant in a room. My emails weren’t getting returned, and my savings were starting to dwindle.
I pivoted and picked up a part-time job completely outside of the industry. I chose one that had flexible hours, good pay, and decent healthcare. (Hello, Trader Joe’s!) And then, after having a fairly established career in production in Atlanta, I interned.
That first summer I was here I interned at a Talent Agency two days a week, and then I read for a Production Company remotely. When those ended, I rolled right into an internship at a Management Company, once again reading.
At these companies I built relationships not only with the people I was working for, but also the people I was working with. Not just the executives, agents and managers, but the assistants and my fellow interns. We would discuss what we read that week, what we were each working on, and what was next for us. I talk to at least one person from those internships every week.
Looking For A Win
I also entered a few screenwriting contests. And I know, a lot has been said about these as well. I identified contests that offered a lab or workshop or event. In 2018, I had just one placement, but in 2019 I received a fellowship to the Stowe Story Lab, and I was a Semi-finalist at the Austin Film Festival.
These two events put me in touch with a whole other group of people that I would never have known. And while it was great to have work in competition, it was attending that really changed things for me. I wish I had been attending the Austin Film Festival every year, not just the year I received a Semi-finalist placement. Meeting writers at all sorts of different levels has helped me build a network of various people that I can turn to for various questions.
Looking For Community
It wasn’t too long after my internships ended that I realized I was ignoring a whole other way to connect with writers and others in the industry: the web.
I had been disappointed by Facebook Groups and Meetup.com in my budding career, but when I discovered Twitter, things changed. Now, I could chat (or usually just listen) to professional screenwriters talk about their craft and their career. Once I gathered up the courage to start engaging with them, it opened up a dialogue, and I have some really great friends that I would never have found elsewhere.
While Twitter’s been the place for me (it’s even how Arc Studio Pro first found me to come write for them) I’ve heard other folks have success on Discord, Instagram, and yes, even Facebook.
There are also plenty of communities that are just run through their own websites and email lists. They’re a little less discoverable, but if you find a community that makes you feel supported, stick with it.
Here are some of the ones that I’ve enjoyed being a part of:
Okay that last one is a small group that I started of writers that live in LA that get together once a month to go on a hike.
So besides doing all that, writing, making money bagging groceries, in whatever free time I had left I was attending anything where I might meet other like-minded people who wanted to make movies. And in doing so, I’ve picked up a few tips.
You Must Know How to Network
If something is happening, you have to be there.
This is the first lesson. If something is happening, you have to be there. You can’t very well network if you don’t go to networking events. And to be clear, an event doesn’t have to be a “networking event” for you to network. In fact, it’s easier to do at other types of events, such as parties, workshops, and screenings. Networking meet-ups are great, but they can sometimes feel like a singles mixer. I’ve begun some of my strongest relationships by attending midnight screenings for movies that I love.
When you show up, make sure that you “show up.” Physically being in the space is key, but you have to engage with others. And that can feel awkward when you’re trying to sell yourself. So how do you avoid the awkwardness? Don’t sell yourself! What you can do instead is provide value.
Now, before you start offering your weekly rate for writing services, you should engage in conversation, and where there’s a chance for you to help out, offer it. I’ve volunteered on sets, offered reads, given notes.
Here are just a few ways I’ve offered to provide value:
- Volunteer on set
- Host a table read
- Give notes
- Pick-up/drop-off equipment
- Connect them with another writer, producer, director, etc
And it doesn’t have to be just in screenwriting or industry related favors. If someone mentions an interest in sailing, and your friend sails on the weekends, offer to put them in touch. If someone is having trouble with their car, and your uncle is a mechanic and you’ve picked up a few things, offer to help. If someone needs a kidney…
In all seriousness, be careful how far you go for a favor. I volunteered on sets but I don’t anymore. And I don’t offer reads or notes anymore simply because my stack is too high. But none of that means there aren’t situations where you can’t provide value. Find them and provide it, while remembering to value yourself and your time.
Tell It Like It Is
I cannot stress how important this is. And while you may think I’m warning you against lying to try and impress others, the mistake I see more often is self-deprecation. It may seem strange to talk yourself up, but it’s okay as long as it’s true. If someone compliments your script or your work, graciously take it. This one took me a while to get, as I am so uncomfortable with compliments, but once I started thanking them and saying, “I’m glad you liked it, I worked hard on that one” it allowed the conversation in a much more open way, rather than the awkwardness that follows.
False humility and false modesty are also big no-no’s. People can tell. Oh, and don’t lie to try to impress others.
This is one that I first heard Craig Mazin say on Scriptnotes (here and here), and while true of the whole industry, it’s especially true in networking. The real truth of it comes from the fact that it is near impossible to calculate, so you shouldn’t even try.
I will give Brian Koppelman credit. This happens once every four years. Maybe the best two words of advice that I’ve ever heard for people that want to break into show business. “Calculate less.”
There is no way you can anticipate exactly how any person in any room will impact your career, and trying to machinate the game to maximize your benefit will just end up with you making a lot of guesses in your head that almost never pan out.
When I first met the director of the movie we would eventually sell to HBO, it had not been calculated at all. We were connected through two production designers that I had worked with in Atlanta almost six years prior. When I worked with them building paper maché models for a gig at the aquarium those years ago, there was no way I knew that relationship would gain me my first writing employment. But it did. If I had said, “This isn’t worth my time, this isn’t going to help me, these guys can’t do anything for me,” I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Keep Track & Follow Up
If you’re networking properly, you’re going to meet a lot of people . A single day at the Austin Film Festival would fill my pockets to the brim with business cards. And when I got home, I followed up with every single one of them.
A single day at the Austin Film Festival would fill my pockets to the brim with business cards.
How and when and what to follow up with is different for each person and situation. One trick that has helped me is to actually work it into the conversation. If you’re at a conference, talking about an article you read, tell them you’ll send it to them when you get back to your room. As the conversation wraps up and someone hands you their business card, tell them you’ll send them an email so you can connect online. I usually give a two day buffer, so if it’s Tuesday, I’ll say something like, “I’ll shoot you an email, you can look for it no later than Thursday.” That way, they have the opportunity to say, “Actually, I’m busy this week. Can you hit me up Monday?” or “Sounds great!”
The one thing I try to do in every follow-up is…you guessed it: provide value. I try to piggyback off something from the conversation. An article, a movie, a show, anything I can provide a link or an insight to. Sometimes, it’s just reiterating what was already said or offered, like a read of their script.
Your memory is not good enough to keep track of the number of people you will connect with. Whether it’s an app, something in your email client, or a robust CRM tool, having something to keep track of who you’ve met, who you’ve talked to, the last time you spoke, etc. can provide useful data to see who may be slipping through the cracks.
Personally, I started off just using a spreadsheet, but now I use an app called Cloze. The free version is okay, but the paid version has features that automate a lot of the tracking work I was doing. It took a while to set up (and it costs a decent amount each month) so it is a time and financial investment, but once my career really started taking off, I just couldn’t keep up and sprung for the software.
I’ve also had good luck in the past with the following tools:
Like any other relationship, professional connections need love and attention. The rules and expectations are a bit different, but fundamentally, it’s the same. If you don’t stay in touch with a friend after college, you’ll drift apart. If you don’t stay in touch with an exec after a great meeting, you may not be on their radar when the next OWA comes around.
Getting a Return on Your Investment
So you’ve done all this networking. Now what? When does the money roll in? Well, if you’re asking that, you’re calculating. So don’t.
Once I stopped seeing my professional network as something that I did, and started seeing it as something that I had, I was able to ask myself about the relationships within it, and strengthen those (or loosen some) for their own sake. Again, you can’t calculate how a connection will help you. That relationship might not provide you any significant opportunity for six years. (That’s what happened to me.) Some relationships might never provide you significant opportunity, which is why I always recommend you prioritize the relationship itself.
Ask: Is this someone you want in your life? If the answer is yes, then look to provide value to them. If the answer is no, then maintain a professional working relationship, but don’t necessarily push for something more just because you might be able to get something from it.
You can’t calculate how a specific relationship will help you, but you can estimate the benefits of your network as a whole: the more relationships you have, and the stronger their quality, the more you will provide, and ultimately receive, value.
From Bedroom to HBO Part III: How to Make a Movie – The Job