Hollywood isn’t like other industries. Assuming you can pay your dues and move steadily up some preordained ladder is not a safe strategy in the entertainment business. To be successful in the industry, you have to have talent, you have to work really hard, and you have to hope you get lucky enough along the way that someone spots that talent and hard work.
However, for aspiring writers, there are a few must-dos in order to make this moment a reality. While a steady timeline with a bounty of rewards may not always be guaranteed, there are steps every screenwriter must take if they want to be successful. For those who are just starting out, take heed of these three things which every writer has to do at the beginning of their career, regardless of how talented they are or how hard they work.
1. Learn how to network.
Ah yes, that dreaded term. Every industry talks about “networking,” but what does it mean for a writer, and how does it fit into the larger context of Hollywood?
Broadly speaking, networking is any kind of social interaction that you engage in with the hope of furthering your career. Under no circumstances should you use that definition while you are actually doing it, because the trick of networking is to make people unaware that it’s even happening. Aggressive, needy behavior designed to telegraph how awesome or available you are is as much a turnoff in a professional context as it is in any other relationship. Instead, networking should feel loose and social, and can be fun, under the right circumstances. For many of us writers who are a bit more prone to solitude, the idea of selling yourself in this way probably sounds about as enjoyable as a partial lobotomy. But having equal parts confidence in your work and in yourself makes you a more interesting and engaging person to potential agents/managers/producers/whoevers. Besides, you’re someone you’d want to spend time with, right? Make the person you’re talking to feel the same way.
Being a good networker is as much about the things you’re not doing as it is about the things you are. For instance, don’t cold call people out of the blue, make a warm introduction in person. Don’t hand out business cards as soon as you meet someone, casually mention that you’d love to send them an email at the end of your conversation. Don’t try to set a meeting, throw out the possibility of getting coffee sometime. Don’t hog the spotlight by talking about your script, ask what the person you’re talking to likes to watch.
It’s okay to send out a query letter to companies which are open to submissions, but it’s not okay to bombard them with follow-up messages. Similarly, it’s okay to ask someone to read your script, but it’s not okay to hand it to them with no context, or pester them incessantly once they have agreed to read it. If your work is good, someone will find you. You just have to be open to being found, without seeming lost and desperate in the process.
2. Have a sense of urgency.
The next step, once someone has actually agreed to read your stuff, is getting it to them in a timely manner.
Not only is this important to show that you can handle a deadline, it’s also about making yourself known in a competitive environment. If someone is gracious enough to read your writing, you owe it to them to turn in your work without dragging your feet. For perfectionists, this can be tough. You’ll always want to give your script that last pass, that final polish. But if you wait around forever trying to get your work perfect, eventually that person who’s willing to help you out is going to lose interest, or worse, forget about you entirely. Having confidence in your writing is great, but you shouldn’t have so much confidence that you assume people will just wait around for you. Conversely, you also shouldn’t agonize over your writing to the point where you’re incapable of handing in a finished project.
If you’re ever going to make it in this business, you’ll have to be prepared to turn around pitches and treatments as fast as possible. In the early stages of a writing career, it often feels like you’re stuck in place, like it takes forever to get anyone to be even slightly interested in you. Yet when you get to that next level, you must be prepared to write on assignment and follow a schedule, or end up losing out to writers who can.
How many of us have lost opportunities because someone said they’d read our stuff, and we simply never sent it? Whether out of laziness, poor time management, or perfectionism, don’t ever let that happen ever again. Instead, work hard enough that when the time comes, you’ll have several samples ready to send right away.
3. Be respectful.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but sadly it’s still not. Perhaps in Hollywood least of all.
On your way to the top, you’re going to get knocked down a few times. This is a tough business, and there are always going to be people out there who want to yell at someone and feel bigger than everyone. The culture in the entertainment industry is changing, and hopefully we’re leaving behind a time when outright harassment is chalked up to the cost of doing business. But someone doesn’t have to be abusive to make you feel small or belittle you.
After facing such challenges, you may be tempted to treat people as poorly as they treated you. Don’t. It’s clichéd to say that “cheaters never prosper” or “good will always triumph over evil” since the fact is that sometimes, the assholes are going to win. But that doesn’t make it okay for you to act like an asshole, too. Just like you respected all the jerks who made your life miserable when you were just an underling, you have to respect the people who may now be under you. From the biggest studio exec to the lowliest PA, anyone who takes an interest in your work deserves that. If there’s one thing we should all know by now about Hollywood it’s that fates can change. The person who’s getting your coffee today may be the person writing you a check tomorrow.
Ultimately, it’s not that hard. You can reduce this to “remember the golden rule” if you want, but in Hollywood, it’s also about protecting your career. Build bridges between people who like your writing, and don’t burn those bridges because someone no longer seems useful to you. After all, what would’ve happened if someone had done the same to you when you were coming up?
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.