Always Be Closing (aka How to Meet with a Buyer): The Archive

This is all really solid advice that I still stand by. Good for all writers, but especially for screenwriters. Please share this with anyone you know meeting with a producer, so they don’t make my same early mistakes.

Always Be Closing, Addendum: Three Final Warnings

Nobody Ever Really Re-Brands:

Often, a company will insist that they’re meeting with you in order to re-brand themselves and branch out in a new direction. You probably shouldn’t believe them. They may genuinely believe that they’re trying to change, but, as hard as it is for people to change, it’s much, much harder for corporations to change. They are hard-wired to think a certain way. It’s their culture. It’s the air they breathe.

Something that seems like a radical departure to them would seem tiny to you. If Disney tells you they want edgy, don’t sell them Funny Games, sell them a new version of Escape to Witch Mountain that replaces Eddie Albert with The Rock. If Michael Bay says he wants “smart”, don’t sell him My Dinner with Andre, sell him Knowing.

Understand the Time Difference:

Be early for every meeting, even if you’re certain that they’ll show up twenty minutes late. Why? Because producers (and agents, and anybody with power in Hollywood) all have the same hardwired equation in their heads: twenty minutes of your time equals one minute of their time. Remember that ratio: 20:1.

So if they show up forty minutes late, you’re supposed to act like you’ve only been waiting two minutes, which is no big deal. But if, on the other hand, you make them wait three minutes, they’ll act like you made them wait an hour, which is tremendously rude. You forgot the ratio, you doofus!

This equation actually makes sense, in its own twisted way: Time is money, and they’re paying themselves twenty times as much as they’re paying you. Therefore one of your minutes is literally “worth” twenty of their minutes.

Keep a Log:

At the time, every meeting seems like a game changer that you’ll never forget: “Thing are finally looking up for Old Gil!” But most meetings lead nowhere, and they start to pile up quickly, so you MUST keep a detailed log of who all you met with and when, what you pitched to them, and what they expressed interest in, even if it wasn’t something you could give them.

You never know when this information may come in handy later. Maybe you’ll meet someone later who’s selling exactly what they wanted to buy, and they’ll both appreciate the referral.


Always Be Closing, Part 6: They Don’t Want To Be The Money

It’s time to share the most valuable piece of screenwriting career advice I’ve ever gotten. Screenwriter Chris Kelly had just gotten back from a bruising round of meetings in Hollywood and he shared with his class the bitter truth: “Always remember: they would write it themselves if they only had the time.”

Writers and directors tend to think of producers as simply “the money”, but nobody goes into producing for financial reasons. (It’s actually a terrible way to make a steady living.) Producers may have gone to law school or business school, but while they were there, they were always thought of as “the creative one,” so they entered the movie business.

And producing is creative. It’s their job to pick the right material, hire the right people, give great notes, and make sure that everybody sees the same larger vision. But like most bosses, they start to think that they’re doing all the brainwork, and any task they don’t handle directly is simply a part of their job that they’ve delegated out for time reasons. They forget that they hired you to do something they’ve never done (write a screenplay) and couldn’t do, even if you put a gun to their head.

So what can a writer do? As Tina Fey points out in her great book “Bossypants”, one rule of improv also applies to most everything in life: Answer every question with, “Yes, and…”

In improv, two or more people are writing a scene together out loud in front of an audience. Eventually, one of them is going to say something that threatens to derail the scene, but you never say no to any idea once it’s out there. You say, “Yes, and...” then you build on it. If you think their idea was bad, then you try to steer the skit back on track, but you have to do so with an “onwards and upwards” attitude.

This is a great attitude to have when the studio is giving you notes, but you’ll need it before that, too, even when you’re pitching. If they like your idea, they’ll start throwing notes at you before they even buy it. This is good. This is called “buy-in”.

No one is ever going to buy your version of your idea, they’ll only buy their version of your idea. The sooner they start making your idea their own, the more likely is that they’re going to buy it. Of course, the off-the-cuff notes they’re throwing out might sound terrible, but you have to respond immediately with “Yes! And…” Give them their buy-in, then steer it back in a better direction.


Always Be Closing, Part 5: Seller Beware

Meetings are very exciting, especially if you’re just starting out. This is it! You’ve made it! You’re going to be rich and famous! And everybody is so nice! Why do producers have such a bad reputation?? They’re all smothering you in compliments! Everybody is excited to work with you and telling you how much money you’re going to make together!

Then you go home and wait for the phone to ring. And wait. And wait. Guess what? You’ve just met the other kind of asshole: the ones who kill you with kindness. Other creative businesses aren’t like this. If you sell a novel or play, everybody quickly reminds you not to get too excited because you’re never going to get rich. So why is Hollywood run on false praise and pie-in-the-sky promises?

I think one reason is simply that it’s based in California, where being too sunny comes with the territory. You read “Grapes of Wrath” in high school—what happens there? Think back...

California orchard-owners scatter the entire country with flyers telling everybody to come west where they’ll live a life of ease and fortune, but when they arrive they find troops at the border to keep them out. So why were they invited? Simply because the orchard-owners wanted to depress wages by threatening their current workers with a horde of replacements on the border.

Does this sound like any other California industry you can think of? New players, same old trick. Promise everybody riches so that they’ll give up everything they have in hopes of work, then string them along with no payoff, ensuring a perpetually deep and desperate labor pool. It’s a very cynical, very nasty trick, and it doesn’t stop when you actually get “in the door”.

Whenever you leave a meeting and say to yourself, “Wow, they told me everything I wanted to hear!,” it always means that you’ll never hear from those people again. A good meeting is actually one where they pick your idea apart.

“We love it, don’t change a thing!” is Hollywood-speak for “We hate it and we want you out of our office.” What you actually want to hear is, “There might be something there, but…” You don’t want praise—you want feedback. As for how you handle that feedback, come back tomorrow…


Always Be Closing, Part 4: The Pitch Pyramid

Too many writers over-prepare one big pitch, sure that it’s going to blow the town away. It’s fine to focus on one idea, practice it in front of the mirror, try it out on friends, etc… But remember, as soon as the producers give any indication that they aren’t interested, you have to drop it immediately and move on to another pitch. 

The question then becomes: How many pitches can you prepare? After all, you can’t have an infinite number of equally good pitches…

I was first warned about this problem by Simon Kinberg. He told a story about being called in by Universal, who wanted to hear horror pitches. He had two weeks to prepare, so he carefully crafted a sure-fire million dollar horror idea, complete with a 30 minute pitch detailing every beat of the story. Just in case that somehow didn’t sell, he also worked up five minute pitches for two other ideas. 

On the day of the meeting, Universal quickly dismissed the million-dollar idea, then waved away the two five minute pitches. At this point, all he had left was a list of seven more titles with no stories attached, but he started listing them off and coyly implying that he couldn’t say too much about them. Finally he got down to the last one: all he could tell them was that it would be a movie about a western ghost town called Ghost Town. 

The executives said: “Stop right there! We love it! Sold!” Once the check was safely deposited, he asked what it was exactly they liked about it. They said that they were just looking for any horror movie that could launch a new attraction at the Universal Studios Theme Park. Ghost Town fit that bill. (Alas, it never got made.)

In your mind, have an imaginary pitch pyramid:Every time they look bored, slyly make your way down the pyramid. Guess what always piques their interest? Something from the bottom tier. You’ll be glad that you reviewed your master list of projects.

And don’t be afraid to literally bring in a cheat sheet. There’s a myth that says that writers can’t ever consult notes in a pitch, but that’s not true at all. Don’t read your pitch, of course, but don’t force them to watch you racking your brain either. 

Next week: Don’t let them kill you with kindness.

Always Be Closing, Part 3: Sell Them What They Came to Buy

The worst thing you can do in a meeting is think like an artist. Instead, you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re now a salesman. Selling your own talent is not that different from selling plungers, and the sooner you learn basic sales techniques, the more success you’ll have. 

Everybody in this business overpraises each other, so when you first get “launched” you’re in real danger of concluding that you really are a red-hot property, and production companies are lucky to get a chance to meet with you. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth:

By the time you walk in the door, the producers’ day has gone to hell and they’re sorry they ever scheduled this meeting. They just want to nod dumbly as you rattle off your pitches, offer glowing assurances that they’ll get back to you, and get you out the door. I had meetings just like that and I left feeling like the king of the world, sure that I’d blown them away. They never called.

You may have carefully prepared beforehand what you want to pitch (more on this tomorrow), but you need to be prepared to throw it all away on a moment’s notice. Dont sell them what you came to sell, sell them what they came to buy!

Think about it: this person has invited a dozen salesmen to come into their office and pitch them.  Who does that?  Someone who really wants to buy something!  But... they will not want to tell you what they’re looking for. They want to stay close-lipped, force you lay out your wares, and then summarily judge you. But your job is to force them to reveal what they want to buy, and then immediately say, “What a coincidence, that’s just what I love to write!”

This is the age-old dance of sales, and one rule usually determines the winner: Whoever speaks first, loses. Get them to talk about themselves more than you talk about yourself. Get them to talk about their upcoming projects before you tell them about your own. Find out what they want, then offer that to them. 

When you do have to talk about what you’re working on, be hyper-alert to any verbal or physical sign that they’re losing interest, then immediately and seamlessly move on to something that might interest them more. 

This is especially true when you’re competing with other writers for adaptations. The producers have an idea in their mind of how they want this material adapted, and they’re waiting for someone to come in who had that same idea independently. But you can beat the guessing game and tease the truth out of them using old-fashioned techniques:

Here’s a fiendish pitch: “This is such a fantastic book, and it needs to be made into a movie, but it would be so easy to screw it up! There are so many different ways to go with it. On the one hand, you could play up this element, but on the other hand, you could go in the opposite direction and play up this other element…”

What do you say next? Nothing. You pause. You create an uncomfortable silence, until they jump in and tell you what they want to hear! Once they’ve confessed what they’re looking for, then you say, “Oh, it’s so good to hear you say that! That’s exactly what I was thinking. So many producers would ruin this by taking it the other way!” Ruthless, but effective.

But wait, doesn’t this mean that you have to have multiple pitches prepared? Yes it does: tomorrow, we tackle the Pitch Pyramid.

Always Be Closing, Part 2: Prepare Yourself

Taking a meeting is literally dizzying. They spin you around the office quickly, surrounding you with impressive looking souvenirs of their movies, introduce you quickly to six different people, and then, just before the sit-down, three of those people disappear and get replaced by three more people who they never introduce.

Your reps should help you deal with this, but far too often, they will fail to prepare adequately you for a meeting, which is dumb because this is your opportunity to make them money. But there are certain things you must demand that your reps tell you beforehand:

  1. What material of yours was sent to these people, who specifically in the company read it, and what they had to say about it.
  2. Who exactly is going to be in the room. Hopefully with a physical description of each one.
  3. Who the decision maker in the room is.
  4. See if your rep can find out what open assignments might be pitched to you.

Once you have this info, do a massive amount of internet prep on your own:

  1. Get an IMDb Pro membership and learn everyone’s credits. Be ready to compliment each one on a project of theirs that you liked. Also, make sure to compliment the whole company if they had a hit movie that month. Sound like you’re already one of the team.
  2. While you’re on their IMDb Pro page, check out the company’s upcoming slate, and look for links to recent articles about their company philosophy and what they’re looking to acquire.
  3. You’ll really hit the jackpot if you can actually find an interview where they come right out and say what they’ve always wanted to hear in a pitch. Believe it or not, I’ve found this info more than once. People in this business love to talk about their process.
  4. If you know (or can guess) which project they might throw at you, then research the hell out of it, but don’t tell them that in the meeting. If they’ve optioned a book, read it quickly before the meeting, then pretend like you just happened to have read it a while back. Producer feel a zing of kismet when you say, “What a coincidence, I love that book, too!”

Now you’re ready for the big day. Get dressed up in jeans and a blazer (the unofficial screenwriter uniform). Get there an hour early, but linger across the street until 10 minutes before. (If it’s in a hard-to-find corner of L.A., you might want to drive out there to scout the place the day before.) Be steely and professional on the inside, casual and breezy on the outside.

Tomorrow: How to sell yourself, the old-fashioned way...


Always Be Closing, Part 1: A Meeting is a Consolation Prize

When I got signed, I was so proud of the fact that I had bluffed my reps into thinking that I was a big shot, that I didn’t realize the problem: If they think you’re already are a big-shot, they’re not going to tell you what you need to know to become one.

In particular, I was totally unprepared for the “general meetings” I was sent out on. I didn’t realize that these are tightrope acts dominated by unspoken rules. For instance, if a production company is meeting with you, that means three things:
  1. They have read a screenplay you wrote.
  2. They liked it a lot.
The third one was the one that nobody told me. They didn’t invite you there to close a sale. If they wanted to buy your material, they would have simply called your rep and made an offer. The general meeting is what happens when they don’t do that. It’s the consolation prize.

So if you’re not there to sell them what they read, why are you there? I eventually figured out that there are three phases to a general meeting:
  1. First, you discuss the project that they liked but decided not to buy. This is an excuse to tell them about your process and your passion. It’s also a very-long-shot opportunity to try to change their mind and get them to buy it after all, but you still can’t come on like a salesman. Instead you have to adopt a “Gee it’s a shame we can’t just do that one together” tone.
  2. Second, you ask them about open assignments. These might be properties (novels, comic books, board games, etc.) they bought the rights to but haven’t hired anybody to adapt yet. Most production companies have a few of these sitting around. Also: screenplays that they paid other writers for, only to kill the project because they cooled on it. They might bounce that idea off you to see if you can instantly propose a new take that will reinvigorate their interest.
  3. Third, you can ask them if they’re willing to hear a pitch. This can be an original spec screenplay that you want to sell to them, or a concept that you want to be paid to write, or a property that you want to propose that they option for you to adapt.
One time, I seemingly hit the trifecta. I was pitching to a top guy at HBO. First we discussed the screenplay he’d read: hearing my passion for it, he suddenly announced that he’d changed his mind and he would pitch it to his colleagues after all! Then he mentioned an old project: I sparked to it and he said he’d send me their material on it! Then I pitched him a similar idea of my own, and he asked me to write up a treatment! Huzzah! 

What was the result? The usual: nothing came of any of it. But it sure was fun at the time, and at least I had figured out what was supposed to happen. Come back tomorrow for more stuff I wish I’d known sooner…