- Always Be Closing, Part 1: A Meeting is a Consolation Prize
- Always Be Closing, Part 2: Prepare Yourself
- Always Be Closing, Part 3: Sell Them What They Came to Buy
- Always Be Closing, Part 4: The Pitch Pyramid
- Always Be Closing, Part 5: Seller Beware
- Always Be Closing, Part 6: They Don’t Want To Be The Money
- Always Be Closing, Addendum: Three Final Warnings
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
- What material of yours was sent to these people, who specifically in the company read it, and what they had to say about it.
- Who exactly is going to be in the room. Hopefully with a physical description of each one.
- Who the decision maker in the room is.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- They have read a screenplay you wrote.
- They liked it a lot.
- THEY HAVE ALREADY DECIDED NOT TO BUY IT.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.