Last Saturday morning my phone rang. When I answered, a voice asked if I was Doug Eboch. When I said I was, the voice told me his name – we’ll call him Joe – and launched into a rant about how nobody in the film business will help anyone. Several minutes into the call I was still wondering, “who is this guy and how did he get my number?”
Turns out I don’t know Joe. And I never found out how he got my number. Our only apparent connection is he informed me we both lived for a while in the same town (I had to ask him which one). But Joe’s call gives me a good point to launch into a discussion of how not to network. For that’s what Joe was trying to do.
It’s entirely possible that Joe is a nut job. But for the sake of this discussion I’m going to assume he’s talented, hard working and generally socially competent. We’re constantly told in this business that you have to be aggressive and that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This can lead otherwise very reasonable people to act like crazed hyenas. I know because I’ve done it.
First of all, I would suggest that cold calling someone you don’t know at home on a Saturday morning is not the best way to make a connection. But let’s say you see an industry figure that you don’t know personally at a party or a coffee shop or a screening and decide to approach them. Rule number one is to be respectful and considerate.
Put yourself in their shoes – if I’m at a party, I’m there to relax and have a good time. If I’m at a screening I’m there to see a movie. If someone comes up to me and within thirty seconds they’re asking me to give them career help I’m going to be thinking, “How can I get away from this person as quickly as possible and never talk to them again?”
But if I meet someone at a party who’s cool and interesting and who maybe turns me on to a great restaurant he just found or movie he just saw, then at the end of the evening I’m likely to exchange cards with that person. That guy just started a relationship which is what networking is really about.
If you’re contacting someone at work then keep in mind that if you’re talking to someone who can help you, they are also by definition a busy person. Keep it succinct and get to the point. It took several minutes to find out what Joe wanted and I had to ask him a couple times before he told me. He wasn’t even an aspiring screenwriter! He was a musician who wanted me to check out some of his work online. (I’m not sure why he thought I could help. Sometimes people who have not had any success in the entertainment business think people who have had success wield a lot more power than they actually do.)
Be prepared with a brief, polite introduction. Tell them quickly who you are. Explain why you’re contacting them in particular – ideally you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance, but if it’s just that you admire their work, tell them that. And then explain what you’d like them to do. Don’t ask for a lot! You might get a producer to read a script, but more likely you’ll do best by simply asking for a little advice on the business (and if you do that, make sure you LISTEN to them when they give you the advice!) Joe actually got that right. He only asked that I listen to some of his work online which is a pretty easy thing for someone to do. But he could have told me that in a two minute conversation instead of wasting ten minutes.
Tone counts for a lot. Joe listed a bunch of people he’d approached who hadn’t helped him and asked in a rather challenging way if I’d ever helped someone break into the business. You’re asking for my help…don’t attack me! Keep it positive. Why would I want to help out someone who’s bitter and pessimistic? And if all these other people hadn’t found Joe to be someone worthy of their help, then what does that tell me?
In a similar vein, Joe complained that he didn’t have time to go back to school or do internships – he’d been trying to break in for too long for stuff like that. And he scoffed that some of the people he’d approached, “asked me ridiculous questions like can I score to cues.” Well, that’s not a ridiculous question. That’s what composers in the film business have to be able to do.
More importantly, Joe was unintentionally telling me he’s lazy and unwilling to do what it takes to be successful. He’s looking for a short cut, for something to be handed to him. Why would I help someone like that? Just because he managed to track down my phone number? That doesn’t mean you have to enter a degree program or take every lame non-paying gig you’re offered, but you want people to see you as someone willing to work hard and sacrifice to make it.
There are different kinds of networking. What Joe was trying to do I would call “networking up.” In other words, he’s trying to build a relationship with someone more successful than he is. That is a logical way to go but actually not the most useful kind of networking. Tom Cruise networks with Steven Spielberg, I don’t. I don’t have much to offer Spielberg and real networking is a two way street.
You’ll get most of your breaks by networking laterally. When I was starting out as a writer the people that helped me the most were the interns at production companies and the assistants to agents and producers. Those people are looking to move up and they do that by discovering great material that nobody else knows about. If my work is good then helping me helps them.
Since Joe wants to write music for movies he would be best served by contacting film students or other aspiring filmmakers and offering to score their work for free. If he does a good job his work will get exposed when those films are screened at festivals. Plus, those filmmakers will move into the business and they’ll remember the people who did things for them along the way. But it takes time and you have to be willing to scratch someone else’s back if you want them to scratch yours.
You do need to network to be successful in this business. But you need to be smart about it and you need to have the talent, work ethic and positive attitude to back it up. Most important of all: don’t call me at home.