Thursday, September 9, 2010

Anatomy of a General Meeting

In the pitching class I teach at Art Center College one of the things we discuss is the various types of meetings that screenwriters have in Hollywood. I think it’s useful to have some idea of what’s going to happen when you go into your first meeting. If nothing else it might help you to relax a little. And, truth be told, even experience screenwriters tend to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing this kind of thing.

So for those of you who have not yet had your first Hollywood meeting, today I will describe what happens in a “general” meeting and what I recommend you do to successfully navigate one. This is based on my own experience doing dozens – maybe even over a hundred – of these.

You get a general meeting when someone has read some of your work and wants to meet you. The majority of the time you will be meeting with one person but I’ve had general meetings with as many as four people. There might be more than one producer or development exec at the company that wants to meet you and/or there might be an intern or assistant to take notes.

First, what to wear. You do not need to dress formally. Though this is akin to a job interview it is for a very casual job. And you’re supposed to be creative. Looking like a lawyer might not help your case. On the other hand you shouldn’t look like you just walked off a construction site, either. Dress in something that makes you look good, the kind of thing you’d wear out to a nice dinner with friends. And take a shower, please!

(There are certain “uniforms” that have developed for certain kinds of writers. For example, action writers wear black or comedy writers wear Hawaiian shirts. I ignore that, though. I don’t want to be a cliché.)

Get there on time – and be prepared to wait. There’s a bit of a power play thing that happens. They get to keep you waiting to prove they’re more powerful than you. I once arrived for a meeting and was directed to a seat right by the open door of the person I was going to meet. The assistant told him I was there. Then I heard the exec get on the phone and make a call to someone – not an important call, just a shooting-the-breeze kind of call. After about five minutes he said, “Well, I have a meeting so I better go.”

That guy didn’t have to make that call right then. He did it just to keep me waiting. But that’s okay. The wait is actually good. It gives you a chance to settle in and get your bearings. And in case you’ve just had to walk half way across the studio lot on a hot September day it gives you a chance to cool down.

Before you go in the assistant or receptionist will ask if you’d like anything to drink. I’d recommend water, even if you’re not thirsty. You may get dry mouth during the meeting, plus it gives you a prop. If you need a few seconds to think over how to answer a question you can take a drink to buy some time. Don’t ask for soda – it will make you burp. And avoid coffee or tea. They may not cool down enough to drink before the end of the meeting.

I know…this stuff seems silly. But sometimes little things like this can make the difference between a good meeting and a bad one. Or at least they can affect your comfort level.

Mostly you’ll meet in the producer or exec’s office. Sometimes you’ll meet in a conference room. If it’s an office they most likely will have a seating area. They’ll come out from behind the desk and meet with you in that more casual setting.

Those seating areas usually have a couch. A really soft, comfy couch. Try not to sit on it. You will sink back into it and it will sap you’re energy. If you do end up on the couch sit forward on the edge. And if there are multiple people in the meeting try to pick a spot where you can look at all of them with relatively little head movement. You don’t want to be swiveling your head back and forth like you’re at a tennis match.

If you happen to get a lunch or coffee meeting, which is rare when starting out, first date rules apply. Don’t order anything too messy or hard to eat. It’ll distract you and the risk of an embarrassing incident is high. Don’t go too hungry, either. This is about business, not about eating. On the plus side the writer never pays in these situations. (If a producer asks you to pay your own share that’s a pretty big sign they are a wannabe without much clout.)

The meeting will probably be 30-45 minutes. It will start with fifteen minutes or so of small talk. They’ll probably ask where you’re from, how you got started in the business and may discuss the script of yours that they read. The goal here is to be charming and pleasant – the kind of person they’d like to work with. It’s also good to convey an interesting life story. It implies you’ll have an interesting point of view in your writing. At some point they’ll probably say something like, “so, what are you working on now?”

It is critical that you have an answer to this question.

Although technically this is a get-to-know-you meeting, you will be pitching your next idea. The pitch should be fairly casual and not too long. They probably aren’t buying…but they might. Mostly you’re trying to let them know you have other good ideas and hopefully getting them excited to read the next spec when it’s done. But you never know…if the pitch is good enough you might just sell it in the room.

By the way, the pitch should be for the same genre and kind of movie or TV show as the work that got you the meeting. Don’t pitch a sitcom if they brought you in based on your feature thriller script.

One point of disagreement among writers is how many ideas you pitch in these situations. The answer varies from one to three. The three idea advocates think that it’s good to show that you have a lot of ideas. Having more than one is also helpful if they already have something like your first idea in development.

I myself am in favor of pitching a single idea. I think it shows that you are committed and passionate about that idea, not just throwing things out to see what sticks. But I do have a “doorknob pitch”* ready if they don’t respond to the first one. A doorknob pitch is a brief (two minutes or so) pitch of a rough idea. You can preface it by saying something like, “this isn’t fully developed but there is another idea I’ve been kicking around.” If they like it you can ask to come back and give them the full pitch in a week or two after you’ve “had time to work it all out.”

And then you say goodbye and leave. Whatever happens, don’t get too stressed out. There will be other meetings in your future.

*A doorknob pitch is so called because of the image that you would deliver it as you’re hand’s on the doorknob on your way out; kind of an “oh, I almost forgot” attitude. You don’t, of course, actually do it that way. But it comes at the tail end of the meeting and is done in a quick, off-the-cuff manner.

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