Thursday, September 27, 2012

Real World Networking

Six people have contacted me so far this week either asking for business help or proposing a business venture. The requests have ranged from giving advice to a friend’s kid to asking for help finding investors for an independent feature to a proposal to collaborate on a spec script.

Most of these requests came from people I consider friends and I certainly don’t mind them asking. But you can probably imagine that I have to turn the majority of them down. If I said yes to every proposal it would be like taking on two new full time jobs every week, and I have my own projects to do! (The thing that does annoy me is when someone tries to make me responsible for their happiness or career – “If you don’t help me I’ll have to give up my dream project!” It doesn’t work. I want to run from those situations.)

I also had two interesting lunches recently that got me thinking about networking. I’m going to leave out the names and change a few identifying details so I don’t upset anyone.

First, I went to lunch with a friend I met seven or eight years ago when we both joined the same writers group. The writers group didn’t last long, but we stayed friends and both of our careers have progressed considerably since then. My friend has an office on a studio lot, which is where I met him for lunch.

While we were eating, I told him about a project I was working on that I would be taking to producers soon. It just so happened that a producer he’s worked with was looking for that kind of material – and had an office on the same lot. So we walked over and he introduced me. Just a quick introduction, but a first point of contact. Then, on the way back to the parking lot, I ran into a successful director I’d become acquainted with socially a while back but haven’t spoken to in at least two years. We spent a few minutes catching up. That’s some pretty good networking considering my only agenda was to have lunch with my friend!

The second lunch was with three former students. One had gotten a job at a small production company after school and then brought the other two into the company. Their careers are off and running.

All of this demonstrates how networking happens in the real world. And here are three lessons I would take away from it:

1. Your best networking is sideways. In other words, your opportunities will mostly come from people at your level. When I first met my writer friend with the office on the lot we were both still early in our careers. And my former students got their breaks from each other, not by schmoozing Hollywood bigwigs. Don’t think of networking as cultivating power players who can do you favors, think of it as building a community of people who can help and support each other. And plan on giving at least as much as you’ll get.

2. Location, location, location. You’re probably not going to run into producers and directors if you go to lunch with a friend in Cleveland. All of the significant agencies are based in L.A. All studio feature development happens in L.A. All network TV development and most cable development happens in L.A. So it helps to live in L.A. New York is okay too – there’s a big indie film community, some cable development, and some of the bigger agencies have branches there. A few other places have small indie film communities – if you want to make ultra-low-budget, personal films then Austin, Texas isn’t a bad place to be. But the bottom line: you’ve got to go where the action is.

By the way – it’s not enough to move to L.A. if all you’re going to do is sit in your room writing. You also have to do things like join screenwriting groups and organizations and take classes and attend seminars. You’ve got to hang out where your fellow filmmakers hang out.

3. Genuine networking often takes time to pay off. People are always talking about what you should do if you happen to get in an elevator with Steven Spielberg. My advice: don’t pitch him your film. I’ve never heard of anybody selling anything this way. If I’ve gotten six requests for help this week I can only imagine how many Mr. Spielberg’s gotten. His defenses will be way, way up. Genuine networking is about building real relationships with people in the business that you actually like. If you do that, then when they see an opportunity to help you, they will. But it might be years from now. That’s okay, you’re in it for the long haul, right? You better be, because overnight success is a myth.


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