Last post I talked about some of the mistakes I made early in my career. Here are a few more:
I over-relied on my agents for work
When I was trying to break in to the business, I hustled to get my scripts to producers, development execs, anyone who would read them. I had to. Then I got an agent. The agent got my scripts out to a whole bunch of new people, which resulted in meetings with a bunch of potential new employers. Everything was heading up.
And then things went quiet. What happened? Well, I stopped doing the hustling I’d been doing and relied on my agent to promote me. And he did to an extent, but not as enthusiastically as I had. Nobody will be as dedicated to your career as you. Getting an agent doesn’t relieve you from the job of developing your network in whatever additional ways you can.
Besides, my agent did his job. Here’s the big thing new writers usually don’t realize: Agents do not get you work. They get your spec writing to people and get you in rooms with people who like it. They open doors for you. It’s up to you to walk through them, and what happens on the other side is on you. My agent had introduced me to a bunch of new people, and he was expecting me to take those contacts and run with them. I didn’t, or at least not as aggressively as I could have. (See last post: Didn’t keep in touch with people I met.)
Note that agents do other important things for you. They negotiate contracts, harass employers when your pay is late, and help you choose material, among other stuff. They are very valuable. But it’s on you to nurture your contacts, continually produce new material, and convince people to hire you.
I didn’t ask questions about the business
Learning to write is hard. It takes time, energy and a thick skin. I went to school for several years to learn how to do it well. But school didn’t prepare me for how the business works. When I went into meetings, I didn’t really know what was expected of me. I went into some “general” meetings without preparing a pitch – I was told they were get-to-know-me meetings. When the producer asked what I was working on, I fumbled through some lame description of a current spec.
In one meeting, I had the foresight to prepare three pitches (something I wouldn’t do now, but not really a “mistake” per se). The producer shot all three down after a few sentences by saying, “Not for us, what else you got?” I didn’t want to say “nothing” so I started pitching any story idea I could think of – most remembered from my idea notebook, a couple off the top of my head! I pitched well over a dozen. Obviously none of them sold – they were half-baked. I should have said, “I’m kicking around a few other things but let me develop them and come back.”
There were many other things like this that boil down to: I didn’t know what was expected of me. I can easily make the excuse that someone should have prepared me better – my film school professors, my agent. But really I should reserve the most blame for myself. If I didn’t know, I should have asked.
I tried to negotiate for myself
I don’t want to get into specifics on this one, but let’s just say there were a couple contracts early in my career where I tried to negotiate the terms on my own. Often that was because the producer made me an offer or asked what I wanted to get paid. Tip: the producer would much rather negotiate with the writer than with an agent or lawyer. A few times I negotiated for myself because I was trying to save legal costs on a “free option,” a deal where I would take no money up front in return for a potential payoff down the line.
Negotiating for yourself is always a bad idea. When you agree to something, even just a ballpark figure, it is nearly impossible for your representatives to go back and raise that number. And your reps know the value of your work in the marketplace much better than you. Trust them (this includes when you think you deserve more than they say). I left money on the table a few times by not insisting that the buyer talk to my reps. Fortunately I never made the mistake several of my friends did of getting into onerous, long term contracts for no money. That’s even worse.
I’ve had a few questions come in, so next post will be a mailbag post. If you have questions, send them my way via email, the comments section here or Twitter.