Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hollywood Etiquette for Screenwriters

The film business is a little culture unto itself, and like any culture there are rules of etiquette. If you’re new to the business, those rules may not be readily apparent. Here’s a small primer for the screenwriter:

Phone Calls

If you leave a message for someone you have a relationship with (your agent, the producer of a project you’re working on, etc.), the rule of thumb is they should return the call within twenty-four hours. The reverse is true as well, though I would recommend returning the call the same day if you can. If you’re trying to reach someone you don’t have a relationship with, give them at least a week, maybe up to two before calling again. If they don’t return the call after the third message, maybe you should take the hint.

If you’ve given someone a screenplay to read, you should generally allow them two to four weeks before following up with them. And four weeks is better than two. The exception is your representation, who should read the screenplay the weekend after you gave it to them, if not before. Remember, though, that people are busy and be patient.

When you do get someone on the phone, respect their time. Have a reason for the call. You should not be calling your agent to “check in” very often. (They may call you for this reason sometimes, though.) A little chitchat can be nice, but get to the point quickly. They have things they need to be doing. Most calls ought to be shorter than five minutes. This does not apply to phone meetings that are scheduled, such as when you’re going to get notes on a script or pitch an idea.


The first rule of meetings is to be on time! The producer or exec will probably make you wait, but you should never keep them waiting. It’s a business meeting, so be reasonably well groomed. Writers dress casually in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean you can look like you just came from the beach or the gym. Also, bring a pen and notepad or some other way of taking notes. There is a whole art to meetings, some of which I’ve discussed in this post.


Occasionally you will have a lunch meeting. You may even have breakfast or dinner meetings from time to time. Again, be punctual. These days most people frown upon ordering alcohol during the day. Wine or possibly a cocktail with dinner is usually acceptable, but I’d follow the lead of the person you’re meeting with.

There are no real rules about what food you should order, but I’d suggest avoiding messy, hard-to-eat food that might be distracting, like spaghetti or ribs. Even hamburgers can be piled high with messy, drippy toppings. If you order something like this you’re asking for an embarrassing incident. Sandwiches and salads are safe choices. Most people skip dessert at lunch, and you probably don’t want to order the biggest, most expensive thing on the menu if everyone else is ordering salad. You don’t want to look like a pig. Again, it’s best to follow the lead of the people you’re meeting with.

There’s a hierarchy to who pays at a Hollywood business meal. The good news is the writer is at the bottom of the list. If someone asks for a lunch meeting, you’ll eat for free. If they ask you to split the check, it either says something about their lack of clout or about how little regard they have for you. The exception, of course, is if you offer to take someone to lunch in return for a favor or to get advice on the business. Also, movie stars almost never pay for meals, but you’re not likely to be dining alone with a movie star – the producer will probably be there and pick up the check.


There are many types of industry parties – premieres, holiday parties, networking parties and parties for producers and agents to show off. The rules of etiquette are the same as any party, except I recommend not overindulging on alcohol. You want to do business with these people – don’t make a fool of yourself. Also, don't be too focused on business. It's a party, nobody wants to be cornered and forced to listen to you pitch your latest project.

Holiday and Other Gifts

Gift giving is a competitive sport in Hollywood. At the holidays, agencies, producers and studios send expensive gifts to the people they do business with and the people they want to do business with. If your career gets some heat around the holidays, you will probably receive some nice gifts.

As near as I can tell, there isn’t a consistent expectation of gift giving on the part of writers. This is good news – half of the writers I’ve asked about this have never given gifts to business contacts at the holidays (we’re talking end of year holidays here – Christmas, Hanukah, New Years – though you generally don’t specify religion with business contacts). So if you do nothing, you will probably be okay. If you are going to give gifts, the most likely candidates would be your representation – agent, manager, attorney. If you are currently working on a project, you might consider giving something to the producer or even the studio executives.

The thing to remember is, unless you are independently very wealthy, you will not be able to impress anyone by how much you spend. Keep in mind, your representatives know how much you make. And unless you’re they’re top client, they probably make more than you. A lot more. And they represent much wealthier people who will be giving them gifts, not to mention the very wealthy producers who will be giving them gifts. That $250 bottle of wine you saved up for – they might appreciate it, but it will be on the low end of what they receive in terms of value.

Far better than taking out a loan to buy expensive gifts is to give something personal. It really is the thought that counts – show them you thought about them when picking the gift. This works both ways. The best holiday gift I got was from a previous manager who gave me a humorous holiday book she thought I’d like. It cost less than $10, but it said something about her taste and about her sense of what my taste was. A favorite book would make a good gift from a writer to their agent or manager. So would something related to a shared hobby or interest. Don't get too personal, though – this is a business contact.

Any other etiquette situations you can think of? Leave a comment and I’ll try to address them.


Debby Hanoka said...

Would you please address email etiquette? Both cold query/unsolicited and with whom the writer has a relationship? Thank you in advance.

Doug Eboch said...

The first rule of email etiquette is to get to the point. Keep your message short. In a query you obviously need to include enough detail to pique their interest, but try to be as efficient as possible. You don't need a whole resume - what are the two or three key reasons they should pay attention to you? People won't read a long, rambling email.

Email is less formal, but be cautious. Re-read the email before you hit send. And don't exclude pleasantries like "Thank you" and signing your name. Best to err on the side of politeness and professionalism.

People generally expect a quicker response from email - which is actually kind of odd - but I would still use the 24 hour rule of thumb for those with whom you have a relationship. And I would allow two weeks before following up with those you don't know .

Other standard email etiquette rules apply - be careful with "reply all" and BCC, for example.