At one of the events, an industry party with several high level writers, directors and stars, I saw an aspiring feature writer approach a big TV showrunner. The feature writer was polite and complimentary, asked to take a pitcher with the showrunner, and the showrunner was happy to oblige. Then the feature writer said, "Can I tell you about the script I'm working on?" and without waiting for an answer launched into a decent elevator pitch.
I saw the TV showrunner immediately tense up. When the feature writer asked if he could send the script, the showrunner told him to contact his agent and made a beeline for the bar.
Realistically, what do you think the feature writer's chances of getting a positive response from that showrunner were? The showrunner doesn't know the feature writer at all and reading a script takes a couple hours. Besides, showrunners don't really buy feature scripts, so what's in it for the showrunner? And then there's the legal risk...
An elevator pitch is called that because of the idea that if you're on an elevator with a VIP, you have only a few seconds to sell them your idea. But in the real world you aren't going to sell an idea on an elevator anyway. You're just going to scare the VIP.
At an industry dinner that same week I was seated by a producer and an actress who were doing a web series for a big new web company. As I'm currently in discussions to direct a web series myself, I was very curious about their experiences with that company. I asked them several questions about their project that led to a bigger discussion about the future of web series and eventually an exchange of business cards. At one point the producer asked about the web series I was doing and I gave him my elevator pitch. But I never asked him to do anything for me.
This leads me to my first big tip for effective networking: ask smart questions.
I was asking the producer about his experience because I was genuinely more interested in the information than anything else. If you're an aspiring writer (or director or producer or actor for that matter), then when you meet someone established in the industry, think about what you could learn from them and ask them a smart question.
Don't ask something generic or self-serving like, "How do I get an agent?" Instead, ask them something specific and relevant about something they have done. (Of course it helps if you know something about what they've done - which is one reason keeping up with industry news is important.) And don't go in with an agenda to work up to pitching them your material. Just try to make a positive impression and then see what happens.
In some scenarios, an even better approach is not to ask them anything specifically about the business. For example, at a film festival, ask them what films they've seen. At Comic-Con, ask them what panels they've been to. Asking questions is a good way to start a conversation and starting a conversation is the best way to build a relationship.
Here's tip number two: send thank you notes.
I've been working this summer with Inner City Filmmakers, an organization to train inner city kids for film industry jobs. They have lots of guest speakers. The people who run Inner City Filmmakers always encourage the students to send thank-you notes after those events.
It's a brilliant idea. Ever been to a panel with someone you'd really like to talk to, only to have to fight through a mob of people afterwards to try to get ten seconds of their time while they're edging toward the exit? What if, instead, you sent them a thank-you note afterwards? Most people can be reached via their company or agent, and those addresses are easy to find.
The note is your chance to make an impression - but not to pitch your material. Comment specifically on something they said that you found enlightening. Make sure to mention what you do - "I think your breakdown of the relation between text and subtext will really help my own writing" - but keep the focus on them. It also helps if you made some sort of positive impression such as asking a good question during a Q and A period (remind them of the question and thank them for their response).
There's something special about sending an actual hand-written card. It would definitely make an impression. But if you can get an email address, that has a benefit as well since it's very easy for them to reply. And if you ask a polite follow up question, the chance of a reply will be higher. Most of all be patient and be grateful for any response you get.
Though I've given you two tips here, I really don't like to think of networking as a strategic thing. You'll notice both of these tips come out of an attitude of respect and good manners. And respect and good manners are probably the most important techniques for networking.
Next week I'll be posting my interview with producer Ken Aguado (The Salton Sea)