“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
That’s the famous excuse used by aspiring screenwriters to explain why they haven’t been successful. Well guess what – it’s partly true. You need industry connections to get your screenplay read by people who have the power to make it. (You also do need to know a thing or two.) But what if you don’t have any industry connections?
You make some.
You don’t have to be related to someone in the business or grow up in Hollywood in order to become friends with people in the industry. But you do have to go to where industry people are. Ultimately this means moving to Los Angeles, but you may not be at a place in your life or career where that’s possible yet. And Los Angeles is a big city – just because you live here doesn’t guarantee you’ll run into producers and directors… although if you leave your apartment it’s hard not to.
There are places industry professionals congregate – film festivals, screenings, conventions, etc. – that are open to the public. As I type this, Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Tons of movie stars and big name directors will appear on stage in Hall H. Of course there will also be security guards keeping the general public away from them. But there are also tons of producers, directors, writers and agents walking around on the show floor and hanging out in the hotel bars.
So it’s not too hard to put yourself in proximity with industry folks. But how do you make an actual connection when at an industry event? Here are a few tips.
1. Break out of your shell. This should be obvious, but writers in particular tend to be introverted. That’s fine, but you need to be at least a little social. Don’t sit in the corner at an industry event with your face buried in your phone. If you’re with a group of friends, agree beforehand to make an effort to talk to others. Be friendly and social – do not act like a used car salesman. Recently, I was waiting for a friend at an awards reception. I was standing at the edge of a room full of people by myself. I noticed another gentleman standing by himself a short ways away. So I went over and introduced myself. We ended up having a long conversation, and it turned out he was a development executive at a major production company. It’s amazing what happens when you make just a little effort.
2. Prepare an icebreaker. At film festivals, you can always ask the person next to you if they’ve seen anything good – or even better, tell them about a great film you saw at the festival. At conferences and conventions, you could talk about a great panel or presentation you saw. Other situations do not have such built-in conversation starters, so think about something interesting you can lead with (NOT something about your work) before you arrive. Or even just comment on how good the hors d'oeuvres are. Sometimes you can commiserate over a complaint - "The lines at Comic-Con are really long!" But I prefer to stay positive.
3. Know what you want. Not so much from the event - although that can be helpful - but in your career. Be focused. For writers, usually what you want is for people to read your screenplays. But you could also be looking for funding for an indie film. Or you might want to find representation. Or maybe you’re running a Kickstarter campaign for a short film. If you don’t have a goal, it’s hard to network effectively. But – and this is very important – do not directly ask for the thing you want! At least not at a networking event. Instead, work on making yourself and your pitch so appealing people offer to help you.
4. Oh yeah, your pitch. Have a short, compelling pitch of your project ready. Do not “sell,” simply describe it in the most appealing way possible. You should have both a 30 second and two minute pitch ready to use depending on the circumstances. You don’t want to wing it when somebody asks you what you’re working on. And remember, if you’re at an industry event everyone else there has a project they’re working on. What makes your project different? What makes you different?
5. Do your homework. Consider whom you might meet and what might interest them. People at a smaller film festival will probably be interested in art films. People at Comic-Con will more likely be interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Is this a place where you’re going to meet other creatives, or where you’re going to meet buyers? The environment should influence what you talk about. And if there are specific people you might run into (panelists at a convention, for example), familiarize yourself with their bio and credits.
Most importantly, networking is not the same as pitching or selling. When you are networking, you are trying to make a connection with someone. It’s not important that you even get to talk about your screenplay. So be outgoing but not pushy. And bring business cards!