Networking and the Power of the Smaller Pond

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For all the screenwriters out there, I’m just going to say it up top. And, you’ve heard it before. There’s no one way to get yourself and your work out there. This book’s author says their way is the only way. Another contradicts that dude’s advice. Some swear that you must have an agent to even think about putting your stuff in front of a producer or a big name because… lawyers. Others will tell you that’s a load of bunk. So what’s the answer?

Here’s what I’ve witnessed. All of this advice is right and wrong, depending on who you are and what you’ve written and how you move around in the world. And whatever you’ve seen work for someone else, may not work for you. Oy.

I’ll stop bumming you out and tell you why we’re here. If you have a great script, someone wants it. The industry is constantly thirsty for new material, but it doesn’t exactly make itself accessible to writers, especially if they are not a friend, colleague, lawyer, agent, wife, husband, ex-wife, ex-husband, or golf buddy. It’s weird and extremely agitating to say the least, but if you’re not a friendly, you’re going to have a hell of a time getting to someone real.

If you’re young, come to Los Angeles or go to New York and start at the bottom as an assistant as close to the writer’s room as you can get. That’s a great way to get in on the ground floor and learn the ropes. But this article is mostly for the outsider who didn’t take that route. We’ve got to get out the machetes and cut our own path. Let’s get to hacking, shall we?

Sometimes starting out as an assistant isn’t the right path for many of us. Swimming with Sharks. Photo Courtesy: Trimark Pictures

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Former head of William Morris and Cassian Elwes’s (producer of Dallas Buyers Club, Lawless, Blue Valentine and Lee Daniels’ The Butler) advice may be off-putting but it’s as real a piece of advice as you’ll hear.

“The whole business is relationships. You, on your own are just, trust me, are not going to get to the agent that represents the star you’re trying to get to. They will not take you seriously. And you walk through the door and say, hey, I’m a young filmmaker, here’s my script but, maybe maybe some assistant saw it somewhere, read it, and told their boss, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ That’s kind of rare. It’s kind of rare that assistants at William Morris ever brought the scripts.

Sometimes they did but for the most part the material was coming to them from lawyers, through managers, through other producers, through friends, people who they had relationships with. So all I would say is, and I know this is frustrating, but get out there and hustle around, find people who do have relationships with people. If your script is good enough and they read it and they like it, they will somehow or another get it to somebody else who’ll get it to somebody else and it’ll eventually end up in the right place. I’m a great believer that if the material is good enough, it’ll find it’s way to the top.”

Yeah, that’s pretty frustrating, Mr. Elwes.

Love the One They’re With

Showrunners and producers like to hire their former co-workers and friends. They bump up their writer’s assistants. People they trust to understand the work, who get along with the team, and who can help navigate the murky waters of network or cable notes. People they like. And you thought high school was over.

This is why networking is key. Because it’s damn near impossible to get a script submitted without an agent. The studios don’t want to get sued. And they have plenty of writers churning away inside the castle walls.

But look around. You may have a way into a network and might not know it. Is there someone you studied with or took a class with or met somewhere that might be the beginning thread of a larger network? You’d be surprised how one person can lead to many more connections. But maybe you don’t have that connection at all.

Before you throw your computer across the room, let’s look at ways to dip your toe in a network pool. Or even create one of your own.

David Robert Mitchell’s amazing It Follows was made from scratch and beautifully made in his own pond. Photo Courtesy: Northern Lights Films

But, Where?! Where Do I Dip My Toe?!

A few places to consider.

First up, film festivals. There are hundreds of film festivals in North America, great and small where you can mix and mingle with writers and filmmakers, even if your focus is TV. The smaller the festival, the better. Less silly rope lines and VIP sequestering and more interaction.

Standing in line for a film is a good way to meet like-minded individuals. And get yourself into any party or meet-up you can. Be charming. Be nice. Get people’s information. Stay in touch. Don’t just make your communication all about where to send your script. Engage. Get to know people. They may not be able to get your script out there but you’re beginning to create a network and hopefully build a group of friends.

Screenings are a great way to meet people. Don’t go to just one. Go to many. After a while, you’ll start to see the same faces and get to know people better. Just being a familiar face is an accomplishment.

Force yourself to get out there and mingle with like-minded people. I’m about as social as The Walking Dead’s Daryl. Photo Courtesy: AMC

Be Social Even If You’re Antisocial

I’ve made so many contacts going to a trivia night or a random house party over, say, trying to stalk a herd of assistants at the Viper Room, which is a pain in the ass, mostly because the parking sucks on Sunset and assistants are skittish. And they probably don’t even go to the Viper Room.

I’m not exactly a social person. I have social anxiety that causes me to pound too much vodka at times in groups of three or more so I have to force myself to go to things. But I usually run into someone who’s working on a project. Even if the project is not right for me, it’s a good way to meet people. I’ve connected producers with other writers. Made friends I would never have suspected were in the business until they revealed it later. I’ve gotten a text from someone months later asking if I’d be interested in writing for a project. So many things can happen once you leave your house.

But I live in LA. If you don’t live in a city that is industry-adjacent or prefer your Shire habitat, that’s completely cool too. You’ve still got some great options.

Don’t underestimate the power of online. Not everyone is a know-it-all troll. I’ve found some awesome writers to trade ideas with on Writing.com. There are many many others out there. Give a couple of them a shot. If you don’t like a community, drop it and move on.

My friend, who lives in Tennessee, created her own writer’s group on tumblr. They workshop their scripts within the online network and have helped each other get work in the area.

I Skype workshop with two fellow writers up in Northern Washington every two weeks since they moved away. We’ve made huge progress in each other’s work with these three-hour sessions over coffee. We get more done than we would have here. No traffic.

YouTube? Why Not?

It may not get you an agent, but a table or couch read of your script on YouTube can get attention or draw collaborators or early fans of your work. If it works for singers, artists, gamers, comedians, people who punch each other in the face for views, actors and others, it can work for you.

Unless your script sucks and, well, then, take down the video, rewrite your script and come back later. No harm, no foul. *Make sure your script doesn’t suck, though. Standby. That article’s coming.

People love to watch table reads on YouTube. I love to watch table reads on YouTube. Sure, we’re watching established actors read scripts from known movies but if your script is stellar, it’ll get views. It’s also a great way to point people to your work. If they’re too overwhelmed or too lazy to read or you can’t get to an assistant, agent, lawyer, actor, etc. YouTube could be another way in.

You don’t need to make it super fancy, either. Gather actor friends or who anyone who’s relaxed on camera and read a few scenes. Have fun with it. Just make sure the lights are on and the sound is good. Bring the device you’re using (phone, computer) in close to those reading or use mics with an input to your computer. And… *Make sure your script doesn’t suck.

My friend Jenna Milly and our amazing editor here at ScreenwritingU recently staged a full reading of her screenplay Golden Arm with a cast of amazing actors. She got some eyeballs on her project, worked with a stellar cast, and landed a producer. Read about that here. You can do your own version of this idea in a variety of spaces. You could even Facebook Live that bad boy. Why not? The point is to get your work seen.

Sometimes you just gotta say, “Screw off, big pond!” Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn riot. On Golden Pond. Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Start Your Own Pack

One of the daunting aspects of the industry is just how closed off and incestuous it is. I don’t mean that in a daddy/brother/husband way. I mean the business is so small, it’s really difficult to get in.

So maybe… don’t bother. Blasphemy! I know, but hear me out.

Another writer pal of mine created her own network of filmmakers in a small town. They’ve produced projects together from shorts to feature length films for the last eight years. Now, maybe they aren’t in the big time by industry standards, but in their neck of the woods, they get financed and they make things happen.

They’ve spun their initial sideline job into paid opportunities. Plus, they’re supporting themselves doing what they love. It’s hard work and takes a lot of managing, but it works for the group.

I’m not saying that these small ponds will lead to you breaking in. What may happen on the way to the big pond is that you find the smaller one is much more satisfying, healthy, and lucrative. You also work more. Constantly working in a smaller group makes your work sharper and you have room for trial and error. You get to make mistakes that you can’t make in a larger setting with more money at stake.

Don’t Give Up

Many times writers don’t get their break because they simply do nothing. They have a setback, stall out, get rejected, some bad advice or hear that it’s impossible and quietly roll away from the keyboard. Don’t do that. Seriously, don’t give up. Sure, we all have our days/weeks/months where we’re like, “F*ck it, I’ll just watch TV and never write another word.”

But that’s part of the drill, too. Writing is hard. It can be lonely. Ideas don’t gel. That’s why finding your people, even if it’s a person or two, to lift you up in trying times is essential to finding satisfaction in the work because writing is a long game.

Being a cut throat is exhausting and never gets you anywhere. Also, back stabbing can cause muscle cramps. Photo Courtesy: FX

Don’t Be a Mean Girl

The key to working in any group is to support each other. None of this crabs in the bucket nonsense, pulling someone down if they get a break. Jealousy is an energy sucker and it’s bad for the soul. Bad for your writing, too.

I celebrate every one of my writing friends who get a break. I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked and know the sacrifices they’ve made. We’ve been broke as a joke together too many times for me to hate on their success. And I also know, when they rise, I rise.

Tell us about your pond? How did you find it? What works for you? Any success stories or advice you want to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

author-avatar

Lisa Waugh worked her way through six years of a state college and then decided to work only one job in radio as opposed to three to get a degree that would help her land a job in… radio. She then moved onto TV news, then cable news, and then a fun-filled place that made cartoons. There was a ghost involved. She’s been paying the bills as a writer for over two decades. Screenwriting, copywriting, script doctoring, tons of web content for startups that are digital dust by now, joke writing, and a lot of entertainment writing, mostly about TV. She loves writers and wants to see them succeed because writers rock.

7 Replies to "Networking and the Power of the Smaller Pond"

  • comment-avatar
    Jim Roddy March 11, 2017 (10:17 am)

    I greatly appreciated this article, for I am one who fell away for a few years. I picked up my pen again recently (I write longhand then edit/rewrite.) The advice here will be put to use. Thanks Lisa Waugh!

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 11, 2017 (11:53 am)

      I’m glad you came back to it, Jim. I’ve had my share of stoppage as well. Welcome back!

  • comment-avatar
    Diego F. Rojas March 16, 2017 (10:28 am)

    Lisa, you are a superstar!!! I really mean it. I haven´t seen such a positive article about getting ahead for writers such as this for a long time. I live in Colombia and I moved over here to continue my writing career because well, I am Colombian-American, and because I thought of this place as my small pond. And it´s working great for me. Once you decide to do what you love, you end up living the life that you want, and that will make you happy, it´s a nice circular thing. One thing I haven´t done is go to many of the local film festivals, afetr reading your article it is something I will start doing right away. Once again, Thank you.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh March 16, 2017 (10:51 am)

      Wow. Well, that made my day/week/weekend, Diego. Thank you! I’ve experienced a lot of negativity and hostility in and around my neck of the business. Just mean for mean’s sake. It’s puzzling, really. I decided to not be that way, to help anyone I can and it’s been a better life. I’m happy to hear that you’ve found your pond. Huzzah! Let me know how your film festival experience goes.

  • comment-avatar
    Diego F. Rojas March 16, 2017 (12:13 pm)

    I´m glad my email made your day and I´m Sorry to hear about the negativity. I guess that´s our world, we should just stick to the ones that love us or appreciate us, you know what I mean? About the pond, it´s been a gratifying experience. For example, last year I was able to have lunch with a Ciro Guerra, director of EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, a 2016 foreign film Oscar nominee, can you imagine? And then, a month later, I had Manolo Cruz at my home having dinner, director of LA CIENAGA, Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting: Vicky Hernandéz, Manolo Cruz for Between Sea and Land at the Sundance film festival. Can you imagine having lunch with say Alejandro Iñarritu or Martin Scorsese, etc in the big pond? Almost impossible. That´s the power of the small pond. Abrazos.

  • comment-avatar
    David Starwalt April 9, 2017 (3:51 pm)

    Thank you for your wonderful article. It was very inspiring. After leaving Los Angeles some 15 years ago, I’ve been feeling pretty isolated. It’s my own fault, of course. I just need to extend myself to find the other folks that share the dream and start my own group. I know a wonderful writer that is a professor at a nearby college (I directed a very funny play by him at the college.) and have a friend that is a published novelist that has an interest in screen writing. There are a couple of others I can think of and I’m sure that all I’ve mentioned know folks as well. I’ve spent too much time on the computer and not enough time getting organized to get things done. I live in search of the magical idea that will allow me to make the ten thousand dollar big money making film. (That will put you to staring at the middle distance for a long time.) My time here has allowed me to finish three scripts and get started on about ten others. Nothing’s ever wasted. It’s all learning and that’s always good. Thank you for inspiring me to get off my ass.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh April 10, 2017 (4:05 pm)

      Your comment made my day, David. I wish you and your group all the best. Wonder powers activate!

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