by Fiona Wheeler
Every screenwriting manual will tell you that to have a lasting career as a screenwriter you must have three things: (1) You need to know your writing craft, (2) you need to be pleasant to work with, and (3) you have to have something that sets you apart from the crowd.
What Not to Do
Many aspiring screenwriters decide this means that they should behave in a way that garners instant attention. Their outfits make you cringe. In every question session, they ask the loudest, longest, most obvious questions. Each break, they frantically search for the highest-ranking producer in sight and rush to grab their focus. At drinks, they get fall-down drunk. They are memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Then there are the stalkers. They convince themselves that being underhanded and covert in their insidious attention-attracting ways is somehow a good thing. It’s illegal, and just plain rude, to violate the privacy of another person. Also, how stupid do you think producers are? Twenty times a week someone who just happens to desperately want a job from them happens to run into them and knows the name of their dog. Please.
A producer can’t ever hire someone who doesn’t respect confidentiality, so don’t give yourself (and all screenwriters) a bad reputation.
Producers should notice your work, not you. The only time a producer should ever notice a screenwriter is if you are making an intelligent comment about your craft, you’re asking an intelligent question and listening attentively to the answer, or you’re saying something interesting.
But conferences aren’t about the written word; they’re about us as people. So how can you get noticed in a positive way?
Simple Tips for Standing Out
For me, I think back to my undergrad days. What did I do or say that made a professor consider me? At university I understood jokes and references that other students didn’t. Reading widely (prior to the event) and actively listening (during the class) set me apart. If there’s a producer or writer you want to impress, watch their movies. And watch other movies you think they’d appreciate. Be ready to talk about and ask questions about craft.
I also think about the previous conferences and festivals I’ve attended. Who stood out to me? And how, upon reflection, did they catch the attention of the guest speakers?
To be honest, I’m not sure large events are the best way to make personal contacts. Just by being there, you’re showing that you’re quite early on in your career. Why should a producer, who has spent the last fifteen or twenty years building their name, risk it all on unknown you with no track record of success?
If they were to stop and help you out, they’d also have to mentor a thousand others just like you, which would leave them no time to network and build useful relationships. What’s a producer without their A-list creative and financing connections? Producers really do want to discover the next great screenplay, but they can’t compromise the face time they have with their established connections.
Respect that, and you’ll go far.
Attending screenwriting conferences is a great way to really understand the industry. You learn so much more about what’s out there, how the whole industry works and how each part is interconnected. Watching other screenwriters pitching their projects is also a fast and effective way to see what works and what doesn’t.
Usually in this industry, it’s the screenwriters auditioning for the producers, but with large events we get to sit back and think about them for a change. If Producer X took on your project, it would have a slightly bigger budget, but they’d also be much more likely to fire you and hire a well-known writer, whereas Guest Speaker Y said that for her first project she went with an indie producer. This allowed her to maintain a significant amount of creative control, and now she’s a show runner.
Conferences are a great place to just sit back and really listen and reflect on what’s being said. If you’re busy scheming to chase down a famous producer, and you make one attempt after the next to become their new BFF, you’re going to miss all that’s valuable about a conference.
Before moving into screenwriting I was a playwright. I also directed and produced independent theatre. Part of producing is casting, so there were always actors trying to get a role by getting my attention. Sure, there were producers who played that game. They gave the weaker actor a role, if that weak actor flattered them. Maybe it worked out for the weak producer and the weak actor in the short term, but do you think any of the other actors, the director or the playwright ever willingly worked with them on another project?
And with screenwriting, it’s our second and third sold projects that make us the real money, not the first. So we do need to think about the long-term ramifications of any strategy we might cook up.
Don’t Overlook Your Fellow Attendees
When I attend producers’ conferences, instead of mobbing the guest speakers, I network and make friends with the indie producers, the first ADs, and the DPs who are my fellow attendees. And when I go to screenwriting conferences, I do the same.
At the last screenwriting conference I went to I made a point of saying hi to anyone who was sitting quietly by themselves and had a notebook and pen out ready to take notes. I met four people who worked for TV networks, a crew member who’d worked on a lot of well-known stuff, and I met two personal assistants of execs.
Don’t be desperate, don’t ignore the people around you, have realistic expectations and you’re far more likely to enjoy yourself and learn something.
One thing I did stumble on was that if your notebook isn’t a well-loved Moleskin (or you don’t use a pen and paper at all); you’ll look like you don’t believe you’re worth investing in. Is that the message you’re trying to advertise?
The distinctive creamy pages of a luxe notebook do stand out a mile. If anything is going to telegraph your gravitas to the guest speakers up there on the stage, perhaps it will be something as simple and graceful as a good-quality notebook and a willingness to use it.
I don’t pretend to know a lot, but I do know that producers are extremely busy people who got where they are by seeking out legitimate information and making shrewd choices. If you waste your time and energy trying to bluff your way onto their radar, then you’re neglecting your writing (while all the other screenwriters are hard at work improving their specs). Surely, all good producers know that.
So why not just pour all your energy into being a better writer, being a good person, and being interesting, because those are the three things that discerning producers are on the lookout for.
Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.