Lee Jessup’s Screenwriters Guide to Effective Networking

Whether trying to start up a conversation with fellow writers or those a few steps further ahead in their career, or aiming to build relationships with industry executives who could have an impact on the writer’s trajectory, just the very thought of “networking” can be enough to make us cringe.

Networking, for many, has a slimy, sleazy feel to it. It suggests that the person doing it has a self-serving agenda at work. That he brings to the table a wholly disingenuous predisposition. For many, it speaks of people who are always eager to know: Who do you know? What can you do? How might you be able to help ME????

Which is why I often tell my writers: Don’t think about it as networking. Self promoting. Selling yourself. Think about it as relationship building. Get to know the person on the other end of a two-way conversation. Try to build an actual relationship with them, nothing too spectacular but one where you could reach out for a coffee-catch-up a couple of times a year, so that they are eager to step up and help should you ever need them.  This is a relationship business. With that in mind, you have to think of networking as the art of building effective relationships that may – or may not – come in handy as you develop your career. 

And, for the record, everyone is doing it. When I interviewed super manager Zadoc Angel for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, he told me what it might look like from the rep perspective: 

“Agents and managers do it in our jobs all the time. All the business lunches with executives or producers, we’ll spend the first hour just catching up on each other’s personal lives, finding out what’s going on with their families, what are they working on lately. And then oftentimes, the hard sell portion of the meal is the following half hour, where we know we gotta talk business, and I’ll find out what they’re looking for, and then I’ll pitch my writers, and they know what the deal is, and we walk away satisfied. But so much of it is treating the other person like a person at the front of it so that you’re vesting in each other beyond this particular sale, if that’s the right word.”

For me, effective networking is really quite simple. Or simpler than many make it out to be. Let’s break it down: 

For new writers just beginning their career, it’s not going to be about meeting everyone at a particular networking event, conference, panel or mixer. It’s about finding a few people to talk to throughout the event or the mixer, in order to identify whether there might be a genuine connection building. Finding one or two people with whom you want to go grab a cup of coffee, rather than someone who can potentially have immediate positive effect on your career. Of course, if you do meet the person who could have a positive impact on your career and there is genuine interest there, don’t shy away. But understand that community and network building is something that will take some time and effort before netting any sort of results worth mentioning. 

Networks – or communities – are built slowly, because authentic relationships don’t just appear. Some people you will feel you had a connection with but never hear from again; others will be more willing. And then it’s about cultivating the relationships that you are starting to build, reaching out on occasion just to check in, preferably with good news to share, or an offer for a cup of coffee. For this, create an excel spreadsheet, and track everyone you meet, so that you can keep in touch rather than forget them over the years. 

Remember: People like to work with, support and promote people, in the professional space or otherwise, that they genuinely like and feel that they have a relationship with. Your job, then, is to get them, whoever they may be, rooting for you and excited for your journey. 

A few years ago, one of my writers was lucky enough to sell her pilot to NBC.  When word got out, Deadline.com was all over it, putting out the press release with my writer’s picture. Within hours, she got an email from someone she took a screenwriting class with. That email read “If the show goes, I would love to staff on it!” But she and I both knew that staffing him would be highly unlikely, even if the show did end up going. It wasn’t because he wasn’t a good writer, because he was entirely lacking in experience, or because my writer had something against him. It had been over ten years since she’d last seen or talked to him, during which she developed genuine relationships with other writers she would want to work. 

While some writers are social butterflies and eternally extroverted, others dread any thought of networking on a regular basis. But even if you are an introvert, it’s important that you find ways to come out of your shell. Whether you take an improv class that keeps you on your toes, or take on an insane endeavor like taking a Saturday to sit outside your doorstep and aim to start a conversation with every person who crosses your path (which an introverted client of mine once did, which made me so proud of her!). After all, though it’s true that screenwriting – specifically in features – is for the most part a solitary endeavor, in today’s industry, having a strong community to put in a recommendation for you or connect you to the right person, as well as the ability to go into any room, drum up a conversation with anyone, is instrumental to your screenwriting career’s long-term trajectory. 

Finding opportunities to meet new people, be they writers, directors, producers, reps or industry execs, can often be as big a challenge as networking itself. Here in Los Angeles, look to any of these groups for the networking opportunities, be they panels, mixers or socials, which they regularly put on the calendar: 

Both ISA and The Black List offer mixers in cities other than Los Angeles. 

There are also those larger-scaler events for which it would be worthwhile to travel: 

Film festivals and screenings can also offer great networking opportunities!

For those writers taking classes with organizations like Script Anatomy or Writing Pad, such organizations often offer panels and mixers, and the classrooms are also a great place to network! Other organizations worth looking into for more regular networking opportunities include Final Draft, Stage 32 and ScreenCraft. Sign up for their newsletters and, with any luck, your calendar will start filling up with networking opportunities fast!

When attending panels, be sure to come prepared to ask smart questions that would impress both panelists and audience members. You will not get to ask a hundred questions; if you’re lucky, you will get to ask one question that matters. Follow panelists on social media, and thank them for their time – you never know where those meaningful connections will come from! Additionally, standing in line for such events can be a great way to connect. After all, you are with fellow writers, all sharing a common interest. 

In addition, when attending any event or occasion that provides an opportunity to connect, be sure to come prepared to talk about yourself. This is where your personal narrative comes in, and you want to use it to stand out in a unique and memorable way. Consider developing a 45-75 seconds personal logline, or delve into your personal narrative in order to make the most of every opportunity, and be memorable to the people with whom you are speaking.

I hate it when writers turn to their network – or spreadsheet full of names and email addresses – only when they need something.

A few years ago, an industry executive reached out to me with an email request that surprised me: One sentence in, he was asking me to contribute funds to his GoFundMe campaign for a new business venture because “You wouldn’t want me to look like the idiot who threw a party that nobody came to, would you?” The problem: It had been over a year since I had heard from him. And probably five years or more since I had seen him. So in essence, I didn’t know whether or not I cared about the man or cared about the proverbial party. In the email, the exec didn’t bother to ask how I was doing, or inquire about anything not to do with his needs. Instead, it was all about GIVE ME! The truth is that if we had an actual relationship, I would have probably contributed something. But because the executive approached me the way he did, it quickly became evident that we would only have a relationship whenever that relationship served him. 

Historically, I find that the best favors are done by people eager to do them. Therefore, I urge my writers to build the sort of relationships where help would be offered, rather than requested. Here’s the thing: I hate asking for favors. In fact, if there is any way for me to avoid asking for a favor, I will. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need others’ help, be it by way of introductions, insights or support. Instead of figuring out how to get over the total squeamishness I feel at just the thought of asking for a favor, I built myself a strong enough network of colleagues and friends, and volunteered to do enough favors for others without ever being asked, that “I need a favor” rarely, if ever, crosses my lips. Don’t get me wrong: There are people I’ve known for years who will never offer me a favor, no matter my efforts or our past. They are just not those sorts of people, and that’s perfectly okay. Luckily, I’ve developed and nurtured enough meaningful relationships to be able to find my way to what is needed without help from those not eager to give it. 

Which brings me to another simple truth about networking: 

The best networking is done in the spirit of generosity and curiosity. 

If you are genuinely interested in another person, ready to ask questions and really attempt to get to know them, it is likely that they will be that much more interested in and curious about you. When you ask questions and share meaningful information about yourself (in a non-creepy kind of way), people are going to be that much more likely to open up about themselves. It’s a conversation. A discovery. Do you and the person you’re talking to have anything in common? It doesn’t even have to be writing-based. Do you hail from the same city, country, college? Do you share interest like wine, cooking, extreme climbing or travel? Are you dog people or cat people? What are you watching? Reading? What are you excited about these days? Pay attention. Listen with authentic interest. Don’t just wait for the opportunity to say something. Be present and invested. But also consider whether there is a potential for a connection to be made. If the person you are talking to doesn’t seem to reciprocate your level of interest, then find the next person to talk to, in the hopes that you can connect. 

And generosity: Let’s not forget about that. Generosity can show up in many different ways. It can be genuine interest in the other person. Concern about something happening to them. An offer to read or give notes. Or a resource who might be helpful for the project the other writer is currently working on. Sometimes, a cup of coffee and an attentive ear is all that a person needs. So be curious and generous in your networking, and see where it will lead. 

Someone once told me that working in the industry is not a job, it’s a lifestyle choice. Which is why it is so incredibly important to populate your chosen lifestyle with people that you like, who sincerely like you back, and would be happy to see and help you rise as you set out on your screenwriting endeavors. Networking, in its essence, is all about fostering those relationships and building upon them. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone, it is of utmost importance that you push and challenge yourself. Do that regularly, consistently and methodically, and believe me… Opportunity will come knocking.