Screenwriters: Are You Paranoid Or Is The Industry Really Looking?

It’s human nature to look at other people and instantly categorize them. To make assumptions. To set expectations. To – oh no! – judge! I do it myself: Whenever I meet a new writer, my impression of them begins to solidify before they’ve even sat down with me. From their clothes to their mannerisms, everything is being catalogued. This is not to say that impressions can’t be adjusted, or that I am utilizing this initial assessment to disqualify them from something. But if you’ve ever had the impression that, as a screenwriter, everyone is looking at you, trying to figure out who you are, what your writing and commitment and tenacity will be, you are totally, absolutely, 100% right on the money.

 For the sake of this blog, I want to go back to the Breaking Into Hollywood panel I sat on for Screenwriters World a few weeks ago. If you’ve read my previous blog about it, you already know that I found myself sitting next to one Michael Tabb, a professional screenwriter who’s been working with the studios for the past 15 years, who also teaches screenwriting. Clearly, I was quite impressed with a number of things Michael had to say. And here is one of them: Sitting in the audience was a beautiful woman dressed in a colorful dress and a turquoise headdress. Michael pointed her out for a simple reason: She stood out. Attracted attention with her colorful garb. If judgements, the right ones, the sort that incite curiosity, were being made when looking at her. All of us wanted to know: What did this woman have to say? What was her writing voice like? Her look was effortless, beautiful, unique. Michael himself went on to acknowledge that he always wore Hawaiian shirts to meetings. Not because he aspired to work at Trader Joe’s. He did it so he would always be memorable.

What you wear, how you walk into a meeting, the general manner with which you present yourself is the first knowledge of you the person on the other side of the desk has gotten. So you want to be deliberate in everything, leave nothing to chance. Even in non-script-related writing, be thoughtful and focused. One of my writers’ ongoing attempts at humor always read conceited and superior. When a writer queried me many years ago when I was working development starting with the line: I hope you’ll forgive me, I’m not very good with words I never requested his script, but his opening line obviously stuck with me. For all I know, he might’ve written a brilliant screenplay. But his evident insecurity and lack of awareness as to the impression he was making by putting his screaming insecurities on display deterred me from ever reading it.

In a fair industry, should all writers be given a fair shake based on their writing alone? Absolutely. But this is not a fair industry. This is an over-saturated one, in which executives, agents and managers are inundated with scripts and writers looking for attention, and as a result have no choice but to start cataloguing everything they know about you before you sit down, before they read the first line of your script. There are so many writers trying to break in; you have to present yourself in a compelling way that appears both professional and captivating enough to create interest while appearing serious and skilled. So often you hear contradicting insights: one manager will tell you that you have to come professional and prepared to every meeting, while another will say that he doesn’t care if you walk into a meeting completely drunk so long as you deliver (yes, that did happen on a panel once. I was there).

As for my money? I put it on leaving as little as you can to chance.

What agents, managers, and other executives are looking to deduce is this:

  • Are you an able content creator?
    • Do you come up with compelling, industry-friendly ideas consistently?
    • Can you aptly talk about your work?
  • Are you memorable, in a good way?
    • You don’t want to be remembered for appearing unprofessional, brash or disrespectful
  • Would they be comfortable putting you in a room?
    • Whether it’s with higher ups in their company or in front of development or production executives, the person you’re talking to wants to know that, in the most basic ways, you know how to present yourself.

So how do you make sure you come off in the most positive way?

  • Leave the flip flops at home. Make conscious fashion choices. You want to be remembered for a memorable, cool shirt you wore, for the color of your hair, or for a beautiful turquoise headdress, not for the offensive graphic on your t-shirt.
  • What do you want the person on the other side of the desk to remember? Never come in talking about your entire life story. Identify the 3 most interesting and potentially writing-relevant biographical details about you, and come ready to talk about them.
  • Do your research. Even if you are not a control freak who needs to scope out the meeting location beforehand in order to be comfortable with it, do your research and know who you are talking to or listening to. The better informed you are, the more comfortable you will be.
  • Come ready to talk about your work. Leave such phrases as “it’s sort of like,” “I haven’t really practiced my pitch” or “Well… ” out of the conversation. Instead, practice a short, conversational pitch, be it with your friends or utilizing such books as Stephanie Palmer’s Good In A Room or Michael Hauge’s Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds

The bottom line? You’re going to be judged. We all are. It’s how we function in every walk of life, in every profession. But the more conscious you are of your decisions, and the more prepared you are when that moment of judgement comes, the more control you will be able to assert on the verdict.