For Screenwriters, a Little Humble Goes a Long Way
A manager friend called me the other day about a writer we both work with: “You’ve got to talk to him,” the manager said, “the agents are so tired of him being demanding and ungrateful, they are about ready to drop him.”
“Why don’t you talk to him yourself?” I countered. He is, after all, the manager.
“Because he’s been so ungrateful about everything, I’m about ready to drop him myself,” the manager said.
Indeed, for screenwriters on the way up, a little humility goes a long way. Some writers may bristle at the thought of having to show endless gratitude to agents and managers who collect their commissions on a regular basis, while they themselves might go weeks or months without a call, or be hired for jobs that they are less than satisfied with, but the reality is simple here, as my manager friend reminded me: “No one wants to work hard for someone they don’t like. For someone who doesn’t appreciate them. We don’t make enough money for that. Eventually I, or the agents, or all of us, may just decide to pack it up and walk away. He’s not making us that much money to make that behavior worth it.”
What the manager was saying is this: Yes, it’s my job to help the writer build his career. To give him notes, to get him out for meetings, to help get him staffed. But the one thing that the writer should remember is that, just like no one MADE HIM sign with me, I didn’t HAVE TO take this client on in the first place. This is a relationship that warrants mutual respect. So as long as we choose to stay in this working relationship, both party should appreciate what the other does: After all, I can’t write the way he can, and he is not connected the way that I am.
The last thing a writer should want is for his agent or manager to avoid his calls. Or, worse, for his agent or manager to talk about how ungrateful or unappreciative he is – lamenting that he wasn’t like this when they first met and wondering when it was that he stopped being humble – behind his back. And make no mistake: Those conversations do happen. And those labels are much more difficult to shed than they are to get in the first place. Agents and managers often share more than just one client, and have built the sort of trust and relationships – and by extension, candor – that will outlast any single representation relationship. In order for a writer to keep a productive relationship with his agent and/or manager, said reps have to like him enough to choose to want to help him and do what they have to to get him in a room, set up a general or land a writing assignment. They have to choose to make him a priority again and again, day after day. There are tons of writers they could be working with and for. And no one wants to work hard for someone who will come off as arrogant or ungrateful in front of an executive or a showrunner. Even if the writer is supremely talented, those are traits that, at least while the writer is still on the way up, generally turn people off.
Of course, it’s easy to say “be humble,” but what does it mean? In the simplest terms: always be grateful, and never take anything or anyone for granted. Whenever anyone goes out on a limb for you, appreciate it, even if they have something to gain from your success. Whatever time you’re getting from your reps, value it; if you don’t think your reps are doing enough to warrant any sort of appreciation, then a serious talk should be coming, if not a straight-out firing. Which is to say… If you can’t appreciate what your reps are doing for you, and you don’t think you have unrealistic expectations, then you and your rep might not be a fit. Humility also means holiday cards and gifts during the holiday season; it means grabbing coffee every six months to a year, and making a real effort to get to know one another. While it is true that the writer is the client and the rep is the individual servicing, it would serve the writer much better to construct a team where each member is eager to get to work.
However, being humble is not limited to how the writer operates with his agent or manager, relationships in which there is a clear exchange. It is something that has to carry everywhere, including the writer’s room, and especially when a writer is first staffed. As a staffy, the lowest level writer in the room, it’s the writer’s job to help out anyone with anything, to find ways to contribute, whatever they may be. Nothing should ever be too hard, too difficult, or too inconvenient for the staffy to pitch in. So shortly after a writer I know complained to her counterparts that her showrunner was expecting her to write over a weekend, her 20-week contract was allowed to expire and was not renewed, while all the other writers continued on for 20 more weeks in the room. It’s not how she said it, but rather the fact that she said it at all: complaining about having to work on the weekend is the opposite of grateful for the opportunity that so many others would (almost literally) kill for. Her showrunner knew that there are plenty of other talented, eager, appreciative writers he could replace her with; in fact, the writer’s assistant was promoted into her position just as soon as she was gone.
Humility is not just about how you treat other people and what you say or don’t say in the room; it’s also about how you present yourself to the professional space and the people working within it. Little turns me off as much as a writer telling me that his script is “Amazing!” “The best thing you’ve read all year – I promise!” or “going to win awards one day.” This is not to say that the writer shouldn’t be confident – the simple action of sending a script out implies that he thinks that the writing is good enough to make an impression – but there is a huge difference between confidence and bravado. Confidence is quiet and reassuring. Bravado is loud, and more often than not, lacking substance.
All of this is to say that people in this industry want to work with others who are smart, appreciative, grateful. With writers who, no matter how talented, appreciate the opportunities that they are given, and know that in order to rise to the top, they will have to make many friends and get many industry folks to rally behind them. This does not mean that a writer should be meek or fake or get a degree in kissing a**. Express genuine appreciation for and honest curiosity about the people that you work with and who are on your team. Show gratitude for the opportunities that you’re given, for others had been passed up for you to get them. And, just as important, be confident and have faith in your work, but don’t brag or oversell it. Trust that others will notice your talent and appreciate your craft if you’ve put time and effort into every page. By showing up, by working hard, by getting better script to script and draft to draft, and by putting good work on the page, you will be the sort of people that agents, managers, showrunners and executives can’t wait to work with.