The Screenwriter’s Guide to General Meetings

Following last week’s THIS WEEK IN COACHING: MEETING PREP! installment, I thought it wise to take a bit of a deep dive into what general meetings are, and how they work. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe I hadn’t broken them down yet! Better late than never.

So… here goes!

General Meetings – or “generals” as they are more widely known in the industry – are effectively meet-and-greets between a producer, development executive network or studio executive, and the writer whose work the individual behind the desk has read and responded to enough to want to meet with its creator. The voice, if you will, behind the words.

These meetings, when set up as generals, are not about getting a particular project set up. They are an initial introduction between exec and content creator, to help ascertain, or at least begin exploring, whether they would want to work on something, or be in business with each other, in the future. In today’s market, where feature specs are so hard to sell, and pilots don’t get set up without a focused and comprehensive pitch, general meetings have become a valid measurement for a spec script or a TV pilot’s success, and a path to introducing the writer to those executives working in the market place, in his or her general space.

Generals set up in the feature space may lead to writing assignments, votes for a prestige list, or, at the very least, a read for the writer’s next screenplay. Generals set up in the TV space aim to introduce executives to TV writers they might potentially want to keep in mind for staffing, for a pilot they want to develop internally, or to get on the short list of executives approached once the writer finishes her next TV pilot or prepares a market-ready TV pitch.

Let’s be clear: While they can be exhausting, most writers, at the outset of their screenwriting career, are eager to get out for general meetings. It is, after all, all about meeting people and building relationships.

When I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, super manager Jewerl Ross told me:

“The building of careers is really about —it’s a cliché, but it’s true—the building of relationships. If I’m going to send a script out to everyone in the business, I want my client to take a lot of meetings. I send out a script to 80 people, 40 people are going to want to meet, so it’s setting 40 meetings and getting the client into 40 rooms. The hard part comes with the client. How do you build relationships with someone you sat down with for 45 minutes? Why do you have reasons to keep in touch with them? How do you create creative common ground in that room, whereby they are inspired by your worldview or your thinking or your writing or your new ideas?”

Generals are near impossible to have set up without pre-existing industry relationships. Most are set up by the writer’s reps, on the merit of a screenplay or TV pilot that was shared. There are also those scenarios in which a writer was introduced to an executive through a connected family member or industry friend; those, too, are valid ways to begin making those all-important industry connections. After all, the start of general meetings is the point in which the writer actively begins building (often with the help of her reps) an industry fan base.

General meetings have a loosely formed flow to them. After an initial introduction, the executive is likely to ask the writer to share some personal stories, wanting to get to know her. Any number of questions may be asked: Where are you from? Did you always want to write? But perhaps the most commonly provided directive in this meeting is: Tell me about yourself.

Tell me about yourself is not a request to find out when you started writing, or what brought you to Los Angeles, whether you live here or are just in town to take meetings. It’s the writer’s first opportunity to put her storytelling skills on display, but telling a compelling, resonant and memorable story about herself, that somehow brings her to what she is writing now, and the career that she is pursuing today. Also known as the Personal Narrative, this is the writer’s first and perhaps most impactful opportunity to get the executive interested in the writer, rather than just the page.

In any general meeting setting, be ready to answer the following questions and directives, preferably with a few carefully honed anecdotes

  • Tell me about yourself!
  • Where are you from?
  • Where did you grown up (or: are you from Los Angeles)?
  • How did you get into writing?
  • How would you define your voice or your brand (i.e. what do you write)?
  • What are some of your favorite movies? TV shows? Writers? Showrunners?
  • What do you do outside of writing?

The writer is likely to be asked about the piece that the executive already read – which could include questions about what’s on the page, or about what brought the writer to this particular piece of work, and what might be a more personal connection to the story, the characters, or the themes explored in this piece.

Echo Lake Entertainment’s manager Zadoc Angell provided me with his unique perspective about this:

“Selling yourself, I think for most people, seems so ick. Right? I mean, that’s a total turnoff. That’s why I hire agents and managers, right? They’re doing the selling. And yes, we are… But we can only open doors and put you in rooms, and you have to get it across the finish line. I advise clients to be interested in their own lives, be able to talk at a moment’s notice about where you grew up, where you came from, what’s your family like, what’s your college like, what was your first job, what’s the worst job you ever had, how did you break into the business, why did you want to become a writer, what are you passionate about… it’s less about selling yourself than having something to talk about that interests you from your own life, that other people will find interesting, and then in talking about those things, you will connect. The people you’re talking to, that you’re trying to win over, that you’re trying so hard to sell yourself to will, in all likelihood, open up and share their own stories and their own life experiences, and then you’re bonding and you’re talking, and you’re becoming memorable to that person, and it doesn’t feel like you’re selling yourself.”

Paradigm feature agent Ryan Saul provided his insights for a successful general meeting:

“You have to give off an energy that is positive, confident, but not egotistical. Affable. If I’m an executive or a producer and I’m gonna be working with you for the better part of a year, I want to enjoy that experience. When you’re first staring out and you’re not Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet or Zack Penn, you’ve gotta play to your personality.”

For a meeting to be effective, the writer should do as much research as she can: From finding credits on IMDBPro to light internet sleuthing, everything is fair game. If she knows writers who’ve met with the exec before her, she should call them for tips, get any and all insights she can, and come ready to talk about people and things she might have in common with the exec in order to forge a connection quickly and go from there.

Evan Corday of The Cartel told me:

“When you’re going into meetings with Executive A at Warner Brothers television I’m gonna call you beforehand, I’m going to tell you what they’re covering, I’m going to tell you what you need to have seen so that you sound smart in the room and you know what that person is up to, but also, if they went to Syracuse and out of nowhere their team’s in the final four which never should have happened and maybe you could mention something in the room how you’re gonna watch the Syracuse game on TV tonight… Whatever the tie-in, that’s already going to put you higher up than the person that came in before you, in the executive’s eyes.”

However, not every manager will go this distance when it comes to getting their writer prepped. Today, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, podcasts, industry blogs, print interviews, and any other information the writer can find should be explored in order to walk in efficiently prepared. The point is to find common ground on which the writer and the executive can connect.

Once the in-depth get-to-know-you is out of the way, the executive may ask the writer what else she is working on, or what she’d like to write next. This is usually to suss out not only whether a specific next project is of interest, and for the exec to remind the rep that set up the meeting that they want to be at the very top of the list to read if it is, in fact, of interest, but also for the exec to explore whether the writer is looking to develop anything that might be of interest for his production company, studio or network.

If a connection is made and the executive is eager to explore the relationship further, he may bring to the writer’s attention particular ideas or materials that the company has been exploring internally. This may be a short story, a magazine article, a blog post, or even a novel that the company is seeking to adapt or develop, that the exec is hoping would be of interest based on both the conversation that just happened, and the material the exec read in advance of the meeting. This can be as simple as telling the writer something like: “Here is the sort of thing we are looking to develop; if you ever have any ideas in this area, would love to explore developing them with you.” or “if there are any books you are interested in adapting I’d love to see them,” to “Here’s the short story! We would love to hear your take!” Note that the latter is the rarer occurrence in general settings; most often the writer will leave the meeting without a specific directive, but maybe a few ideas of what the exec would be interested in seeing from her in the future.

(Note: there is a long road to travel from general meetings to landing a bona fide writing assignment, which I will cover in another blog post at another time.)

Jewerl Ross went on to say:

“Meetings are all about the love affair. How do you get someone to fall in love with you in 45 minutes? For the client, that’s where the magic is. If the client doesn’t have these skills or they’re too young or too new, they don’t know how to handle this room well, I can only teach them so much… When I have situations where the client doesn’t have that ability to build relationships and I send out the second sample and none of the people who read them previously want to meet them a second time, that’s telling. If a lot of the people who met them want to see them again, that’s telling. Best case scenario is someone like my client Sam, who I can set ten meetings for and 8 of those people are going to want to be his best friend because he’s so dynamic and interesting. He has so much to say. He can take any idea and regurgitate it back to you in a way that is exciting. So yes, my job is about finding people who are going to write well on the page. But can you also be a personality? Do you have enough inter-personal skills to build a relationship with someone? Are you also sexy enough or interesting enough or smart enough to get people to fall in love with you? Can you take an inherently un-intimate thing and make it intimate? That’s where magic happens.”

Manager Jennifer Au of Untitled Entertainment contributed:

“People like to hire people they like, that they want to work with. If you make a great impression and you end up having a rapport with an executive, they’re going to want to hire you down the line and remember you, and those things are important.”

Finally, manager John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions said:

“The reason you do a ton of generals connects back to this: they’re not going to offer you an assignment if they haven’t met you because if you’re going to work with someone on assignment it’s going to be 3-, 6-months, maybe even a longer process. They want to meet with you and see that this person seems reasonable, this person seems that they are open to collaboration, this person has an interesting point of view, this person and I, we connect, we vibe. Would you want to work with someone sight unseen? No. You’d want to meet with them. Especially if you are going to have to work with them for a number of months and it was important for your job security. So the first thing they’ll do is they’ll meet you and be like, OK, do I like this person? Do I connect to this person? Do we like the same things?”

Whether walking out of a general with tangible next steps or just having had a lively conversation, it’s important to follow up those meetings with a thank-you note or email. One of my writers, a working TV scribe, used to measure the success of her meetings by whether or not she and the exec had made plans to meet again for dinner or drinks. While everyone dreams of walking out of such a general with a clear path to a job, what these meetings are truly about is building the sort of industry relationships on the shoulders of which a long-lasting, substantive screenwriting or TV writing career can be built.