The Hollywood Way

How Even Crazed First-Timers Can Look Like Cool Professionals

Being a Hollywood newbie can be frightening. In any industry, it’s hard enough for an inexperienced first-timer to impress a seasoned pro. But only in Hollywood are you likely to find yourself in a position to thoroughly embarrass yourself in front of men and women whose names are celebrated worldwide. In a town where intimidation is practiced in everything from the make of cars people drive to the size of their McMansions to the resorts where they choose to vacation, it’s easy to feel small, frustrated and overwhelmed. In fact, a lot of people are actually counting on that.

Fortunately, there are tried-and-true methods for first-time writers and directors to interact with industry pros in ways that will allow you to overcome your fears, avoid professional crash-and-burns and even develop long, productive relationships. The trick is to know what industry insiders require from you, to understand their basic motivations and then to adjust your own communications and expectations accordingly. Only when you know the rules of the game can you win the game.

The first mistake you can make is to think that industry professionals have any interest in your success. They don’t. Approaching an agent or producer or executive with the expectation that he/she will immediately spark to your obvious talent and take you under his/her wing is a recipe for soul-crushing disappointment. To improve your odds, initiate any communication with the attitude, “I have something that can make your job easier.”

Know Your Audience

Before instituting any communication, know who you’re taking to and what their interests are. At the very least, use to check on past credits. Use inside sources like Fade In’s Agency & Producers Guidesto know what genres agents/managers, producers and production companies specialize in or, if utilizing, review VIP profiles.  Read the trades and entertainment-focused websites to know which new projects your potential buyer is involved with, and how well they’ve been received by critics and the public at large.

Remember, flattery will get you everywhere. If given the opportunity, start off by mentioning a recent project and how much you liked it. (If you didn’t like it, simply congratulate them.) No matter what the level of achievement, everyone in this town lives to be recognized.

Be Professional

Hollywood may be a hotbed of wild creativity, but until you’ve earned the right to be an arrogant, irresponsible, undependable flake, treat this like you would any other profession. If writing an email, employ proper English grammar, and be concise. If making a phone call, keep your message short and on point. Be polite to receptionists and assistants. (Especially receptionists and assistants, as they hold the real power.) Say things like “please” and “thank you.”

And never, ever overhype what you’re selling. Never say things like, “This script is guaranteed to make a billion dollars!” or “This has a perfect part for Angelina Jolie!” Keep your descriptions on-point and let the project sell itself. If it’s really good, professionals will immediately recognize its potential.

Talk the Talk

Like all industries, entertainment has its own jargon you must master if you’re going to interact with the natives. Here are some common terms you should utilize in your communications:

  • Above the Line/Below the Line – “Above the Line” refers to expenses for key talent, particularly actors, producers, directors and writers. “Below the Line” prefers to expenses for everyone else involved in a movie or TV series’ production, particularly technical personnel.
  • Assignment – Usually refers to a script you are paid to write based on existing material or someone else’s idea. (See “Spec.”)
  • Attachment – A producer, director or actor who has committed himself/herself to a project to make it more saleable. Attachments are not always good things, especially if the people involved are not particularly marketable.
  • Coverage – A report on an unproduced screenplay, usually involving a quick plot synopsis and an overall quality evaluation.  Coverage is designed to help executives decide which scripts are actually worth their time to read.
  • Development – Within a studio environment, the process of rewriting a script or teleplay to the point everyone feels it’s ready to actually shoot. Many scripts never get beyond this process, landing in what’s affectionately known at Development Hell.
  • Four Quad – Refers to the four key demographic quadrants: Young (25 and below), Old (25 and above), male and female.  Big budget films attempt to aim at all four quadrants. (See “Tentpole.“)
  • Franchise – A “brand name” film that either has, or is expected to, spawn sequels. James Bond, Star WarsFast & FuriousThe Hunger Games and even 50 Shades of Grey are examples of franchises.
  • Gross – The amount of money a film makes during its theatrical release, usually classified as either “domestic” (U.S. and Canada) or “worldwide.” Synonymous with “Box Office.
  • High Concept – A film or TV series with a simple but powerful premise that can be described in a single sentence. (e.g. The Last Man on Earth.)
  • Prestige Film –  A motion picture – often produced by a studio’s “specialty” division – that is specifically designed to garner critical acclaim and industry awards. These are almost universally dramas, biographies and/or period pieces featuring “seasoned” actors produced on limited budgets because their backers know they’ll be lucky to make back their negative costs. By definition, prestige films can never feature super heroes or be comedies – unless they’re directed by foreign nationals and appear to be shot in a single take.
  • Rom-Com – Romantic comedy.
  • Spec – Short for “speculative,” it usually refers to a script written with the intent of eventually get paid for it. (See “Assignment.“)
  • Tentpole – A major “event” film around which a studio arranges the release dates of its “lesser” films. Also known as “Blockbusters,” a term originally used to describe a film that made a boatload of money, now used to describe a film that’s expected to earn a boatload of money.
  • Turnaround – What happens when a studio gives up on the idea of actually producing a script it has developed and makes it available for purchase to other buyers in hopes of recouping its investment.
  • Two-Hander – A film requiring two stars of equal stature. The Jump Street comedies starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are good examples of this product type.
  • Y.A. – “Young Adult,” usually based on books from the same genre. They usually feature young female protagonist in fantastical situations, e.g. TwilightThe Hunger GamesDivergent, etc.

Don’t be a Pest

Understand that anyone in a position to say yes or no your project is probably saddled with dozens of similar projects to evaluate. And most of these projects will be from writers and filmmakers who are a lot more important than you are.  It’s not at all uncommon for agents and producers to take weeks, if not months, to respond to scripts from anyone who isn’t the current “flavor of the week.” Once a project is out there, the best thing you can do it leave its fate to the Entertainment Gods and move on to something else. If after three months you still have not heard back, send a polite follow-up email asking if the VIP has had a chance to review your project. This will achieve one of two things: 1) Spur him/her into actually reading your script, or 2) Spur him/her to finally assigning the read to someone else who will be so enthusiastic that he/she will actually read your script.

Learn to Take Notes – and Criticism

Development people of all levels earn their paychecks by criticizing other people’s work. If you are lucky enough to get into a development situation, be prepared to receive lots and lots of suggestions about how your material can be improved. During meetings, take lots of notes and nod your head a lot. While you should never appear defense, it is okay to defend an idea if you have what you believe is a strong case. And always be ready to give territory on some small points to preserve more important ones. Above all, be genuinely open to creative input. Filmmaking is and always will be a collaborate effort, and a lot of development people got into their positions because they actually understand movie-making and have genuinely good ideas. Perhaps the great skill you can develop is the ability take other people’s ideas and then change them just enough to make them your own. Then everybody’s happy.

Never Talk Money

In any discussion of work, never bring up the subject of money. It’s not only tacky, but you’re almost certain to say the wrong thing. If the subject comes up, simply say, “I leave that stuff to my agent/entertainment lawyer” and leave it at that. And if you don’t yet have an agent or entertainment lawyer?

If there’s a deal to be made, don’t worry, you will!

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

As the old deodorant commercial advised, “Never let ’em see you sweat.” Hollywood pros can not only smell desperation a mile away, they avoid anything emitting even a hint of failure the way Jenny McCarthy avoids vaccines. Even in the face of frustration and defeat, you must remain outwardly calm, cool and confident. Hollywood is, after all, a town built on fakery. Look  like a winner and, with any luck at all, the artifice will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. – Allen B. Ury