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How Not to Network as a Screenwriter

November 20, 2020
6 min read time

Writers, so begins my tale of woe:

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Maybe you saw it: A screenshot of a cold email sent to a professional writer by an anonymous (though now infamous) "baby writer."  I can feel you bristle!  There's no shade with the term baby writer  every writer, at some point, is a baby writer. And here's why baby writers are called baby writers: they sometimes make mistakes (both in screenwriting and frankly, professionally) that distinguish them from professional writers. 

The thing about being a writer  at any stage is that we have all gone through the "how do I get my work seen" struggle. And yeah, it is a true struggle; but reader, this is not the way. Final Draft spoke to Screenwriter Clint Ford, who was the original poster of the screenshot and asked him a few questions:

 

FD: "Do you have a standard response when someone sends you an email like the one you received, or do you generally ignore?"

CF: "Honestly, that really depends on how courteous they are. In this business, gratitude goes a long way. Generally, for things to get done, people have to help people. But they do it because they *want* to, not because it is expected or demanded of them. If they're very courteous, I'll generally reply with the same courtesy (if I'm not swamped). But if they respond like this guy, they can go jump in a lake. Instant block."

When it comes to building a network that can help get your script in the hands of decision-makers without accosting anyone (or becoming internet famous), there are a few things to remember.

Don't assume. As an up-and-coming writer, don't assume people have the ability to help you. Chances are even if they wanted to, they don't. Every working writer out there is constantly trying to find work; cold emailing a working writer on the assumption that they're going to open their contacts to you is ill-advised and comes across as inexperienced. 

FD: Is there ever an acceptable time to cold-pitch / cold-email someone?

CF: I think it's been said almost too much, but if one really does their research and SHOWS it in an initial cold email or call, there's a chance to make a good impression. And honestly, I don't call anymore. I do prefer email because it allows the recipient to respond at their convenience and comfort. Calling them basically forces them to stop what they're doing and think about what you want to talk about. I know some may disagree with me there, but that's my philosophy.

As an up-and-coming writer do your homework. Find working writers who write in a style or genre that you admire. Read their stuff. Learn from them. Then write your own work. The network that they've built is from persistence, talent and effort. You need all three to work professionally in the industry, and the traits are not developed overnight. Lean into the learning curve of being a writer because believe me; no matter what age you start your first script and no matter how much your friends applaud your debut masterpiece, you will grow and learn and become a better writer the minute you write "fade out" on that first draft.

Research OWAs (open writing assignments) and production companies that accept unsolicited work (yes, they're out there). There are a number of legalities that surround sending unsolicited work to anyone in the film industry (from producers, writers, directors, talent). It may be a harmless cold email with your great screenplay attached, but executives and those involved in the filmmaking process are truly just unable to read your stuff.

Again, it's not because they don't want to, it's because reading your unsolicited work opens them up to a host of lawsuits if they ever in the lifespan of their career happen to be working with or for a production company that has even a modicum of a similar idea to yours. And here's the thing: someone else has a similar idea to yours. Maybe they haven't written it yet. But believe me, they do. So for film industry professionals it's just not worth the risk to accept and read a cold-emailed screenplay.

FD: As a working writer, do you have any advice to baby writers when it comes to building a network while they work on their portfolio? How did you get your first gig?
 
CF: Again: courtesy, courtesy, COURTESY. Be a good person. The Golden Rule very much applies here: reach out the way YOU would like someone to reach out to YOU. And especially in this year of quarantine, online networking has replaced "schmoozing," so first impressions online are terribly important. Every connection, every working relationship made online has been born either from me being courteous to the person I've reached out to or them being courteous to me. I'm certainly not a decision-maker, but I do have an agent and have written professionally for years. I'm currently in the market for a great Lit Manager -- but I would NEVER send *anyone* a message like this fellow fired off to me to try to get one!
 
Instead, network with fellow screenwriters in your city. In New York, I co-founded the New York Screenwriters Co-Op. We have about 1,000 members and it was built to be both a home for developing screenplays with fellow screenwriters and a networking event. Before Covid, we hosted bi-monthly meetings, workshopping a member's script with a group of 30 fellow screenwriters (both amateur and professional, award-winning and baby writers).
 
With Covid, our methods have changed a bit (we've taken meetings online) but the networking exists for a reason: befriend other screenwriters. You never know who is in the room. At the co-op we have working writers, producers, amateur writers, award-winning writers; and they've all gathered to read and comment and share their insights on what otherwise would be an unsolicited script.
 
Building a network of screenwriters who can lean on each other for opinions and edits and camaraderie and industry tips and vent sessions is incredibly important. You don't have to be in New York to find this  every city has a group of writers willing to connect. Facebook groups, Meetup, Twitter's hashtag #amwriting, are just a few ways to connect with fellow writers who want to help, discuss and share. Plus, you never know who is going to find that golden ticket and get their script produced. Whether it's your script or not, being around working writers who you know will act as inspiration for your own motivations. 
 
Another caveat to sending demanding "read me" letters or unsolicited work? Successful screenwriters collect and build relationships with industry executives. That producer you met at the grocery store, that co-writer who now is a development exec at [insert studio]? These contacts don't exist just to help the working writer; they are collected for when that working writer's friend's script matches what they're looking to develop.
 
The contacts are there when the writer needs a connection or a lead on a possible gig they've stumbled upon. This address book is certainly not exclusive but it is protected. Imagine how many baby writers would take the opportunity to send their masterpiece, "if only they had the email." If a working writer shares contacts with any ol' person online, they jeopardize the integrity of the relationship they've built. 
 
FD: What are the positive sides of social accessibility and the ease of finding email / social media contact… are there any?

CF: To your point, there are many negatives, not the least of which is decision-makers (producers, directors, reps, etc) being inundated by countless people who "have the dream but have not done the work." I've gotten emails from folks saying, "I have a great concept for a film: a man goes on an adventure. I will sell you this idea for only $25,000 USD. Please send funds to (blah blah blah). Do not steal my idea or you will hear from my attorney."
 
These types of messages -- along with people constantly reaching out who have plenty of passion but honestly have not yet acquired the necessary writing skills -- have virtually scared the decision-makers into hiding. It's incredibly difficult now to get work in front of anyone you'd like to work with. The positives, I'd say, are for the many talents not living in LA, NY, Atlanta, Toronto, etc. If they're READY to present something, the online world opens a door -- albeit a small one -- to maybe allow them to slip in and let their talents shine.   

 

Being a successful screenwriter takes both timing and talent. It's  an art that requires growth and development on both an emotional and professional level, an art that levels up the savvy, business-minded networkers, often faster than the keyboard warriors. It's a skill that is also a craft. Success is often brought by  being in the right place at the right time, and having a strong portfolio to back up your impeccable timing.

Unfortunately, a successful, working screenwriter can't just "write"; they must become their own marketing machine, as well. Is it fair? Since most screenwriters are introverts, we live in our heads. But filmmaking is collaborative so it is imperative that we as screenwriters seek to collaborate at all stages of screenwriting. It's that collaboration that also builds your own personal network, and forces you out of your shell. 

So, the next time you want to reach out to a working writer on LinkedIn, hold a beat. Think about the trail of hard work that has positioned this screenwriter, and work backwards. Where did their career start? A great script. That's how everything starts.

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