How Not to Network as a Screenwriter
November 20, 2020
Writers, so begins my tale of woe:
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.
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."
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.
Written by: Vanessa KingVanessa King is an NYC-based producer, screenwriter, and professor who has worked in development with top-level industry talent for nearly two decades. Her work as a writer has received numerous awards, having earned her recognition from industry bodies including AMPAS/Oscar’s Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship (feature) and Sony Worldwide Entertainment’s Emerging Filmmaker Program (TV Series). In 2005, she co-founded the New York Screenwriters Co-Op, New York’s only free-to-the-public screenwriting workshop with over 2000 active members. Vanessa is faculty at Gotham Writer’s Workshop (NYC) and Staffordshire University (UK), where she teaches both television and screenwriting to students, beginner to post-graduate. She recently was Showrunner of the TV pilot “Two Roads”, a concept she co-created and co-wrote for Sony’s VUE Network. Vanessa is passionate about diversity and inclusion within the industry and was a consultant on Final Draft Screenwriting Software’s Diversity and Inclusion product build. She’s a board member of the Diversity List, amplifying top scripts written by female-identifying and BIPOC writers. She is a judge for the Hip Hop Film Festival, The UCLA Graduate Screenwriter’s Showcase and The 24 Hour Film Festival. She was named one of The Huffington Post’s 13 Women To Watch and for three consecutive years, has been named to Vanity Fair’s “Downtown 100”, a list that recognizing New York’s top networkers in the entertainment industry. Originally from Canada, she lives in New York City.