[This is one of Tawnya Bhattacharya’s regular columns at Script Magazine, titled “Your TV Guide”. You can read them all here]
You’ve been to a networking mixer or writing panel and made a connection with an exec, agent, manager, or working writer who you admire and want to work with someday. Now what?
We’ve talked before about how to best set yourself up for success at industry mixers, and in this blog, we’ll focus on how to capitalize on those first impressions and build lasting relationships. Some of our alumni and industry friends will weigh in with their thoughts, and we’ll share some candid do’s and don’ts from our own experiences too.
There are a few standard ways writers keep in touch with the folks in their contact lists. First, there’s the annual letter. An annual letter, usually sent out via email around the holidays, is a great way to let your contacts know what you’ve been up to over the past year or so without feeling like you’re pitching your accomplishments in a pointed way to any one or two people in particular.
Second, you can email people when you see good news about them in the trades: “Congrats on selling a show,” “Congrats on your overall deal,” that kind of thing. But be aware that most people get flooded with those kinds of emails every time their name is in the trades, so it is harder to make those types of correspondences stand out.
First of all, any meaningful professional relationship starts and hinges on an organic personal connection. We’ve said this once, twice, a thousand times, and still know we’ll have to say it a thousand more—but it’s the truth. If your interaction with someone is awkward and you keep pushing a coffee or drinks on them, it will feel disingenuous and like you’re trying to get something from them. Once you’re repped, your agents and managers will help you massage these professional relationships—that is to say, they will usually follow up with whoever you hit it off with so you don’t have to—but before you get that representation, you’ll be responsible for building your own fan base, so to speak.
The first important thing to remember is that any genuine connection is a meaningful one. It doesn’t matter what “level” the person is at. One thing that drives the Script Anatomy staff crazy is when writers at mixers and social events are obviously scanning the room for the most “valuable” contact in it. It’s insulting to whomever you’re speaking to at that moment and not a great way to connect with people.
Be present in conversations you’re having with people in general. Not just because looking at someone when they’re talking to you is basic common courtesy, but because this is also how you will harvest seeds of future professional relationships. And not to give away our Hogwarts house, but consider the Slytherin point of view here: the mistake that folks who scan the party looking for the guests with the most credits make is that they miss meeting the up-and-comers.
In today’s development landscape, where social media influencers sometimes get juicier overall deals than EP-level writers, you literally never know who is going to become the Next Big Thing. Before Insecure, Issa Rae was another bright and talented actor/writer hustling and promoting a web series. Before UnReal, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro was another writer/director with a short film. Of course these women were always extraordinary talents, but if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably got the impression already that talent alone doesn’t always matter too much. It’s when talent combines with opportunity and connections in that magic way that you start to see results.
So if you’re feeling “stuck” at a mixer talking to a bunch of other baby writers, or exec assistants, change your perspective. You never know if tomorrow will be the day one of you breaks in. Your peers now are your professional network later, so if you’re really hitting it off with someone at a panel or drinks who’s at the same level as you are, make getting coffee with them a priority. Don’t act like you’re the busiest baby writer in town and push several times. At the very least, you’ll make a new friend, and in this industry, we need all the infantry buddies we can get.
“As staff writers we’re always told to be someone people want to be in a room with. Yes. And with that in mind, build substantive relationships with people YOU can be YOURSELF with — you can’t fake that all day every day. It’s not sustainable.” – MW Wilson, MANIFEST (coming to NBC this fall)
Also, when we say nurture genuine connections, we mean that with absolutely no judgement. Be yourself and own your interests; when it comes to making lasting impressions on people, this will help you immeasurably. At least half of our staff has a story about a meaningful professional relationship that began with a shared mutual guilty pleasure, like a favorite reality show or favorite Korean spa. Don’t always feel like you have to look for professional interests in common.
The gift and the curse of working in entertainment is it exists largely outside a corporate protocol; most writers rooms get staffed up by upper level writers and execs hiring their friends. Most good writer’s assistant, show runner’s assistant, and Writer’s PA jobs don’t even make it to the UTA job list because lower-level writers, execs or even coordinators at the show’s network or studio, or departing support staff rush to suggest their friends. And when these people are suggesting names for these gigs, they’re not exclusively thinking of the most talented, organized, or accredited person they know. Sure, that factors into it—but they’re also thinking “who would these writers want to hang out with for 9 hours a day?” And that’s where genuine connections come in. Because during lunch breaks, writers rooms don’t want to talk about their credits. Or give advice on pilots. They want to shoot the shit. Keep up with the Kardashians, discuss who’s going to what concerts this season, trade true-crime podcast recommendations, etc. And if you can’t even do that at a mixer with people who have nothing to “offer” you, how will people know you can do that in a writers room?
“It’s like dating. You don’t want to seem too eager, but you’re definitely interested in maintaining that connection and seeing where things go. [After a first meeting], definitely send a ‘great to meet you’ email the next day, and then allow some time to pass before contacting the person again.” ~ Gil Hizon, CBS Writers Mentoring Program Alumni, Script Anatomy Instructor, Marketing Tools for the Emerging TV Writer Workshop
So, after you’ve made these connections, the next step is to follow up accordingly. This may seem extremely simple, but really, if you make sure you’re present in conversations with people and listening to them, that alone should set you up for success. Say you are talking to a panelist after a panel about reality television and RuPaul’s Drag Race comes up. You both love the show and spend a few minutes talking about your favorite winners and should-have-won-ers. After the next season premieres, or you see something Drag Race-related in the news, like RuPaul recently receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just send an interesting link to the person on Facebook, (or via email, if you have their contact info) with a simple “thought of you and our shared fandom! Hope you’re well.” End it there. You are reminding the person that you bonded over something not entirely industry-related, and also showing them you’re not a robot—you have a life outside of TV—scripted TV, anyway—and aren’t one of those folks who’s constantly trying to pitch yourself. If the person responds, and you have a back-and-forth, maybe even invite them to join you at a bar in WeHo to watch together one night, or recap on Friday mornings.
Striking up a continued dialogue this way asks, “What can we bond over?” rather than “How can you help me?” It’s a subtle difference, but an important one when it comes to making lasting connections.
“A few years back, before I staffed, a PA on [another show] reached out to me for drinks. After we hung out he would send me cool Spotify songs, because when we initially got coffee, we talked about music a lot. And I thought, oh, that’s cool… and we’re pretty good friends now. Because we’d bonded over something BESIDES industry shop talk. Now if he asks me for career advice, I’m happy to help.” ~ Rayna McClendon, DAMNATION, DEADLY CLASS (coming to Syfy in 2019)
Something incredibly important to remember, though, is respecting boundaries. Oftentimes, if you are fortunate enough to be in a mixer or panel with execs, reps, or working writers, there’s no way they’re giving out their contact information. And many are so bombarded with Facebook “Friend” requests that they might automatically decline requests from anyone they don’t know personally. Some people are different. But whatever the case, it’s important to respect people’s boundaries.
We know it’s hard to hear at this point in your career, but be patient. If you have the resources and knowledge to put yourself in front of these kinds of people in the first place, you’ll have other opportunities to see them again.
We know a couple of writers who spoke on a panel last year and got a holiday card from one of the writers who attended the panel. The writer looked up the panelists’ home addresses and sent cards, with a handwritten note joking around about how they’d looked up their home addresses and hoped the panelists weren’t creeped out (spoiler alert: they were). Do. Not. Do. This. Sending a thank-you card shortly after a panel to an exec’s work address, agency, or management company is one thing—but home addresses are out of bounds. We know that anyone with a credit card can find every single detail about your life on one of those whitepages.com-type websites, but still, everyone likes some illusion of privacy.
We hate to sound discouraging, but at the end of the day, eight times out of ten, the personal connections you’ve had for years will be the ones that wind up getting you your first industry job. They’ll be friends from college, grad school, or a Script Anatomy class, other assistants who came up the assistant route with you, or writers from a gig you worked on previously that you really hit it off with. So don’t try to force connections with people who you want to like you. That never works. Nurturing the friendships you already have and staying connected to those folks will do you many more favors in the long run. This is not to say don’t try to make new friends, of course! Just be conscious of boundaries and social cues.
In terms of taking new professional relationships past that first initial conversation and maybe a “getting to know you” coffee—think outside the box in terms of other ways to hang out. Don’t always get dinner, drinks, or coffee. If you’re still getting to know someone better, that can put a lot of pressure on one or both of you to fill a lot of time with conversation, and you don’t want to get into a relationship where they’re constantly putting two rounds of drinks on their expense account while you pitch whatever you’re writing. Invite them to movies with friends, street fairs, outdoor movies, plays, conventions, or art exhibits. Give yourselves something besides what you’re both working on to talk about. You’ll learn a lot about each other’s tastes that way, and take the pressure off your interactions to feel like “networking.”
Building relationships doesn’t have to be about reminding people what a great writer you are all the time. It should be about having fun and sharing interests—and the fact that you’re sharing them with a potential future collaborator is just icing on the cake.