The 2011 Austin Film Festival has arrived, so we wanted to share some of the networking lessons we've learned over the years.
The most fundamental rule that all screenwriters need to learn is this: You're not there to sell your screenplay — you're there to sell yourself. Here are some strategies we've learned on how to do that.
1. Don't be too shy with the Hollywood folks. Just go up and talk to them. These people meet gazillions of people every year. They're not gonna remember you if you say something stupid or embarrass yourself. As long as you're not a total spaz, there's nothing you can do to hurt your chances with them.
2. Don't be a spaz. How do you know if you're a spaz? Well, if you never worry about whether or not you're being a spaz…guess what. If you do worry about it — just a little bit — and therefore try not to be a spaz, then you'll be fine. Just never let yourself worry about it so much that you violate strategy #1!
3. Be memorable. Since these people meet gazillions of people every year who they don't remember, you should try to be one of the ones that they do remember. In fact, it doesn't really matter if you make a good impression or a bad one; when they see you again next year, all they'll remember is that they remember you — and people tend to assume that, if they remember you, it was for good reasons. (This doesn't apply to spazzes, because they will always remind people that they're spazzes, time and again.)
4. Brand yourself! You've got to make it easy for people to understand what you're about, since you are the product you're selling. If you just tell people you write "dramas" (ugh), they're not exactly gonna file your name in the front of their Rolodex next time they're looking for one. But if you say you write "uplifting dramas about triumph over adversity" or "dark dramas about inner turmoil," they'll know if your work is the type that connects with them or not — and you'll demonstrate that you've put some thought into it and are worthy of being taken seriously.
And for the love of all that's good and pure, don't say you write "a little bit of everything." Would you buy a product if that was the only description you got about it's function??
5. Focus on building relationships, not pitching material. You want to come off as a genuine person, not a smarmy huckster. Let people know what you do, but respect them as human beings, not sales targets. This may be a multi-year process, but it's worth it.
6. If you talk about your material, pitch it without pitching it. If there's an opening to discuss your work, tell them about it in a conversation, not a commercial. DO NOT use rehearsed pitches (or at least not ones that sound rehearsed), and NEVER say, "Okay, here's my logline:..". Tell them about it as if you were telling someone about an awesome movie you saw recently that you think they should see. And just like when recommending a movie, don't tell them any more about it than they need to hear to make them interested!
7. When talking about your stories, focus on the emotional experience, not the plot. People see movies because of how they make them feel. When talking about movies, most people naturally convey that feeling in how they describe them. Go ahead, try it: describe the movie ALIEN to someone who's never seen it. Then describe STAR WARS. Both sci-fi, right? But we're guessing you conveyed the bizarre creepiness and sudden shocks of ALIEN and the thrilling wonder and epic scope of STAR WARS in the way you talked about them. And hopefully you didn't need to rattle off too many plot points to do so! That's the way you should talk about your screenplays.
The best rule of thumb when pitching is to answer this question as soon as possible: "Why should I CARE?" Don't try to build up to that in some grand revelation — lead with it.
8. Show an interest in the people you talk to. Ask about them, what they do, what kinds of movies they like. Ask why they're at the Festival — and be interested in their answer. If you care about them, they'll care about you. (Unless they're jerks, in which case you don't want to be involved with them, no matter how high up on the food chain they are. Move on to the people with souls.)
DON'T ask people the two worst questions to ask (which we hear people asking hundreds of times every year). Those questions are A) "So, do you have a film screening at the festival?" and B) "So, did your script place in the competition?" How do you think people are gonna feel if the answer to those questions is "no"? Congratulations, you've made someone feel like crap and made yourself look like an insensitive jackass. Just ask people what brings them to the Festival — there's no wrong answer to that!
9. Don't barnacle. Talk to people for a couple minutes, and then move on. If you see them later at another panel or party, you can talk to them again and see if they're actually interested in talking again, or if they think you're a spaz. Don't just hang out with your friends for hours on end — networking and meeting people is part of your job, and you are here to work. And also don't lamprey onto the poor Hollywood folks. It shows that you respect them enough not to monopolize their time, and respect yourself enough to know there's plenty of time to talk with them later if you build a relationship with them.
10. Be a good person! Be helpful to people you meet! Introduce people to each other! Talk them up to the executives! Give them helpful advice! SMILE! Make people feel comfortable, and people will want to work with you. Plus the universe will like you better too.
There you have it. Master these techniques, and you'll be on your way to breaking in!