How to Sell Your Screenplay Pt. 4: Getting Past the Gatekeepers
Today we’re going to be talking about how to get past the gatekeepers, so that you can pitch your script to the producers, agents, managers, directors, and stars that you need to reach in this industry.
First, a warning, these techniques actually work. So before you use them, please make sure you have a pitch that is actually at a professional level. And even more importantly, please make sure you have a script that is at a professional level.
You don’t want to do all this work of getting past the gatekeepers to pitch your screenplay, only to finally get into that meeting of a lifetime and realize you’re not wearing any pants.
And during my previous life as a producer, I’ve also seen so many writers show up with an incredible pitch, and then a screenplay that does not back it up.
If you make this mistake, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of every single person that you pitch. So if you have not yet gotten professional feedback on your pitch, and on your script, if you are not 100% convinced that your pitch and your script are at a professional level, hit pause on this podcast. It is not time for you to make a full time job of getting to the right people. Because all you’re going to do is end up burning your contacts.
First, it’s your job to make sure your content is incredible, so that when you pitch those right people, they actually respond.
Unless you are already famous, you are not going to sell a great idea, what you’re going to sell is a great screenplay.
So get professional feedback. And when I say professional, please, this is not development notes from a coverage reader. This is not a bunch of written development notes from a contest. This is not feedback the lovely writers in your writers group who have not yet sold a script. This is not your mom, your friend, your family. This is feedback you want from a professional writer, somebody who has done this more than you have, who knows what an industry-ready script actually looks like and what an industry-ready pitch actually sounds like.
And if you need help with that, that’s what we do here at the studio. So you’re welcome to call us. And we will hook you up with somebody amazing who can help you develop your project.
So, now, we’re going to make the assumption you’ve done all that work. You actually have a script that is ready to go when you show up for your big meeting. You’re not missing your pants, you’re wearing your finest suit.
So how do you get past the gatekeepers to actually get that meeting?
The best way to get past the gatekeepers and sell your script is actually to never deal with the gatekeepers.
Remember the gatekeeper’s job is to keep you out. So if you can go around the gatekeeper, you want to. And there are so many wonderful ways you can do this!
As we talked about in Episode 3 of this Sell Your Script series, you can target very specific producers, directors, agents, managers and stars, and start to talk to everyone you know about them.
Shake the tree of your own social network, and you might be surprised to find out that somebody that you know, happens to know the person you’re trying to get in touch with.
Even if it’s a distant contact, a warm call is always better than a cold one. So ideally, you’re going to get an introduction.
If that doesn’t work, you might find out where they’re speaking or a festival where one of their movies is screening, and see if you can bump into them in person. You might follow them on social media, and build a connection there.
However, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes you try everything you can, and there just is no one in your social network who knows the person you need to meet with or who’s willing to make that introduction.
Sometimes you try everything you can, but they don’t respond to you on social media, they’re not really active or somebody else’s running their account.
Sometimes you try everything you can and you realize the only way to go is through the front door.
To understand how to get past the gatekeepers between you and selling your screenplay, you have to first put yourself in their shoes and understand the purpose of their job.
If you’ve been to a department store, you know that even though all the items in the department store might be appealing in some way, the chances are, you’re not searching for all of the items in the department store.
You’ve probably gone to the department store for one very specific thing. So, if you are in search of a pair of pants, and somebody comes running up to you with a television, that television might be absolutely amazing, but really that person is wasting your time, because you just showed up looking for a pair of pants.
Similarly, even when you are in the pants section of the department store, you are not looking for every pair of pants in the section. There are going to be some pants that are out of your budget. There are going to be some pants that are just not your style. There are going to be some pants that are too “functional” for you, or some pants that are too stylish, right? There’s a specific kind of pants that you’re looking for, even if you don’t know exactly what it is, you have a specific taste that’s going to inform your decision.
The gatekeeper’s job is to know what kind of screenplay the producer, director, manager, agent, or star is looking for, so that they don’t get overwhelmed by every shiny, cool thing that someone wants to sell them.
If somebody can actually help you in the film and TV industry, you can be guaranteed they are busy.
If they’re not busy, if they have enough time to just chit chat, they’re probably not far enough along in their career where they can actually help you anyway!
The people who are movers and shakers in this industry, the people who can sell a script, even if they’re the beginning of their career, are working their butts off every single moment of every single day.
And their assistant’s job is to play the role of gatekeeper and make sure that they are only looking at the stuff that they actually want to buy. That they’re not wasting their time walking up and down every aisle of the store and having to have a polite interaction with every salesperson from every single department.
A lot of writers don’t understand this, and instead end up taking it very personally. You’re going to face a lot of rejection in this business. And many writers, when they get rejected, think, maybe my script isn’t good, maybe I don’t have what it takes. Maybe this isn’t just a commercial idea.
Instead, think of the film industry as a department store. Even at Bloomingdale’s, where everything is super expensive, and super awesome, when you walk into the pants section, there might be pants that cost $10,000. And some people might spend $10,000 on that one pair of pants, but you might look at the same pair of pants and think, I would never ever wear that.
And there might be another pair of wonderful, comfortable sweatpants that the person who needs to dress to impress every day would never dream of buying. But even though they’re only 10 bucks, you just frickin love them, right?
It’s important to understand that when a producer doesn’t like your script, when a gatekeeper says no, that’s not necessarily a reflection of your script or the commerciality of your script.
You can save yourself a lot of pain (and the gatekeepers, a lot of unnecessary work) by focusing your attention on the people who are already likely to buy your script. But even then, there is a challenge of getting through the gatekeepers, and here’s why:
Most people in the film industry, and I’m not just talking amateur writers and emerging writers, I’m also talking about professional writers with powerful agents who are setting up meetings for them… most of those people are not following the warning that I gave at the very beginning of this episode.
Most writers are just throwing crap up against the wall to see if it sticks.
In other words, most people are wasting not only their own time, but the time of every single person they meet with.
Most people are not only failing to target very specific people who are likely to like what they’re pitching, they’re also rarely pitching a script that that person can actually buy and make in its current form.
They are often pitching something that has a great hook, but a crappy execution, or a couple of great scenes, but not great structure.
It’s really rare that anyone sees a script that is really awesome. And it’s even rarer that they see a script that is really awesome for them.
This is why producers like agents.
Knowing that a writer is represented lets producer know that at least somebody thought their work was good enough. That there’s a chance it might be worth the time.
So when you’re an unrepresented writer, even if you have the perfect project, even if your script is the next Rocky, even if your pitch is amazing, you’re still going to have to do some work to get through a skeptical gatekeeper who’s simply doing their job.
The gatekeepers are not mean people. They’re nice people. (Or at least most of them are). They’re trying to protect their boss. And let’s face it, if you’re an unrepresented writer, they know there’s a 9 out of 10 chance that your script might be a great idea, but probably isn’t ready for industry eyes.
So what does this mean?
This means that if you really want to sell your screenplay, you need to build a relationship with the gatekeeper so that eventually that gatekeeper can help you.
If you do not have an introduction, if you have to go through the front door, your job is not to get past the gatekeeper. You will not win at that job.
Your job is to build a relationship with the gatekeeper so that they become invested in you.
You are playing the long game, not the short game.
If you just call someone randomly the first day and say, you’ve got to trust me, it’s an awesome script, man, you’re not going to get what you want.
That person has no relationship with you. And to be successful, that relationship is something that you have to build over time. You have to recognize that you don’t have credibility till you build it.
So how do you build credibility? How do you build relationships?
Many writers try to make their initial introduction through a query letter. But query letters usually don’t build relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with sending a query letter. But I’d like to suggest to you that most query letters probably don’t get read.
I know when I was a producer, I had very good intentions. I was actively looking for new writers all the time. But I was also overwhelmed.
I remember, back in those days, everything was in envelopes. You actually got mailed query letters, not emailed them. And I would get these query letters. And I would stick them in an inbox thinking, when I finally get an hour, I’m going to go through them, and see if any are good.
And what would invariably happen would be the pile would get so big that it would start to overflow. So I’d end up just dumping out the old query letters and starting again.
I can tell you, in the five years that I was a producer, I don’t know if I ever actually read a query letter. Again, I was looking, I just was not focused, right? I had so many agents calling me all the time saying you’ve got to read this person. I had so many demands from my boss, that query letters just had to take a back seat.
Now there may be people who are better about this than I was. So, if you find out that a producer’s open to query letters, sure, go ahead and send them!
But don’t think that the query letter is likely to do the hard work for you. It’s probably not.
If you really want to get past the gatekeepers and sell your script, use the phone.
I know the phone is scary. I know you don’t want to use the phone. I know that phone is like an artifact from a previous generation.
But the fact that no one uses the phone anymore is in your favor! Because everyone else is emailing, and you are calling!
It is so much easier to build a relationship over the phone than it is to build one over email.
If you send a person an email, and they miss it in their inbox, and you send another email saying, Did you miss it, and then another email saying, Hey, I still haven’t heard from you. And another email saying Yo, I haven’t heard from you yet, you’re just a pain in the butt. And it’s so easy simply to ignore those emails. It’s so easy to miss those emails.
I have 14,000 unread emails in my inbox. That’s not because I don’t want to read all those emails. It’s just because I get more emails every day than I can possibly respond to.
This is the same situation for every person you’re trying to reach in the industry, particularly the gatekeeper who’s already inundated with emails from people that they already know.
If you can avoid email, avoid email. Use the darn phone.
How do you do it?
Remember the assistant’s time is valuable. And remember that most people are jerks to them.
Most people foolishly show no interest in developing a relationship with an assistant. They may see the assistant somebody “below” them, or as the obstacle who’s getting in the way of speaking to the awesome person they’re trying to reach.
But that’s not how I see assistants.
I see assistants as the people who control everything in their boss’s life.
The assistant determines what their boss reads and what their boss doesn’t even know about.
So talking to an assistant gives you direct access to someone who probably knows more about what’s actually going on in the producer, director, agent, manager or star’s life, then even they do.
Also, that assistant is not going to be an assistant forever.
If that assistant is good, eventually that assistant is going to be an agent, a manager, a development executive, a producer.
If you’re an emerging writer, it’s important to understand that assistants are your people. They’re your generation of filmmakers, coming up in the industry at the same time as you.
If you build a long-term connection with an assistant, you might not sell your script today. But a couple of years from now, they might be the person who remembers you, who thinks about you, who helps you build your career as you helped them build theirs.
Remember that the people you are reaching out to are just people, normal people, just like you, and while the call might feel like the biggest thing in your life, for them it’s just part of a normal day of business.
I know it feels like the stakes are life and death. I know that you might be panting and stalking around your office and trying to get yourself centered because it’s so scary, because it feels like the most important thing that’s ever happened. You’re probably telling yourself this is my chance. If mess it up, there goes my career!
I know you may feel that way, because I felt that way at the beginning of my career.
But what you realize over time is these are all people, and some of them are jerks, but the jerks are never going to help you anyway. Most of them are nice people, just like you. They’re nice people with an important job to do. And for them, your phone call Isn’t this monumental thing that they will remember forever.
Your phone call is literally what they do all day, every day. It’s just normal business. People calling up, pitching them things, saying yes, saying no, saying I’ll think about it… this is totally normal for them.
So part of succeeding is taking all the high energy out of this and treating the relationship like it’s just as normal for you as it is for them.
Pretend you’re just talking to a friend, somebody who you interact with every day.
If you treat that person like a human being, you are going to be doing yourself such a favor. And if you’re a jerk to that person, well, you better be pretty powerful. Because that person is going to end up getting in the way of your project in ways that you never imagined.
Your job is to be nice to everyone, build great relationships with everyone, treat other people exactly the way you wish you were treated.
Don’t manipulate. Don’t lie. Be an authentic person, and recognize that you’re not going to sell your script on your first phone call. You’re going to build relationships over time.
When you’re ready to make your first phone call, remember you’re calling somebody brand new. So don’t call on a Monday.
On a Monday, the assistant is totally overwhelmed. They have more going on than they can ever deal with, which means you can’t talk to them without stressing them out.
I recommend calling on a Tuesday. Tuesday’s are fantastic days to call because they are quieter days than Mondays, but they’re close to the weekend, so you can ask the person what they did that weekend and build a connection with them that way.
How do you make that call?
Let’s say you’re trying to get through to a producer named Mary Smith.
Your call might sound a little bit like this.
Hey, this is Jacob Krueger calling to leave word for Mary.
Yup, that simple.
Now, leave word just means I know she’s probably busy and isn’t going to take my call right now. I’m going to leave my number, and she can call me back at her convenience.
Notice I didn’t say Miss Smith. Because if I say Miss Smith, I’m basically sending a signal to this assistant. I don’t know Miss Smith. I am not very important. You should not take me very seriously. And you certainly should not put me through to Miss Smith because I don’t even know her.
Whereas, if I just assume a certain level of informality, I’m calling to leave word for Mary, the assistant doesn’t know what my relationship is to Mary.
I might be somebody very important in Mary’s world. I might be a relationship that Mary was cultivating at her dinner or drinks last night. I might have a project that Mary is super excited about. So, now, the the assistant doesn’t want to offend me, and the assistant is much more likely to take me seriously.
Before they can even ask me any more questions, I’m going to say something like this:
By the way, I haven’t spoken to you before. What’s your name?
Let’s say the assistant’s name is Greg. Okay, great! I’m going to write down Greg’s name. And I’m going to continue to write down every single thing that Greg tells me about himself, because I want to build a relationship with Greg.
The whole point of the first phone call is just to get the assistant’s name, so you can build a relationship with them in the future.
I’ve got the name, so I have now had a successful meeting, even if nothing else comes out of this. I’m done. So I’m going to try to get off the phone.
Greg, lovely to meet you. I look forward to working with you. Here’s my number. I look forward to hearing from Mary when she gets time.
That’s it. That’s the whole phone call. But I was successful. I’ve got the assistant’s name now.
Behind the scenes. Here’s what’s happening: that assistant is either going to slack Mary, or next time Mary comes out from her office, he’s going to tell her, Jacob Krueger called.
And Mary’s going to think, Krueger, Krueger… who the heck is Jacob Krueger?
She’s trying to remember: is this somebody I met with? Because she’s talking with hundreds of people every week.
Since she can’t remember, she’s going to ask Greg, Who’s Jacob Krueger? At which point Greg is going to admit, I actually don’t know.
At which point, Mary will tell Greg, find out.
So I’m not just a cold call anymore. I’m a person whose name Mary has heard, and whom Greg now has an assignment to find out more about.
Note: in this example, Greg is not a great assistant. He’s an average assistant, the kind you’re most likely to encounter.
If Greg was great at his job, he would have asked you before ever taking your name for Mary, What’s it about? What’s this regarding?
And if you’re good at your job, you’re not going to wax poetic like an anxious new screenwriter who has to beg and plead your way past Greg. You’re just going to give him the title.
Let’s pretend my script was called “Chain Link.”
I’m just matter-of-factly going to tell Greg, it’s about “Chain Link.”
At this point. It really sounds like I know Mary and she knows me. I’m talking about a title as if she knows it. I’m using her first name. And there’s a good chance unless the assistant is exceptionally good at their job that they’re not going to ask you any more follow up questions because they probably don’t want to offend you. It seems like you’re so comfortable, and like this may be a project Mary should be aware of.
And either way we’re back to what we wanted. Mary is telling Greg, find out.
Who is Jacob Krueger. What is Chain Link.
Now, don’t get too excited. Mary’s not gonna call you back.
But you see what just happened behind the scenes: the assistant went from just taking your name to having a job of finding out who you are. There’s now a level of interest. And Mary’s heard your name and the name of your project.
So I’m going to wait a week.
Trust me. I’m not going to hear from Mary. And unless he’s incredibly industrious, I’m probably not going to hear from Greg. And that’s okay.
I’m playing the long game.
I like to call it the same time every week because eventually it can become a kind of joke between me and Greg.
So Tuesday comes around, I give Greg a call, and act like he’s my best friend. Yo, Greg. It’s Jake Krueger, how was your weekend?
Notice I don’t launch directly into business with him. I use his first name. And I ask him about his weekend.
This is why I love Tuesdays. I’m still close enough to the weekend that this isn’t weird.
How was your weekend?
It was awesome. I went skiing.
Oh, cool. Where do you ski?
We’re gonna have a nice little conversation. Keep it to 30 seconds to a minute, right? You don’t want to waste Greg’s time or stress him out because he feels like he can’t get off the phone. You want this to be a pleasant experience for Greg. And you want to build that relationship.
Meanwhile, you’re writing down everything. Where does he ski? Does he ski or snowboard? You want to know all the details.
Jot down a few details and get off the phone:
I’m sure you’re really busy. I’m just calling to leave word for Mary, again. Looking forward to speaking to her.
At this point, if Greg is the average assistant, he’s probably going to just write down your name again.
On the other hand, if he is good, he’s going to remember Mary wanted to know more about you.
Tell me more about that project.
You see what just happened? You’re not asking him if you can pitch. He’s asking you to tell him about the project. Psychologically, this is now a completely different relationship.
At this point, you’re going to do the quickest version of a pitch for Greg: It’s a screenplay that I’d like to discuss with Mary.
The reason I’m being a little vague with Greg (unless he really pushes me) is that it’s early in our relationship and I don’t want Greg to say the words that all writers tremble over, “we don’t accept unsolicited submissions.”
Once an assistant says that to you, that contact is potentially pretty much dead for you unless you get lucky or have an incredible relationship.
You have to know this is going to happen from time to time. It’s going to happen often. And I’ll teach you some techniques later in the podcast for what to do when that does happen. But you need to be aware this is going to happen. You’re not going to get past every gatekeeper.
But you want to push that off as long as you can. That’s why I’m being a little bit vague, right? I’m giving him the indication that I’m happy to talk to him about it, but I really want to talk to Mary.
Most assistants are not pushy enough to keep digging when it seems like the person on the other end of the phone is making it clear that they expect the boss is going to want to talk to them.
But If Greg is really good, he’s going to drill down a little bit more.
He might ask:
Could you tell me a little bit more about it?
In which case you’re going to pitch the hell out of it in a short, sweet, well-practiced little gem of a pitch.
Or if he’s really experienced he might ask:
In which case you’re going to answer honestly, but confidently. If you have attachments, you’ll tell him, but in the likely case that you don’t:
Mary is the first person I’m bringing it to so there are no attachments yet, but it’s got great roles for X, Y and Z actor (that you know Mary has worked with), and it’s about similar themes to X, Y and Z movie (that you know Mary produced and was successful with), so I’m confident she’s going to like it.
Do you see what I just did there? I showed Greg that there’s a reason I’m targeting Mary, that there’s an easy step that Mary can take to move this project forward (by bringing it to an actor she already has a relationship with).
I’m showing him that I know who I’m calling and why I’m calling. And now Greg is likely taking me seriously.
Nevertheless, I promise you, next Tuesday, you will still not have heard from Mary.
At this point, Mary has probably figured out she doesn’t know you. But she’s now heard your name twice. And she’s heard the name of the project at least once, maybe twice. You’re in her consciousness. You’re not as much of a cold call anymore.
And meanwhile, you’re beginning a conversation with Greg. So when you call Greg the next Tuesday at exactly the same time, you’re going to deepen the relationship:
I know Greg like’s skiing so…
Greg, my friend! Did you see the Olympics this weekend? The slalom was unbelievable! Did you watch it?
You’re gonna build a real relationship with Greg. You’re going to talk about the things that Greg is interested in. You’re becoming his friend.
It gets annoying when producers don’t call you back… and don’t call you back… and don’t call you back. Which is why it’s so important to remember that your job is to build a relationship with Greg not to build a relationship with Mary.
Mary’s hard to reach. Greg, you can call anytime you want, and, he has to pick up the darn phone, which means he has to talk to you, which means he has to build a relationship.
It’s not like an email that he can just let slip by.
So another brief conversation, talk to him, draw him out, get to know him. Again, a minute or two, he’s busy too. Then you tell him, in a voice that reassures him this is totally fine and understandable.
Hey, I know Mary’s probably super busy. I’m looking forward to talking to her. Just wanted to check in. And I hope to hear from her soon.
Great. Greg writes your name down again. Next week, you’re going to call again. And then you’re going to call again. And again. And after six weeks or so, one of two things have happened:
Greg’s either said, Hey, Mary, you’ve just got to call this guy back, because he’s gonna keep calling. And you’ll finally get a call from Mary.
Or, if that doesn’t happen, you now have a relationship with Greg, at which point you can go say:
Hey, Greg, I can see she’s not gonna call me back. I understand that she’s probably incredibly busy. But I also know this is a great project for her. Again, it has roles for this person, this person, this person… She’s made this movie, this movie, this movie with similar themes. And I know these were successful films for you guys. And I would really like to get her eyes on this before I bring it somewhere else.
If I do that in the first call, it doesn’t mean anything.
But if I do that on the sixth call, he now understands that I’m serious. I keep on calling back. I know why I’m targeting Mary. I’m not just throwing crap up against the wall. This makes it much less likely that I’m going to get the “we don’t accept unsolicited submissions” line.
If I still don’t hear from Mary, I’m going to say:
So, Greg, could you do what you can and try to get me a little bit closer to the top of the pile? I literally need ten minutes of her time so I can pitch her the project. I know she’s gonna like it. And she doesn’t like it. That’s cool. You never hear from me again. Or if you do hear from me again it’ll just be to take you out for a drink to say thank you.
I’m just trying to get a little help from Greg. And the chances are, he might try. Or he might just say, I don’t know what I can do.
No problem. Talk to you next week.
And I’m going to call again, and again, and eventually if I have to I’m going to say something like:
Look, Greg, I know you’re working your butt off for me. I know you’re trying to get her attention. I can see that it’s gonna be hard for me to get her to call me back. So can I ask you a favor?
And since we now have a relationship, and I just waxed poetic about how hard he’s working for me, most likely, when I ask his permission to ask him favor, Greg is probably going to say, yes.
Why? Because I’ve been talking to him at this point for two months. We’re actually friends.
If I happen to live in the same place that Greg lives, I’m going to say:
Could I take you out for lunch and pitch this to you?
If I live in a different place. I’m going to say:
Greg, could I have ten minutes of your time? So that I can pitch this to you? And if you don’t think it’s right for Mary, no problem, I will stop calling you. But, I think you’re going to think it’s right for Mary. And I think you’re gonna be able to help me move this forward.
Most likely, Greg’s definitely up for a free lunch. Nobody ever buys Greg lunch. He makes minimum wage and works 100 hours a week. Lunch is a major perk. But Greg is also up for ten minutes, especially because you’ve been calling him every day for eight weeks.
Okay, cool. Pitch it to me.
And now you pitch it to him. Again, a short sweet pitch that you’ve practiced 100 times.
If Greg hears that pitch and says no, you’re going to stay cheery:
Greg, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Hope we get to work on something together in the future.
And now you just know, you’re not going to get past this particular gatekeeper.
On the other hand, if the assistant says yes, now he’s the one pitching your script to Mary, as a project he’s excited about. And your life just got so much easier.
In the unlikely case that Greg is superb at his job, he may still hit you with those dreaded words, despite your relationship.
I’d love to hear your pitch, but we have a policy. We’re not allowed to accept unsolicited submissions.
At which point, I’m going to lean on my relationship with Greg, and say (with total good humor):
Okay, Greg, can you do me a favor?
And Greg’s feeling a little anxious, because he just put his foot down with someone he actually likes talking to.
Could you solicit my submission?
I’m gonna kind of laugh a little as I say that. I’m showing Greg that he has the power to do what he wants. And before he tells me no, I’m going to reassure him,
Look, don’t worry, I’ll sign anything you need me to sign. I can have my lawyer send it over. So everything’s official. But I know you’re the right production company for this piece. And I really want a chance to share it with you.
Do you see what I did there?
A lawyer is often an easy way around the unsolicited submissions issue. And unlike agents, entertainment lawyers are easy to get.
For an hourly fee, you can hire an entertainment attorney who will send the script over for you. And this is likely going to get you out of signing a horrific release form.
But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes the company is going to insist that you sign a release. So please be aware that when I say to tell them “I’ll sign anything you want” I am not giving you legal advice. You should always discuss legal issues with your lawyer.
And you should be aware that they’re gonna send you some horrific, horrific, horrific document that any reasonable lawyer is going to tell you not to sign.
And there’s a good chance that you’re going to decide to sign it. And the reason you’re gonna sign it is this is the production company you’ve identified as the best possible producer for the project. This is the person you need to get to. And if your script is really good, they have very little incentive to steal it from you. Their incentive is actually to hire you, because you’re cheap and your script is good.
They’re just terrified of being sued.
That’s why they don’t accept unsolicited submissions. They’re terrified that they’re going to have something similar in development and you are going to think that they stole it.
So when you get the “we don’t accept unsolicited submissions” line, if you have the relations you can make the little joke of Will you solicit my submission?
If you don’t yet have the relationship, you can (again, not legal advice) just take the risk and say:
Yes, I understand that. No problem. I can sign any waiver form you want me to sign. I can have my lawyer, send it over… anything you need.
And then you shut the heck up. Because whoever speaks next loses. And the chances are, since Greg is an assistant, he’s relatively new to this.
So if you just go quiet, he’ll likely give in… Okay, fine, pitch it to me…
And if he’s not willing to go that far, just knowing you are open to signing a release will assuage the concerns of most production companies.
That said, every once in awhile, Greg will just boo too scared:
I’m so sorry… I just can’t. I’m not allowed to.
In which case you laugh, like it’s no big deal.
No problem, Greg, I get it. I will call you next week.
And now, Greg knows it’s a joke.
You’re just gonna keep calling?
Greg, you know I love talking to you. I know you love talking to me. I don’t want to keep having to call you. But I’ve got to keep calling you until eventually, I can pitch this to somebody.
If you do this on day one, you’re a jerk. But if you do this after building a relationship with Greg, and are always a good sport about it, he’s going to kind of enjoy you.
How did I learn this technique? I learned this technique from a guy from Boston, who didn’t know anybody in the industry, who called me every single week at the exact same time when I was a young development executive.
He called me every single week again and again and again and did exactly this to me. And in the process, he moved me from a person had no desire to talk to him, to a point where we actually ended up selling a project together.
And the way he did it was just calling me, again and again and again. Never angry, never upset, always with a smile in his voice, always respectful of my time. A minute, two minutes, slowly building that relationship until it became a joke… ah, it’s Tuesday. It’s John. Hi, John.
I knew he was gonna call me at that time. And we actually ended up becoming friends. He built a relationship with me from a total cold call.
One last thing I want to share with you.
What do you do when you do all this work to get past the gatekeeper, pitch the producer, director, manager, agent or star of your dreams, and they hear your pitch as say, No, that’s not going to happen.
#1 – Don’t take it so frickin personally.
Your script is just one item in a giant Bloomingdale’s filled with items. You just might not happen to be the item that they’re looking for today.
So the moment that you see the look on their face that says, Oh, I’m not liking this pitch, the moment you sense that they’re disengaged, the moment that they say, I don’t think this is for me, don’t make the mistake of trying to shove it down their throat.
Even if you know they’re wrong, even if you know that they’re interpreting your pitch the wrong way, even if they’ve assumed something that’s not true, even if they’re wrong about the demographic data that they are using to pass on your project, unless you are a really trained salesperson, if you get into a battle of wills with a producer who’s at “no,” you lose.
So, the moment they say no, you want to remember most of them are going to say no!
That’s why you’re playing the long game. You’re not even really trying to sell this project, even though you’d love to. What you’re really trying to do is build the long-term relationships that are ultimately going to lead you to a whole career in this industry.
It’s so rare that we sell any individual project. Even a great meeting usually ends with what else have you got?
That’s why it’s so important to have a library of scripts, as we’ve talked about in earlier episodes of this podcast.
Your goal in your first call is just to get Greg’s name. Your goal in every future call is to build a relationship with Greg. Your goal by your final call is to get a pitch, whether it’s with Greg or Mary. And your ultimate goal…
Yes, in the back of your mind, you’d love to sell your script…
But your ultimate goal is to build the community of your people who are going to help you.
Here’s what that looks like.
You finally pitch Mary. You’re about 30 seconds in, and you start to see a troubling look on her face. Or she’s going to express some reservation.
The moment that happens, you’re going to have an instinct to double down or push through the resistance. But you’re going to fight that urge.
Instead, the moment you see that look on her face, you’re going to say, Wow, this isn’t for you, is it?
And suddenly Mary feels so relieved, because she doesn’t have to have that awkward no conversation.
So then you can ask Mary, what are you looking for? And Mary might tell you exactly what she wants.
If what she wants is similar to a project you have, then you say:
Well, Mary, I actually have something very similar in development…
In fact, one of my favorite things to do when somebody tells me what they’re actually looking for is to make something up, even if I don’t have something in development! Because I’m relatively quick on my feet, and I enjoy pitching.
Sometimes I’ll say something like, you know, this is not something I’m actively pitching right now because I’m in such early stages of development, but it’s so similar to your project that maybe I’ll share it with you and see if it’s something you’d be interested in looking when it’s a little further along.
And sometimes I’ll just make up a pitch that fits what they are looking for.
Bit let’s say either you’re not that quick to make up pitches yet, or that you’re not comfortable doing that, or Mary’s like looking for a zombie movie, and you really don’t write zombie movies. You just say.
Well, boy, do I not have the project for you.
And everybody will laugh for a second. But now you’ve got eight minutes left in the room where you can turn Mary into a mentor. (Or even turn Greg into a mentor, if you’re pitching Greg)
And here’s what that looks like.
So Mary, I get this is totally the wrong project for you. I promised to keep this to 10 minutes. I see we’ve got eight minutes left. Could I just bend your ear for eight minutes and maybe get a little bit of mentorship?
Mary is definitely going to say yes.
You know why? Because being a mentor feels freakin great! It doesn’t require saying no to anybody. It makes you feel wise. It makes you feel smart. It makes you feel like you’re giving back.
And do you see how I’m respecting her eight minutes?
By being respectful of her time, I’m also showing her I’m not going to waste her time.
In the unlikely case she says no, you say,
Okay, well, thank you very much for your time, I appreciate it.
And you just remind yourself, Mary’s a jerk. Mary was never going to help you anyway, and you didn’t lose anything.
But most likely, Mary’s gonna say
Sure, I can give you eight minutes to have mentorship, no problem.
And you’re going to say something like this:
Okay. I know, this isn’t a project for you. I know that you don’t want to make it. But I also know that someone is going to make money on this project. It’s got (these elements), it’s like this movie, this movie, and that movie, (that all made a lot of money in the last couple years in the box office). It’s got roles for this actor, this actor, and that actor (you don’t even have to mention to Mary that she worked with them. But if you’ve done your job, Mary has worked with those people. And you’re pitching people that she can easily get to). And the script is good. I have really done the work on it. I’ve gotten professional feedback on the script. (If you’ve run contests or festivals, you can tell Mary that now as well). So I know that the I know that the script is good. I know this is not what you’re looking for. My question is, if you were in my shoes, who would you take it to?
At this point, it is vitally important that you shut up.
Whoever speaks next loses.
If you keep speaking, you are going to let Mary off the hook. So you’re going to shut up. If Mary is really good at her job, Mary is going to say something like,
I don’t know, Jake.
At which point I respond:
I know. I know that there’s certain challenges to the project. Here’s my question for you. I know that you made this movie, you made this movie, I know that these were not easy movies, and you got them made. So whatever advice you have, it is so much more thanI know. And I know that in my shoes, you would figure out how to do this. So where would you start? Who would you start with?
And then you shut up again. And eventually she’s going to come up with something:
I don’t know. Maybe I’d bring it to New Line?
Okay. Do you know anybody over there who’s good?
Now you shut up again. Because you’ve almost got what you want…
Well… Jesse over there is pretty good.
Okay, great. Is it okay if I mention your name when I call?
If Mary says no, then you say, thank you very much for your time and you get out of there. Mary’s not going to help you. But at least you have a name to call at New Line who might be the right person for you. (Don’t lie and mention Mary’s name when you call though– because Jesse’s going to slack her, or text her, and they’re both going to be really pissed off when they find out you dropped her name against her wishes).
But most likely, Mary is going to give in at this point. Because you’re nice. And you’re her mentee now. And it doesn’t really cost her anything,
Sure, you can mention my name…
At this point, your meeting is a total success. You actually got to Yes! Congratulations!
Now get the heck out of there! With any meeting, the real job is just to get to a next step, whatever that next step may be, and the moment you get to that next step, you want to get out of that meeting, because the only place you can go from Yes, is No.
So you just took a cold call, and you turned it into a mentor. And now your next call is not a cold call anymore. Because when you call Jesse’s office, you’re gonna say,
Hey, this is Jacob Krueger calling for Jesse, Mary Smith suggested I give him a call.
And you see what just happened? Now my call to Jesse is a warm call. I don’t have to fight my way through the gatekeepers anymore. I’m coming recommended!
You can do this again and again and again, meeting after meeting. And what’s going to happen is you’re going to start to build a network of connections.
Before you leave, you’re going to tell Mary:
Mary, I am so grateful. It means so much to me that somebody at your level of experience and success would take the time to help out an emerging writer like me. Thank you so much. I will shoot you an email and let you know how it goes.
By her that I’m going to shoot her an email, I’m keeping the mentorship relationship going, keeping the lines of communication open. Mary is now my mentor for life!
The other thing you’re gonna find is that if your pitch is really that good, and you really have all these numbers to back you up, and you really all have all these great, easy recommendations for star attachments, and if you really on Mary’s theme, as we talked about in Episode 3 of this podcast, often you’re going to find that turning Mary into a mentor gets you an even better response than you expected:
Mary’s often going to change her mind:
You know what? Just send it to me.
Because you didn’t fight her resistance, you gave Mary a chance to reconsider without losing face. If she’s convinced by your numbers that someone is actually going to make money of this script, it’s likely she’s telling herself, maybe I should look at it just in case.
Even if she’s still convinced it’s not for her, she also may want to read it so she can make a decision about sending it on to Jesse on your behalf, by reading a few pages and seeing if it’s as good as you say it is, or if she’d be wasting his time.
Either way, do you see how not only have you broken through the gatekeeper, you’ve built another relationship.
It is relationships that sell scripts, it is relationships that build careers.
Mary is going to be a contact for you for the rest of your life. She might never make a movie that you wrote, she might never produce a show that you wrote, but she may very well end up helping your career in ways you never even anticipated.
Send her a handwritten note. Send Greg a handwritten note.
Don’t do anything weird. Don’t spend a lot of money. Don’t go overboard and do something that is going to creep them out. But send them a nice little handwritten note for their time for their advice. And follow up with Mary after your next meeting (this time via email, so you don’t waste her time).
Hey, I had an amazing meeting with Jesse. He was so incredibly helpful. He had some great recommendations about the next places to take it. I hope that you and I find something that we can work on in the future. In the meantime, I’m so grateful for your mentorship.
Meanwhile, you’re doing the same thing for Jesse. You’re building a network of mentors that you can tap at any time, who will eventually help you get to the right for this particular script and this particular point in your career.
*Edited for length and clarity