Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Networking screw-ups and Ron Moore

Yesterday, I chastised overeager writers who jump the gun in pushing their script on someone, while failing to be more strategic in cultivating their relationships before asking such a favor. Today, I'm going to teach by example through an instance where I failed to do just that myself.

Back in school, I had long wanted to be a screenwriter and a director, but hadn't given much thought to TV writing. All of that changed when I - being a fan of Deep Space Nine - came across a bulletin board one of the show's co-executive producers/writers, Ronald D. Moore, frequented. He regularly answered questions submitted by fans, often dealing with the production process and the evolution of storylines and character development. It was my first real in-depth look inside the process of creating a television show. I learned a lot about writing just by reading his posts.

These days, Moore is probably best known for being the executive producer of the new Battlestar Galactica series, which I am currently catching up on via long DVD marathons. (That's my brief plea for no BSG spoilers.)

After Ron left the Trek franchise, he also gave a very interesting five-part interview on his time working on those series. This interview is notable because he talks often of finding the "truth" in writing, and how a writer has to respect his audience. Interestingly, a lot of the criticisms he lobs at Star Trek: Voyager presage creative decisions he would later make in the Battlestar Galactica reboot. You can find the interview here:

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI

I was in college at the time of this interview and roughly a year later, I found myself with the opportunity to create a TV show for a student-run cable network that we were attempting to get off the ground. I immediately latched on the idea of doing a teen-drama type series set on a college campus, and soon went mad with delusions of writing episodes with the same character complexity and compelling stories as on my favorite shows Homicide and Buffy, among others.

This endeavor was a total grass roots effort. There was a dedicated group of students trying to make this work, but the school administration wasn't exactly behind us and none of the media-related departments wanted to get saddled with us either. That meant that all of our work ended up being done on our own time and we were responsible for finding our own equipment - including cameras and editing facilities, and all of this had to be done on our own time. This was no mean feat, as DV was just on the verge of breaking through AND Final Cut Pro was still a relatively new and expensive program that wasn't yet owned by every wannabe filmmaker. Had we been working on this three years later, it would have been twice as easy. At the time, we were shooting on VHS and sneaking into editing labs during late nights and weekends. In one semester, we shot and edited about ten half-hour episodes of our little college drama. Considering the restrictions on our time and the limitations we had, that was pretty impressive.

I say all of this mainly so you can appreciate how unusual this was at the time. This preceded YouTube by at least three years, so we were nowhere near the time where every aspiring filmmaker essentially had his own laptop studio, with easy distribution via video sites like Break.com, YouTube or Funny Or Die. Had I done this three years later, it probably would have been a lot easier, but also would have been much less impressive to anyone "in the biz." However, I'd have made that trade in an instant. I'd have killed for greater access to Final Cut and it would be nice to watch the episodes and not cringe at the shity VHS quality. (Yes, I said VHS. Feel free to shudder.)

As long as I'm on this tangent, I might as well say that while some of my writing in that show was of questionable quality, the experience was invaluable. I learned a lot about staging scenes, shooting coverage efficently and writing tighter dialogue. When you're forced to hear poor dialogue many, many takes in a row and realize that it's not poor acting, but your overwritten verbiage that's causing the problem, you're motivated to overcome your weaknesses.

So feeling proud of myself, I finally got up the nerve to write Ron Moore a letter telling him all about what I was doing in college and how I had learned more about character writing and TV production from him than I had from any professor. (This wasn't smoke - many times that season I found myself drawing inspiration from his writings and interviews.) Eight weeks later I had nearly forgotten all about this letter - until I returned home one summer afternoon to find a message from Ron's assistant on Roswell, where he worked at the time. She said that Ron had been very touched by my letter and asked me to call her back so that he might thank me himself.

Considering I hadn't included my phone number in the letter, I was rather impressed that this message had found its way to me. I assumed that this assistant had spent the morning tracking me down. Thanks to a journal I kept at the time, I have a pretty detailed account of how this went. In all its embarassing glory.

So after I pick my jaw up from the floor, I dial the number and get transferred to Ron. He actually sounded excited to be talking to me! "I wanted to thank you for the very nice letter you sent," he said. I reply with something like "well, I have been a big admirer of your work for a long time."

Then he says to me, "So tell me about this show you're doing. I want to hear all about it." (My mind at this point is screaming "My idol just asked me to tell him about *my show!* This has got to be a dream!")

So I give him a Cliff Notes version of what we're doing, how many eps, and all that wonderful stuff. He sounds genuinely impressed. "Wow, I've never heard of anyone doing anything like that!" he finally says.

Then he says, "Hey, I'd love to see an episode sometime if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to send a tape." Excitedly, I assure him that there'll be a package arriving at his office soon. (I sent it priority mail on Saturday. I sent him a copy of episodes 5 through 9, with the tape cued to ep 9. In an enclosed letter, I told him that ep 5 is the place to start if he is more interested in following the story, but ep 9 is the one he should look at to get an idea of the level of acting and production values we achieved in the end, and what we hope to maintain next season.)

All told, we chat for about 15-20 minutes. As the phone call concludes, he tells me "Stay in touch."

For an embarrassing insight into my naivete, take a look at this excerpt from an email I sent to my fellow writers about this phone call:

How cool is this? A Hollywood producer has a copy of our show! Now, the likelihood is that he'll probably watch it and maybe be entertained. But imagine if he's impressed...either by the acting or the writing or the directing. What if he shows it to other Hollywood types and they like something in it? Sure, it's unlikely, but this could be how we get our foot in the door in LA. Think about that for a few minutes.

Yeah, to use the analogy I coined yesterday, I totally thought I was gonna get to fuck the bar hottie 30 minutes after meeting her.

I should also mention that Ron's very friendly assistant had also sent me an email that same day, and I spoke to her again after talking to Ron so that I could get a more efficient mailing address, sending the tape directly to their production offices on the lot as opposed to the general network address. And this, dear readers is where in retrospect, I totally dropped the ball.

A few weeks go by. No word from Ron. But I figure he's a busy guy and he probably hasn't had time to watch the tape yet. After about three months, I'm starting to wonder if he saw it and he didn't like it. Or maybe I dropped the ball by not following up with him sooner. What if he's completely forgotten me? I didn't want to be the kind of pest who bugged him a week after sending it, but he did say to "stay in touch." Eventually, I start trying to figure out a non-desperate-sounding pretense for contacting him again.

Fortune smiles upon me when a throwaway mention in an early episode that season seems like it could have been a shout-out to my show. I decide to send him another letter. Within a week, I have my answer, an email from his assistant:

"I just wanted to write and let you know that we received your letter, and the tape you sent earlier of your campus television show. Ron has been unable to view the tape, at this point... (due to the CRAZY hectic producing schedule I keep him on-- balancing his time between writing, story-developing, and post-production.) As you know with making a television show, it can be quite busy!

Ron extends his best wishes to you in your television-writing ventures.
Take care."

So... the brush-off. But hey, I still think that was pretty cool of Ron to track me down in the first place and chat with me on the phone. I might not have gotten everything I hoped out of it, but it gave me a pretty cool story and left me secure in the belief that Ron Moore was a pretty cool guy. Anyway, after that last email, I took the hint and decided to leave with some of my dignity intact. Now class, can anyone tell me what I did wrong, and how I overlooked another opportunity that was right under my nose?

That's right - the assistant. I totally overlooked the opportunity to cultivate some kind of relationship there. Here's a secret about the industry - while everyone naturally resents being used, most people are only too happy to lend other up-and-comers the benefit of their experience. To put it another way - there are few people who don't enjoy talking about themselves. Use that to your advantage. If you ask the right questions, you might learn something.

So what I should have done is sent that tape, then emailed the assistant to not only thank her for making that contact possible, but also to ask her for advice. I could have said that I was considering moving out to LA in a little over a year, just after graduation, and asked if she had any advice about making that move. I could have asked about what areas are good areas to live in, how much an apartment costs, how hard it is to find a job, how she got hooked up with her job, when's the best time to move to LA, and so on.

There are probably about a hundred different things I could have asked this assistant that not only would have made her feel like an expert, but would have benefited me in the long run. As a bonus, it would have maintained that relationship. Who knows? Maybe when I moved out to LA, I could have used that to meet with her for lunch, perhaps finding a way to approach Ron eventually. Or she might have been able to submit my resume for any open PA positions on the show.

The point is, I overlooked an opportunity to ingrain myself with someone who might have been lower in the ranks than I wanted, but who still could have taught me a lot. Today's writer's assistants are tomorrow's writers - and had I thought of it like that, I'd have realized it might not be a bad idea to make friends with someone who was climbing the same ranks I wanted to.

So this leads me to my first official "Tuesday Talkback." Tell me your tails of networking successes and failures. Do any of you have stories of shame from your efforts to climb the ladder or get someone to read your script?

And if you see Ron Moore, tell him I finally get it. Tell his assistant too, for that matter.


  1. No story here, just wanted to comment about how well-written this piece is. The level at which your team attacked the project is very impressive,, great content, thanks.

  2. Ron Moore? Jealousy. JEALOUSY!! Even if you did drop the ball, still. Battlestar Galactica was my initial inspiration to get into screen and television writing. I think if Ron Moore called me on the phone I would faint dead away.

    Also, this was indeed very well-written. I very much enjoy your blog in general--funny, informative, and extremely intelligent. Keep it up!

  3. Very well written and informative. I can only try to think of all the times I've similarly dropped the ball.

    An old adage from my days in the spy business:

    "Make friends, then exploit them!"

  4. Creating a TV show for a college spun cable network! Dude, I'm impressed. You went for it when opportunity presented itself. AND you even used that experience as a possible in with working TV producer. You played your cards quite nicely, sir. So it didn't work out, you made an impression. And all things considered I think you put yourself in the best possible position to succeed. It was just too early in your career. You were in college.

    So many networking opportunites start out well, end poorly. For me, living outside L.A., I've found that most networking opportunites are limited. EVEN when Hollywood types come over to where I'm at, AND I'm there, they're really not with me -- or any other writer in the building; they're simply going through the motions. Doomed from the outset, not by me, but by them. That's tough to stomache. Cuz I'm thinkin' to myself EVEN if I played my cards perfectly, the results are fixed.

    Point to be made: genunine opportunties to succeed vs. jinked from the outset Hollywood encounters.

    Not to crazy about forging faux relationships with assistants just to get ahead. Perhaps you could expand on how this can be done in a TASTEFULL way, while minimizing the sleaze factor.

    I've heard horror stories about writers doing things like slipping their scripts to people in the bathroom, cornering them, and I've decided that I will NEVER resort to doing anything like that.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  5. Yes, please do expand on how to not forge a faux relationship with assistants in a non-sleazloid way pretty please. We're waiting with bated breath.

  6. E.C. and Ms. M. - I'd say the easiest way not to be sleazy is to be genuine. It comes down to being prepared when such an opportunity comes to you. I'm not advising you take a studio tour, jump the tram and head to the commissary so you can find an assistant and ask "Will you be my friend?" That's not going to work.

    But if you're in a situation akin to the one I was presented with, see if you can take advantage of it. In my case I could have emailed the assistant about her career path, asked open-ended questiones and tried to start a dialogue. If you're lucky, you'll get them talking and you can keep going, much like forging a relationship with someone over the internet via discussion boards or other postings.

    In person, the same rule applies. If you're at a party and you meet someone who's an assistant, take an interest in them. Ask about the job, but don't go for the "So what's Tom Cruise really like?" Instead, get them talking about themselves, what they want to do, what they have done. Find common ground. If you get a good enough repor, see if you can walk away with their phone number and email.

  7. When I was fifteen my friend and I met this singer who, at the time, was in a band catching some rotation on MTV and was poised to become "the next big thing". We’d left about a hundred messages on the band's answering machine telling them how much we thought they sucked, and through the advent of *69 they decided to call us back.

    One day I got a call from the singer but instead of being angry he was really cool, and thought the messages were funny. I told him we actually loved his band and that it was just us being stupid kids. So we talked for a while about music and everything else, and when I told him we had our own band (an awful, awful band) he hit me up with an offer. If we helped roadie a couple of their gigs in Hollywood he would help us produce a decent demo. We agreed, and so a couple weeks later we had my friend's cousin drop us off at their gig. But instead of doing actual road work he introduced us around, and although his band was still relatively underground they rolled with some big names. These were bands we loved, rock stars we'd only seen on MTV.

    By the end of the night the singer had taken a shine to us, so he told us to come back a few weeks later for their next gig. We assumed, of course, that the real roadies who were doing the "actual" work that night would still be there. The band was going through some rough times with their label and so after negotiating an early release from their contract they had set up this big showcase for the studio execs to watch them in hopes of winning a new label. This was a MAJOR gig. They'd put out the call for their entire fan-base to show up for support. However, without their previous label support they couldn't afford the 'actual' road crew anymore, so when we got there I was pulled aside by the singer who congratulated me on becoming their new lighting engineer. He asked if I could handle it, and I told him it wouldn’t be a problem. How hard can lights be, right?

    It became obvious throughout their set that he hated the way the lighting was going, and he made it continually obvious between songs. However, before the last song, he blew his lid and went on a minute-long rant where he put me on blast in front of the thousand or so odd people who were there. It was excruciating but I figured they only had one more song and it would be over. But then, DURING the last song, he jumped off the stage, staggered through the audience, shoved me aside and punched the light board before screaming "you fucking idiot" into the microphone and walking back onstage to apologize for me "ruining everything".

    When you're fifteen, to have the singer of a band you love shove you into a wall and call you a fucking idiot in front of that many people, including musicians from OTHER bands you love is pretty damn heartbreaking. Subsequently, I became the scapegoat for the night and after the band failed to win a contract our agreement was kind of broken. I was angry as hell and didn't want to yield anything to this guy or anything he could do for us. But still, I didn't try to "lash out" to him or lose my cool and instead decided to apologize. I left a message on their answering machine where I apologized for ruining their show, that I was only trying to look cool, and that I hoped he didn't hold any ill will.

    As a result, I got a call from him about a week later where he acted as if the whole thing didn't happen and asked if my friend and I wanted to hang out with him and check out what his band had been working on in the studio. The whole thing got brushed aside and through most of my four years in high school he was introducing us to studio reps and taking us on nutty adventures in Hollywood. He became a big advocate when our band finally came around and almost helped land us a record deal. I think as far as making contacts with big-shot insiders there's really nothing you can do but be blunt in your honesty, stupidity, and curiosity. It also doesn't hurt to throw yourself under the bus for somebody every once and a while.

  8. Kgmadman - that is a very awesome story. Have you every thought of writing a script inspired by it? I could see it being pretty cool. Thanks for sharing.

  9. True story, so I spent about six months tracking down people who were part of the old Hollywood underground in those days and put together a 40 page outline for a book wherein that story would have been one of the first chapters. But then my car got stolen while I was delivering pizza and the notebooks were inside. For a while I was crossing my fingers that it was a couple of literary agents out for a joyride and they'd find my work. Sadly, it was cholo's.

  10. Great story. I think this is a superb example, albeit, unfortunate that it happened to you, but perfect in the sense that it is likely a more common overlooked scenario.
    Many of us tend to overlook the "smaller" figures in the industry, focused largely on the bigger names, failing to consider that they have special unnamed people in their lives that hold a lot of value. Assistants have more power than many of us understand. If a producer or writer, etc, has a long time assistant under their employ, it's for a reason. You can then make a substantial bet that said assistant has a great deal of pull with that person.
    Ultimately, none of us know what that assistant's ambitions are. Later, that assistant might be a producer or someone named and have the ability to put you in the right spot.
    Hey, there is some truth about the industry and it being about who you know.