Monday, October 17, 2011

Lesson: When pushing your work, think outside the box

It's probably not any secret that when it comes to breaking in, writing a great script is often only part of the equation.  Your brilliant writing still needs to get noticed by people who can do something with it.  The problem - everyone in town is trying to get noticed to.  Anyone who's reading scripts already has more scripts than they can deal with - so getting someone to agree your writing is a major favor.

Nobody owes you a read.  And a young writer just starting out, if they're lucky enough to get representation, is likely to find themselves a low priority for that agent.  I came across this article about how Boardwalk Empire creator Terry Winter executed some unusual tactics to get his script into the right hands.  After getting his hands on a list of agents who accepted unsolicited submissions, he recognized the name of a guy he went to school with.  Problem: when he called up this guy, he found out the guy had become a real-estate attorney and didn't really know anything about being an agent.

Most writers probably would have said, "Crap" and bemoaned the lousy luck of their networking.  Winter instead had a great idea.

So we made a deal where I would create basically a phony agency with his name. I did this out of the Mail Boxes Etc. on Santa Monica Boulevard, and I got a voice-mail system and letterhead printed up. I said I’m gonna submit my work under your name, and if I get anything, I’ll give you ten percent like a real agent. 

I took a day off from work and hit like every sitcom office in L.A., which at the time, there were like 26 sitcoms on the air. And I just walked in wearing a baseball cap and said, Yeah, hi, I’m the messenger from this agency and here are the scripts you wanted. And I thought, all right, at least my scripts are in the building where people theoretically could hire me. 

A couple of weeks went by and I got a call on a Friday from Winifred Hervey Stallworth, who at the time was the showrunner for “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and she was calling for Doug, who was my agent. And she said, Yeah, Doug, it’s Win Hervey from “Fresh Prince.” I read Terry Winter’s scripts and really think they’re great. We’d love to maybe talk to you about having him come in to pitch. 

So I called Doug in New York. At this point it was like 4 in the afternoon in L.A. and 7 in New York, and he was already gone for the weekend. So I thought, Oh, God, I’ve gotta wait until Monday now. And then it occurred to me that Doug didn’t really know anything about being an agent, so I thought, you know what, I can just call and say I’m Doug and it’ll be easier to cut out the middleman. 

I called her and she said, Oh, great, Doug. Oh, you know, “Fresh Prince” is sort of a teenage-oriented show. Does he have like one more teenage kind of script? And I said, Yeah, he just finished a “Wonder Years” spec that’s really terrific -- which was a lie. I didn’t have anything else at that point; she had everything I wrote. 

I said, Terry’s out of town for the weekend, but I could probably get this to you by Tuesday. And she said, Yeah great, Tuesday’s fine. I hung up the phone, and from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon, I cranked out a “Wonder Years” script, and then I threw the baseball hat back on, went as a messenger again and showed up at the office, flung it in the door, made sure nobody saw me, because at this point I was like the messenger, the agent, the client …

So there you have it.  You've got to be your own biggest advocate.  You can read the rest of Winter's story here.

Here's what I like about this story - Winter used his resouces in a way that took advantage of the system, but wasn't arrogant or obnoxious about it.  Too many aspirings think that being their own biggest cheerleader means they have to be obnoxiously arrogant and overconfident.  I get emails now and then that read something like, "I am the greatest writer who ever lived!  I know this is the best script you'll ever read and if you turn it down, years from now you'll be sorry that you weren't the one who found me!"

Confidence is good.  Overconfidence is off-putting.  Sending me multiple emails also isn't a good idea to get my attention.  And a good way to REALLY piss me off is send me an arrogant email, then write by in a few days getting angry that I haven't replied one way or another.

Let me put it this way: have you seen those auditioners on The X-Factor who come in saying they're the next Mariah, Whitney, or whoever?  How often do those guys really blow you away when they sing?  More often than not they sound worse than a drunk Linda McCartney on karaoke night.  Then, when told they aren't making the cut - notice how many of them become combative.  Notice how many of them invite Simon to have sex with himself and then rant to the cameras how the competition sucks anyway and the show is full of people who don't know what they're doing - or they had to get rid of this person because they were just too damn good.

The screenwriting world is full of those types too, people who mistake their own arrogance as a virtue.  Don't be the guy who tells Simon to fuck himself.  Be the guy who walks his script into the office, takes the call that follows up and then leverages that into another submission.

1 comment:

  1. I've often thought about doing something like that with my demo CDs, but I'm always worried about security, especially in a post 9/11 world. Where any mysterious package might end up blown up because someone thinks it's a bomb.