NP: How would you describe your background and experience in the film industry?
Barkley: Well, if you want to know the timeline, here’s how it all started and how I got here from there: In short, a bumpy ride full of deadlines, long stretches of sleepless nights, exhilarating days and nights on set, and an initiation forged by constantly having to reinvent myself, hone my craft in order to stay relevant and employable.
I started my career with a CBS Network affiliate at age 21 where I began in the studio running camera. It was the only job opening available after my internship ended, so I applied for it to get my foot in the door. I recall the Vice President of the station doubting I could push, pull, truck, boom up/down that behemoth camera, but a couple of the guys on crew in the studio were kind enough to teach me the ropes and I practiced—a lot—until I was able to float those bulky babies around with grace. I learned about sound, lighting and set design after I was hired.
My goal was to get on-air as a television journalist/anchor, so each night after the 10 p.m. news, I ripped copy off the AP Wire and sat on set while the guys in the control room taped me reading the news; and each morning after, the General Manager and I would review my tape together and he would give me feedback.
I remember going home to practice reading into the camera lens by focusing my attention on the doorknob of my bedroom and reading and pretending I was reading to my grandmother. It all paid off. Within a couple months, I had a one hour, live five day a week news/entertainment show that I wrote, produced and anchored along with a male veteran who had been at the station for many years. I got up at 4 each morning and was on set by 6 a.m.
Afterwards, I napped until 8 a.m. when the other journalists and the news director came filing through the newsroom door. I reported on a couple stories a day and in the event a story had national appeal, I cut a CBS standup, called New York and if they liked my pitch, I’d send it to them via Delta Dash at the local airport. Within 24 hours, I would see my story come down the national feed in the control room, knowing that CBS affiliate stations around the country would be airing my story.
I actually made more money freelancing for the network than I did in a week as an overtime journalist at the station. I even sold to Walter Cronkite Evening News and CBS Morning News, and my Thanksgiving Day story “interviewing” animals at the local zoo about the value in not being a turkey allowed me to beat out every other journalist’s offering to the station to nab the spot for their Thanksgiving story. Saturdays and Sundays I wrote, produced, did field interviews, anchored and was responsible for the whole evening newscast, news, sports and weather. It was just me and a cameraman. That was the whole crew. I worked 7 days a week and crammed 96 hours into a 24 hour day.
From there I moved to the local PBS affiliate station where I wrote contracts, cast and hired talent, produced and directed live to tape, documentaries, docudramas, children’s educational programming. A project I worked on won the Chris Bronze Medal. I was very proud of my work there as a producer and director, but not happy that the state ran the affiliate and the constraints put on my projects financially and creatively. Also, the state owned the work product, which I didn’t think was fair.
I wanted to be as well-rounded as I could in my industry. At CBS, I saw older, worn out anchors whipping out mirrors from their desks at 4:30 p.m., piling on the makeup and propping themselves up to go on air. This isn’t what I wanted for my future. Even then, I knew if I didn’t want to wind up a one trick pony, I had to keep moving forward, learning as much as I could.
With my writing and production skills now partially developed, I wanted to learn the business side of my industry; so I took a job as a copywriter, producer and director at a local advertising agency. I learned about marketing, buying and placing media, public relations/advertising, and was fully responsible for conceiving projects and birthing out a campaign to please the clients and increase their visibility and revenues in the market. It didn’t pay well but gave me skills to find a better paying job when I wanted to buy a house.
After gaining this experience, I understood what it took to sell something to someone, create a win-win situation, and reach goals. I parlayed this into a successful career with a multi-national pharmaceutical company. I took a territory from dead last of 400 territories to one of the top 5 in a year.
The regional manager didn’t want to hire me. He said I had no sales experience and science background, but I banged my fist on his desk and looked him square in the eye, “If you hire me, I promise I will be one of your top reps within a year.” He called the district manager who had interviewed me several times. She called me and said, “I don’t know what you said to him, but you got the job.” I made good on my word and won The Outstanding Achievement Award. Soon after, I was sent to headquarters in Summit, New Jersey, to intern in their marketing department and share with them what I had done to skyrocket a poorly producing territory in the poorest state in the nation to the top 5.
I employed the use of logging what I did/said on each call I made on doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and notating what I needed to do on my next call to get closer to closing the deal. Since the corporation was very conservative and did not pay doctors to write prescriptions, I had to rely upon creating ways to get their attention, learn as much about my competitors as I could and show them the across the board benefits of prescribing our product line. I pored over medical journal articles, scientific studies (which I had learned to read and interpret through a Research and Methodologies course in my master’s degree program) and spoke specifically to their and their patients’ most crucial medical needs.
I am a woman who enjoys challenges. Once I reach a goal, I need another to focus upon. So, I moved to the San Francisco Bay area and became national director of advertising and public relations for a start-up company. I used my advertising/PR background to create, write, produce, direct, buy/place media, and attend conventions. The company owner, an inventor, eventually fired the national sales force and decided to further cut costs by telemarketing the product to their potential buyers. The ticket item was $80k, and no one was willing to pony up that kind of money over the phone without seeing the product, so the company folded fast. I had worked 7 days a week, 12-hour days with no social life and now no job.
I moved to sunnier southern CA where I eventually made it back into pharmaceutical sales with a startup that hired 4 reps nationwide to launch a product that was fast tracked by the FDA under the Orphan Drug Law. I did well there, won some sales contests, but being on the road in a huge territory is a grind and the company only had one product. I soon tired of this and since I had a master’s degree in education with a specialization in community counseling and a DCH in clinical hypnotherapy, I decided to go back to school and get my Ph.D. in psychology. I worked under a forensic neuropsychologist whose practice was at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, then worked with an anesthesiologist who specialized in pain management and got enough hours to qualify for the board examination.
I decided to go another route, however. I didn’t want to be a shrink to neurotic Beverly Hills housewives who couldn’t decide whether to have their decorator custom make their living room draperies in puce or fuchsia, so I decided to become a forensic psychological consultant. I could continue to work under the licenses of other psychologists, to increase my knowledge base. Once I had learned what I needed to move forward, I would cancel my assistantship with the board and work under another psychologist who could take my learning and career further. There is no licensure needed to be a consultant, but in order to advance, I needed to work under someone who was a veteran and knew the ropes.
Having a career in this arena gave me an understanding of human behavior, the law and psychiatry. My pharma background helped me with clients who were on medications and I could recommend switching medications or eliminating something that had a dangerous interaction with something else they were on, to the psychiatrist and doctors who were also in the mix of treating the client. The marketing, branding, advertising/PR skills I had helped me market myself to doctors, attorneys. My referrals built quickly, and my reports helped attorneys win cases. The clients were happy because I found them resources to continue living their lives, even though they were no longer employed. If they qualified for government aid (SSDI, SSI, food stamps, Section 8 Housing, medical/dental) I filled out and filed the paperwork for them. I went the extra mile so I could gain the trust and respect I needed as a newbie to get attorneys to send me their clients instead of to others. I even spoke impromptu at the LACBA annual convention in Las Vegas on “How to Turn Lemon Jurors into Lemonade”. I was the only non-attorney sitting on the panel.
I wanted to return to my first love, my media industry. A coffee meeting with a producer friend of mine turned into us getting offices at a well-known studio where we used small scale green screen technology to produce projects. Again, my writing, producing, directing and experience in front of and behind the camera came into play. Knowing how to pitch, sell, close deals, raise money allowed me to work on the projects near and dear to my heart. I developed and helmed an internship program through Cal-State University and taught students to: direct, write, cast, produce, line produce, lighting/sound, green screen tech work, marketing/advertising a project.
When it was over, each student had a completed project in hand and all are still gainfully employed in the industry in Hollywood. I patterned my program after the one I had with CBS. Not one student picked up my dry cleaning, fetched me coffee or ran errands for me. I asked each one what they wanted to do in their career and then taught them the ropes accordingly. Two Disney interns on the lot came to me and asked if I would mentor them. Disney execs had them getting coffee and making copies and they were not learning a thing. A friend of mine whose daughter is in film school just returned from Cannes on her internship and they had her waiting tables and she learned nothing except that she didn’t want to be a waitress for the rest of her life. Don’t get me started on the internship programs in Hollywood….
Being a one trick pony in any industry can shorten anyone’s shelf-life career wise. I constantly poured my education, background and experiences into the blender I wanted/needed and was able to pour out the skill set that qualified me to get the position and do a good job. The mantra for my career was “Learn as much as you can. Stay relevant”. If you aren’t relevant, you don’t get hired. When I moved back south to take care of my mom, I closed up my office at Hollywood Center Studios (Now Las Palmas Studios) and devoted myself to her care. I kept writing, which is a passion of mine, and soon through serendipity, met an agent over the phone who took me on. She then got another agent involved. Together, they represent writers of books and television/film projects.
Now I write books, TV, film projects and email my projects off to my agents and let them take care of the rest.
NP: What are the practical, social, political challenges & processes a person faces while trying to sell a script?
Barkley: PRACTICAL: You must first know this: Hollywood does not know what it wants. And that’s totally understandable! They may get 50,000 plus scripts a year for film. They have readers, but todays’ younger readers may not have the experience to know what will play well or what will flop.
A few years ago in television, there were too many flops, so the 70s reboot trend emerged. Take a successful show from a generation ago, rewrite it for today’s audience and voila!
When I first started writing television pitches, they wanted it all: logline, characters/arcs, storylines/arcs, premise/concept, pilot beats, etc. Then they whined it was too much to read. So, they asked for only a logline. Then they said they didn’t want to spend time doing development, which is understandable. Development is called Hell for a reason. It is time consuming, angst provoking and costly. So, we went to writing a one page. If they like that, we get to send in more. I sent a logline in that a producer liked, so was asked to write a 2 page with character list, pilot beats, premise. It took many rewrites (I tend to way overwrite and then edit, edit, edit), but I sent it off to my agent to get to them.
Today I polished a one page on a true-life concept that a producer wanted and sent that off. The problems we have as writers is in deciding what to leave out. If you leave out something that explains or validates the reason a character does something, they read it, scratch their heads and instead of making a logical leap to the reason, they discard the project. You can get discarded on a typo. They must find any way possible to discard, because they have way too much on their plates to read and not enough time. I must give Hollywood credit; there are a ton of project hopefuls that go into that huge diameter funnel top and they have to go through each one until they squeeze one out at the bottom to be sold and produced.
Now that there are more venues to create for: Internet, streaming, cable/cable/cable, there are tons more people who think they can write. Having a good idea and being a good writer are often very far afield. I have read first draft novels by writers that were transformed into beautiful literary swans in the hands of a good editor. And if you think you are the only person with your great idea, you are wrong. Ideas are universal. A million people on the planet may have the same idea around the same time and not be aware of each other.
You cannot copyright an idea, but you can copyright your work product. I do NOT recommend registering with the WGA. It is a registration and NOT a copyright. It will not protect you in a court of law except to say you paid them to put your name and project in their database. Only a copyright will protect you. And NEVER discuss your ideas with anyone. Period. Since you cannot copyright your idea, anyone you tell it to can use it, write it, copyright their work product. You don’t need an attorney to copyright. Go to copyright.gov and do it yourself. In the meantime, while you are working on your project don’t discuss it with anyone. Period. Exclamation Point.
So, you think there are more opportunities to write? Maybe. But look who is getting bought over and over. It’s people who have usually worked their ways up the food chain in the industry. The Game of Thrones writers who just got a $200m deal from Netflix didn’t just wake up 8 years ago and start writing. They weren’t indie guys living in a studio apartment in Burbank sitting in front of an oscillating fan in their boxers banging pages out on a typewriter. They were constantly honing their craft.
How do you hone your writing skills? Read. Write every day. Watch classic TV and film offerings and pick apart plot points/twists. Break down an Academy Award winning script and analyze it: plot, dialog, action, beats. Connect with the parts of the script that elicit emotions. Ask yourself before starting a script: Who is my audience? Your audience isn’t everyone.
When Hollywood goes to market your project, they need to know: Is this for kids (with some adult content thrown in to keep parents entertained)? Is it for teens? If so, what age range of teens (At PBS we wrote for a certain age range but skewed the content up by a couple years older to make the younger kids more interested in a more “grown up” concept). If it’s for women, you better know how to write dialog for women.
The issue I see in dialog by many writers is that each character speaks with the same “voice”. This says that the writer has not defined the character beyond “she’s blonde, Caucasian, age 32, divorced, perky”. You must create, at least in your head, a comprehensive backstory of this person and what they have gone through in their lives that led them to who they are today. You would know all the things I did in this industry that got me to the next level, allowed me to change fluidly from one career area to the next, and how my degree and experience in psychology allowed me to create fuller, richer and more dynamically complex characters.
The voice of my strong female protagonist, for example, will be different from the strong male antagonist’s voice because of the traumas she had as a child at the hands of a mentally ill, sadistic mother. The Litmus test for your characters voice can be tested this way: put a piece of paper over the names of the characters in dialog and have it read (not by a friend or family member, please!!!!) by someone who is willing to give you specific notes on what you have written. If they say the voices, wording, etc. are not distinguishable, then you need to rethink your characters and give them a life before you “met” them. I often give notes to writers and my notes are extensive. If someone says, “I love it” or “You did a good job” then that’s not enough. You want to become a better writer? Have someone who is actively submitting through their agents and like mine does, have a first look deal with four top producers, to give notes on your work. It’s worth it.
You must have an agent. When I am sent scripts that are not represented by a genuine agent or manager, I toss them unread or delete them from my inbox immediately. Why? Because God forbid I read it and then some part of it, some character, some perceived nuance winds up in one of my projects and I get sued. Reputable producers, studios, networks, cable don’t accept or read unsolicited projects.
I like collaborating with other writers, especially if they are quick to turn in work, responsible, dedicated, and have a way with telling a story. I have written with aspiring writers and have no hesitation to do so, so long as I take the lead because I know how to get us there.
POLITICAL: Hollywood loves and also hates to produce things about hot political topics. Currently THE HUNT, a film starring Hilary Swank about liberals capturing conservative “deplorables” and hunting them down in cold blood has been sidelined from release. While the project is timely in nature and it does highlight the growing rift in our country politically, it is too risky for it to be widely released. Billed as a horror picture, it is really political commentary that can cause a deleterious backlash in our country. As a journalist, I don’t wed a particular political party. As a student of psychology, I can see how this film may excite mentally ill people or politically polarized people into projecting violence onto those who do not believe as they do.
A friend of mine pitched a TV series in Hollywood where they emphasized the female lead character as a #MeToo. The studio nixed it. Women in Hollywood have been through enough and the wounds of what they have suffered are too raw to build a TV series around it right now. Time, distance, perspective, and healing are needed before such a project can find a receptive audience.
This is why I say, you must define who your audience is. What is the driving concept of your project? Is it timely? Is it budget friendly? (Producers look at how much the project will cost them in time, dollars. Directors look more at how good the story is, how rich the characters are, how compelling it is visually, etc.) Is it too radical politically? If it is, you will alienate a large audience base, reduce ticket sales, annoy producers who have to make buying decisions based upon dollars, cents and how well they think the product will do at the box office.
Yes. Product. You may write from your heart and soul, but at the end of the day, you are still producing a widget that you must sell to someone willing to buy it and introduce it to the world. When people ask me what I do as a creator and writer I tell them, “I conceive the baby, develop it, birth it, send it to my agent who then sells it to someone else to raise”. You must be willing to give up your baby to someone else. New writers insist to me, “I won’t sell my script unless I can direct it.” Or, “I won’t sell my series unless I can be the showrunner on it.” Good luck with that. If you have not paid your dues in Hollywood, if you have no name, no cred, no agent, but you fancy yourself the next D&D, then you have a better chance of seeing God. I used to be able to walk into an office and give a verbal pitch, no notes. It’s changed since then and the ability for us independents to get seen, heard, read is even more difficult. It’s a brutal industry with rules made up as the game goes along.
Things change rapidly and what they ask for today may be what they don’t want tomorrow. People in positions of power get fired or move to another company and if they loved your project, it’s dead to the next person who takes their place. I had this happen on an hour-long drama series at a well-known network. My cowriter and I were up for a face to face, the guy got cut loose and *poof*. There are tons of scripts, pitches out there. But there are very few that get the shot at being produced. And the buyer may only order a pilot or 3 or 6 episodes to see if it grabs the ratings. Yes, no matter how much you love your “baby” if the audience doesn’t love it, it’s dead. You live and die by the ratings in this business, so you need to know who your audience is and what they want to see.
You cannot afford to be self-indulgent in this industry when you’re starting out. Your agent, if you have one, bangs the phone and finds out who is buying what and takes an order for, say, a crime procedural with a strong female lead and she looks at what she has in inventory from her stable of writers and may send it back to you to polish or edit down to fit what the buyer wants/needs. Then when polished, she sends it out. This is the business side of our industry and you must understand and at least tolerate, if not embrace, it or your chances of getting bought go way down.
Picture yourself in a small room printing money. Some days they want dollar bills. Some days they want 20s. Some days they want quarters. Some days they want pennies. And you have to be okay with making what they want or they’ll go to a money printer that will. As much as it galls me to say, we are manufacturers who must make/build/create/write what the buyers want to fulfill the needs of a market that is driven by an audience who must be convinced to part with their hard-earned money, or our business ceases to exist. If you want to produce art, go to PBS and get one of the many foundations and corporations to support your dream. Or be one of the ones who truly produce something amazing among all the CGI infused comic book movies that are out there. I have nothing against them, mind you. They have a huge audience and CGI is amazing. As I’ve noted, I’m a Game of Thrones fanatic and have binged it at least 6 times; except for the last season…I just find the comic book movies predictable and my brain needs more stimulation than that. But, it’s important to watch everything you can in order to see what’s going on and what’s trending. Form opinions. Watch everything from Game of Thrones to TCM. I keep TCM on when I write. The writers back then had to depend upon character and script development, plot twists, elements of surprise. There was no CGI back then. The written word was King. That’s a whole other topic I can address…
While Hollywood may not want to read due to the inordinate amount of time it takes (time is money) they do love books. Why? Because successful books have millions of eyeballs and an audience base already built in. It’s easier for them to market something millions of people are already in love with and want to pay to see on a screen. (Movie theater, TV, cell phone/tablet). If you want to write a script, you have a better chance writing a book first—in many cases. That’s why I also have a literary rep who pushes me to write. As a person trained to write a complete story in 2 and a half minutes with 25 words or less sound bites, this is grueling. Hitting a 50,000-word count when 25,000 will do makes me feel like I am having to fill the pages with bloated garble, just to get the word count requirements met.
But if you want to write and be commercially successful, you must do what you’re told. As bonded as I become to my characters, plots, writing, I must defer to those who have gone before me who deal with the unpleasant side of the business. And you must always, always, always remember: This is a business. It’s not a charity. It’s not a platform to send a message (although many scripts do either overtly or via subtext). It’s not about YOU. Don’t take comments, critiques personally. I don’t mince words when I give notes on writers’ projects. If you need to be coddled, find a safe space at home when you read notes on your project. Play some Nessi Gomes while you read them. Find your safe space. Breathe deeply and exhale. “Ommm”. Remember, life is an illusion. Or as my dad would say, “Life isn’t for wimps. In a hundred years, no one is going to give a big fat rat’s ass who we were or what we did.” So, don’t take the whole thing so seriously. Take the notes and make your writing better. It’s a process.
SOCIAL: Stay off IMDB unless you just need to have an ego pump. It’s a joke in our industry and truthfully, can make you look like an amateur. I know what I have done creatively in the past and don’t need to broadcast it to the world. I have come a long way since then in a multitude of professional venues. All I care about today is what I am working on in the moment and if my agent thinks it’s good enough to forward to the industry who is currently actively buying. I am not trying to “get known”. I have an agent who has made me known to producers she has sent my offerings out to. I like sitting at home anonymous and quasi reclusive, writing and not grinding to get attention from people who, honestly, won’t make or break my roll.
If you want to gain more eyeballs, then blog. And get others to share your blog. It will get your name out to people who read and help you hone your skills. Connect with others online by asking questions about your blog so they will answer. Build relationships with an audience. Then write that book, script or what have you. Post links to your blog on other social media platforms and ask to have them shared. Build community. Keep the community engaged. Be accessible. Ask questions. Respond. Be respectful. Make friends. Ask for feedback. It’s all good.
On IMDB, friends can upvote you and “increase your ranking” but it means very little unless you want people to see it. I was added to it without my knowledge and I took myself off many years ago. It’s a marketing tool owned by Amazon to sell more DVDs. It means nothing. IMDB stands for: Internet Movie Database. That’s what it is. If you want to push your project and you are an independent, shoot a 3-to-5-minute sizzle reel, a short, an episode, a compelling portion of it and upload it to any venue online of your choice and then ask your friends, family, coworkers, strangers, social media contacts to share it. I repeat, get eyeballs. Working social media outlets is a full-time job! My agent insists on it but I got so disgusted by the politics, name calling, gossip and general negativity of it that I took my profile down. I am on LinkedIn because I find value in it. I learn about new advances in technology, entertainment industry, and can connect to groups where I learn what’s trending.
Speaking of trending: You can put Variety newspaper app (and other industry newspapers) on your phone. I read it from time to time to find out what projects are being taken on, what movies are doing well in the box office, what TV shows are up for awards, who is being signed to write/do what. It’s important to stay abreast of what Hollywood is doing if you want to remain on trend, relevant. For those who insist you want to write only what you want to write and not stay on trend, that’s fine. Sooner or later Hollywood will come back to what you are writing about and you can dust off that project and update it and send it out. I hate chasing trends, but at times you have to do it and pray the trend has a long enough run so that when you are done with the project they will still be wanting to buy.
There are tons of other things I can offer advice, experience, insight on, but this is probably a good start, though it’s only the tip of a very deep iceberg.
NP: What’s the process of finding an agent, producer, known actor?
Barkley: BACKGROUND: One of the controversies in Hollywood right this minute is the packaging of product. It was very different under the old studio system and when that changed, we were told we needed to bring the script, director, producer, name brand actor bundled neatly together in order to get the project made.
And in March this year, the WGA sent out a letter to its members with a dictum to bail out of the BIG Four Agencies in Hollywood. And they did. Since “it all begins with the written word” and the agencies, also rep directors, and actors, it stands to reason if there are no longer any writers in their stables, what will they package their other talent with and what will they produce?
I have seen so many scams, shell games in this area, it nauseates me. Hedge funds, banks, Investor money run Hollywood now. Projects have to profit, or the investors make no money. If a movie bombs they try to recoup money abroad. This helps explain why action films, comic book films are so successful. They can cross the language barrier easily and when you can brand a film with T-shirts, toys, lunch boxes, logos, etc. and sell them en masse to the masses, you have a hit. But if you’re a production company, studio, etc. and you put out a bomb, it makes it harder to raise money for your next project. They need all elements to create the package,
Again, understanding the business of our industry is crucial. Hollywood follows the money, which is why it left Los Angeles and went to New Orleans, Georgia, London, Ireland, Canada, etc. If you can get incentives to lower production costs, put dollars in your pocket, not have to deal with union/permit issues, etc. you’d be crazy not to. Right now there are investigations into current practices in this regard. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. But one thing is for certain, the industry will continue to change and evolve.
Some gypsy producers (I call them that) hit a small town with a script and a director (who had never directed anything in his life), and promised parts to two B, C list actors who graciously did a dog and pony show reading from the script to help promote the project. On the strength of the names (which have waned in the past 2 decades) an investor was procured, gotten “pregnant” (my term for getting hooked in and then milked along the way and unable to back out without losing the investment), and the project was funded. The two actors were never signed under contract (Don’t do a handshake deal, ever!) and there was no signed deal memo between them and the producers, so they got cut loose and never paid a red cent for their time and effort. None of the local crew were given deal memos. (If you don’t get paid on Friday, don’t show up on Monday!) They worked their tails off and never got paid, then came to me for help getting their money after the gypsies folded their tents and left town, bankrupted their production company LLC and had no money to go after. I kept warning people, but they didn’t listen. They were too in love with the idea of “working on a Hollywood movie” and thought the people in charge of this miasma were honorable.
When I think of signing onto a project, I have a specific list of questions I ask. If I don’t like the answers, I bail and try to warn others, but some people refuse to learn the business side of this industry and end up getting screwed time and again. I don’t care how much creative ability you have, do not rely on someone else to take care of your business. You must learn how this industry works. As a writer, you may have to become a producer in order to raise money. Money attracts directors, actors and agents.
AGENTS: It’s a bit of a catch-22. You need an agent to get read by a reputable REAL Hollywood entity. But the top agents don’t look at newbies. So, you must find a lower level agency that is looking for new writers with a fresh voice. If they are actively looking, find out what writing samples you must send. You have to start somewhere. Actors/actresses get on reality shows, dating game shows, YouTube channels to get noticed. We call it “face time” to build their acting reels.
Nowadays, people join social media groups that have industry people who are there who can help you– but don’t bug them. If I ask for material on, say, zombies (which are not trending now) and you send me a script and then email, text or call me constantly, I will put you in movie jail (where you are isolated and not responded to). There are rules of protocol in this industry and one is: don’t bug anyone after you send something in. People are very busy with their own projects and may ask for something from the public and then sit on it because a deadline has come in from their agent and they have to prioritize and hop to meet their own deadlines.
Be patient. I send stuff to my agent and then totally forget about it. If she has interest in it or sells it, she will let me know. But I don’t bug her. If I don’t hear something in maybe 90 days, I send her a very short email, “Hi, just checking in on XYX project I sent 3 months ago and seeing if you have any requests for comedy. I just finished ABC and it’s attached. If you have time, would appreciate your thoughts.” I do my best not to become a PITA (Pain In The Ass). If I get bombarded with a writer’s emails asking me about their project, then I know for certain they do not know protocol in Hollywood and that they’ll be a PITA to work with and I drop them. It sounds harsh, but it’s really not. I am not ugly about it but this is the type of person that can sabotage a pitch session if you’re lucky enough to get that far, and I don’t have time out of my schedule to school people on how to act. But this is a very basic, first rule of thumb to adopt. Please heed these words.
One writer took every opportunity on all the social network platforms I was on to constantly write me. Another writer sent me some items I requested, politely thanked me for my time then said nothing for several months. When he did contact me, it was to congratulate me on an achievement and he didn’t mention his writing, but the fact he reached out without asking for anything, bumped him up in my mind as a considerate professional whom I would probably want to work with.
Take your screenplay, adapt it to a play and produce it for local theater. This is how My Big Fat Greek Wedding was discovered. It was seen, loved and made into a movie with a sequel. Fifty Shades of Gray was, for me, the most illiterate piece of literature I had read to date but my agent insisted I read it. Google E.L. James and you’ll see it was self-published by Vintage Books. But she originally wrote it in response to the Twilight series and published on fanfiction.net. There’s more to the story, but you can Google search if you’re interested. The point is, you must be proactive and make your own opportunities. If you gain press, you can likely get an agent. Take your script and shoot what you can afford to shoot and then you’ll have something to show.
BOOKS: If you want your book published, don’t start out sending it to the publishers who begin with the letters A, B, C, D. Since they are at the beginning of the alphabet, everyone sends to them first. Start with publishers in the middle to end of the alphabet. Consider self-publishing. People are making money that way as long as they list on Amazon, get reviewed on Goodreads and market themselves on social media. The publishing world has changed big time. Smaller publishers get less in compensation. Be prepared to bankroll your own book tour. I know writers who pay for their own billboards. Understand how books REALLY move up on the best seller list. Your jaw will drop. I knew a writer who penned medical mysteries and put them out in paperback then went to bookstores and bought up all the copies to get his book higher up in rank. I also know a writer who makes more self-publishing, guesting on podcasts than with traditional publishers. There is so much to learn about this industry in order to figure out what place you have, if any, in it.
HOLLYWOOD: If you don’t live in Hollywood, then it’s harder. In Hollywood, this industry is built on relationships. But you need to know where to go in order to find the “right” people to get to know. First rule: NEVER ask for anything. Movers and shakers get asked a million times a year to read something, listen to a pitch, help with a career. Bad move. If you have a relationship with someone and they like you, they are more likely to take an interest in what you do or want. But never ask them up front. It’s offensive. They had to work very hard to get where they were. They paid their dues. They aren’t likely to just give away their pearls. Joining groups like Women In Film (just one example) and volunteering your time will help you get to know people who have power, influence, advice who may be willing to mentor you. I steered clear of groups of people who were wannabees and starving artists. They would meet once a month and whine about the industry and never went anywhere. I focused on meeting people of influence in all walks of life.
I am a sapiophile and love learning, so this broadened my knowledge base, which is very important if you want to be a writer. It’s important to know about a lot of topics. I even got a 12-month subscription to Motor Home magazine just to learn about diesel engines, gray and black water and all things motor home related. It helped me understand the mindset of the people who owned and lived full time in motorhomes and why they advocated for this style of life.
I have been in many trenches of life and some were even quite dangerous but as a journalist, learning as much as I can about as many things as possible allows me to converse with anyone about anything and that makes me more valuable when it comes to researching and writing. And it also helps me to find common ground with anyone.
Right now I am taking a free course from Harvard University on Justice and learning about the long-dead philosophers whose beliefs are pervasive in our political culture today. When you want to connect with people, you need to speak a language other than just your own. And the more you know, the more will pop into your brain and onto your page when you write. You can give that character a fascinating back story that is a rich tapestry woven from the threads you have culled from someplace in your memory from something you have learned about. And that will set you apart as a writer.
You may think this has nothing to do with finding an agent or producer, but it does. The more fascinating you are to someone higher up the chain than you are, the more perceived value they will attach to you. The more you increase your value in their eyes, the more they will want to hire or represent you. Since many of us are introverts, we have to become worldly some way in order to appeal to the more extroverted people who hold our fate in their hands: agents and producers. These movers and shakers have built successful careers, have traveled, read, experienced life. We tend to sit at home and write about it.
My value to producers is partly in the things I have on my resume’ but more so in the fact that I have literally risked my life as a journalist to go where most are unwilling to go to get a story. I would rather do it that way than Google research online. I have seen the worst of humanity in the dirtiest, most evil underbellies of society but I was trained to do so and now I write about it. You have to create your own value before you can differentiate yourself from other writers on the market who are looking for an agent. Become an expert at something. Write what you know. Carve a niche out for yourself.
ACTORS: I know famous and infamous actors. I never talk to them about the industry. The last thing people want to talk about when they get off a 12 plus hour day on set is about work. They want to go home to their families, relax, engage in something pleasurable. I never pry or probe. Friends don’t do that. I ask how their kids are, their golf game, their spouses, their new toy, etc. If they want to volunteer, fine. I am not there to get anything from them. I enjoy who they are as a human, not as a character on set. I don’t fan or gawk over them. I don’t ask, “Do you know so and so?” I let them take the lead in conversation.
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a head start on meeting people in the industry. Go to movies where there is a Q and A after the film with the director, actors. Volunteer at charity events where they volunteer. But approach them like everyone else. I met a famous actress at Woofstock in Beverly Hills one year. I had my Yorkie with me and she has Yorkies at home and she came up to fawn all over my little girl and that’s how we met. I never mentioned her show, her acting or anything related to the industry. We just talked dogs. I met iconic Jack Nicholson at a charity auction. We were given swag bags and Jack was bending over to pick mine up as the night was ending. I came up behind him, not realizing who he was, and popped him on the butt. He stood up, a bit startled and I realized it was Nicholson. I said, “Jack, you’re picking up my swag.” He grinned that famous boyish grin as I introduced myself to him and replied, “Well. How do you do, Dr. Barkley?”
I have story upon story about who I have met in this industry. But as a writer, I don’t get to make the decisions of who gets attached and it can be the kiss of death to write a project with just one specific actor in mind. Why? Because the producer or studio may hate that person with a passion and your project will be dead. I don’t suggest actors, music or anything else that may tick a buyer or potential buyer off. Instead, when they say, “Who do you see in this role?” I answer, “You’re the producer. Who do you think would be the best fit?”
If you want to meet actors, go where they go. But don’t treat them like actors or celebrities. I met an A-lister by popping him one on the tush when he went to pick up my swag. When they are not on set, they are who they are: people trying to enjoy life just like we are.