Tuesday, July 05, 2011

General meetings for writers

When you start out as a writer, after you get an agent, you'll get sent on lots of general meetings. I regularly get emails from people about to go on their first meeting, and they have no idea what to expect.

The meetings I'm talking about are the general "meet and greet" type - they've probably read your scripts and want to get to know you. They like to put a face to a name, so that at some point in the future, they might be able to match you up to a project, or decide whether or not to buy your latest script.

But, I hear you shriek, doesn't my writing speak for itself? Who cares what I'm like in person?? I'm a writer, not an actor! Well, it makes a bigger difference than you might think. Basically, they want to see if you are (a) mad, or (b) an idiot, or (c) an obnoxious wanker. If they hire you to write something, they'll have to spend several months in a room with you, working, collaborating. They need to know if those months will be creative and fun, or a complete nightmare. At the same time, you want to find out what they're like, if you share similar tastes. It's a bit like a job interview, except there isn't an actual job yet. But then one day, *years* later, you might get called back. And they'll always go by that first impression. They want to know that you're a professional, that they can hire you and be sure you'll get the job done.

Always over-prepare. When you're just starting out, most of your meetings will just involve getting to know people. But sometimes they'll be considering you to write their new project, based on their one page pitch. Even if they've been *very* clear that they'll be explaining the concept, and all you have to do is sit there and nod, you must still over-prepare. Because you'll walk in, ready to hear them pitch it to you, and they'll say "So, what do you make of it? Where do you see it going? How would you approach it?" And you'll look like an idiot. Sure, they should have told you that's what the meeting was. But you should have over-prepared. Read it several times, make lots of notes. If it's a TV show, think about what would you do with it, how you see the overall series, the finale, and three good, solid episode ideas. If it's a movie, work out what sort of feel you want it to have, how it starts, the rough storyline, and at least three big scenes. That way you will always have more material than they'll ask for - you'll feel confident, prepared, and there's nothing they can ask that you won't have an answer for. And look at it from their point of view - they only have an idea, but now a confident, keen writer has just walked in, overflowing with ideas, knows the material inside out, and will be able to generate a series/movie out of their one page concept. But unless you're told otherwise, you're just there to make friends and get to know each other. Double and triple check first, though. Just in case.

Research the company or person before you go there. They won't test you, but it helps to know something about them. They may say "do you have anything you'd like to ask us?" - I never do, my mind always goes blank, but it never hurts to have an intelligent question or two. And research your journey, too. Work out the minimum travel time, then add 30 minutes. Then add another 30 minutes. You can never be too early. Except the time I was a week early for my first Severance meeting. True story. I got the date wrong, because I'm an idiot. You MUST NEVER be late. EVER. Production companies like to live inside buildings with no bloody name or number on the front, so you'll still have to allow 10 minutes to find the place once you're at the actual address. If you get there *way* too early, wait around the corner, go to a cafe. You CANNOT be late. I can't stress this enough. Of course, they will probably be late themselves. Doesn't matter. Don't give them any shit about it, just smile and say "that's okay!" if/when they apologise for being late.

Wear casual clothes, but not too casual, i.e. jeans are fine, but no big shorts or flipflops. Don't wear a suit. That'd be weird. Dress as if you're going to a friend's barbecue, and their parents are going to be there.

On my way to a meeting, if I'm feeling a bit nervous or wobbly, I have a quick blast of some music on my headphones. Something fast, heavy, and uplifting, just to help get me going and give me a boost of energy. If the meeting is about a specific project, I'll put on music that matches it to get me in the right mood - if it's one of my projects, I'll use the custom playlist I made before I started writing (I always do this, sometimes I'll spend days on it).

When you arrive - and I really shouldn't have to say this, he said, looking sternly over the top of his glasses - BE NICE AND POLITE TO EVERYONE. Mainly because there are enough douchebags in the world without you adding to their number. But also, partly because that "unimportant" assistant you just curtly dismissed?? Might be the boss in 6 months. Yeah. And they remember the douchebags.

You'll be offered a drink (downside of several meetings in one day: a very, very full bladder). Have a still water. Tea/coffee might be too hot to drink at first, and there won't be much of it. Fizzy drinks can make your throat sticky, and give you hiccups or burps. With still water, you can keep sipping if your mouth/throat go dry. This sounds like a silly thing to make a point about. But you want to be confident and relaxed in the meeting, and not worrying about your mouth sticking closed or doing a big Coke burp. You'll be asked to take a seat until someone comes to get you. Calm down. Read a magazine, clear your mind.

So what happens in the meeting itself? The first minute or so will be full of general banter like "have you travelled far" and "did you find us okay" or "blimey, how about that weather, eh?" Then it'll settle down into the actual meeting. They'll probably ask you about yourself, how you got into writing, how you got started, how you got your agent if you have one, what kind of things you like to write, what kind of things you like to watch, and so on. They'll talk about your script, praise it a bit (hopefully), then tell you a bit about themselves, projects they might have, things that you might be suited for - if one of their projects sounds good, tell them, and maybe they'll offer to send it over, to see if you like it.

They'll usually ask if you've got any other stuff they might be interested in. *DO NOT* pitch something there and then, unless you've specifically gone in to pitch for something and have rehearsed it beforehand - even if they mention their giant robot project, and you've got the *perfect* giant robot idea or script at home, don't pitch it. You won't be ready, you'll forget something, stumble over it, and look like a mumbling idiot. Mention that you have something along those lines, and can come back to pitch it or (preferably) send them the outline/script. Then go home and work it out properly. There are always exceptions, of course - one time I had an instant idea based on something they wanted, and just went for it. They loved the idea, and asked for the outline (they later passed on it, but still, it was a good experience). But this was after several years of similar meetings, so I was used to the whole thing. Don't risk it!

You probably won't get any offers in that first meeting, so don't expect anything. Just be yourself, be enthusiastic, but professional. You don't have to be a sycophant or a performing seal, there's no trick to it, no catch, just try to come across like a nice person (which, hopefully, you already are). They want to like you! They're normal people too, just trying to meet new writers to make sure they don't miss out on the next big thing.

*DO NOT* slag off any movies or TV shows, because they'll have probably worked on them, or know someone who did (I speak from experience) - if they specifically ask, you can say what you thought didn't work about something, as long as you mention what you liked about it first. You don't want to sound like a bitter, negative downer. Similarly, don't say things like "I don't really watch TV" or "I'm not really into recent movies" - you should be keeping up with what's out there, and if you really don't like any TV shows or movies, how will you know that your idea hasn't already been done a million times?

Sometimes the person you meet will be an idiot, or a douchebag, or just plain wrong about everything. Pretend they're your partner's mum or dad. Smile politely, don't rise to their douchbaggery, be the better person. Later, you might learn that they're actually really nice, but just seem weird in meetings, or their cat just died, or they're not good with people. They're probably just a douchebag, but you don't know that. Remember, you're a professional.

Towards the end, they'll ask you to think of them next time you've got a brilliant script to send out, and you will graciously agree and say they'll be one of the first to read it. And then there comes the point when it's time to leave. You'll know it. Usually they'll say something like "okay, then" or "well, thanks for coming in" or "okay, well it was great to meet you". Don't start up a new line of conversation! When the meeting feels over and they've given you an "out", thank them for seeing you, finish up the banter, shake their hands, say goodbye, then leave gracefully - even if you've forgotten to mention something. You can always follow up in an email. Speaking of which, you don't have to email to thank them, unless you're supposed to send them an outline/script or something, in which case, you can thank them for the meeting while sending it. If they send *you* a thank you email, reply to it (and say thank you, obviously).

Once you get home, think back over the meeting. If you promised to send them something, do it now. If you did something stupid or embarrassing, and the very thought of it makes you cringe, don't beat yourself up. Remember, they want to like you, and will understand if you're a bit awkward when starting out. Work out what you did wrong, figure out how to do it better, and don't do it next time. Learn from it. Then forgive yourself, and move on.

Don't get your hopes up that something will come of it, you're just laying the foundations for later. Even if they said you're *perfect* for their current project and will *definitely* send you the details and want to get started *immediately* - it means nothing, and you might never hear from them again. Happens all the time. Maybe it fell apart, the financing fell through, they got fired, their boss got fired, the company got bought out, they started a brand new project that occupies all of their time, someone better than you got hired, their heads exploded, etc etc. If so, their priority is their current workload, not you. Harsh, but true. Nobody owes you a job, and everyone looks out for themselves. Leave it a month, then get your agent to follow up, or send a polite email yourself asking how they are and if they're still interested in Project X. It's always worth checking, just in case - you're cheap, and eager, and they'll be very aware of that.

That's it. The next meeting you have, you'll be much more prepared, and will do it better. And so on. And so on. Just like writing and re-writing, the more you do it, the better you get.