Do you follow the code of a professional screenwriter?
October 6, 2012 § 7 Comments
What is a professional? Merriam-Webster defines it as: “Of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession; Exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace; Participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” Sure, it’s all of those, but the most important elements of being a professional are following the code of conduct. Even if you have never sold a screenplay, you must possess a professional’s mindset and follow it up with specific actions that over time will build your reputation and integrity. Always present yourself to others in a professional manner. Your attitude and work ethic is as important as your talent.
Professionals in Hollywood immediately recognize another professional as fast as they would an amateur or poser. It’s the same as a Samurai recognizing another Samurai or a gunslinger recognizing another gunslinger in the Wild West. One of the best bullshit filters Hollywood has is to weed out the amateur from the professional. There are too many talented people out there who want it more than you and anything less than the best will not get you through the gates of Hollywood.
Many times I discover that aspiring screenwriters are not following the professional code and when they don’t find success they blame others. It’s easier to soften the blow for them to blame their agent, manager, producer, or Hollywood itself for not getting their screenplay produced. It’s harder for them to accept the hard truths—screenwriters need to step up and take responsibility for their career. I’ve heard: “My script didn’t sell because they just didn’t understand it.” “I haven’t sold anything because I can’t get an agent.” “My agent’s not working for me and he won’t return my calls.” “That movie sucked. My scripts are so much better.” Even, “That producer was an idiot.” (Said producer has 20 credits and writer 0). The moment you follow the professional code and take responsibility for yourself and your career, it creates forward momentum and empowers you.
The professional code primarily begins with your screenplay. Do you respect the time it takes to really develop your screenplay? Do you bang it out with the hopes your idea will hook them and believe it’s not all about the execution? Do you follow the proper and accepted screenplay format? Do you plaster your cover page with copyright and WGA registration warnings? Do you release your screenplay before doing a spelling and typo check? Your script’s first page will reveal if you are an amateur or professional. You get one shot to make a great first impression.
A professional respects the mountain they are climbing as they build and establish their screenwriting career. It involves patience and the humble respect that being an excellent screenwriter doesn’t happen overnight or even with a few scripts.
Part of the professional code involves building a strong reputation through your integrity. Be a person of your word so that others can trust you. Professionals in Hollywood like to work with people they can trust. Every project involves money and time and both are a precious commodity. Professionals recognize this fact and put their egos aside and get the job done. I’ve been hired by the same producers again and again because they know my work, they know I can take notes and execute notes, and they trust me to turn in my assignments on schedule. I’ve built a solid reputation as a team player who likes to collaborate.
Another professional code includes meeting your deadlines. You may get paid very little to begin your career, but you must treat the work as if you were getting paid a million dollars. There is really no difference when it comes to the work. You can’t suddenly do better work based upon what you’re getting paid. If you’re lucky enough to get the script produced, your name will go on the credits and it will forever be your cross to bear. This is why you have to always do the best job possible and think about the current project, but also see how it fits into the bigger picture of your overall career. If you want to work again, be aware of how it fits into your working relationship with the producer, executive or production company.
The professional code requires that you show up early for meetings. They will always be late, but you can never be late. It’s a little game they play where they usually make you wait fifteen to twenty minutes after the agreed meeting time. Practice patience. If it’s a huge problem, like you’re going to miss another meeting, empower yourself and reschedule right on the spot. They need to respect your time just as you do their time.
My last pitch meeting was with a top-level production company and the executives were in another meeting that ran long, so they made me wait twenty minutes. A professional doesn’t allow this bump in the road to rattle them, but half of the battle is recognizing your feelings. While I sat in the lobby and watched the clock, I realized that I was projecting on what “might” be happening and started down the road of fearful and negative thoughts. I took control and became mindful that I allowed anxiety to enter my mind. This could have been a disaster for my pitch, so I centered, focused on my breathing and stayed in the moment. I didn’t even think about my pitch or what I was going to say. When it was time to go into the office, I entered with a calm mind and nailed my pitches. This is what a professional does.
Being a professional means doing research on the producer, executive or director you are meeting. They will appreciate it and respect you more for taking the time to know their work. Now you can reference their previous work with regards to the project you are meeting about. I did a script doctor job and watched the films of the director who was slated to direct the project. When we met, he talked about specific scenes from his last film and because I watched his other films, I was able to reference them and it helped with our development process.
After a meeting, a professional always sends a follow-up “thank you” card. Most people in today’s world pay no attention to the small details of etiquette. It’s very old school to send a card and that’s exactly why it’s important. Executive’s assistants sort the incoming mail and the hand-written notes are always stacked on the top of the pile and read first. You will standout days after your meeting when the producer is busy with five other projects and you pop back on their radar.
Being a professional also means avoiding or wasting time with those who do not see your vision for your career or project. Having the confidence to say “no” and walk away.
A professional invests in themselves with the time to become great, but also in the tools of the trade. Invest in a good business cards and personal stationery with a letterhead. I grimace every time someone gives me their card and it’s printed from their computer. It shows me how much they value their career. Being a professional is always about the small but important details. It’s the same as meeting a producer who wears an expensive suit, regales you with credits and name drops, but also wears unpolished shoes with worn heels. Your business card makes an immediate first impression and later it will keep that impression alive. Make your business cards simple and professional looking. Resist the temptation of adding a typewriter logo or director’s chair icons on your card.
I once received a business card from a guy that listed what he claims he does: “Director, screenwriter, producer, actor, P.A.” I read it again… P.A.? Seriously? Did he just list Production Assistant with those other abilities? He immediately lost all credibility with me. Pick one ability or two at the most and stick to it. The more abilities you list the more it reads like you’re an amateur trying to impress others and prove that you can do everything. If you’ve ever seen a business card from a true professional (director, producer, VP, President of Production)—it’s simple, clean, and projects all things professional. Your business card represents you and your brand. Don’t neglect this simple and easy way of projecting a professional image.
A professional also recognizes the mountain they are climbing. There are no illusions of grandeur, but the realities of being in the trenches and fighting the good fight every day as you sit at the blank page. Everyone’s journey is unique, but the pro recognizes that anything less than always being their best is not good enough. Be excellent every day of your life at everything you do.
Soldier on my fellow professionals, follow the code, keep the faith and keep screenwriting.
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“A professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.”—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
“The professional understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare… the professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep the huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.”—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
“The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them. His aim is to take what the day gives him. He is prepared to be prudent and prepared to be reckless, to take a beating when he has to, and to go for the throat when he can. He understands the field alters every day. His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily as he can.”—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art