Monday, May 04, 2009

Generally Speaking

TV staffing season is upon us! Shortly shows will be meeting with writers -- some already are, particularly at the higher levels.

But by and large during this time of year, TV writers are waiting for the dust to settle around pickup news and the fall schedule. If you're not currently on a show, I've learned that you're doing two things right now:
  • Writing. Always be writing. Spec screenplay and spec graphic novel script in my case, since I'm covered on TV samples for now.
  • Going on general meetings.
General meetings, aka "generals," are one of the few things in the screenwriting business that I haven't found an analogy for in other fields. Imagine an interview at a company where they don't necessarily have a job for you but might in the future: it's a job interview slash get-to-know-you. This kind of thing is rare in other industries, but happens all the time in entertainment.

The way it works is this: your agent or manager gets your script to an executive at a network, studio, or production company. If they like it, a general gets set up.

Going on your first general? A few tips.

Relax. If you're having a meeting, they've already read and liked your script. The meeting is to see what you're like in person, how you relate to other people... basically, to make sure that you're not an axe murderer.

Remember, it's a job interview of sorts, so be prepared like you would for any interview: it's the smart and courteous thing to do.

Read any pilots relevant to where you're meeting, check which shows they have on the air (past or present), learn which shows the execs you're meeting with worked on, and be ready to talk about all of the above. Re-read your own work: if it's been a while since you looked at your own specs, you don't want to get caught flat-footed if they ask you about them.

Also, look up who you'll be meeting with. Google, LinkedIn, the trades' websites, and IMDb are great resources. Check with your agent about pronunciation of names, and gender if necessary. There are Pats, Chrises, and Kellys aplenty, so don't assume.

Be flexible. Rescheduling is common for these meetings, especially this time of year when current and development departments are super busy. Don't take it personally if your meeting gets pushed, even a couple of times.

Dress the part.
This may seem frivolous, but it's not. You're meeting new people and making an impression. You want it to be a good one, no?

As writers, we have a lot of leeway in what to wear in professional circumstances. I usually go with jeans and a nice top, sometimes a skirt or casual slacks instead of jeans if the weather's hot.

Guys can rock a button-down shirt and jeans, or t-shirt plus blazer and jeans. Be comfortable but don't be a slob -- jeans should be clean, no holes. Again, it's a job interview. Look like someone they'd be happy to hire.

And don't overdress. All black risks looking pretentious, like a German DJ, or like an axe murderer. For God's sake, no suits or ties. Few people in Hollywood wear suits except agents, lawyers, and studio presidents.

Leave plenty of travel time.
Yes, I mean to deal with LA traffic and finding the right building/office/gate, but also once you get there. Studio lots in particular are big places. Finding parking, getting out of the garage, walking to the building where the meeting is... All that hoofing around can take 20 minutes or more.

If you're way early, check out the studio store, hang out outside, or hit the restroom. I usually try to be checking in with the receptionist or assistant about 5 minutes before my meeting time. They'll ask you to have a seat, maybe offer you a water (take it), and in a few minutes you'll be shown into an office or conference room for the meeting proper.

Don't be an axe murderer. The meeting itself is Human Interaction 101. Take your cue from the people you're meeting with: some will want you to drive the meeting, some will ask a lot of questions, some want to tell you about their company and projects. Be polite. Listen.

Things you might be asked about, or should be ready to discuss:
  • Your background, where you're from
  • Previous work experience, other shows, people you worked with
  • Your spec, where the idea came from, any special research, etc.
  • Their pilots
  • Their current shows
  • Overall the shows or type of shows you like
  • Breaking industry news
  • Anything else, from the weather to sports to the last book you read.
Honestly, I find generals fun. Maybe I've just been lucky, but the execs and producers I've met with have all been pleasant, smart, interesting people, and the time goes by very quickly. The best meetings have been when myself and the other person had interests or passions in common. One meeting, the exec and I happily geeked out about WATCHMEN and Comic-Con before moving on to talk about my script.

One note about time: meetings can be as long as over an hour or as short as 20 minutes, depending on the exec's schedule and how things are flowing with you. Don't schedule meetings too close together.

Follow up afterward, if you have the means. Sometimes an exec will give you a card. I'm a big believer in thank you notes -- these people are busy, and meeting with me is them being generous with their time. I send a brief thank you email the day after the meeting. You won't always get a card, but don't worry about it. Your agent or manager will follow up for you.

Report back to your agent or manager. Tell your reps how the meeting went -- they'll check in with the person you met with, but it's good for them to hear your point of view as well. Sometimes they'll call you, or you can call them. You can also email, which is handy because you can cc yourself and keep a record of who you met with, when, and what you talked about.

I'm less familiar with the screenplay general, but I gather they're much the same, although there may be open writing assignments they're considering you for, which you should ask about.

If you have questions I didn't cover, ask them in the comments sections and I'll do my best to answer them.

Happy meeting!

UPDATE ON FEATURE GENERALS: Since first posting this in May 2009, I've been on a whole bunch of general meetings for movies. Those meetings are indeed very much like TV generals, so all the above applies.

If it's a general but there's a certain project the exec or your reps have mentioned, research it -- e.g. look up its history in the trades and read it, if it's existing IP like a comic book or article and is available (ask your reps) -- and be able to talk about it. The execs likely won't expect a full pitch, but it can't hurt to be prepared. In addition, you should inquire about open writing assignments.

Have fun, and knock 'em dead!