Follow Up and Follow Through
Writers often ask us about how to follow up after an agent, manager or producer has requested a script. Philippa Burgess, literary manager at Mason/Burgess/Lifschultz, who represents screenwriters working in Hollywood, was kind enough to answer that for you. Her company shares clients with the major agencies and deals directly with the studios and numerous studio producers.
NOTE: The following was written by Philippa Burgess while she was a literary manager at Mason/Burgess/Lifschultz, so any reference to what her company does is in reference to her time as a lit manager.
Follow Up and Follow Through
You've had your first date and you thought that it went really well. In the case of the screenwriter, this means that an agent, manager, or producer requested your script. You double check that you have good submission etiquette and you send it off to them with high hopes. Now you are left wondering if you'll close the deal and a have a great future together; but what's your next move? Not knowing the right next step can cause a budding relationship to falter. Too often you fail to follow up or don't know what to do if you never hear back. Sometimes when you do get a response it seems cryptic and you don't know how to interpret or apply the criticism to improve your product: namely yourself or your script. It is important to know that in screenwriting, as in love, your goal is to make a good impression, see if it will be the right match, work on self-improvement, and learn how to cultivate relationships.
Making a good impression is the first step. This requires that you keep all of your submissions and interactions professional. The biggest mistake new writers make is trying to gain representation or seek producers without having perfected their first screenwriting efforts or without adequate knowledge of the business or buying trends. There are so many classes and services available to grow you in the craft and give you constructive feedback until you know you are at a level where you are able to compete. When you are ready to submit, review the art of submission (previous article available at www.inktip.com/tips-psubmit.php) to make sure that your script passes first inspection. This way you will be absolutely confident in your follow up, and they will be respectful of you in turn, knowing that you are not wasting their time.
Once the script is out the door there is a flurry of anticipation and a certain amount of confusion. You are probably asking yourself "Should I follow up?" "How long should I expect to wait before I hear back?" "What if I never hear back?". These are all common questions. The answer to the first question is yes, you should always follow-up. It is preferred that you use the same means, (i.e. email, letter, call) by which you connected with them initially. Secondly, you can check in after a week or two to confirm that they have indeed received the material, and ask what their anticipated turn around time will be. Given a set time, or generally one month, be sure to check in as to whether they have read it or if they have a response. Finally, if you get no response, then wait another month, and check in again. You should always be professional and polite, even in the face of no response, and if you don't hear back within six months, move on and let it go, as it is their loss.
Keep all of your interactions brief and courteous (no more than a short paragraph or two, preferably just a couple of sentences). Please don't try to be their new best friend or lash out at them in your frustration, and this shows up as frequent contact or sassy comments. If you don't hear anything after you follow up, know that sometimes they file the follow-ups, but they typically make a point to get back to them all eventually. Either they haven't read it yet or they may already have it in a stack of passes to deal with all at once at a later time. We are all really busy with our regular business, so responding to scripts submissions is something that we often deal with about once a month, which is why that is the recommended waiting period. Even if you follow up it can take time to hear back, but your chances of getting an answer are infinitely increased. For the most part it is the case that if they never hear from you, you will never hear back from them. The significance here is not just that you want to necessarily collect a pass, but possibly gain some insight into what exactly it is that they are looking for or get the constructive criticism on how you can improve your writing, story, or marketability.
Know that you are a work in progress and that every interaction is a steppingstone to greater opportunities. Always be ready to take notes or feedback from professionals. It is important to make the distinction if it was the writing, story, or marketability that caused them to pass. Most of time the concept just falls short for those of us who are looking for material to sell on the spec script market. When your writing wows them, but it was not the right project for them, they will probably be interested to see what else you have for them to consider. Or if your writing style or story development have a lot of room for improvement, it is important that you recognize this and work on developing your craft. The more clearly you can identify the problem, the better chance you have of solving it. Perhaps you can glean some insight, but certainly don't push it if this information is not forthcoming.
When you have an opening with an industry professional use it wisely. Let them know that you value their opinion and you look forward to their comments. Given any interest from others around town on your material, feel free to use that when you check in. They don't necessarily care that others have requested it, but if you are taking meetings or if you are considering doing a rewrite based on another professional's insights, then you may want to share that information. Also let them know if you have new material for them to consider. If it is a manager or an agent, if they responded well to the writing, see if they can tell you what they'd like to see from you next that would be a better tool for them to market you. Let them know you are excited to move on to the next idea that will get you the positive attention you need to get going.
If we are really excited about a writer we typically call them to talk to them about their script. We are interested in developing this script as a potential spec or are keen to know what else they have and if they are willing to write something that is more appropriate for the spec market. As a manager, this is typically our most positive response. Even if we are interested in working with someone, there usually is a lot of work that needs to be done on the writer's part before they have a spec script ready and we can sign them for representation. Even if we can take your script immediately to market and sell it, still the real work has only just begun. You need to come up with more ideas, practice pitching, write treatments, take rounds of meetings, take notes, do rewrites, and make sure you deliver. Our job is to get you out there, but you have to hold your own with all the producers, development and studio executives.
You always want to present yourself as "fun, smart, and great to work with" so that people want to find a reason to get in business with you. You need to approach your career as a screenwriter with the same level of professionalism as you would any other professional career, like that of a doctor, or a lawyer, or a businessman. The only difference is that you wear a different uniform, but you need to demonstrate a comparable level of expertise in your field, if you are to expect equal compensation. There is a very specific culture embodied in the entertainment industry and just like there are many specialized areas of medicine or law, within the expansive landscape in entertainment, ours is a specific subset in studio feature film development. Your goal in building industry relationships is to help you embrace the culture, expand your knowledge, and begin to develop your own network within it.
All told, if you follow these guidelines, and your script is what they are looking for, you should not end up in the great silent abyss of passed-on submissions. You now know how to make a great impression and will be on top of your game when it comes to following up on your scripts. By getting the feedback, you can make the distinction if your material is not right for them (script needs improvement) or they are not right for your material (just not the right home). That script request was the first date that left you swooning about happily ever after. Alas, you realize that happily ever after includes a lot of responsibility. The good news is you are ready, and if you cultivate great relationships with managers, agents, and producers, you can share the journey together.