Your Screenwriting Career: Keeping Execs' Attention - The Follow-Up
Not only is your career completely in your hands, but in this article, I'm going to explain the one thing you can do to increase your chances of success nearly 10 fold. If there is any article of mine that you are going to take to heart, this needs to be the one.
Far too many screenwriters do not realize the importance of following up with producers and execs, nor how to do it correctly. In fact, more than 80% of the screenplay sales that occur are the result of 5 to 12 communications—whether those are emails, phone calls, or meetings.
I say this a lot because I know it's important: You are your own business.
Since you are your own business, you have to realize that you are selling a product. Part of that product is you, and part of that product is whatever screenplay you're pushing. But make no mistake, you're selling a product. According to the National Sales Executive Association, research has shown that only 2% of major sales (regardless of industry) are made on the first contact. 3% on the second contact, 5% on the third, 10% on the fourth, and 80% of major sales are made as a result of the fifth through twelfth contact!
When I saw this, I got curious. How accurate would that be for the film industry? So, I counted my own emails with writers who I've optioned scripts from, and writers whose movies I've produced. Every single option and sale was the result of no less than 8 emails or phone calls.
Now, of course this doesn't mean that all a writer needs to do is send fifteen emails, and they're going to get sold. What it does mean, however, is that if a writer is relying on only one or even two emails to sell their projects, they are 95% more likely to not sell their projects. In other words, you have to build a dialogue, and you can't depend on the producer or exec to do it for you. You need to learn the art of "the follow-up.”
When you send an email to an executive, there are some facts you should know. On a daily basis, executives are receiving dozens of phone calls, and likely hundreds of emails. So, a single email from a writer they've never met or don't know very well is not likely to stand out. That said, if you know how to do proper follow-up, you are essentially multiplying your odds each time you reach out. Notice that I did say "proper” follow-up, so let's get into the easy Do's and Don'ts of following up.
Don't Make Assumptions
The most common assumption that I see screenwriters make is they assume that just because they sent an email or screenplay, that it was read. As I pointed out above, your email or phone call is competing with a lot of other emails and phone calls, so the best way to actually stand out in a positive manner is to be diligent, and to follow up. Make no assumptions, and stay positive.
The second most common assumption I see from writers [which goes hand-in-hand with the first one] is that if you haven't heard back from a producer, then they're not interested. Again, chances are they haven't even opened your email yet, so assuming they don't like your material would be a mistake.
Finally, the third, and most dangerous common assumption is that if you sent an email to a producer or exec, and never heard back, then not only did they read your email, and not like what you had to say, but they also spitefully failed to reply to your email because they're mean spirited people. Producers are not trying to upset you, in fact, they're trying to find you. But, there are a lot of distractions, so it's your job to follow up and stand out above the crowd.
Do Make This One Assumption
There is one assumption that you should always make. As long as a producer hasn't specifically said "no” to your script or to you, you should always assume that your script is what they're looking for, but they just haven't had any time to give it attention… and that's OK! After all, if you were pitching someone who's not busy, chances are they're not going to be much help anyway.
By making any of the three bad assumptions above, you're already going to be setting the wrong mood when you're making a phone call or sending an email. Believe me, your current mood does, and will find a way to creep in between your lines. However, by making this one positive assumption that "they're just busy, but some day they're going to figure out how much they love my script,” then your positive and nonchalant attitude will translate into a shorter, more pleasant experience for the reader.
Don't Let Months Go By
Think about it. Even the people who you rarely see, but you have access to, you speak with them more than 6 times a year. It might just be little Facebook notes here and there, or it could be the occasional phone call to check in, but it's rare to have a good friend or contact who you only communicate with a couple times a year. The same goes for your professional friends.
Do Professionally Stay In Sight
What I mean by professionally staying in sight is that if you do not hear back from people you reach out to, you should follow-up in brief, professional ways, thereby keeping your name in their psyches. Eventually your emails will not be the random email from a name the executive doesn't recognize; your name will be a name the executive recognizes, and the executive will take the time to read your emails.
Just as an example, I get so many emails (about 250+ per day), that a lot of the names just blur together when I first get to my desk. And out of the 100+ or so waiting for me every morning, only about a dozen of them are from people that I immediately recognize. Now, here's the funny thing about diligently following up: your name becomes recognizable whether or not I like it. There's one writer who's been reading my articles who managed to get in touch with me—I'm not sure how, but he did. Anyway, I probably ignored the first three emails because I get a lot of pitches, and my company is going into pre-production so we're not really looking right now. However, by the third or fourth email, I already started recognizing his name, and his last email was so short I figured I knew him: "just checking in to see if you got my last email.”
So, I immediately assumed, with such a brief email, this must be a writer I've already been in touch with… I mean, I DO recognize his name; I just can't place from where. I started replying to his emails explaining my busy schedule, and welcoming him to follow up with me in a few months. He has still batted a couple more emails my way just giving me updates, complimenting me on some of my articles, and just generally checking in, so now we have an actual relationship. This is a writer who has direct access to me now, and in the future, and he built that connection out of thin air by following up. A couple months from now, I'm going to be reading his scripts. Just a fact.
One obstacle in between you and your next big sale could be your memory. As I pointed out above, just because you've reached out to a new producer or company for the first time, doesn't mean they're going say "yes,” or "no.” As a matter of fact, even if the script was exactly what they're looking for, you only have a 2% chance of selling the script based on that first email you sent them! Maybe you should write down who you contact and when!
This mistake is exacerbated when networking. Many writers fall short of following up and keeping their name fresh in the minds of executives they meet. It's hard enough at an average event where you're only going to meet a dozen or more people in a single day. That equates to a handful of companies you got in front of, but if you fail to follow up, then you fail to develop relationships. You should contact everyone interested in your material, and follow up with each of them.
It's an even bigger foul when you end up pitching more than 60 companies, then only contact them a couple times in the months that follow. You now know the stats, and you know that most of your big screenplay sales are going to come from a lot more than one or two emails and phone calls, so by following up with those you've met, you're multiplying your chances of getting a major option or script sale. I have an idea! Set reminders.
Consider for a moment that you meet with 60 production company execs. Let's say 30 of them show interest in your scripts. If we assume that your script is actually a really great fit for half of those execs, then you have a 15% chance of striking some kind of deal. But if you really use follow up to your advantage through the next 12 months, you could increase your chances of success to 75%+!
Do Set Reminders
Once you've reached out to a new company or contact, you need to know that they are not just going to make you priority #1, so you're going to need to send some reminders occasionally. For example, if you just sent a company a brief email and one paragraph pitch, you might want to set a reminder on your calendar or smart phone to follow up with that company in a couple weeks. That follow-up email shouldn't be long; it should literally just be a FWD of your original email, with a brief note at the top saying something like, "Hi there, just wanted to see if you had a chance to read my email I sent a few days ago. Hope all is well.”
As a matter of fact, it should be a rule of thumb that you can follow up once every three or four weeks with all of your contacts. A great example of why this is so important is actually one of my recent films, "Filth,” starring James McAvoy and Jamie Bell. One of the producers of "Filth” and I have known each other over email for a couple years—I didn't even meet her in person until after the film was produced. To be honest, I don't even remember how we first got in touch. In any case, she emailed me once a month to just inquire as to what I was working on, and to let me know what her company was doing. She told me she had this great award-winning script starring James McAvoy, and she asked if we would possibly be interested in investing in the picture.
At the time, all of our funds were leveraged on our last film, and we were still developing our investor relationships, so I didn't feel very comfortable deploying our funds on a movie that I couldn't personally vouch for or oversee. I did however, have some other investor contacts who were circling my company, but who haven't yet worked with me. I told the producer, I'd reach out to them and see what I could do.
Mind you, at this point I'm juggling one movie in post-production, another in development, and a full time job at InkTip. I get a LOT of emails every day, and despite the fact that she, as a producer, is way higher up on the totem pole than me (and I would absolutely want to be in her good graces), there are only so many hours in the day, and I was unable to make her film a top priority. Did that stop her? Not even close.
Now that we had a relationship of some sorts, she would email and call me at least once every two weeks. Her emails were always brief, and always kind; she just wanted to check in.
Well, fast forward a few months, and she's still updating me on her project every couple weeks. By now, the film is not only in production, but is only a week away from post-production, and they're now looking to free up some of their capital by bringing in post-production investments. It just so happened that a new investor of mine recently expressed interest in finding a project to get his feet wet, and I didn't have anything of my own available at the moment. So, I called up the producer, negotiated the terms, and had the deal closed within days.
If that producer didn't follow up with me on a regular basis, the film would have fleeted in and out of my thoughts, but because she was so consistent, and so organized about contacting me, that movie was at the forefront of my thoughts every day—whether I wanted it to be or not. When the right opportunity arose, her movie was the first one I thought of. And since we're counting emails to success, I counted every email between the two of us from the time she first introduced me to the project, to the time the contracts were signed: 117 emails! That's right. One-hundred-seventeen emails were sent back and forth before a deal was closed. That would come out to roughly 60+ emails from her.
This is how to become a successful screenwriter.
Don't Be Pushy or Negative
Sometimes there are writers who do take the time to follow-up with execs, but they commit to the worst false assumption; they assume the exec saw the email, read the email, and spitefully neglected the email. Writers who make this kind of assumption, and also choose to follow-up, generally approach the executive in a very negative way. I've had writers' second emails to me downright insult me for failing to respond to their first email. I will tell you, there is no quicker way to get on my "blacklist” of people I will never work with.
This negative approach will never get anyone anywhere, and really refers back to professionalism. So, before drafting your emails, if you haven't already read my article on "Creating success by building professionalism,” you can read it here: http://www.inktip.com/sa_article_page.php?cat=sa&scat=resources&pg=78
A great example of a writer just going with the flow is the screenwriter of a film I produced for Lifetime. He's had a number of films produced by listing his scripts on InkTip.com, and in this case, I initially reached out to the writer, and not only did he follow up with me, but he did it in a very relaxed way. He'd send emails with one or two sentences: "What'd you think?”
I mean, how could I not respond to that?! He didn't spend any time talking the script up, or trying to tell me that it's a sure money-maker; he just focused on talking with me—no agenda. Now, I don't know if this was by design, or just his normal way of working, but we became real associates before ever meeting. I never felt like I was being pitched the hard-sell; I just felt like I was talking with another professional who has the same goal as me: make a good movie.
Do Set a Schedule
I can't give you an exact time-table off which to work, but I can say that following up with all of your industry contacts once a month is very safe. It keeps you relevant, and on the minds of those you wish to work with. Don't be distracted by the small number of executives who blow you off, just stick to the game plan, and find solace in those who welcome and respond to your emails. No great business was launched in a day, or as a result of one single meeting. Every great business was the result of multiple meetings, several trials and errors, and the success is ultimately due to the diligence of the founder. You are the founder, and you are the business. You do have the power to create your own success.
This business is not that hard or confusing—it's just like any other business. The reason why so many people have a hard time making it is a result of the widest-spread false assumption of all: people are instantly and effortlessly discovered. If you really want to make it in the film and television industry, just treat yourself like a business, be professional, and follow up with all of your potential clients. That's how any other business succeeds, and it's how the business of you will succeed.
About the Author:
Gato Scatena is a producer with Scatena & Rosner Films, and former vice president at InkTip. His most recent productions include the film, "Filth," starring James McAvoy, the comedy, "Mantevention," starring Mario Van Peebles, "The Sand," "Landmine Goes Click," and Lifetime's "Imaginary Friend," starring Paul Sorvino. Scatena & Rosner Films is in development on more features for 2015, and also works in film tax incentive financing.
Questions for Gato can be tweeted to @GatoScatena on Twitter.