Your Screenwriting Career: Creating Success by Building Professionalism

Written by: Gato Scatena - producer, Scatena & Rosner Films
Published: Aug 5, 2013

You already have the power and the ability to succeed in the film and television industries, though you might be missing some tools.  

If success in the film industry is based on who you know, then who you know depends upon your professionalism: beginning with the first impression, carrying all the way through to a movie being made, and throughout the rest of your career.  And if by "know," we mean "are on a first-name basis with," then I'd say that statement is correct. So...

Success in the film industry is based on who you are on a first-name basis with, and who you're on a first-name basis with depends upon your professionalism.

In this article, we are going to discuss how to win industry professionals' favor, thereby furthering your writing career.

1) Your Career, and the People You're Going to Work With
2) Professionalism: What Not to Do
3) Professionalism - the Right Impression: What to Do
4) Conclusion

1) Your Career, and the People You're Going to Work With

Definition: pro-fes-sion-al (adj): ...exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner...

During your entire screenwriting career, you are going to be constantly refining the [quality of] people you surround yourself with.  This is one mark of being successful.  Similar to the economic likelihood of your income being the average of the incomes of the 10 people you spend the most time with, it can be summed up with the following: "successful people hang out with successful people." And, it's not that you have to already be successful to improve your social circles, it's that you have to be professional enough to fit in.

Be professional to attract professionals.

Now, whether you're already paying the bills with your writing, or you're just starting out, most of you have likely already met or spoken with some people working in the film industry.  Likewise, 99.9% of you have probably met some people you don't like, despite how short of an interaction those cases may have been.  So let me ask you, are you going to go out of your way to work with those people you don't like?  I doubt it.

I know that there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes there are going to be some pretty powerful people you'd like to work with, who you just don't get along with.  That's fine.  But, even at this early stage in your career, you are still more likely to work with people you like. 

Now, imagine you're already a successful screenwriter.  You already have several produced films under your belt, and you get six-figure offers twice a year-not even at the top of your game yet, but doing well.  At this level in your career, if you were to meet a producer who's argumentative, overly critical, and narcissistic, are you likely to work with them?  I think not.  You have too many other options.

Producers and executives are no different than you in that regard.  Regardless of the place they're at in their career, they are more likely to work with people who they like, and who embody professionalism.  And that's just with their peers.  I am certainly not at the top of my proverbial game, but there are about half a dozen producers higher on the totem pole than me who I simply will not work with based on past experiences with them.  There would be plenty of professional benefits to me just biting my lip and dealing with them, but the emotional stress that comes attached is not worth it.  So, when a screenwriter enters my world, and exhibits unbridled narcissistic unprofessionalism in all of its glory, chances are, my attention span will drop to nonexistent. 

I have personally dealt with my fair share of unprofessional folks in this business.  As a matter of fact, one reader emailed me not too long ago-effectively leading to this article.  I'm going to paraphrase here, but the email basically read, "I've been reading your articles and they're fine, but they're all BS unless you're willing to read my script." Now, I'm not going to get into a rhetorical argument here, but this screenwriter was essentially trying to blackmail me into reading his/her screenplay; their demand was holding the validity of my articles hostage, contingent on my willingness to read their script.  Yea... that didn't work.

The latter scenario is probably the worst violation of professionalism I've seen, and borders on treasonous since the approach was so self-destructive.  Still, there are more common mistakes that we should discuss.

2) Professionalism: What Not to Do

Let's explore a hypothetical here.  Let's say that for one day, and one day only, you take a note from Tyler Durden's notebook (Brad Pitt in David Fincher's "Fight Club" 1999), and decide to actively try starting a fight with everyone you meet... please don't though:  You go to the local Starbucks to get a coffee, argue with the barista, tell them they're doing it wrong, their hair style is stupid, and declare the cappuccino foam to be on par with muddy water.  I know that Starbucks does a great job at training their partners (employees) to deal with all kinds of customers, but there's no way you just made a friend.  To take this one step further, if the next day, that same barista had the choice of whether or not to serve you, you're going to need to switch to Coffee Bean.  Unlike the espresso business, in the film industry, nearly everyone has the right to refuse service.

In a very general sense, you can avoid all of these "don'ts" by following your mom's advice:

If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

Don't Criticize

The same way that you inherently know not to start off a conversation with a producer by criticizing their last film, you shouldn't criticize their opinions on your pitch, script, or approach either.  I am fully aware that some criticisms are going to be hard for you to hear, and some of the people who deliver those criticisms might not be the nicest people, but those people are sometimes standing in between you and a produced film.  Instead, you should be professional by inviting criticism, thereby exhibiting your flexibility, ease to work with, and future potential (more on these concepts later).

For example, when a producer gives story or pitch suggestions, I have often heard writers respond to such critiques with something along the lines of, "I get what you're saying, but I don't think you understand the world these characters live in." In instances like this, the writer has listened to the producer's critique, but responds to it with a critique of their own.

In cases like this, there is no beneficial reason for the writer to debate the producer's knowledge of the character.  If you don't agree with the producer's critique, that's fine!  One totally acceptable alternative to the latter response would be something like, "I get what you're saying.  That's interesting; I'll have to think on that."

Don't Condemn

The email that I mentioned earlier would fall under this category [if not all of them], because the writer was overtly expressing his/her disapproval of my opinions, thoughts, and advice if I was unwilling to read his/her script.  In a general sense, what I mean by "don't condemn" is to not shun or dismiss the other person's thoughts, opinions, or work.  This is dissimilar from criticizing in that it's not necessarily an offensive attack against another person's thoughts, it's just a vocal dismissal of them.

Outwardly dismissing or condemning another person's opinions is just as damaging as critiquing them.  One example of condemning a producer's criticisms or opinions is just by saying "I think you're wrong."  By condemning, you are closing the potential for open dialogue, and ultimately putting an end to a conversation that never really started in the first place.  This is the opposite impact your interactions should have.

In this case, an acceptable alternative would be the same as in the last section: "I get what you're saying.  That's interesting; I'll have to think on that." Or "Let me see if I can incorporate that". See if you can. Whether you can or can't, you can then talk to the person again about your project.

Another important example would be a story I recently heard.  A writer who signed with a pretty big agency [through, I might add!] was set up with multiple studio meetings.  In one meeting, one of the executives really liked the general premise and execution of the screenplay - loved the writers writing style - but was much more interested in making it as a male-driven TV series of which the writer would have been one of the writers.  The writer responded with something like, "Yea, I don't have anything written like that." Wow... just wow.  I'm sure most of you already see the problem here.  Not only did the writer condemn the idea and move on, he totally missed an amazing opportunity!


A good alternative to this would be saying "that's a really cool idea!  I'll put something together along those lines and get it to you!"

Don't Complain

It's easy to complain since the very act is an exercise in placing blame on shoulders other than your own.  I know it's frustrating when you don't get feedback on all of your script queries, or when you don't get the result you're looking for, but complaining is just another way to draw a rift between you and the executives you're speaking with.

The most common form of complaining that I see and hear about is the indirect complaint.  Something like, "I know you're probably busy, but you've had my script for three weeks and I haven't heard back from you." This version of a complaint is not so harsh as a full-on critique, but it certainly sends the message that you are displeased with the recipient's failure to contact you on your timeframe.

The recommended alternative to this complaint would be something simple like, "I know you're probably busy, but I just wanted to check in to see if you've had a chance to read my script." I would go on to add a "challenge" (discussed later) by continuing, "I would love to get your feedback and do what I can to  make this project a perfect fit for you."

A side note on not hearing back: It is common courtesy to respond to queries and emails. I always try to respond to email, and also try to get back to writers whose scripts I have read. Sometimes however, I am simply not able to do this-and for those of you whom I haven't responded, my sincere apologies.

Never-the-less, it's important for you to understand the point of view of production company executives and script readers.  Let me give you a hypothetical: let's say a reader receives 100 queries in a week and responds to every query.  Now, let's say 95% of the scripts the reader was not interested in.  The reader replies to these by saying something like "Thanks for your query, but this is not something we can pursue." Here's the reality: out of those 95 rejection letters, 5-10 writers will respond antagonistically or argumentatively.  This gets upsetting to the reader.  So, the reader stops sending rejection letters because they simply don't want the backlash.

This is so common, that there are many companies whose policy is to simply not reply to queries... period.  So, if you don't hear back, just let it roll off you like water on a ducks back, and move on.

Don't Argue

Finally, we get to "don't argue." All of the aforementioned "don'ts" can lead to arguments.  Another guarantee I can make is that if you start or participate in an argument early on in trying to develop a relationship with professionals, that relationship will stop before it begins, and will likely be unrecoverable. 

The best way to not argue, is to not invite it.  By avoiding the previous "don'ts," you shouldn't have to ever worry about starting an argument.  Some of the most wise and successful people throughout history have proven this method over and over.  This reminds me of President Lincoln's letter to Meade after Gettysburg.  Yes, he wrote an angry letter, but he never sent it.  Just remember, if you don't have anything good to say, say nothing at all.

3) Professionalism: What to Do

Now that we've gotten all the negative things out of the way, let's focus on the positive.  I'd like to give a shout-out to screenwriter, Mark Beech, who, in his proactive approach to writing emails, has not only captured my attention (despite my annoyingly busy schedule lately), but has garnered my respect.  He has exhibited some of these "do's" in a profound way, and has further proven to me the worth of the below recommendations.

Know and Use Their Name

I know this seems obvious, but it needs to be discussed.  Whether you're writing emails, making phone calls, or talking with someone in person, make a point to use their name.  A person's name is the most beautiful sound to that person.

For instance, once you've given brief pitches of your material, and the conversation gears toward the thoughts and opinions of the executives, try to include a person's name when you're responding: something like, "that's a really interesting idea, John.  I'll have to think about that."

If you manage to remember everyone's name by the end of the pitch session, try to include their names when you're saying your goodbyes.  "Really a pleasure to meet you, Alex.  Thanks for the thoughts, John."

On a personal note, as my odd name often makes it hard to forget, it makes it equally confusing to pronounce.  I'm always impressed by someone who remembers it and says it correctly later on.  I'm also a sucker for anyone who doesn't know how to pronounce it, and goes out of their way to ask what the correct pronunciation is.  And my name is only two syllables!  So, if you meet someone with a very foreign name, you should feel free to ask them the correct pronunciation-it will further indicate your caring, and interest in others.

Recognize Their Lives

Be as sympathetic as possible to the life they lead.  Whether you're sending emails or meeting someone, be mindful that they have a job and a career that they care about.  And from their perspective, picking one script over another, or one writer over another, can ultimately be boiled down to good decisions and bad decisions.  It's their job to not only evaluate your material, but evaluate you!  Once a script goes into development, that producer will be working with you for months all the way through to the completion of principal photography. They want to know that whoever they choose is going to be someone they can work with in a productive, stress free collaboration. It is a team effort and they need team players often times more than they need genius writers.

You might not have the right script for them, but if you seem like the right writer for them, then that's a door that can be reopened later on.  By recognizing, and being sympathetic to their lives, you are less likely to commit the mistakes in the above "don'ts," and more likely to win their favor and possibly friendship.

Give Appreciation

Whenever possible, you should give your sincere appreciation.  In the first email you write, it could just be thanking them for their time.  If they've provided some thoughts on your pitch, or even if they just respond saying, "I wish I could get to this right now, but we're just too swamped at the moment," you can still thank them for getting back to you.

Even with the most critical and brazen responses to your efforts, those individuals took the time to get back to you.  And most of the time, even a negative critique will still contain nuggets of value for which you should be appreciative.  Recognize the positive in all that you can, and give thanks for it.

I would however like to reiterate "sincere" in all your appreciation.  Always be genuine and sincere, and stray from fraudulent or forced words of gratitude.

Invite Input

Inviting input is a double-win because it's not only the equivalent of "pre-appreciation," but it also provides a "challenge." Inviting input is a great opportunity to compliment someone on their previous work by saying something like, "I really like the kinds of thrillers you produce, so I think your advice on this script would be invaluable."  You're basically showing appreciation before they've even provided an opinion! However, never demand input or expect it.

Also, by gently bating an executive into giving you opinions or notes, you're giving them a challenge they may want to live up to-there is some psychology behind why people do this, but suffice to say, it works.  The best part, is that when anyone spends time on a challenge like this, they can't help but feel more involved, and will therefore [over time] feel more invested in you and your project.

You can really put this to the test by ending every single pitch with something like, " that's it in a nutshell.  I'd love to hear your thoughts or any suggestions." The other benefit to inviting input is that even if a producer isn't currently interested, but still provides input, you can tell them that you'd love to rework your project with their notes and update them later if they're open.  Most execs will leave that door open for you, and be happy to see your changes later down the line.

Converse, Don't Argue

I didn't want to put a negative in this header since we're in the "positive" section, but I felt that reiterating "don't argue," is important enough to warrant.  As we discussed above, you want to avoid arguments at all costs, but you should welcome and invite genuine conversation.  Even if you get a critique that you don't agree with, see where the executive is coming from, acknowledge its value, and perhaps start a conversation on some "what ifs" derived from the executive's notes.

Remember, give appreciation of their notes and opinions, and if you feel it's worth a discussion, ask for more input based off other spit-balling ideas that riff on their initial critique, while addressing your concerns as well.  By building a conversation, you're building a relationship, and that is ultimately the goal.

Admit Fault

This advice works at all times.  If you've been argumentative with a producer in the past, send them an email and recognize that you were being argumentative.  A brief apology can go a long way.

The same can be said for any mistake.  For instance, let's say you're pitching a script and a producer points out a hole in your story that you didn't see before, you can admit to this fault, show appreciation for their insight, and say that you'd love to take that note and resubmit later.

I am not saying that you should roll over every time someone thinks they're right and you're wrong, but if you genuinely see a mistake you've made, or an opportunity missed, admitting it shows great humility and attracts people to want to work with you.


4) Conclusion

I know that the screenplays you write are of great import to you.  You've poured your soul into them, dreamt about them, and borrowing from Hemmingway, you've bled them.  So, when someone who has had a mere 1 to 2-minute pitch of your work has criticism and complaints, or someone else has failed to read a script that they have had in their inbox for several weeks, I understand a writer's inclination to take it personal.  Likewise, I understand a writer's desire to fight for their creation, and blame those who haven't given them the time of day, but there's something you may want to know.  Execs and producers are much more experienced in rejection than you are.

Producers, when they do find a script they want to produce, will often spend months working with the writer, even more months and money preparing budgets and pitching financiers, distributors, and possibly other production companies, and will ultimately receive just as many "no's," if not more, than you do.  What's more, producers are generally working on more productions than you have completed scripts in your library: translating to many many more "no's" than you get.  The difference is that producers understand the business, the importance of being professional, and have learned to let these rejections roll off their back so they can proactively move on to the next contact, and the next possibility... all while keeping their relationships intact.

Producers and executives work with people who are strong enough to give thanks, flexible enough to be a team player, and humble enough to recognize fault.  Even if you don't get the immediate result that you're always looking for from an executive, your goal should always be to start a beneficial dialogue, and creating long-lasting friendships.  Surround yourself with professionals, and you will become the successful professional you aim to be.

"Be the change that you wish to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi


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 upcoming comedy, "Mantevention," starring Mario Van Peebles, 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.