Some general thoughts and ideas about generals, part 1



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  • Some general thoughts and ideas about generals, part 1

    I just got back from a week of generals in LA, and being commenced on my first step on the studio sale of my spec. So I should be rewriting, but thought I’d spend a little time sharing some thoughts and reflections on my week. I also did a full week of generals about six months ago, so I have two weeks and about thirty generals to reflect on.

    Take the following for what it’s worth: one emerging writer’s experience (I had a nice spec sale earlier this year.) If a seasoned pro sees a mistake or thinks I’m wrong, please call it out; I’d love to know where I’m off base. Most of the following is based on experience, but a fair amount is my own opinion of what seems to be working for me, so if you know better, please let me (and the rest of us) know.

    There’s been a lot of good ink spilled to prep folks for what generals are like. It is true that the front desk assistant always offers you water. Despite being opposed to plastic bottles from an environmental point of view, I always accept, because it’s good to have something to sip at. I also think it would be weird to bring my aluminum bottle of water in. When my meetings were first thing in the morning (9 or 9:30), I sometimes asked for coffee, if it was offered, but made it clear that only if it’s easy, and just asked for milk/cream/whatever they had. Nothing fancy or special.

    I don’t live in LA, and thus flew in for the meetings. My agent just got a new assistant on his desk, and he was sending me updates (meetings pushed, rescheduled) piecemeal. I know most people have smartphones, but I don’t, I’m operating on an iPad via free wi-fi at virtually every Starbucks between Santa Monica, Burbank, West Hollywood, Culver City, etc.

    So I made sure that when he had an update, to fold it into the whole week’s schedule, and send me that schedule anew. This way I wasn’t taking the changes and handwriting them on my printed list of meetings, which I had for reference, but which changed a half dozen times while I was out there. At least three meetings at companies that I knew a lot about (major actor, major producer) fell off my schedule. That’s life; catch ‘em next time.

    Thus, if you don’t have a smartphone, bring something wi-fi enabled. Further, you must bring a GPS. Seems simple, but honestly I would still be driving around LA if I didn’t have a GPS. I rented a car from Enterprise, which for me turned out cheaper than Avis or National, even with a AAA discount. The Enterprise at LAX is great, they gave me a free upgrade (from economy to midsize), and they’re open 24 hours. $150 for Sunday night to Friday night. I flew in on Sunday, had meetings wall to wall straight through 5:30 Friday, and flew home on a Friday redeye.

    Regarding schedules, I usually had a 9:30, an 11:30, a 3 PM, and a 5:30. Sometimes I had a 1:00 lunch as well. Meetings usually went just about an hour, sometimes less and sometimes more, and I always made sure to have an idea for how long it would take me to get from current general to next general.

    When I got back to the hotel each night, or was parking at a general, I programmed the next location into the GPS. It inevitably said “8 miles, 14 minutes” or whatever, and was always wrong. I never got stuck in horrendous traffic, but there is always some traffic, lights, or the GPS thinks driving through Laurel Canyon at 4:30 will take seven minutes. It doesn’t.

    Plan accordingly, which for me means giving 45 minutes for anything estimated between 15 and 30 minutes, and giving more exponentially from there. Heading into a general, or closing the shop down for the night, set the next location in the GPS so you have an idea whether to budget half an hour, 45 minutes, or more.

    You will be late from time to time. I have both called my agent’s assistant to call the prodco to advise them, and I’ve done it myself. In either event, make sure somebody calls, as soon as possible.

    Besides a GPS, I always have mouthwash, gum, underarm deoderant, and toothbrush in the car. I have brushed my teeth in almost every Starbucks in LA. (Slight exaggeration.) On a long day spent in the car, drinking the errant coffee, and perhaps having Thai or hitting a taco truck for lunch, being fresh feels nice. Plus I was there during a heat wave, two days hit 100 degrees. Glad I had deoderant with me.

    The dress code for executives at studios is clearly suits and ties, though most of my meetings were with producers or creative executives. They wear jeans and nice shirts, and you should do the same. Khakis or chinos are not necessary, but every single producer/CE I met with was wearing what I would describe as stylish jeans, a smart shirt, and good shoes. Ie, not faded Old Navy jeans, beat up Asics running sneakers, and a t-shirt. It may not matter what a writer looks like, but for me, good jeans and a good shirt (eg, Banana Republic) and nice shoes/new sneakers (which I daresay I think are stylish, particularly as I wouldn’t run or hit the gym in them) always had me feeling comfortable and on the same level with the guys and gals I was meeting with.

    Incidentally, for roughly thirty meetings and about fifty producers/execs (many meetings have two people in them) I met with five women, forty five men. If this helps the ladies, four of the women were wearing heels, but also jeans or slacks, no skirts that I can remember. I guess you could dress like a slob and write like an angel and all will be good, but I look at it this way: I want them to hire me, I want them to like me, I want them to think I’m cool and fun to be with and easy and would be a blast to work with. Being charming and creative is part of that, but so is dressing like a grown up and seeming like a cool person to be around. Think what you will about what our clothes say about us, but I personally assign value to dressing well.

    Speaking of meeting with two people, it was always clear who the producer or VP was, and who the CE was. I always play to both, but I think it’s valuable to be aware of status, because there is status in the room. Just worth being aware of. (Hint: the person sitting directly across from you is the producer. The one on the side with the notebook is the CE.)

    Speaking of status, and the kinds of companies you’ll be meeting with: there are studio executives, which, in my experience, meant the high rise on the Uni lot and valet parking at WB. These folks works in the production department of studios, and usually rely on producers to bring work to them, but just as often like to have their fingers on the pulse of new writers and maybe do a little development or finding projects on their own. (These are the folks in the suits I mentioned previously.) So you may well be meeting with actual studio execs, which is different than a creative exec at a prodco. (More on them in a bit.)

    Then there are producers. These people are actually producers—they produce movies, are on the set, etc.—and they may have a first look deal with a studio, and operate on their own out of a prodco office somewhere out in town; or they may be in a bungalow or office on a lot. If they are the latter, then you likely know for certain where their first look is (ie, with the studio of the lot you’re on, most likely.) These producers may have a discretionary budget to pay for development on something they like, but most likely will still need the studio to buy a spec outright for them (as far as I know.)

    Then there are producers who don’t have a first look, and just hit up studios when something right comes along. Some of these producers will also have a discretionary fund, ie, they got a bit of a bankroll for their company from a money person. They may be able to afford development or an outright purchase on their own.

    You will undoubtedly be meeting with lots of folks who work for producers as well, namely, CEs. Their job is to meet writers, and develop material, and they tend to be in their twenties or early thirties. I have frequently been told that if I find something I like (ie, an article or a book) to run it past them to see if they dig it and perhaps we can work on it together. (It’s maybe not that on the nose, but that’s what it means.) That sounds like an awesome offer, and if it’s a great producer or CE that I’d love to work with, I might someday do that. But just NB, I would never reach out to a CE with a property I’ve located that I’m interested in without checking with my team first. That just wouldn’t be prudent.

    They also ask if I have anything I’m working on, or thinking about. Again, here’s a situation where I play it close to the vest. Let’s say (heck, it’s true) I have an idea, a half-formed pitch, or a book I’ve had my eye on. I don’t bring it up. First of all, because despite how well we’re getting along in the room, I don’t REALLY know whether this is someone who “gets movies made” (which seems to be the high praise saved for producers who really—wait for it—get movies made) or if this is someone who will, if she likes the idea, need to bring it to her producer.

    Then they may want free development, and then, if all is perfect, need to pitch a studio, then get you in with them to pitch the studio ... it’s a long road that I don’t intend to embark on without having fully vetted the producer/CE and the idea with my team. In either case, whether it’s a real deal producer with a discretionary fund or a 25 year old CE looking to work a project with a hot new writer (you!), I’d suggest you check with your team before embarking on even an informal development relationship.

    You may also answer, if true, that you have a spec about to go out (as I do) or one you’re about to finish. They will want to know more about it. Tell them—a little. Don’t give away the hook, and don’t present it as an idea that’s up for development or up for grabs. They are enterprising, intelligent people, and if they love it (or the article you mentioned), they will want to follow up with you about the idea, and want, by supporting your progress, to lay a certain claim to it. I’m not saying this is situation fraught with danger—they may be the perfect people for this idea or spec—but that’s really your reps’ job, and the purpose of a general if you have new work about to hit town is to prime the pump, not be giving away exclusive access. Just tease it out.

    That being said, they will follow up with “we’ll definitely want to see that”, and particularly when it’s a producer or CE or company that I can already tell I love, I’ll make sure to let them know that I’ll ensure they get it, plus I’ll make sure to check in with my team that I really felt good with that prodco.

    At some point, they may bring an idea up to you. It may be some half-baked project they love that they hope you’ll love, it may be a legitimate OWA, it may be a book they are angling to get the rights to, it may be an article that caught their fancy. When this has happened (which is about half of my meetings) I always ask them to send it along (the article, the book, whatever.)

    Then I advise my team, and they know whether something is “real”—as in, they’re definitely making that, it’s awesome that they brought it up, let’s get you in on that; or “yeah, that’s been all over town for years, it sounds cool but no one’s cracked it and they don’t have a studio on board.” In the case of the latter, they don’t discourage me from chasing it, but just let me know—it’s a lot longer road than the remake of “big famous movie you can’t believe they’re remaking”, but which has already been announced on Deadline and thus is "real."

    As the meeting reaches its natural conclusion, they will offer you their card. I have a card which I give out as well, which is very simple, says my name, e-mail, phone number, and “writer/director.” (It also has the name of my spec script and recent short on it, b/c I had it made prior to being repped when I was meeting a lot of reps and execs through an industry forum, and wanted them to see my name and remember my material.)

    What do they do with my card? I don’t know, but at least they have it. What do I do with their card? Write a thank you note no later than the following week (when I get back home) and save it. I’ve written about post-meeting etiquette here recently, but suffice it to say that I always send a thank-you note, and have always gotten a nice response. We are now business associates.

    Research the folks you’ll be meeting with. My basic research goes like this: Google him or her; you’ll come up with IMDb, so check that out. Click on anything else that looks reputable as well. But IMDb can be deceiving; there may be credits for films on which she played a minor role, or no credits for something she was a CE on. You may get a bunch of “Assistant to XXXX”, where undoubtedly XXXX is the producer she works for now. That means she’s been bumped up to CE.

    Then I search the name through “industry databases”, by which I mean IMDb if I haven’t hit that yet; then run a name search through, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. (Variety is behind a paywall, but FYI, if you Google and get a Variety link and click it and after two seconds it goes black, go back to Google and use the “cached” link. That will get you there gratis.)

    Having this sense of a producer/exec’s previous work is helpful, but I’ve never felt the need to say “Gosh, I loved XXXX that you worked on”, unless it’s totally true, and I’m certain they actually worked on it. If you have IMDb Pro, hit that as well, of course.

    My reps don’t give me a bio on everyone I’m meeting, so I research it myself. I will sometimes ask my reps where they have a first look, but again, I can usually figure that out myself. Variety’s annual “Facts on Pacts” is a great free .pdf (Google it) that lists all the prodcos that have deals at all of the major studios. It’s really worth downloading. I also have found myself en route to meetings where I neglected to research, or forget what I learned, and so I call my agent’s assistant and ask him to IMDb the person I’m about to meet, just to give me a quick flavor.

  • #2
    Re: Some general thoughts and ideas about generals, part 2

    The folks you meet with will talk about their company, and what they are looking for, what their "sweet spot- is (it seems that it's often "$40-60M, global appeal, PG 13-, etc. The global market, both audience and financing, is HUGE right now, and I imagine will be so for a long time.)

    They will tell you what they have in production, what they are looking for, what they've done, who their principal is and where he came from, maybe where they worked previously, etc. This stuff is super valuable, because while I will report it back to my team-despite that I know they already know it-it helps me put them in a box. I know who is likely to take a chance on a script that feels indie but that could be blown out to $25M, and the studio that really doesn't want to do anything for under $100M and not without a major star (I quote the executive-a real exec, not a CE, but a major studio VP: "We have a lot of money and we like to spend it.-)

    This is particularly valuable especially now, as I am preparing with my team to go out with a new spec first quarter of next year. I met with one of my managers while in LA, and sort of hinted at the fact that now that I know a bunch of producers and execs, there are certain places where I can see my script really fitting...and he immediately concurred that on a second spec, we will do a lot more strategized approach to producers rather than just going shotgun wide as we did with my first spec when I was totally unknown.

    For me, it's most important to go with a producer who gets movies made, and who I like and feel comfortable with. Not that I'll prohibit the team from sending it to producers I don't know, or dictate where it goes, but just that as I progress, I want to take an active part in the progression of my career, even if that just means listening and offering a few names that may already be on the list. But after 30 generals, I can offer names of people I really clicked with.

    But most of the meeting will be about you. In the meeting, they will hopefully tell you that they liked your script. They may tell you that they like your agent and/or manager as well. They will ask your backstory. I'm not saying to rehearse it, but be prepared, as you will tell it so many times, and it is is such a vital part of presenting who you are and where you came from that having an idea what you will say is valuable. That said, I have told my "story- so many times that I came home and had a dream in which I was telling it.

    It doesn't need to be complex or fancy, but the more interesting, the better. I interned for a (now famous) indie producer fifteen years ago, always wanted to write and direct but got a day job after college, now have a very compelling job way outside the film industry, and have directed a few shorts. I can present that information in a quick, funny, pithy package that opens to door to lots of questions, and then it's just fun from there.

    They may ask how you hooked up with your team, how you came up with your script, etc. It's basically the friendliest interview in the world, but without putting too fine a point on it, it's still on you to make a good impression and be smart, funny, interesting, and compelling. I'm sure you are, but if for any reason you have any nerves around the subject, take a friend out for a drink or coffee, ask her to imagine she's a Hollywood producer, and tell her to quiz you about your writing, your script, your reps, your day job, and your goals.

    Aaaaahhhh ... your goals. This is where it gets interesting, and after five pages, is probably the most important lesson.

    Know who you are, and what you want to do, and where you're going. I've been asked what my favorite film that I wish I wrote was (chose a classic plus an extraordinarily well reviewed contemporary film.) I have been asked where and how do I see my career going. I've been asked what I want to write. They read your script, and now they want to know what you intend to do and what you like.

    I sold an elevated genre script, and it's something I have a lot of personal experience with, making me a natural fit in a well worn industry wheelhouse. But it's not all I want to do; I want to write other types of films, and I want to direct. I'm not repped by my team as a director, and I'm frank about that, but also clear that I have a global, holistic, twenty year+ plan for my career, which includes writing originals, writing on assignment, and eventually directing.

    I name-check a hugely respected A-list writer who is also a director who has made a few great features. He does not make his money directing, but as a writer. I make it clear that his career is an aspiration, and one exec said to me (who had just hired him) that he's an "all services writer.- He can write crime, politics, conspiracy, adult drama-not saying four quadrant, necessarily (I doubt he's on anyone's rom-com punch up list), but that he's a five tool player. After that conversation, I started using those terms to describe my aspirations.

    I mention that I'd love to take a whack at literary fiction adaptations, and I say I know I wouldn't be a natural first choice for that, but if you consider my work (as I do) "character-driven elevated genre drama-, then think of me just as "character driven drama- and please consider me if there's something you can see me fitting in outside of elevated genre. I make it clear that I am always available to check out material, jump on a call, and can fly out for a follow up meeting at a moment's notice.

    I also state quite plainly that I know myself; I know my wheelhouse, right now, and I love it, and I am looking to continue generating original material, but also assignments where I can hit a home run, work on projects that really excite me and where I can do my best work. I acknowledge that as a first time writer-who has NOT yet been hired on assignment-that I'm like a rookie in the NBA. Nobody's saying "hey, get out on the floor and let's see how you do.- It's the big leagues now, and people are expecting that in your rookie season you are going to play just like the big boys. I say it, because it's true, I know it, and the subtext is-I'm a pro, and I'm here to play the game. And to win.

    This isn't an industry that's looking for singles-they're looking for home runs. (Yes, I know I'm mixing my sports metaphors.) And I think execs like when you acknowledge that they are in business to be successful and you are prepared to play with them in the big leagues.

    So I just talked about myself a lot, but I can't emphasize this enough: know yourself. Know what you want to write. Make a list of the types of films you'd love to write, write down some titles, have names of writers whose work and CAREERS you admire, and be ready to reference them. Have an idea what you're good at, and where you'd like to expand. (I'm not saying to bring this list in with you, just have it on your mind.)

    Also, a big part of my shtick is that I know the industry "as well as someone outside the industry in (place I live) can know it-, b/c I read THR, Deadline, Variety, Creative Screenwriting, Script, Filmmaker, etc., etc., every day like it's my job-because it is. I consider it my job to know the industry as well as the people who are now my peers (in the development community), and with the internet, it's almost possible. I can't tell you how many times they tell me what property they just acquired or are going in to production on and I can say "oh, yeah, with XXX directing- or whatever, b/c I read about it a few months ago.

    They are industry professionals used to dealing with other industry professionals. I'm sure lots of writers have made great careers being rubes who just fell off the turnip truck, but I haven't come this far and worked this hard to hope that works for me. I am always learning as much as possible about the business of the industry because I consider it my job to know the industry and manage my own career as much as it is my reps' job, and I let them know that.

    Finally, a note on what happens when an exec sends an article that you like (or other IP.) The first step is to set up a call, where you can informally discuss what they are thinking (PG 13 with a twenty something actor? Or hard R with a major movie star?) and the way you see it (but listen to them more.) Then go away, see if that fits with how you envision it, and prepare a pitch.

    Check with your team about all of this, of course, but in my experience, having chased two jobs (neither of which I got), I then had another call where I pitched exactly what I would do (working off a beat sheet, which I didn't send them; I never send written material.) In one case, we had a second call, I made it to the final two, he went with the other guy, and we had a great general the next time I went to LA.

    In the other, I got notes on my pitch; rejiggered it and did another two calls; got on the phone with the company president; pitched it; took his notes; rejiggered again, pitched it to the VP again, and haven't heard back. Last I heard they were still hearing other ideas. I'm not heartbroken that I didn't get it, but I am THRILLED that I had the experience. Also, if the president had liked it, they would have wanted to bring me in to the studio to pitch, so I would have gone back to LA for that.

    In both cases, I would have done the takes/pitches in person if I could have, and who knows what would have happened. Because there would have been more steps in the process, I saved my (never-happened) trip for the studio, but had I been across town, at least some meetings would have been in person.

    (I should also add that I did bring a formal original pitch (ie, not an assignment like the two referenced above) into a studio on my last trip, and NEVER would have or could have or should have done that over the phone. I had a producer, a senior exec at a studio (who has decision making power, according to my reps), and a CE in the room, and we were looking to sell it (didn't happen yet.) That was no environment for over the phone, and I will never do a formal final pitch over the phone.

    So as a final subject, b/c this is getting long: living in LA. I've done all this from far away. I've almost always been asked if I'm planning to move, and I answer honestly, that I'm not moving my family (kids and wife happily entrenched in school and career) but that when I transition out of my day job, I'll likely get an apartment in LA and split my time, so that I'm perpetually available for generals, drinks, takes, pitches, whatever.

    I affirm that I love LA (I truly do, though I've only spent two business weeks and a few shorter trips there) and that I am fully committed to making a full career of this, and especially with directing on the horizon, I plan to be here. (Full disclosure: I haven't started apartment hunting yet. My wife thinks it's a good idea and is totally supportive, but I've got little kids and I'd miss the heck out of them. And I'm not ready to leave my day job yet, as I readily acknowledge that I need to put a few assignments or pitch or spec sales together to be financially able to do that. Whether I move to LA in a few years or not is immaterial; my presentation of my full and total dedication to this career is what matters in this discussion.)

    So my point is this: I am committed, and I make darn sure that they know I am too. I've had a veteran executive tell me not to bother, stay out east and fly in as necessary; and I've had lots of folks say that it sounds great. I would not recommend saying you think LA is a dump and hate it and will be around when necessary. This is where they live.

    I hope some of this has been helpful. If your experience differs or you think I've got it wrong somewhere, let us know. And if you have any questions, let me know. Wish you all the fun and good luck I've had.