One of the most important career skills a screenwriter should learn is how to take a meeting. New screenwriters may dread these meetings, but preparation and knowledge of the development process can help even the most reticent writers express their visions clearly to people with the power to turn their screenplays into film and television. Thanks to the 20th Austin Film Festival and Conference, we heard from a panel of development executives spanning film, television and animation who offered their advice to screenwriters on how to take meetings and explained exactly what the development process looks like from their perspectives.
Moderated by script consultant Danny Manus, the panel "How to Take a Meeting & the Development Process" at the 20th Austin Film Festival and Conference featured the following development executives:
- Carrie Gillogly: Director of Scripted Programming at AMC; previously, Feature Development executive for Gerber Pictures at Warner Brothers (Gran Torino, Grudge Match)
- Erika Weinstein: Manager of Scripted Programming at AMC; previously worked in development at Darren Star Productions and Josephson Entertainment
- Diana Alvarez: Creative Executive, Gary Ross' Larger Than Life Productions, Co-Producer, The Hunger Games, also worked on The Tale of Despereaux, Seabiscuit
- Maggie Malone: Director of Creative Development at Disney Animation Studios (Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, The Princess and The Frog); previously Director of Development for Gary Ross’s Larger Than Life Productions (The Tale of Despereaux, Seabiscuit)
Where Development Executives Find Scripts
New screenwriters tend to wonder how they can get their scripts in front of development executives. Not surprisingly, agents and managers are the gatekeepers. At AMC, Gillogly looks for scripts specifically from agents and managers to avoid being sued. Also, AMC will look for intellectual property (I.P.) to adapt. Weinstein elaborated that she works to create relationships with agents and managers to understand their tastes and their clients’ work. Weinstein typically reads anywhere from 5 to 50 scripts a week.
Alvarez has a unique perspective on development because she is only looking for scripts for one director, Gary Ross. As a result, she is specifically searching for material that Ross would like to direct. She accepts scripts from agents, reading about 5 per week.
For Disney Animation Studios, Malone reads writing samples for her open assignments, which can lead to a series of reads and meetings to make creative matches between writers and assignments. She only works with a handful of agencies and managers with extensive experience, which helps her manage her time by filtering out the scripts and writing samples that don’t meet her needs. Malone mentioned that she recently called 80 agents and managers for an open writing assignment to solicit writing samples. Her department will read approximately 1,000 submissions in a year.
Additionally, development executives overlap across many companies and tend to reach out to one another to see what they are reading and what they like. Tracking boards help keep them up-to-date on the latest scripts getting good reads, and they admit that The Black List has essentially made the tracking board information public. Also, Nikki Finke has turned the development world inside out with Deadline, seemingly publishing information before anyone else knows about it.
What Hooks a Development Executive When Reading a Script
As screenwriters, we need to engage readers so they are compelled to turn the page. The biggest script hooks Gillogly noted were readability, a strong voice, and unique characters. She explained that the writer’s voice and tone should be unique and obvious on the page to help her see what the final show will be. Television is more about unique characters than plot, so unique characters help get a pilot noticed. She ultimately wants to read something that has never been on television before.
Weinstein explained that she wants to fall in love with the character because television series have to convince audiences to come back to watch a character. She also appreciates scripts with less exposition and more character depth.
Malone seeks out character-driven comedy because that is the heart of stories at Disney Animation Studios. Characters need to be specific and have strong points of view.
How to Take a Meeting
Knowing how to take a meeting is a crucial skill for all writers, new and experienced. Alvarez pointed out that she wants to have a great conversation with the writer where she can ask a lot of questions about a screenplay's characters. She also needs to assess whether a writer is someone with whom they want to work for a long time. Ultimately, she wants to be able to share a writer's excitement and passion for a script.
Gillogly equated taking a meeting to a first date -- and not in a creepy way. You as the writer need to convey the idea that you are the type of person that will work well with their company. Gillogly also stressed that taking meetings should be fun because you get to tell your story. She advised that you should be able to speak articulately about the script and always have a few more ideas ready to pitch.
Weinstein recommended that you should know your material inside out so you can answer any questions that a development executive may have. Also, she emphasized the importance of consistently writing new material for agents and managers to send out to development executives. At the same time, she cautioned writers to be careful not to write material just to satisfy your agent’s wants. If a writer isn’t really connected to material, it shows. If agents and managers ask you to write a specific type of script, you need to make it your own and love your script. Don't just write it to have it out there.
Malone explained that for open assignments, writers don’t know much about the assignment when they come in for a meeting. In these cases, writers need to be comfortable presenting themselves. Malone noted you can’t fake being yourself, and there are no magic words to utter in a meeting to get a job. So, relax, be confident, and be yourself.
Instant Turn-offs of Development Executives
Each of the panelists had an immediate reaction when asked about instant turn-offs, whether they be during a meeting or when reading a screenplay. Malone jumped out first, complaining about men wearing flip-flops to their first meetings. "It's an epidemic," she bemoaned. Malone also believes that many screenwriters currently suffer from "Oh snap!" disease, which she described as writing "Oh snap!" in the action immediately after a funny line of dialogue. This has to stop.
Gillogly can't stand the phrase “He couldn’t help but smile” in a script. If she reads this line in your script, she is likely to hurl it across the room.
Alvarez's main pet peeve was taking a meeting with a writer who obviously took no time to learn about Larger Than Life Productions and its work before the meeting. While development executives want to get to know you, you should already know about them and their past projects when taking a meeting.
Weinstein gets particularly annoyed when writers come into a meeting and tell her that they don’t really like AMC's critically acclaimed shows because they think that will make them stand out from the masses. She also doesn't appreciate it when writers tell them what AMC needs to put on the air next. That’s the development team's job.
Developing a New Writer
Development executives genuinely do want to work with writers and make their material better. Weinstein explained that television is work by committee, so writers coming into AMC need to be able to pitch what they love to their colleagues and be able and willing to collaborate. Additionally, Weinstein pointed out that script notes are really conversations, and writers need to be able to have back-and-forth conversations about their scripts.
Malone elaborated on the notes process, explaining that writers should be able to discover the note behind the note and rework scripts to meet those needs. Also, you as the writer should recognize which notes resonate with you and your strong, unique voice. The notes process is not pleasant, and it will challenge you as a writer, but you cannot listen to every note. Really strong writers figure out which notes to address and which notes to ignore.
Working with Writers for Television vs. Movies
Gillogly colorfully noted that deciding to work with a writer on a feature is like agreeing to have sex with the writer – if it doesn’t work out, you can move on to another writer pretty easily. Film producers can fire a writer (i.e. let that writer finish out a contract), then hire a new writer. Deciding to work with a writer on a television series is like agreeing to get married to the writer – you’re in it for the long haul. In television, the writer is in charge and also is a producer of the show, so a network and production company better be prepared to live with this writer until the bitter end.
How and When to Follow Up with a Development Executive
Follow up is important to establish good relationships between writers and development executives, but writers need to know how and when to follow up. Gillogly explained that writers should have a substantial reason to do this. For example, if you come across a story idea that you know with connect with a particular development executive, use that as a way to follow up if you haven't heard about your earlier meeting. Also, you should write up notes after every development meeting to keep track of what you discussed and what interests that particular development executive. Weinstein added that writers should realize that development executives are extremely busy, and it can literally take months to reply to an email, so don't pester them.
What have been your experiences with the development process and taking meetings? Share your experiences and lessons learned with us in the comments.