Visit a screenwriting chat room one day and before too long, some self-proclaimed screenwriting philosopher will undoubtedly post the statement “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You’ll then do some research on this writer and soon determine that they’ve never had any success with any of their screenplays, which are most likely written in their mother’s basement next to a hotplate, a crusty bottle of lotion and the latest copy of Maxim.
I can pretty much guess what they spend their time doing, and it ain’t writing OR learning how to write.
This expression is usually reserved for the laziest of the bunch. It’s easy to blame “not knowing anybody” or not having an “in” in the entertainment business, as opposed to simply learning to write better-er. It takes the monkey of their back, and puts it squarely on the shoulders of fate or bad luck. Maybe producers just hate all people from Oshkosh. Maybe contest readers judge more than the words on the page, and chose instead to limit the winners to straight, white 21-yr. olds. And, oh my gosh- YOU don’t fit into that category so you’re screwed (doubly-screwed if you also have the unfortunate luck to hail from Oshkosh, too)!
I spend almost half of every working day helping newer spec screenwriters, whether they are members of “The Script Mentor” organization or members of the thirty or so screenwriting groups I’m actively engaged in at any given time. Recently, some of these writers have surprised me with their “attitude” towards their craft, which makes me wonder if I’m not just wasting my time.
One writer “begged” for an introduction to agents, managers and producers. After requesting to read their work (I won’t refer ANYONE that I do not know personally and/or know their work), I saw that what they wrote didn’t even resemble a screenplay. When this was pointed out to them, in my usual diplomatic, straight-forward approach, they began to argue. Not about whether or not the screenplay was any good or properly written, formatted or structured, but rather about MY willingness to help THEM. They weren’t listening, as I was trying to help them. I was suggesting that they were a long way from seeking representation and they needed to work on their craft a bit more. I even offered suggestions as to where and how to learn, purposely bypassing my own organization (this person would NOT listen to reason, and we would NOT be able to help them). Instead, they deflected the problems on our reluctance to help them network. This happens quite often, and inevitably, the frustrated writer will throw up their hands and swear to some conspiracy plot against newbie writers.
I don’t know about you, but I know I spend more time “hooking” people up with others than I actually do in helping my own career. I spend hours upon hours researching, reaching out and honing relationships with people through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and about 200 blogs and newsletters. Most of the time, when a producer is looking for a specific project, I share this information with other writers. I don’t have that genre or that subject matter in my arsenal of scripts, but others may. I assist them through the process, even taking the time to help them with their loglines, synopses and queries, to help them gain that edge. If I know them, and/or their work, I always add a personal note to the producer stating that fact. This assistance has produced over a dozen options – for others – and some new relationships between these writers and the prodco’s. Most recently, one of these searches resulted in the writer getting management representation.
However, you will NOT get that help OR that introduction if your work is not up to a certain standard. I value my own reputation, and will not refer someone who refuses to look at their work objectively. I didn’t get my writing to the level that it is today by telling others to “eff off”. I listened, especially to the people I respected most in the business. I have a personal mentor in the business as well, and while he can be a complete ass some days, and in many ways, I do think he knows his shit.
So, while many use this excuse for their own failures – and don’t fool yourself; it is an excuse – the fact remains that it IS what you know – first and foremost. You must know what it takes to make a spec script successful. Once that knowledge is learned, and the spec writing “rules” are learned – it will then BECOME who you know.
At that point, you WILL know many people and most will be willing to help move your career forward.