Notworking

It’s possible probable I’m an idiot.

Maybe I don’t get how things work or perhaps I’m being naïve about the reality of writing professionally.

Several weeks ago a friend of mine (let’s call him Frankfurter for no particular reason) held a script reading for a project he’s working on. Twenty or so fellow writers, producers, actors, and other would-be narrative professionals were invited to participate as audience for the reading with a feedback session to follow. A dozen actors were also invited to perform the piece while Frankfurter stood in the corner, nervous about his work on the proverbial chopping block.

What he did takes a set of brass balls. Frankfurter put himself out there for criticism, something not everyone appreciates, but my man is committed.

In the course of the evening two short episodes of his project were read, dissected, and discussed by the group. Thankfully, Frankfurter is worth his weight in gold, so, for the most part, it went well (there were a few of the typical “If you want to make it in Hollywood…” comments that typically come from people who think they’re more important than they really are, but generally speaking, the feedback seemed useful).

When it was over, Frankfurter, his girlfriend, one of the actors, and two other writers, and I went out for a cup of coffee. After a solid round of well-deserved congratulations, I asked what I thought was the obvious question, “So what’s next?”

Like many of the writers I know, Frankfurter produces more than he gets produced. Which is to say that if he were to die today, he’d leave his next of kin a wealth of wonderful scripts that nobody ever saw, read, produced, or attempted to develop.

The answer to my question boiled down to “get meetings.” Frankfurter’s plan was to take his work and attempt to sit down with producers, agents, and/or those connected with producers and agents, in an attempt to build a bit of momentum on this project.

Wonderful.

Then one of the other writers standing there (let’s call him Example X), someone I had not met before that night, apparently uncomfortable with the amount of attention my pal was getting, blurted out that he has representation.

“Oh, really?” I replied. “What type of stuff do you write?”

As many struggling writers do, Example X was not hesitant in the least to talk about himself. “Mostly science fiction.”

“What a coincidence,” I led him on. “[Frankfurter]’s work is also science fiction. Can you get him a meeting with your representation? Perhaps they’d be interested?”

At this, Example X balked. He smiled at me with all of the condescension, like I was an adorable child. “What? No. That’s not how it works–“

“Why not? He needs representation for his science fiction piece. You have representation interested in science fiction. Seems like an introduction is exactly how this should work.”

At this point Example X got pretty quiet. Frankfurter tried to change the subject. The other people in our group started smirking. I decided not to let it go.

“Hold on. Help me out. I’m genuinely curious. Why doesn’t it work this way? You two are friends, right?”

“Of course. We live in the same apartment complex,” said Example X, qualifying his relationship with Frankfurter as quickly as possible.

“Is your relationship with your representation tenuous? Might they find your suggestion to talk to [my friend] inappropriate?”

I’m not normally one to hound people like this, but we were getting coffee together under the pretense that we were friends. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) a certain level of candor amongst friends.

“No, it’s not that…”

Then Frankfurter looked at me in a way that suggested I let it go. So I did. Eventually, Example X went home and I brought it back up with the remainder of the group. The general consensus was that the reason Example X had not been eager to introduce Frankfurter to his representation was because it might jeopardize his own ability to get something produced.

While driving from Los Angeles to my home in Orange County, I couldn’t shake my frustration. Example X held an opportunity — nothing certain, mind you, but a chance — for Frankfurter, his friend, but refused to help for fear of ruining his own chances.

Time passed.

A few nights ago I told this story to another pal (let’s call him Jack Burton because Jack Burton is an awesome character and if you disagree you’re wrong and probably pretty stupid but that’s okay just keep reading). Jack Burton has directed several independent motion pictures for a couple studios — real movies, with budgets and actors who have millions of Instagram followers and all that other stuff. When I finished telling him what had happened, he laughed at me.

“That’s how things work, man,” he enlightened me. “Everyone is trying to get their stuff made. Nobody is trying to get your stuff made. It’s cutthroat.”

I tried to counter this with what I thought was a bit of reason, flawed as it may have been. If Example X had introduced Frankfurter to his representation and, in the best-case scenario, Frankfurter’s project had gotten produced, wouldn’t that work well for everyone? Frankfurter gets to make his project, Example X builds a bit of cred with his representation for helping them find a solid project, and Frankfurter would then owe a solid to Example X.

Jack Burton looked at me like I was adorable idiot (which, again, I may be), not unlike Example X had the night this started. “It’s a competition. Every time I try to write at a coffee shop in LA the same thing happens: Somebody sees me writing a script and tries to start a conversation, and the conversations always go the same way. They feign interest to get me engaged and then begin listing off all of the things they’ve done and/or are doing. Why do they do this? Leverage. If they can convince me they’re valuable then I can introduce them to my contacts and they can move up the ladder. It’s all a part of the game.”

The game? Fuck that.

I get networking. I understand the value of meeting new people and trying to extend one’s social circles. Opportunities come as one branches out. My entire professional life has been a series of bumping into people, allowing me to move from job to job and project to project. I get it, I really do.

In my experience friendships last longer than professional acquaintances. I try not to meet people based on where they can take me; but where we both are at that moment: together. If I enjoy the time we spend with one another, I try to get more of it. Sometimes these relationships lead to business opportunities. Sometimes they don’t, but that’s okay because we’re friends and I don’t need them to turn into anything more than they are.

I do not play the game well because it is a stupid game.

If you’re goal in meeting people is to use them to advance your career, they’re going to figure you out. You will likely be branded as someone unworthy of effort and, I’d wager, fewer and fewer people are going to want to work with you.

Do I ask my more successful friends for help and advice? Of course. I don’t know everything and can benefit from the wisdom of others.

Do I help all of my friends when they ask? I try. It’s not about tit for tat; it’s about a friend needing help and me being able to assist them.

That is networking as I’ve experienced it. Those two ideas swirled together: (1) benefiting from the wisdom of those ahead of you and (2) being there for those who need you.

One more story before I stop ranting like an idiot.

There was this writer I knew in college (he shall be known henceforth as That Fucking Guy, or TFG for short) and the dude has chops. The problem is, he seems to have shoved his head up his own ass.

We lost contact for a while and then I bumped into him at a party. He was arriving as I was leaving (because I’m old and go to bed early). As we passed one another in the hallway our conversation went like this:

“Hey, [TFG].”
“Hey, James.”
“How you been?”
“Good. Did you buy my new book?”
“Uh, no. New book?”

He then blurted out the title of his new book and where I could buy it before promptly turning back around and heading into the party. That was it. That was our entire interaction after years of not seeing one another.

I would love to love TFG’s book, but more importantly, I would love to love TFG. I think he’s a skilled writer and I genuinely enjoyed most of the conversations we had with one another in college. Problem is that these days, most of his conversations are about him, what he’s doing, who he’s doing it with (namedropping), and how I can support him.

I’m not his friend anymore; I’m a potential customer, which is a damn shame.

Writers, we are not in competition with one another. I want to read your book/comic. I want to see your show/movie/play. The game has us convinced that there is only so much limelight to go around, but that’s bullshit. We don’t have to fight one another for our moment in the spotlight. Instead, let’s each take turns holding that light for one another.

I’m not suggesting we unionize or anything, but try lifting one another up. Share your friends’ projects. Make introductions. Help each other out.

Or don’t. Be an asshole. See how far that takes your career and relationships — one of them (if not both) will suffer. I promise.

Here are the points I was trying to make before this blog turned into a bloated mess:

  1. Network for relationships, not opportunities.
  2. Help your friends out when you can.
  3. I’m naïve and should just shut up.

Please elaborate on #3 in the comments below.

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