What No One Will Tell You About How To Get “In The Room” And Launch Your Writing Career

Get in the Room 3 doors

One of the most frequent questions I hear from up-and-coming writers is, “How do I get in the room in the first place?

Usually, this question is the last part of the following sequence of thoughts:

  • There’s a lot of junk on TV or in theaters.
  • I have written something that is better.
  • I can’t sell it because I don’t have ACCESS to powerful people.
  • All I need is one meeting, one opportunity.  How do I get a meeting with a decision-maker powerful enough to buy my project?  How do I get in the room in the first place?

The answer may be tough for some of you to hear. It feels a little like “ripping the band-aid off.” It may be the best way to do it, but it still hurts.

So, how do you get in the room?

You write something excellent.

Last Chance To Turn Back

If your response to the previous sentence, “You write something excellent” was to think, “Yes, but I HAVE written something excellent, and I still can’t sell my project or get hired or even get an agent,” then I urge you to stop reading this post.

Seriously, stop reading. You’re only going to get upset and that won’t help anyone. Your time is valuable and you might as well do something else. I won’t take it personally.

It’s Not Your Network – It’s The Quality Of Your Work

If you are having trouble getting in the room, the problem is almost certainly that your work is simply not good enough… yet.

That can be a hard truth to digest.  So let’s start with a definition of “excellent work” so that you can understand clearly whether your project meets the standard.

How To Know If Your Work Is Excellent

Here’s how I define an excellent piece of work:

When someone in the business reads your work, they immediately share it with someone higher on the Hollywood “chain of command” (because they earn points for the discovery of excellence).

Yes, saying that your script needs to be sent immediately to someone higher up may seem like an unfairly high standard.  But this standard reflects how people actually behave when they read something great.

If your work doesn’t meet this standard (yet), don’t stop writing.  Instead:

  • Continue developing your genre expertise;
  • Keep writing and rewriting until your material is excellent;
  • And STOP submitting your work or trying to get meetings.

The Danger Of Submitting Your Work Too Soon

If you’re thinking, “My work isn’t being shared immediately, but I know it’s really good.”

Perhaps you’re right, and you do have a great script. But if you’re wrong… submitting your work can do major damage to your career.

So often, up-and-coming writers and directors spend tons of time sending out query letters, cold-calling producers, going to networking events, and trying desperately to get decision-makers to read their work.

Unfortunately, they don’t consider the enormous cost of their work not being excellent on the first read—that they probably won’t be able to get in the same rooms again.

WARNING:  “Passes” Live Forever

If your script seems amateurish, mediocre in any way, and receives a “Pass,” there will be coverage or notes in the company’s computer system.  From that point forward, any future projects submitted with your name will be linked to this “Pass.”

Anything you submit to an agent, manager, producer, studio, or network, lives forever in their database. Each project is covered and even if they promise you that it won’t get covered, that it will be entered confidentially, it will still be covered and stored forever.

You submit to CAA? Every agent and assistant there has access to the “Pass” coverage. You submit to John Wells Productions? Same thing—anyone considering meeting with you will be able to see that your first submission was a clear “Pass.”

The result of submitting your work before it is undeniably excellent is that your subsequent projects are much less likely to even be considered—and your chances of getting in the room go way down.

The Solution: Seek Third-Party Validation

Third-party validation means evidence from other people that they think your work is excellent.

Step 1: Get Feedback On Your Pitch

You can develop and improve your project (even if you already have a script) by creating the pitch and testing it on carefully chosen feedback groups.

What you’re looking for is clear, unambiguous, consistently positive feedback from the people who hear (or read) your pitch.

Step 2: Get Feedback On Your Script

Using the same process of testing your pitch, give your script to select readers. These people should NOT be gatekeepers or decision-makers. This is where you are accessing your most trusted and intelligent friends and family—the people who have opinions that count, and who will give it to you straight.

Remember, you’re looking for clear, unambiguous, consistently positive feedback.

Step 3: Get Professional Feedback

When your script is as good as you possibly can make it, it’s time to pay for a professional to read and comment on your work. An example of a company that provides this service is Scriptshark.

If you can convince a stranger who reads scripts for a living that your script is excellent, that is a good indicator that you may be ready to submit your work to decision-makers.

Step 4: Ask For Reads From VIP’s

A VIP is someone who is either a decision-maker, a gatekeeper, or someone who knows a decision-maker or gatekeeper well enough to send them your material.

Remember: requesting a read is asking for a favor. You can only ask a VIP for a favor one time—so make it count.

If you don’t know any VIP’s, this is the time you would start submitting your work to contests (where they are read and judged by VIP’s).

“Have You Read Anything Good Lately?”

When executives, agents, and other decision-makers get together for lunch or catch up over the phone, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Have you read anything good lately?”

At the point where someone says, “Yes,” and recommends your work—that’s how you get in the room.

. . . . . . . .

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19 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great article! I’m wondering if you might have some advice for me. I had an agent a while back, a partner at a big firm. He passed away a couple years after I met him. I was more of a hip pocket client, we had a written agreement and he got me some meetings but I never sold a script or got a writing assignment. I have a new script I’m getting ready to seek representation for. Do I reference my relationship with this person when I contact that firm again? From what you are saying it will be in their computer anyway, even though it was a long time ago, 2000. I am not sure if it is positive or negative to reference the relationship. Any advice appreciated! :)

    • Hi Toni,

      Yes, I would recommend mentioning the connection. Perhaps something like, “I worked with [Agent] during his final years and I really enjoyed working with him and the agency. I’d like to continue that relationship….” Wishing you success with your next steps.

      • Thanks so much, Stephanie, I SO appreciate the level of interaction you have with your readers, thank you for being there for us! :)

  2. Thanks so much, Stephanie. A former working writer from LA has convinced me that what really comes closest to underwriting success is walking in the room with a star the execs want to work with.

    No matter how good the writing (or how bad), how much does it hurt not to have a hot name attached? Has the biz become 99% celeb-driven?

    • Having a star that execs want to work with attached to your project will definitely increase the chances of selling your project. But, it isn’t required to have stars attached and most screenplays are purchased without any stars attached. Yes, Hollywood is a very celeb-driven business, but the most important factor is the quality of the writing in the screenplay.

  3. Great advice, Stephanie! I used a script analyst in the past. Would this fall in with what you referred to as a profesisonal script reader? They don’t normally give feedback per se, they simply try to fix all the holes in your script (along with other formatting and grammar/typo revisions as well), but it too costs money. Ironically, something I did produce/film but DIDN’T go through a professional for, earned us multiple film fest awards already! Now, the thing is, some film fests might be a cheaper route than say, Script Shark, but you have to win, of course ;-)

  4. To what extent would you say the “‘Passes’ Live Forever” rule applies to contests and other open-submission formats?

    A year ago, I wrote a spec episode of a teen sitcom for the Nickelodeon Writing Program. I revisited it recently, and while I still don’t think it was terrible it’s clearly not good enough to garner any kind of positive attention. While this is good in the sense that I’ve obviously grown and refined my style over the last year, I’ve been worried – even before reading this article – that this submission might sneak back up on me further down the road.

    I’ve been comforting myself with the thought that programs like this receive so many lackluster submissions, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to keep a record of them all. I’m interested to hear your thoughts, especially if they corroborate this idea.

    • Thanks for your question, Justin. The record of your submission will very likely only be seen by the people who work for that specific program. While they will have coverage on file, don’t worry that you’ve ruined your chances. That is not the case at all and not nearly as big a deal as submitting to a studio or agency where many people have access to the coverage. Read about how many submissions Michael Werwie made before he won the Nicoll this year. Keep at it.

  5. Stephanie, I rarely disagree with you and I’m not exactly disagreeing now. There are definitely way too many writers, and other people, submitting scripts before they are ready. However, in “The Producer’s Business Handbook” by
    Jr. John J. Lee and Anne Marie Gillen, the author’s state that the scripts that usually get selected for development and production are ones that are not particularly well written but have a story worth being told. They do not go into much detail about what “worth being told” means. I’m guessing that varies depending on the production company and executive producers.

    • Yes–best is to have a great idea and a well-written script. But if an idea is so compelling, even if the execution isn’t as great as one would hope, it may be purchased for development.

  6. Stephanie, you’re exactly right. Back in 2000, doors flew open for me with my James Bond prequel, all the way to the head of Development for MGM. Then again, with my Evel Knievel biopic, at Universal. When you’ve written something exciting, executives come to you just to be a part of it.

  7. Stephanie, script shark packages start at about 150 for coverage, do you feel like quality script contests that allow you to pay a more reasonable fee for coverage are also good options?

    ie– Bluecat, AFF, scriptapolooza, Page, etc?

    • I haven’t had experience with Bluecat, Scriptapalooza, AFF, or Page. However, the AFF coverage offer looks good to me. In general, I have a bias that if the fee is too low, then I would be concerned that either you’re not getting such a qualified reader or you’re not getting the kind of attention to your work that you want. Still, any professional feedback is good.

  8. You’re welcome. I have a few follow up questions.
    What is the average development time for writing a full script and receiving feedback from third parties?
    How many drafts, rewrites,and feedback readings are necessary for a script to be ready for submissions?

    • What tells you a script is ready isn’t how long you’ve worked on it or the number of drafts you’ve done–it’s the kind of feedback you’re getting. When you pitch, does it get listeners excited? When friends read your script, are they confused by anything, or do they think it’s the best thing they’ve ever read? When you get professional coverage, do the readers give you a Recommend? When you are getting unambiguous, positive feedback, that’s when it’s ready to submit.

  9. An insightful and fascinating article. As a novelist, who is branching out into screenwriting, your article provides invaluable information about getting “In The Room.” Thanks for the warning about the “Pass Database System.”

    What is the time-frame, assuming a writer follows the steps that you provide about getting feedback from third parties, of submitting a finished script, to an agent, a manager, or other decision makers?

    • Thanks, Michael. At the point when you’re submitting your work to decision-makers, if someone likes it, it will percolate up the chain of command quickly. In most cases, within hours of reading it, people are forwarding it to someone else.

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