How Buyers Think: Confessions of a Development Exec to Above the Line Creatives
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HOW BUYERS THINK: CONFESSIONS OF A DEVELOPMENT EXEC
So I hosted an AMA recently about how buyers think, and it was one of my most popular calls of the year. People who missed it also emailed me and asked me if they could watch a replay. So I’m going to dive into this topic for you today.
Here are the 10 key takeaways that you need to know about how buyers think, and what you should be doing (and not doing) when you’re pitching them, and taking meetings.
Firstly, in case you don’t know my background, I was a development exec with a production company called Inferno, and we made films like JUST FRIENDS with Ryan Reynolds, PEACEFUL WARRIOR with Nick Nolte, and THE GOOD NIGHT with Gwyneth Paltrow and Penelope Cruz, HACHI a DOG’S TALE with Richard Gere. I then went to work for comedian Garry Shandling, who taught me so much about the business side of this industry. (I miss him so much, we all do!)
Let me paint a picture for you: When you’re in the buyer’s chair, it’s non-stop. I heard as many as 6 pitches a day sometimes, and took 10 more calls, and then had to read a stack of scripts and coverage. I was working 80hr weeks, falling asleep in piles of scripts instead of sheets. It’s a really fun job! And glamorous. There are parties and industry events and lots of considerations about what to buy, and it’s certainly not without its office dramas.
What I’ve realized is most writers and above the line creatives don’t really know what development execs do. Which is fair, that’s not your lane. But if you want to come in on the right note, and get a development exec to pay attention to you and your project, you really need to be thinking about these 10 things.
1) Development execs have bosses. When you pitch, the decision maker might not be in the room. Your pitch needs to not only sell the development exec you’re talking to, but also arm them with great info to pitch their boss with at lunch. They may say they love it, but understand that’s not a greenlight until the decision maker says yes also. I’ve seen not understanding this process lead to heartbreak and I don’t want that to happen to you. Stay buttoned up as a pro and have fun with it! Be memorable and inspiring. Take it to the next step.
2)Development execs are looking for any reason to pass, since our piles are hundreds of scripts deep and there’s a ticking clock on our responses. It’s not going to be a pass from typos, but it will be a pass if your script is too difficult to penetrate. Don’t introduce ten characters on page 1. Give us a fun read. Make us laugh and cry. We’re really looking at the high concept, if it has legs, how cast-able it is for actors, and if this is a great blueprint for directors. We need to love it at a 10! Just so you know, a 9 won’t cut it. Be sure not to burn your read and get the support from script consultants to make sure yours is ready to go. Mostly, we get submissions from agents, managers, producers and other production companies. Don’t send us unsolicited scripts, we legally can’t look at them.
3)Crime #1: your pitch is boring or confusing – When we schedule an hour pitch meeting, and you bore us or confuse us, that pitch meeting is going to end early. I saw my boss get up and leave pitches. We have so much work to do, we need to be dazzled. An interactive pitch is great! I loved when teams brought in materials like storyboards and sizzles and even props from true stories. Engage us! We yearn to be engaged. Please don’t waste our time because you haven’t rehearsed enough and stumble your way through.
4)Crime #2: you come across as demanding or desperate – yup I’ve seen it, every development exec has. As a person, we’re going to pass on YOU if your vibe is wrong for us. We’re as much buying your content as we are saying yes, we want to work with you and we believe you can get the job done. Impress us with a pro attitude, it’s imperative.
5)If you’re a comedy writer you have to be funny in the room during your pitch. Or we won’t believe you’re funny on the page. And if we haven’t read your script before the pitch meeting, we really won’t read it if you’re not funny. So comedy writers, write jokes for your pitches and practice them. Take a stand up class. We want to believe you have the goods-and it’s on you to prove it. Now that said, anything can happen when your movie goes into production – we had a comedian named Anna Faris in our movie JUST FRIENDS and she was so funny that the director asked to rewrite the movie in real time to give her more scenes. And her performance is so memorable! That’s the fun magic of movie making where it evolves and everyone adds something unforgettable.
6)Does the exec pass but loves your writing? Here’s what to do: you get this nice compliment, but they aren’t going to move forward. So ask them who they know who you should talk to, who should read you or who the project may be right for. Ask them to email intro you to that person. They won’t be thinking of this, but they have their own Rolodex and they may know who you should meet with next. Conversely, if you think of a writer or project who may be right for their mandates don’t hesitate to make that intro- it only makes you look good!
7)How do you take a general meeting? – Your reps won’t follow up- that’s now your relationship. Get to know them. Have fun with it. Talk about your passions and your lived experience and how it informs your writing. Shine a light on what makes you unique and authentic. Execs change jobs a lot. Make sure you make the friend so they take you with them! And then follow up every time you think of them.
8)Learn to love the schmooze – those first 5 minutes you WILL talk about the weather. Whatever is in the news. What freeway you drove on to get there. Just roll with it and relax into the meeting. It’s an important part of Hollywood etiquette.
9)Find the connection with the exec – did you go to the same high school? If I ever meet with JJ Abrams, we both went to Pali High and had Mrs. Gilbert for English! Do your research and find what you have in common. Sports or dog rescue or your love of Thai food – it could be anything. You can also give a genuine compliment. Tell them what they’ve done that you loved. If you’re meeting with a showrunner or director or someone who is THE REASON you’re in this business, tell them! They love to hear that and will often hire people they’ve directly inspired.
10)Don’t let anyone ghost you! Follow up forever… Yeah, I know this is crazy, but follow up every 2 weeks until you get a pass. You may need to follow up ten times. Which is ok. You can be persistent without being seen as a pest. Execs only respect it. Make sure your attitude is friendly and your tone is warm. Short and sweet!
And finally a high-value tidbit from my time with Garry Shandling, make sure you have conversations directly with your development exec contacts, not just only going through your agent or manager. This is a story he told me from his life, that he was pretty disappointed about. Consider it a cautionary tale:
Garry was pitching a show in the early 2000s that was basically him playing God if God was an alcoholic. He wanted to do 8 episodes. He asked his agent to take the show to his homecourt cable network, HBO, where he aired The Larry Sanders Show.
His agent circled back and said HBO passed, that they didn’t want to do 8 episodes. Garry was really bummed out. This was before streamers normalized show orders of less than 13 episodes. And DVDs were just coming on the market, but hadn’t hit big yet. So what happened? Well, that agent never actually pitched HBO. The agent didn’t think he’d make enough money off just 8 episodes, so he killed the show himself.
Oh yes, it happens. (And that’s not the only incident I can recount for you.) Eventually Garry chatted with one of his contacts at HBO, and they said they would have bought the show if they’d ever heard about it.
What’s the lesson from Garry?
Like I said, development execs change jobs all the time, too, so make sure you stay in touch so you know where they are now, and who they’re working for. They’re your contact – in their Rolodex – so you should be the one touching base with them.
What do you say when you touch base? You can touch base for any reason! Hey I saw this article and it made me think of you. I read this book and I thought you’d like it. I saw you got married, congrats! Find reasons to stay in touch with your buyers.
And most importantly, make friends. Remember the buyers are people. And at the end of the day, they enjoy a genuine connection too 🙂
About the Entertainment Business School
Thanks for watching, everyone! Stay tuned for my next video coming soon during this open enrollment window for the Entertainment Business School, which ends on July 24th. If you’re an above-the-line creative, there’s never been a more important time to take your business acumen to the next level so you can really crush it in your career. See the curriculum and apply now as space is LIMITED! We start August 1st, and this cohort has writers, directors, actors and producers in it. Business is something you can get better at. Don’t go it alone. Find your Wolf Pack! Apply now here:
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