Networking 101

The importance of being connected


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Everyone knows the value of networking, right? It can get you a job, it can get you a great DP, it can get your film into the hands of a first-rate distributor. The right network can even get your movie an audience—if you’re producer Gill Holland. Holland himself was an important part of the promotion strategy for Desert Blue, the 1998 film that he produced. Samuel Goldwyn, the film’s distributor, placed an ad in New York City newspapers that read simply: "If you know Gill Holland, see this movie."

"Supposedly," says Holland, "the box office went up."

Few filmmakers know enough people to literally fill seats in a movie house, but everyone can be more strategic in making the kinds of contacts that will help to ensure their work finds its best audience. "There’s the romantic notion of the starving artist who gets discovered and then everything takes care of itself," says Steven Adams, an indie producer and screenwriter. "But you have to promote your work. And you don’t have to turn yourself into a whore; you can do it with dignity."

That’s right—dignity. Using your network isn’t code for scoring a meeting with Sony and moving to an office in Burbank. Even if you stay happily poor and creatively fertile in New York, you still need to know the right people. "It’s a field dominated by strategic relationships so there’s a greater premium on networking," says Stephen Beer, a prominent entertainment lawyer with the firm of Greenberg Traurig, who has worked with many independent producers and directors. "Film is a collaborative effort, and an inventory of relationships can work to advance your project."

1. It’s All About the Material The most important element for effective indie networking is having the goods to back up your big talk. "You’re really only as good as what you do," says Adam Nelson, the CEO of Workhouse Publicity, a PR firm that promotes indie clients. "So once you do something you’re proud of, make it successful by any means necessary."

If you know you want to be a filmmaker, but you haven’t actually made a film yet, then attach yourself to worthwhile projects. That way, even if you don’t have a screener of your work to pass out at meetings, you can still begin to build a reputation and talk about your work when you meet Harvey Weinstein’s nephew at a cocktail party. "Networking starts with the material," says Adams. "You have to get your ideas together. It’s all about the script or the concept, and if you’re not ready to do that yourself, you should attach yourself to people who are ready."

2. Do the Hustle Gill Holland explains his network this way: "I got to New York ten years ago and I have pretty much gone out every night since. And I’m only sick about four nights a year."

That’s 3,610 chances to meet new talent, find financial backing, or hear the best gossip. Holland recommends going to any screenings, panels, seminars, festivals, and parties to which you can weasel an invitation. "You start to see the same people at festivals and film events," says Holland. "They’ll say ‘hi’ to you and the ‘hi’ becomes ‘what are you working on?’ And six months later, you’re making a film together."

Don’t be shy about introducing yourself and talking about your work. One of the crucial differences between the indie world and Hollywood is that the vast majority of independent film producers are interested in undiscovered talent. Holland is established now—he doesn’t really need to make new friends. But he keeps going out anyway. "You have to be accessible, especially in indie film," he says. "You’re dealing with people who are not yet famous, who don’t have people representing and promoting them. So I have to be out there talent spotting, and I have to seem open to suggestions."

And that, says Adams, is the second big difference between independent and studio filmmaking. "The star system makes people inaccessible and [the industry] is very hierarchical," he notes. In Hollywood, a film usually needs a celebrity to succeed—be it a well known producer, director or, of course, actor. But indie companies and film sets are traditionally more democratic.

3. Go Everywhere When you’re starting out, there’s no such thing as a bad party. "No opportunity is too small. Nothing is beneath you," says Nelson. "I’d take advantage of every screening opportunity, every meet -and-greet, every contest."

Just be sure to use each opportunity to its best advantage. Holland says that early in his career he was always strategic. He would work quickly to identify the key players. "At the old IFP market, it was crazy. I quickly learned that the blue badge was the important badge. They were the producers and programmers. The red badges were just the other filmmakers."

Adam Nelson (CEO, Workhouse Publicity) with actor Seth Green at Sundance.

4. Only the Best If you find the prospect of meeting half of New York or LA in the next year intimidating, Holland recommends narrowing your focus. "There are probably fifty important people to know," he says. "That’s just not that many people." Know exactly who it is you want to meet and then put yourself in their path. Holland suggests The Hollywood Reporter list of top ten production companies in New York. From there, ask around. Find out the names of the other producers they regularly work with. Pretty soon you’ll have a solid list of the names you should be familiar with.

5. Don’t Burn Your Bridges Be nice to everyone—you never know who’s going to be in charge next year. This piece of advice may seem to contradict the item above, but networking isn’t an exact science. "I’m a big believer in killing people with kindness because you never know who they’re going to become or where they’re going to go," says Nelson. "It’s often the person you least expect from your class at film school who becomes Tim Burton."

6. Know Who You Are Once you’ve mustered the courage to leave your apartment and head to the screening, make sure you know what you’re going to say when you strike up a conversation with the director whose work you admire so much. "Be prepared when you introduce yourself," says Kathleen McInnis, a Seattle filmmaker and a long-time programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival. "What do you want them to know about you?"

7. Know Who They Are If you’re meeting someone whom you hope to work with directly, make sure you know enough about their work to impress them. Beer says that when he meets with a potential new client, he looks for "professionalism, preparation, and an ability to monetize my time." In other words, he doesn’t like it when people have no idea what he’s looking for.

"It’s unrealistic for a first time filmmaker with a script to ask me to read a script and work for them for free. I work for a law firm. I have to make choices." Beer might, however, be willing to offer some friendly advice or a reference.

8. Homework Stay on top of what’s going on in the business in general and in your specialized field in particular. "Research is incredibly important," says Nelson. "Go to the film festivals, even if you don’t have anything. Stay on top of the trades."

Nelson also recommends delving into the sordid world of celebrity biography. "I read a lot of them. I find them to be incredibly helpful. They are the new mentors, I feel. And it can be great to read about other people’s failures and phobias, as well as successes." Your newfound expertise in the love life of Errol Flynn could come in handy at all those cocktail parties. You’re bound to run out of conversation eventually.

9. Suck Up to the Press They’re the best source of gossip and they always know what’s going on. They can also be crucial in making your next project a success. Nelson advises laying the groundwork early for those besotted profiles later. Even a blurb in a small trade magazine can mean a big difference for your first film. "Even early on, Quentin Tarantino work-ed it," says Nelson. "He took over the room. He made those hardened journalists love him. And they dedicated page after page and column after column to how brilliant he was. You take a biography and make it mythology and ultimately iconography."

(Full disclosure: We’re pretty sure that Mr. Nelson suggested this to flatter us but it worked and we’re flattered, so this pearl of wisdom gets its own dedicated spot on our tip sheet.)

10. Let Them Do the Talking Even if you’re the one with a project to promote or a juicy piece of news to divulge, don’t forget that everyone loves the sound of their own voice. "Let other people talk about themselves as much as you talk about yourself," recommends McInnis.

11. Birds Do It, Bees Do It Networking isn’t just for the fiction crowd. Documentarians need to do it, too. Many nonfiction films can take years—sometimes even decades—to complete. It is often lonely and dispiriting to toil away on grant letters all alone. "You need the support," says Cynthia Lopez, the communications director for POV, the well-regarded PBS documentary series. "You need to interact with other filmmakers to know what the trends in fundraising are. It’s really important to see other people’s work, and also to learn from their mistakes."

12. It’s Your Party Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, try your hand at playing host. Organizing an evening of drinking might be the best way to meet your best friend’s roommate, who just got a job at Killer Films.

If you already have a project in the pipeline, Adams suggests organizing a reading of your screenplay. It can be an inexpensive and effective way to engage potential backers in your work and recruit talented friends to help with your project. "People feel like they can be part of the magic," says Adams. "Six actors in a room reading a script can get people really excited. They want to help make it possible."

You might even find you have a talent for bringing other people together—you’re not just networking for yourself but playing conduit to other networks. "You get a sense of what other people do, and then you connect people who might not ever know each other," says McInnis.

13. Slave Wages Unpaid work can be the ideal way to get your feet wet. "The best way to get in a room with those people is to volunteer," says Holland. "My first job was a two week internship. Then I was at October Films for two months."

If you’re not interested in the production racket, try volunteering your services on set. Your fellow grips might one day be your ticket to success. "When I started out, I did a lot of crazy weird projects that don’t belong on my resume," says Adams, "but a lot of the people I worked with then are very successful now, and we took our baby steps together."

14. Use Your Youth (If you’re young that is . . . ) Inexperience can provide excellent cover for a multitude of things you won’t be able to get away with later. If you’re twenty, you can walk up to your favorite filmmaker and fawn all over her like the naïve fan you truly are. If your forty, that’s just not cute.

You can also call up a big shot and ask for a meeting. Why not—you don’t know any better. "I think informational meetings are great," says McInnis. "Let’s say you’re twenty years old, and you’re moving into the filmmaking field. Why not call Miramax and ask them if you can go in and talk to them for twenty minutes? Everybody loves to help you if you’re twenty."

15. Location, Location, Location Unfortunately, where you live does matter. Most movers and shakers believe that in order to have a healthy network of friends and colleagues, you have to live in New York or Los Angeles. Others are not quite so exclusive—they mention Seattle, Chicago, Austin, and Miami as alternatives with healthy filmmaking communities. But most young filmmakers won’t be able to make it if they stay in Topeka. It’s just too hard to get noticed. "If somebody sends me a script and I know that I’m going to see them three times in the next month, I’ll read that script faster," says Holland. Otherwise, he says, it will probably just languish on his desk, unread.

16. Formal Networks Parties aren’t the only way to meet people. Don’t be afraid to join the ranks of a membership organization. Often, these groups run workshops, host open houses and meet-and-greets, and provide forums in which you can recruit other talent, discuss fundraising, and show your work.

This can be a particularly useful strategy for people who have traditionally been marginalized by the film community. "Twenty-five years ago, institutional racism was outrageous," says Warrington Hudlin, a founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation (BFF). "We weren’t even invited [to the parties]. We were outside, walking past the building." Hudlin’s organization runs a film festival and other programs (including a website, dvrepublic.org) that help black filmmakers break into the business and build an audience for their work. "We’re based on the principle of self-reliance and self-promotion," he says.

In addition to the BFF, influential organizations include the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (www.nalip.org) and NY Women in Film and Television (www.nywift.org). There are also groups that can help if you live in smaller cities. AIVF hosts twenty-four salons around the country, and the IFP has sixteen chapters. The Filmmaker’s Collaborative in Boston (www.filmmakerscollab.org) is only open to greater Boston area documentary filmmakers, and it aids with fundraising and production.

17. Go to School The jury’s still out on whether film school is necessary for success or not. There are plenty of filmmakers who would say they made it without formal training; there are others who wish they’d had the chance to hone their skills in a classroom. But most agree that film programs are an excellent place to build your network.

18. Touring the Circuit Everyone knows that festivals can be a great place for independent filmmakers to get their work seen, but they can also be an ideal place to expand your network. "I think filmmakers tend to be unaware of how valuable it can be to go even if you don’t have a film in that festival," says McInnis. "Even if it’s just to attend films and seminars, even if it’s just to meet the industry members who are there."

McInnis, who regularly attends more than a dozen festivals a year, recommends learning the politics of the festival circuit. It can be an illuminating window into how films are bought and promoted. "Volunteer if there’s one in your city," she says. "To some degree, they’re all the same. There’s a certain equation about how films get in, how they’re chosen and how they’re screened, how filmmakers are feted, and how they’re treated and introduced to the press."

19. Don’t Forget Your Roots If you do manage to make it big with a film, use your network of colleagues and friends to keep you honest. There are dozens of stories of talented filmmakers who make a good first feature and then get whisked off to California with visions of beach houses dancing in their heads. They then turn out a terrible sophomore effort and are roundly denounced as one-hit wonders. Darren Aronofsky and P.T. Anderson are both held up as examples of people who still work with many members of their original team. They stayed indie—and even dabble in studio fare—without sullying their reputations. "There’s probably no way to avoid the pressure," says Nelson. "But if you keep yourself in an environment that is reminiscent of your previous environment, at least for your second attempt, you’ll be truer to yourself."

20. Those Who Can’t Do, Hire Once you’ve made it, if you still hate getting out there to meet the right people, hire someone who can do that for you, The right agent, producer, or lawyer can effectively build your network without you having to charm the cocktail-party tour. "If you know that you’re not a good networker," says Holland, "then you have to have someone networking for you."