A few weeks ago, I was working at my “Saturday coffee shop,” musing over what my next article should be, when a woman from across the patio got up and made a beeline in my direction. I could tell she wanted to ask me something. As she got closer, I was astonished to realize that I recognized her.
She wanted to take my picture to send to a former intern who looked remarkably like me. Turns out, I also look remarkably like me, a former intern of hers from a bajillion and a half years ago. We were surprised and delighted to reconnect. I blurted out that horrid, disingenuous, cliché – “You haven’t changed a bit!” – because it was true.
D. Diane Miller was likely the second person I ever worked for in my Hollywood career. Neither of us can recall how we met, but reconnecting this way seemed serendipitous to us both.
As I chatted with Diane, I suddenly realized what I wanted to write about – mentorship. And the bosses and mentors who impacted my career and my life.
That’s why I’m always adding new mentorship packages for the writers I work with as a consultant, so they can benefit from this crucial ingredient to success. You can read about them here.
It takes both talent and serendipity to break into the industry. And by that I mean the combination of preparation, relationships and lucky timing, mentorship is the surest way to gain those ingredients and to advance once you’ve gotten a foot in the door.
The best part of mentorship is that at some point you’ll be able to give someone else a hand up.
Toe to Toe
As I think back on my time with Diane, I’m struck with two things. First, even though I was truly just a kid, and an intern, she treated me with respect, included me in meetings, and handed off tasks, never doubting I would accomplish them.
Decades ago, Diane constantly worked with male business partners and in all-male settings. Never, ever, did she seem to be on anything less than an equal footing. When I asked her about this recently, Diane said that in many ways she considered women superior to men, and was reaching down to lift them up to her level!
How to Take A Meeting
Her business partner at the time, a male producer, took me to my first ever, real film industry meeting. He had been in the business for ages, and knew exactly how it worked. It was a Meetings 101 primer – the kind that you aren’t offered in any Ivory Tower.
I soaked it in. I watched him start with what seemed like casual, small talk and then deftly transition to the project that was the purpose of the meeting. So smooth. Wow. That’s how it’s done.
I learned right then and there how the industry takes a meeting and how a skilled producer operates. They start the ball rolling, tee it up for the writer, hand it off and then step back. And that’s how I’ve handled it for the rest of my career. In countless pitches to studios with a great idea and a writer in tow – whether they were a newbie of an Academy Award© nominated professional – I knew what my job was.
In the room, I learned that once my “active” work was done, the single most important thing I could do as a producer once the pitch began was shut up and observe. I sit the writer directly across from the most important person in the room, and I sit off at an angle where I can watch not the writer, but the decision-maker, observing their expressions and their body language.
Where did we hook them? When were they confused? When were they utterly engaged? All this feedback based on reactions would go back to the writer later so we could make the pitch better.
- Never lose sight of your value. See yourself on equal footing with your peers.
- Watching how it’s done in the real world surpasses even the best how-to books.
Never Let Them See You Sweat
My first real industry job was as an assistant at a boutique literary agency. There is no better place to learn how the business works than an agency. Infinitely harder than working for two independent producers, but a priceless education, and I was eager to get schooled.
I worked for the two youngest, i.e. lowest level agents: A man who worked in feature and a woman who worked in TV. As the lowest on the totem pole they had to do more – read more, submit more, network more. They were trying to break new writers, prove themselves, and handle added responsibilities for the agency of covering studio open assignments and network staffing.
2 bosses + several incompetent assistants who proceeded me + young agents working 10 X harder than the partners = 60-hour work-weeks yields BIG learning curve.
To top it off, my two bosses had offices on different floors! I was literally running. My agents were sending out up to a dozen submissions a day. This is back in the olden days of scripts on paper, sent via delivery service, each with a perfect cover letter attached. I worked hard as hell, and I handled it. Except for getting a complaint from the bookkeeper that I was rushing around the script library/Xerox room/kitchen and looked stressed. Seriously?
So I trained myself to speed walk and whistle while I worked. OK, I can’t whistle a tune to save my life, but I hummed, and I smiled. No way was I going to be accused of not being able to handle the pressure.
My male boss, Gary Pearl, early in his career then but now a highly successful manager- producer, is the person truly responsible for getting me into the business. Except for a handful of quirks which I readily adapted to – may of which I picked up and still use – I knew exactly what he expected of me, and I could deliver.
Breaking into The Industry
In case I haven’t harped on the importance of having relationships to get into the industry as well as to advance, here’s the scoop:
My younger brother Neil, went to Tulane University where he helped reinvigorate a chapter of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, or Sammy as it is called. After Neil graduated, he was offered a job as a national field rep for the fraternity. Pretty awesome job. He traveled the country helping new chapters spring up, as well as visiting existing ones where the brothers attempt to throw the best party you’ve ever seen while he tried to get then “scared straight” on alcohol, hazing and safe sex. Perhaps I’ve made it sound a bit too glamorous, but that’s the gist of it.
Through Sammy, Neil get to know the chapter advisor of the UCLA house, an alum, which is Gary. Who meets met I puts me up for a job as assistant to the partners, which I don’t get, coming in second place to a guy with a law degree. The next opening is for a new assistant he’s sharing with another agent. And this time I get the job.
Mentorship Learning Curve
While I freaked out that I lacked the agent sensibility, Gary taught me that if I wanted to be a development executive and a producer, I needed to focus on learning what my taste was. When I knew what types of stories I was attracted to, then I was ready to find a job with a producer who shared my taste.
Gary gave me the opportunity to do some development work, helping a green writer who had interest on a script and was stuck in rewrite hell with a development exec who he wanted desperately to please but was confusing him. Here’s where I learned how to talk with writers in the way that will bring out the best in their work, different for each individual. And, because of the development exec and his notes, I saw what happens when you fail to tell a writer what it good, what is working and why. It can disappear. And the script doesn’t get stronger in the next pass. This was one of my early experiences in working closely with a writer and supporting them through the writing process. Invaluable!
- Relationships, relationships, relationships.
- It’s not just who you know, it’s who you know knows!
- Nervous or not, put on a brave face, get in there and push to excel.
- Learn your taste in material, it’s invaluable.