Saturday 24 August 2013

'Never go to a meeting without a strategy'

It's a cliche that Hollywood is a place of endless meetings. Woody Allen satirised the practice in Annie Hall (1977).

          A Hollywood Christmas party is in session, complete with
      music, milling people, circulating waiters holding out
      trays of drinks.  It's all very casual.  French doors run
      the entire width of one wall; they are opened to the back
      lawn, guests move from the room to outside and back in.
      It is crowded; bits of conversation and clinking glasses
      can be heard.  Two men, California-tanned, stand by the
      French doors talking.

                      1ST MAN
          Well, you take a meeting with him,
          I'll take a meeting with you if
          you'll take a meeting with Freddy.

                      2ND MAN
          I took a meeting with Freddy. Freddy
          took a meeting with Charlie. You
          take a meeting with him.

                      1ST MAN
          All the good meetings are taken.

"All the good meetings are taken."


Lynda Obst, who produced films such as The Fisher King (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1994), Someone Like You (2001) and The Invention of Lying (2009), had a problem with meetings when she started work in Hollywood.

She talks about the lessons she learned in her book, Hello, He Lied, and Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches.
I got it. If I didn't know what we wanted to accomplish, we couldn't accomplish anything. If we weren't there to score, we couldn't win. I never forgot this lesson. It goes like this: You are a salesman, so bring your sample case. A meeting is either won or lost, so you need a strategy. A strategy implements a plan or an agenda.
     Strategies are devised by intersecting your agenda with that of the other person at the meeting (i.e., "Let's talk about you. When can you help me with my agenda?"). If you have no strategy and just attend a meeting blindly, you lose your edge because you can count on the fact that your lunch date has a strategy.
     Every chance encounter is a meeting, and each meeting is part of a larger series of actions that, when taken together, accumulate into an overall agenda. Agendas can shift, change or adapt, particularly with a new job. But one must always have one. Each move either furthers or obstructs an agenda. Think of it as a board game.
     Sometimes meetings, because they are held in such delightful places, can be mistaken for high teas at which people forget what they're doing and start thinking they're merely having drinks with a couple of well-dressed people with great haircuts. But the truth is that each these well-manicured charmers is, in fact, ruthlessly pursuing his or her agenda. If he is a studio executive, he wants big summer pictures. A producer wants his scripts to be that summer hit. The most wide-ranging fishing expedition of a meeting has its agenda, even if it's only information gathering, friendship building, or propagandizing.
     At lunch with an agent, a producer's strategy would be to win her over and make her aware of his projects. Or simply to go fishing for new hot properties. This is called "tracking," and people are paid to do it. When he has her rapt attention, it's critical that he doesn't bore her to death.

The following is a sample lunch conversation between a producer and a reluctant literary agent.

Producer: So how was your New Year's? ... Aspen?
  (It's never boring if he talks about her.)
Agent: Hawaii. I was sick the whole time.
  (Shut down—or an opening?)
Producer: How hideous! Did you get a lot of reading done?
  (Lead the dance.)
Agent: Had to. When I finally felt better, it was pouring.
Producer: What you need is a great big auction over your new favorite script.
Agent: I did read a really terrific new writer over vacation.
Producer: You know how I love to work with new writers! Why don't you slip it to me early...

  (A descendant of "sock it to me," slipping a spec is giving a time advantage to
   one buyer with plausible denial to the rest of the buyers. As in, "I have no idea
   how she got it!" A gift.)

... and I'll make your first bid.
  (He can't really guarantee this but why should he? He hasn't read it!)
Agent: Great idea!

The producer wins. If the script is any good. ______________________________________________________________

Now let's look at a sample conversation between a producer and a preening studio exec over Chinese chicken salad.

Producer: Congratulations on this weekend! Twelve million! You guys creamed 'em.
  (Locker room talk.)
Exec: It was my picture, you know.
  (This is true whether it is or not.)
Producer: Of course. Everyone knows.
  (Flattery will get her everywhere.)
... Your stock must be pretty high this morning.
  (Hoist them on their own petards.)
Exec: I guess so.
  (Fake humility. A new standard.)
... I'd sure love to bring in a big spec this week.
Producer: You could sell anything this week!
Exec: You think so?
  (This is her setup. She goes in for the kill. Now.)
Producer: I'm getting a terrific script slipped that no one has seen. Spielberg is tracking it, but I think I have it exclusively.
  (Spielberg tracks everything, so this lie is borderline safe.)
Exec: I heard about it! I definitely want it.
  (He's salivating now, despite the chicken salad.)
... When can I get my hands on it?
Producer: Friday. It's yours.
  (After she gets her hands on it.)
... In fact, Darren...
  (his chief competitor)
... has been asking around about it, but I'd rather give it to you. You're my main man.
  (Bonding, flirting, joking—depending on gender relations.)
Exec: And you're mine. Even though you're a chick!

The producer wins again. If the script is any good.

And the moral of the story? Writer, you never go to a meeting without a strategy.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Henry, this is scarily cynical. If everyone is lying, what is the point?