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“It’s Just a General”: How to Take a General Meeting

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At some point in your career, things are going to break your way — you’ll be lucky enough to have your crowdfunded labor of love generate some heat at a big festival. Or your short film will go viral. Or maybe you’ll sell a hot spec or make the Black List. Whatever happens, you’ll land managers and agents, and people in L.A. will want to meet you — and not a minute too soon, because you’re four months behind on rent and need to pay for T-shirts for all your backers.

It’s time to meet studio execs looking to hire a hot new director for an actor’s pet project; producers with intellectual property, or IP, they control, such as a book or article, or busted scripts needing page-one rewrites; and development executives eager to work with you on all of your great ideas…and a few of their own. It’s time to meet the town, chase some jobs, land some assignments and make some money doing what you love. In other words, it’s time to do generals — as in general meetings.

But not so fast (as least when it comes to your landlord): From my own experience as a screenwriter, general meetings can be a lot of fun and lead to great things, but it’s healthier to view them as a first step on a long road rather than a destination themselves.

After 15 years of writing, I went in one six-month period from being accepted to an IFP Lab to landing reps to selling my crime thriller spec, Inside the Machine, to a studio. There was an announcement on Deadline, I got a drive-on pass to the Warner Bros. lot, and I suddenly had meetings scheduled all over town. But as I — and a number of other writers and directors queried here — can attest, generals lead more often to possibility than an immediate paycheck.

Below are best practices for making the most of generals.

WHAT IS A “GENERAL”?

A general is an informal meeting between new talent (you) and someone in the industry who likes your work. You go to their office, the assistant offers you a bottle of water, you sit on a couch, and pleasant conversation ensues about yourself, your work, your goals and the industry. For obvious reasons, generals are euphemistically known as “water-bottle” or “couch” tours.

A brief Hollywood taxonomy of the three types of people you’ll meet: producers, who may or may not have a first-look deal at a studio, or work out of a bungalow on a studio lot, or may have their own financing stream (in order to pay for development), or may have none of the above; development executives, who usually work for producers and are perhaps recently promoted from being assistants and whose general job is to comb the town for new material and talent (which is where you come in); and finally, studio executives, who work on the studio lot and while they usually rely on producers to bring projects in to them, they just as often like to have their fingers on the pulse of new writers and maybe do a little development or finding projects on their own.

Most meetings will start the same way and follow the same basic narrative: They’ll compliment the work that got you in the room and want to know a bit about your project’s backstory and your own history — what inspired your project, where are you from, etc. They’ll tell you about their company, what they are looking to make and do, and what their sweet spot is. They’ll ask you about your goals and what you are looking to do in the industry. Finally, if they have something in development that might be right for you, it will come up toward the end of the meeting. (These projects are known as OWAs or ODAs — open writing or open directing assignments.)

Generals are a great way to meet a wide variety of the development community and get a sense of the zeitgeist of the town. They are also a great way to clarify for yourself your own voice and brand. You will not end up in business with everyone you meet, but you will start to get a sense of what you like in development executives, and this will help you navigate your future in the industry.

For a first-timer, a general meeting can seem stressful. But, as Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas and the upcoming Freeheld) advises, “Enjoy it! It’s not a job interview or a date; it’s an introduction to a culture that you probably haven’t had any exposure to, and it’s an honor. They want to meet you because they respect your work!”

HOW TO PREPARE FOR A GENERAL.

Before your meetings, it’s smart to research whoever you’re going to meet with and (if a development exec) the principal at their company. Don’t just search IMDb, but also Variety, Deadline and The Hollywood Reporter so that you’re up to speed on what they’ve done and have in development. Get a sense of their taste and the type of films they’re making.

It’s also smart to know whether the production company/producer has a first-look deal at a studio (which means that they are obligated, in exchange for overhead or development money, to bring any new projects they are finding or developing to a certain studio first). You can Google Variety’s annual “Facts on Pacts” to find out who has first looks at which studio.

IT’S ALL ABOUT CONNECTING.

Generals are a barometer for not just what’s out there (in terms of jobs, assignments and taste) but who. Screenwriter Nicole Riegel (the Black Listed-script Dogfight) thinks of generals as being like “speed dating — you need to find the people you are going to want to work with, and you’ll probably click with five or 10 out of a hundred.”

I’ve had generals in which I knew instantly that I would love working with a certain producer, just from how she discussed her passion for filmmakers and her projects in development. I’ve also had meetings where I made a mental note to make sure my team never submitted my work to that executive. Concurs Kat Candler, director of Hellion, “[Generals are about] figuring out what producers, companies I really click with both artistically and personally. I want to work with people I enjoy and I think are solid human beings, regardless of the size or scope of the film.”

Unsurprisingly, executives look at generals the same way. Jenny Halper, development executive at Maven Pictures, says she frequently takes meetings with directors even when they don’t have an ODA. She’s looking for directors who have “a clear sense both of the type of material they are drawn to and of their particular ethos for putting a movie together — what budgets are they comfortable with, what actors do they have relationships with, do they prefer to write their own material, are they interested in developing material from an early stage?”

CONTROLLING YOUR STORY.

The best way to ensure the development community understands how to think of you is to own your own narrative — know who you are, what you want to do and where you’re going. Candler suggests before you start meeting, “Define your goals. Be clear about what you want to do in the future and where you see yourself. Whose careers do you emulate? What kind of worlds or genres do you want to explore? What are some of your dream projects?”

Riegel says there’s a strategy to an effective general meeting. For her, that’s being incredibly specific about what she wants to do. “If you handle them as a meet and greet, it doesn’t work,” she says. “I go in with what I want to do — films about people shaped by war and violence — and maybe it fits the mantra of their company or maybe it doesn’t.”

Dan Seligmann, a development executive at Amazon Studios who frequently meets both writers and directors, appreciates that level of directness. When it comes to directors, he says he likes to ask, “What are you looking to do next? And whatever that is, I’ll start looking for that, and then go directly to that director when I find it. I consider generals starting a relationship.”

WHAT THEY WANT TO DO.

At some point in many generals, the executives will bring up their own OWA/ODAs, projects they have in development that you might be right for. This is usually, but not always, a property they control, such as a book, magazine article, a script that needs a rewrite, or just an idea that they have. While this is exciting, says writer and director Eva Vives (currently adapting Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf), it’s important to manage your expectations. “Just because they’re telling you about a project doesn’t mean you should pitch on it,” she says. “Always do your homework on a project — meaning: Is this a priority for the studio/producer, is anyone attached, who else is pitching, etc. — before spending valuable time on it.”

Early on, it’s tempting to think of every project being discussed as real and that you may be one great pitch away from an announcement in the trades. I know I did. I pitched my heart out — and burned a lot of time preparing those pitches — on a few books, page-one rewrites and at least one remake of a not-so-classic film, and I haven’t seen anything about any of those projects moving forward in the ensuing years. Frankly, I can’t even remember some of them, and there certainly isn’t any project I pitched on then that I still yearn to have landed. And I’m not alone — Mike Jones (the Black Listed-script In the Event of a Moon Disaster) remembers “going all out on a take for Hollow Man 2, which went straight to DVD, and I didn’t land it. I laugh about it now, but at the time I was devastated.”

It’s possible to come out of a bunch of generals with a dozen books and articles to consider, all in various states of “reality” — that is, whether it’s an actual studio priority, or the producer has development funds, or they’re really going to hire someone. It’s between you and your team to decide what you’ll chase and how much time you want to put into that process. Remember, says Sollett, “a meeting that results in you being offered a script to direct isn’t an actual job offer — you’re being offered an opportunity to compete for that job!”

WHAT YOU WANT TO DO.

There’s a variety of opinions on bringing up your own ideas and next projects while in the room. Todd Sklar (writer/director of Awful Nice) suggests having a few projects in mind that you can pitch and talk through when they ask, “what else are you working on?” He says to “know exactly what you want to do next, whether specifically (your next movie) or generally (‘writing for television’),” and that being in a general without knowing what you want to do next is like “going to the grocery store without a list on an empty stomach and asking the cashier ‘What’s good here?’”

Sklar sold a few television projects out of generals, but he offers a caveat — though they were obviously good enough to sell, they weren’t fully fleshed-out ideas, and he’s found himself spending time developing television ideas with uncertain futures rather than making another movie.

On the other side of the room, Halper loves when directors or writers bring up passion projects and intellectual property they’re interested in. “If someone’s particular voice strikes a chord with us, we’ll want to see what they’re looking to do next and if there’s a project we can team with them on.”

I’d offer a caveat for screenwriters — pitching something in the room to an executive without vetting the pitch through your team can result in a situation where the executive loves it, wants to partner, offers suggestions, wants to set a call to discuss further…and never mentions that they don’t have development funds and expect the development on spec. While this isn’t in and of itself terrible, I think it’s far better to utilize your reps to vet where you should be pitching things so that you maximize the opportunity to sell. If you develop for free, it should be with someone who can really get something made. That’s not intelligence that you’ll necessarily have 20 minutes into a meeting. Whether or not to pitch in the room is worthy of a rep call before you set out on a bunch of meetings.

TO GENERAL OR NOT?

While every writer or director seems to have done a round of generals at least once, many stop early into their careers. Riegel, now working on multiple projects and with a clearly established voice, says she doesn’t do them anymore. Jones says that after he worked really hard chasing jobs that he ultimately neither landed nor really wanted, he stepped back and stopped taking generals. Instead, he “wrote a spec and got work that way. Specs have been the only way I’ve consistently stayed in business as a screenwriter.”

But sometimes generals do work out great and lead to work. I once had my last general of the week on a Friday afternoon in Beverly Hills, and producer Robin Schorr gave me the great crime novel The Wolves of Fairmount Park to read. I left her office, went to the closest Starbucks, started the novel and immediately fell in love with the characters and story. I knew then and there that I would pitch on it, and that this type of material represented how I wanted my career to progress. Then, a few months later, I actually landed that job to adapt Wolves, and I credit not only taking that general with Schorr, but also the clarity the entire process brought to my vision of the work I want to pursue.

The turnaround isn’t always that quick, of course; Sollett says he’s now prepping a film that was brought to him by producers he met nine years ago — in a general!

LEAVING THE GENERAL.

After the meeting, jot some notes for yourself about your impressions and any material discussed. You may think you’ll remember, but after 20 in a week, having notes handy for sending thank-you notes and briefing your team will be valuable. I think you should always send a thank-you email to the executive and follow up promptly on any material they may have sent. There’s nothing wrong with saying you couldn’t find a way in to the material but hope to find something to work on in the future. If you choose to engage, bring your team into the loop and figure out next steps internally.

I always inform my team quickly about any particularly great meetings or material that I may love. And I always make a point of explicitly thanking my rep’s assistants who scheduled a week of meetings for me. A bottle of wine delivered to the agency that Friday afternoon can be done for less than $20 and is a class move.

Generals are a part of most writers’ and directors’ entire careers, and they will soon become familiar and “just a general.” But the first time you head out, enjoy every moment — you’ve made a huge step forward in your career. People like your work and want to meet you.

But perhaps the truest final advice for those heading out on their first water-bottle tour comes from Robot and Frank screenwriter Christopher Ford. “Don’t drink too much water,” he says. “It doesn’t mix with L.A. traffic.”

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