How long is too long to wait for a Hollywood executive to respond to your screenplay submission? Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re busy or if they’re just not that into you.
Writing is not only rewriting … it’s also endless waiting.
Waiting for new story ideas to pop into your head, waiting for a writing partner to return your emails, waiting for the accursed writer’s block to lift. But the most torturous of all is waiting for feedback from an executive—producer, agent, manager, etc.—after you’ve submitted your work.
I’m convinced this is why Hemingway started drinking.
At first, the wait time is a welcome break from working your tail off to get your script ready. But by week two, the nerves hit. You get antsy. Toes tapping, constantly checking email and voicemail, with your cell phone glued to your hand like a silicone-filled needle gouged into a Real Housewife.
My default setting is the belief that “no news is good news.” But in the screenwriting industry, the exact opposite is true. If an exec has your script and loves it, they will call … immediately. If it didn’t grip them, they toss it into a pile of rejects and you’ll never hear from them again. When submitting your own work, assume you are not the exception to the rule.
Let me take a quote directly from Greg Behrendt, co-author of the dating-advice book He’s Just Not That Into You: “If he’s not calling you, it’s because you are not on his mind. Be aware of this and realize that he’s OK with disappointing you.”
Finding the right executive/writer fit is much like finding a mate.
Here’s one very important rule: You must deal with circumstances as they stand, not as you want them to be. Live in reality. Believe me, if the decision-makers are interested, your phone will be ringing. If many weeks have gone by in silence, odds are they just aren’t that into your script. Sure, there’s always the off-chance they forgot. Maybe their dog ate it. Maybe they really are that busy.
Before emailing to check in, I typically wait four weeks, depending on my relationship with the person. If it’s a friend, I’ll ping them earlier, but if it’s an exec I only know casually—or have never met personally—I wait that grueling month.
Your next submission might just be to the executive who will kiss your frog of a script and turn it into a prince. That can only happen, however, if you keep submitting stories, stay grounded in reality, act professional and never give up.
Now, let’s change up the scenario here. Say your inbox pings right away, and it’s a pass. Now what?
First, I always ask if they have notes to share. That keeps a dialogue going; plus, they’ll see I take feedback well. In fact, I’m a bit of a critique-loving junkie.
Next, if they say they love my writing, I also ask to be considered for future in-house writing assignments.
Since everyone knows everyone in L.A., I inquire if they’re aware of any other companies looking for a premise like mine. You’d be surprised at how many referrals I’ve gotten this way.
Then take the opportunity to pitch a new idea you came up with while waiting.
Finally, leave the door open by asking if you can submit future work directly to them, bypassing their assistants. If your writing is good, the answer will almost always be, “Yes.”
Above all, thank them for their time. Can you imagine how many rejections they give out every day? Those can’t be fun. Set yourself apart from the pack by showing you have class.
Once you’ve finished corresponding, go for a long run or pour yourself a stiff drink. Do whatever is necessary to be ready to settle back in your seat the next day and get back to writing.
No one wants to be rejected. But if you have a game plan for how to handle the news, it makes the sting less severe. Writing as much as you can while you wait will busy your mind, help you develop a Plan B, improve your work and give you new ideas to discuss with the executives once you do hear back. And those new ideas might be exactly what your career needs to get you to the next level.
“Hurry up and wait” is a common Hollywood mantra. If only the rules were simpler, and people would just call a spade a spade: I would welcome producers doing a quick turnaround to say, “Thanks for the read. I don’t like it. Good luck.”
As Behrendt says in his book, in yet another quote that applies perfectly to the writer-exec relationship, men would rather die than be honest and risk a woman crying into the phone. To that, I say, “Bring it! Hit us between the eyes. We can take it. We have alligator skin.”
Sure, I might cry after I hang up, I might shake my fists, but you know what I’d do next? Just like in any breakup, I’d learn from it. I’d learn how to work on myself, my scripts, and my career choices to become a better writer and business person, making me more attractive to the next executive I pitch.
Respect a person who is trying to help you, even if you don’t agree with their advice. This industry is all about relationships. So, your best bet is to handle yourself professionally in your follow-through. The last thing a gatekeeper needs is a pathetic, desperate writer with unrealistic expectations. Nothing will kill your career faster. Since a film can take years to make, be someone they want to spend endless hours with during development.
Rejection is inevitable—in love and in writing.
As much as I wish honesty and directness would prevail, that happening in this industry is as likely as unicorns and leprechauns showering me with gold and writing credits.
Find something tangible that helps you hold firm to your faith in succeeding. It can be a quote, a movie poster or a picture of an author you admire who struggled to succeed. Whatever it is, it needs to speak to you personally and give you strength when you look at it. I have several items on my desk to keep my faith strong and my hope intact, including a frame following the advice from Behrendt:
“Maybe the happy ending is this, knowing after all the unreturned phone calls, broken-hearts, through the blunders and misread signals, through all the pain and embarrassment, you never gave up hope.”
Allow every day you wait to be a day of hope. Let go of the stress, soak in the moment and appreciate the value of getting a professional to read your work. Congratulate yourself for that forward motion. You worked hard for it. A pass is just that—one person’s opinion. Your next submission might just be to the executive who will kiss your frog of a script and turn it into a prince. That can only happen, however, if you keep submitting stories, stay grounded in reality, act professional and never give up.
Imagine if Hemingway quit in 1925, after receiving this brutal rejection for The Sun Also Rises: “If I may be frank, Mr. Hemingway … I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. … I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other.”
I bet Hemingway simply tossed one back and kept on writing. You should, too.
You may have to wait for decision-makers, but you never have to wait to open your heart and bleed on the page.