KATHIE FONG YONEDA: Everybody knows that getting hired in this business is about who you know. So, Ellen, you’ve been hired to write on over twenty shows, how do you get to know people and even more important, how do people get to know you? What is your advice on networking?
ELLEN SANDLER: Actually I hate the word “networking.” It sounds so calculated, because it is. I don’t think it’s really the most productive thing to be doing – that kind of “active networking” thing.
K: You mean where people are rushing at everyone handing out cards and pitching their loglines?
E: Yeah. What I like to think about is building a community. I come from a theatre background—specifically improv theatre where things are very collaborative. What improv experience teaches you is to always think about how you can support your partner and what you can add to the party. So when I think about community, rather than thinking, “What can I get from this person?” I think, “How can I make a place for myself here?” What can I give, rather than what can I get.
K: Linda Seger and I talk about networking a lot and she always says, “I don’t like people when they practice what they think is networking – when they’re calculating, phony, and are users.” So when we talk to our clients about extending themselves and making it a point to meet others, Linda and I urge them to try “dolphin” networking, rather than “shark” networking.
E: That’s great.
K: Which means give, don’t just take.
E: Yes. You have to think, how can I keep in touch with people; how can I make someone part of my world, and how can I fit in to their world…
K: What can I do to help somebody?
E: Exactly. Of course, not everybody you meet is going to fit into your world, but when you do meet someone that you have something in common with…
K: You want to build that relationship.
E: Yes, because meeting someone once does not a community make. Which means you have to follow up. Don’t depend on the other person to contact you. Take the initiative.
K: Get together and have coffee with them.
E: Listen to what they have to say and when you hear something you connect with, then follow up. For example, maybe they’re raving about a movie they saw and loved. You’ve got a Netflix account, don’t you? See the movie and then send an email – you did make it a point to get their email address, didn’t you? Tell them how much you enjoyed the movie, thanks for recommending it, if they hadn’t told you about it you would never had seen it, etc. This sort of extending yourself socially doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers, but make yourself do it. I don’t mean you have to be someone you’re not; be you, but push yourself a little. Get out of your comfort zone. Talk to people.
K: These things really do come back to you. Well, you and I are an example – we met at a conference where I sat in on one of your workshops. I could see that you were able to make a really good connection with all the writers in the audience and I wanted to keep in touch. We tried for about two years to get together for lunch and could never seem to make it work out.
E: Because you live in Pasadena and I live in Santa Monica. I can’t go there.
K: But we kept trying.
E: Oh, yeah, we must have made six or seven tries. It was actually getting to be funny.
K: We had sort of the same sense of humor about it. Finally, we figured out that we were both going to be working in Melbourne, Australia.
E: And that our schedules would overlap by two days.
K: And that’s when we finally got to have lunch—in Melbourne.
E: Obviously, I could get to Australia easier than to Pasadena.
K: By then we were pretty good friends.
E: Just from talking to each other so many times trying to make a date!
K: Then when I was approached by MediaCorp in Singapore – the main TV station there – they asked me to develop a writing program to train their writers. We were covered on drama, but I realized that to really make it a comprehensive program, I needed somebody much stronger on the comedy side and, of course, I thought of you.
E: All because we tried so hard to have lunch.
K: And because I was impressed with how you taught.
E: True, but this was several years after you saw me teach. Do you think you would have remembered me if it hadn’t been for all those phone calls trying to arrange lunch?
K: No, you’re right. Our relationship is what kept you in my mind.
E: Another way to build your community is by being in a writer’s group.
K: It’s never too early. If you aren’t in one, and don’t know of one to join; create one.
E: All you need is two other writers to start. If each of you then invites one other writer you’ve got six and that’s a good group. You can keep growing from there. It’s a major way to expand your contacts and build relationships. Other writers get to know you and your writing intimately.
K: You get information and you get support from each other. You get feedback on your work.
E: Don’t think of other writers as competition, they are really your best friends. Because that’s how you’re going to get in the door. Another writer who’s maybe one step ahead of you, that’s who’s going to pull you in. Most new writers are unrepresented and it can feel hopeless, like you can never get through any door without an agent or manager, but I’ll tell you a story – I was hired on staff of a new show and I was having my first meeting with the Executive Producer; we were sitting in her office, getting to know each other, and I couldn’t help but notice that the floor was covered with stacks and stacks of scripts. Every script had an agency cover on it—that means it was submitted through the standard process, every one of them—there must have been a hundred. And as we’re sitting there amid all these scripts, you know what she said to me?
E: “Do you know any writers?”
K: (laughing) Oh my gosh.
E: Really. So I said, “Sure, as a matter of fact, I know a guy who I think would be really good for this show.” She took his name, she got his spec script, and she hired him! I don’t know if she ever looked at any of those agency submitted scripts all over her floor. So, even if you have an agent; it’s much better to have a friend.
This is an edited selection from YOUR CAREER IN TV – THE VIEW FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE TABLE, a seminar held at the Great American Pitchfest in June of this year, with studio executive KATHIE FONG YONEDA and writer/producer ELLEN SANDLER.