The Business of Screenwriting: “Qualify the customer”

Okay, this week’s post is a blast from the past and only comes about due to a recent revelation from a TV producer I know that she has started dating a dude whose mother’s sister is married to this guy:

This is Larry Thomas who in 2010 was named CEO of Fender, Inc:

Thomas, who was appointed a Fender director last year, previously served as chairman and CEO of Guitar Center Inc., a chain of music stores.

He joined Guitar Center in 1977 as a salesperson, rising to store manager, regional manager, general manager, president and, ultimately, chairman and CEO.

Okay, stick with me and I promise to make a point re screenwriting.

When I left Yale Divinity School armed with my Masters degree, I took what I thought was going to be a year off from academics to pursue my interest in music as a singer-songwriter. I ended up spending two years in Aspen making a living as a musician. Figuring if I stayed in Aspen, I would bliss out and never much amount to anything, I relocated to the Bay Area, somehow finding myself living in the Frederick Apartments in Oakland, California, my window looking out directly onto a highway.

I landed a gig as a salesman at the Guitar Center on Van Ness in San Francisco. The manager of that store was Larry Thomas. Yep, that guy pictured up top.

The store was this huge, funky open space jammed with electric guitars and amps. There was an accessories area along one wall. A tiny enclosed room for acoustic guitars. A keyboard room. A section for drums. Downstairs the P.A. equipment. Upstairs Larry’s office. Doors opened at 10AM. As soon as they did, on went the rock and roll music over the store P.A. — really loud.

I didn’t much care for the gig. But I learned a lot of what I know about business during my brief tenure there. Here’s an example.

Every Saturday morning at 8:30, the troops would straggle in for a weekly sales meeting. Understand that the sales crew was mostly musicians, so you can imagine what that looked like. In other words, some seriously overtired, bleary-eyed, hungover mofos.

For 90 minutes, we would sit on hard back, folding chairs in this musty, dim room in the bowels of the basement as LT (that was Larry’s nickname) would school us on how to sell guitars to pimple-faced, juvenile head-banger wannabes.

Those meetings were brutal. Worse, we had to do role-playing. “Okay, Jim, you’re a customer, Scott, you’re the salesman.”

Like I said, brutal.

LT was relentless. A nice guy, but in order to whip this crew of musical misfits into any sort of shape, he had to ride us and ride us hard.

One thing he preached over and over again was the basic act of The Sale. He broke it down into three parts.

Qualify the customer.

Which of those three do you think Larry said was the most important aspect of The Sale?

Was it the pitch?

The close?

No, according to LT, the key to sales is the first step: Qualify the customer. Because if you know what the customer wants, that makes it a zillion time easier for you to sell them. Why?

Because you are giving them what they want.

You may have the greatest pitch in the world, but if the customer doesn’t really want to buy it, you’re going to have a tough time making that sale.

You may be in the Closer Hall of Fame, but if the customer doesn’t want what you’re pushing, you are set up to fail.

Qualify the customer. Find out what they want. Then give it to them.

As screenwriters, you intersect with all sorts of people along the way who can influence your career, but in actuality there are only two groups who actually plunk down dollars to buy your product: Studios (or financing entities) and moviegoers.

Studios: What do they want? Obviously they want to buy a script they believe they can produce and turn around for a profit. But they don’t acquire properties in a vacuum. Generally they are looking to augment what they already have on their development slate. And they are always mindful of what is hot — and what is not — in the current and foreseeable entertainment marketplace. So to qualify that customer, you can follow acquisitions to see who’s buying what. If you’ve got an agent or manager, you can largely rely on their advice, but you would still be wise to track what’s going on. For instance, this year thrillers are a hot genre. R-rated comedies seem to be on a roll. You don’t see as many contained thrillers selling as you did a year or so ago. That’s good info to know. Where to find out that info? If you’re a GITS follower, you’ve got at least one good daily resource for information.

Moviegoers: What do they want? The studios think of them as a target audience. You should think of them as a face. Consider that story you are currently writing and imagine a specific visual image of the ideal customer for your movie. I’ve known writers who will go through magazines and cut out a photo of someone they figure represents that person, their target audience. Now ask yourself this question: What is it about your story that will motivate that customer to get off their ass and go to a movie theater to see your movie? Why do you want to see my movie? If the resulting list of reasons you come up with is thin, then perhaps you’re not writing a big or compelling enough story. And from a creative standpoint, if you can identify what specific narrative elements that customer you’ve imagined will resonate with in your story, you can play those up when you write the script. Know what they want. Give them what they want.

Of course, you can pretty much circumvent all of this and guarantee a sale by writing a great script. Which leads to final layer to this question: You have to qualify yourself.

No matter how much you learn about the movie business… movie audiences… movie trends… all of which can be important… there is nothing more important than asking yourself what it is you want to write, you need to write. A story for which you have true passion. If you don’t have that, chances are it won’t be great. Hell, you likely won’t even get to FADE OUT / The End.

What makes a great script? As LT would say, “You’re not selling a guitar, you’re selling a dream.”

Make sure you’re selling them your dream.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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