A Friend of Mine
A recent Tweet:
The term ‘Gatekeepers’ came up in conversation after that tweet, and it was used as a negative. While I’m sure there are people actively trying to keep others out of every industry without a valid reason, in my experience this is not how things work. Producers, editors, representatives, etc. all want to find new talent. Many times, their livelihoods depend on it. Publishers go out of their way to do portfolio reviews at comic book conventions. Producers, managers, and agents show up at film festivals to sit on meet-and-greet roundtables. I recently witnessed this myself at the Austin Film Festival and Writer’s Conference.
Trust me, everyone is on the hunt for great work.
When faced with rejection, the go-to excuse for creators is that the gatekeepers are keeping them out. It’s easy, and it fits the narrative. “If they’d only give me a shot, but they won’t.” And that’s true, mostly. Gatekeepers don’t want to publish, produce, or represent bad work. Keeping bad work out is the only way to stay in business.
As I discussed in a recent post titled How To Do Just About Anything, I go over my premise that there are really only two steps to ‘breaking in.’
1. Make something great.
2. Show it to the right people.
That’s it. I’m not saying it’s easy, because making something great is hard, very hard. But the ‘breaking in’ process isn’t a mystery. It’s not some industry secret or a cryptic code you have to figure out. In truth, most people trying to break in don’t have something great. I’ve personally sat through portfolio reviews at comic book conventions and saw portfolio after portfolio of horrible work. I’ve also been a script reader for a writing competition. It’s a whole lot of bad, a small bit of pretty good, but great is quite scarce.
Sure, the definition of great is highly subjective, and that’s something we can dig into a lot more in later blog posts, but for now let’s assume the work is great. What next? You can try knocking on doors, blind pitches, cold-calling, general submissions, query letters, contests, etc. If done well and backed by truly great work (and a bit of luck) just about any technique has a real shot.
However, in my experience, nothing moves the needle more than a respected referral. If a well-respected comic book writer champions a talented, but mostly unknown writer, that endorsement carries weight. Far more weight than you can carry on your own. The logic is simple and extends to just about any industry. Gatekeepers are faced with nonstop submissions, portfolios, pitches, etc. Just think of all those people cold calling, sending query letters, knocking on their door, chasing them down the hallway at every comic book convention, most of the work they’ll see is terrible. Many of the people are rude and unprofessional. They might be good at it, but actually looking for great work is frustrating, time consuming, and almost always a disappointment.
In truth, these Gatekeepers are staring into an ocean of white noise.
Consider an alternative. If a highly-respected creator vouches for your work, it can move the needle in a big way. Why? Lots of reasons, but in short, real recognize real. A great writer knows great writing. A great designer knows great design. The unbiased opinion of a respected creator rings true because it has actual experience behind it. If Steven Spielberg has to pass on a directing gig, but he recommends a young director he was impressed by at a film festival, that changes the equation.
I could dig in a lot deeper on why this works, and I likely will, but Lefty does a pretty good job of it in this classic “A friend of mine, a friend of ours” scene from Donnie Brasco.
In short, and whenever possible, get introduced by someone that’s already been made.
In my next blog post, I’ll talk a bit about how you might get that referral, and I’ll try and include a few of examples from personal experience.