In the good old days, back when I started Raindance Film Festival, most of my contacts were made through ads in trade newspapers. If one was looking for a job, one turned to the classified ads in the national papers. Seems so quaint now.
Whatever you goal today is, making new relationships in the offline world has become critical. Sure we all use social networks – it’s become the new standard. “How many LinkedIn contacts do you have?’ has become the hot topic of conversation. Have you a love/hate relationship with ‘networking?’ We all want to forge new contacts and expand our network by meeting new people in the independent film industry. However, when you’re standing in front of someone, one-on-one, it can feel as painful as negotiating your first dance in high school.
Enter the world wide web with it’s host of tools to help us circumnavigate the awkwardness of networking in person. According to Performics’ 2012 Life on Demand Survey, nearly half of us prefer engaging with others on the internet. It’s true, it’s relatively easy to dig up someone’s email and whiz off an email from the comfort of the small screen.
Sometimes it works: it’s exactly what screenwriter Mark Rogers did when he pinged me out of the blue, and I ended up producing his first feature. One-on-one networking is a crucial skill you need to develop if you want to develop strong relationships with potential cast, crew and investors. I have put together this guide to help you the next time you enter a networking social, be it at Cannes or at Windsor Castle (with the Queen). With a bit of practice, you’ll avoid the networking faux pas and you’ll be able to walk into any room as cool as a cucumber, and walk out with the start to at least one personal relationship that could help your career.
The 6 Challenges Of One-On-One Networking
1) Not knowing why you are there
Before you attend the next networking event – it could be our Boozin’ n’ Schmoozin‘ our Filmmakers’s Ball or the British Independent Film Awards – try to scan the list of attendees ahead of time. Sometimes a guest list is published ahead of time allowing you to have a look at the attendees and to give you a bit of a clue of who to approach. Take the time to research people you hope to meet. Look up their Linkedin, Facebook, IMDB.com and Twitter profiles. Look at their websites.
I meet tons of the same people at film industry events. They usually sidle up to me and ask ‘What’s new at Raindance?’ This question usually annoys me because I think they haven’t spent even 30 seconds looking up Raindance in the past 90 days. Even more than this they obviously aren’t following the Raindance Twitter account! Are these people unimportant? No, they are important but I can never understand why they don’t spend more time preparing for these networking events.
I’m guilty too of wasting time at networking events. Many of the shadowy figures I have noticed lurking in the corners of events long past are now senior film industry leaders. I only wish I had spent more time seeking out people and researching what they were up to.
Ask yourself why you want to attend. Is it to create awareness of a new project you are starting? Is it to seek collaborators? Are you looking for a mentor? Do you want to meet co-producers?
Having a clear goal will make your networking more effective.
2) Not knowing how to start a conversation
It’s really hard to get yourself into the swirl of things at a networking event. Here’s what I do: Find someone else who’s flying solo and introduce yourself. Ask them some questions about themselves. Maybe they know someone else and they can introduce you to them. This person you meet at the outset will be the one you keep hooking up with throughout the event, and can lead you to someone new.
Read up on film industry news before you set off, and have a hit list of two or three hot topics you can ask people to spark conversation.
The person you first meet will be the gateway to the event. At the Windsor Castle event where we met the Queen the first person after the ceremonial handshake was Derek Malcolm. He introduced me to several industry bigwigs, would get us chatting and then disappear only to resurface with someone new 15 minutes later. Near the end of the night he asked me to find him a lift home. By then I sort of knew who had driven and who had taken the train. The only person sober enough to drive him to the area of London where he lives was Helena Bonham Carter.
3) Not knowing how to introduce yourself to someone really huge
Have you ever been in a situation when suddenly you spot a celebrity across the room? How do you approach them? Perhaps they throw a glance at you and lift an eyelid. Does this mean they’d like to speak to you or are they the victim of a nervous tick? How can you strike up a conversation with this person without making a complete idiot and fool of yourself?
The number one rule is to make sure you have a reason to speak to them.
I used to go up to senior figures, tap them on the shoulder and tell them how much I admired their work. I usually got a polite ‘thank you’ and that was that.
The trick is to approach them not as a fan, but as an equal. And remember you are an equal. Stride up to them confidently and introduce yourself. Try to engage them with questions or comments about something of their work that resonates with you. See if you can tie that into your own work and projects or philosophy. Maybe make a statement to them about how their approach to filmmaking was very helpful to me in my last project, and now that I am starting a new project I am seeing if I can apply some of your techniques to my own work, for example.
Remember you admire them for their thoughtful leadership, their ideas. Give them a chance to admire and comment on your work too.
4) Not knowing how to keep the conversation going
So you have met someone interesting, exchanged business cards and life stories, had a canape and a sip of champagne. Life is good. But then what? If you aren’t careful, conversation will stop and they will move on to someone else.
I avoid the awkward silence at the end of small talk by asking them something about themselves. Going to a networking event does not involve talking all the time. In fact, being a good and animated listener is as important, if not more so.
Back to the Queen’s industry reception, I noticed Prince Philip wandering slowly (and alone) through the middle of the banquet hall holding a glass of wine. I went boldly up to him, introduced myself and thanked him for his generosity. He asked me what I did, and I said I ran a film festival, and suddenly we were in the awkward bit. So I asked him what movies he liked. I thought it would be interesting to know what the Queen’s husband’s opinion was of movies. He told me he didn’t see many movies these days, but when he did he really enjoyed them. We then chatted for about 90 seconds about the strength of British films and filmmakers and were interrupted by the presentation to the Queen herself by Kenneth Branagh. And by the way, at 92, Prince Philip is 100% all there.
5) No knowing how to ask for something
Every filmmakers wet dream is going to a networking event and coming back with a contract for a gig or a cheque for the budget of a new film. Whatever your goal is, moments like this don’t just happen, they are created by playing a series of cards one after another and then asking for the deal.
It’s a bit like being at a job interview and being asked why you are the best candidate for the job. You answer with your flexibility, your energy and willingness to learn, and your skills and why they are appropriate for the job. In the film world you have to stress how your project is different and how it will benefit you and the other party.
When you are at a networking event you have to cut through all the small talk and when you have drawn the interest of the other person you need to explain in clear and simple terms what it is you want. Be firm. Make it clear why their involvement will be mutually beneficial.
6) Not knowing when a conversation is over
To be a successful networker it isn’t about the number of people you meet, it is about the quality of conversations you have. Far better to come back with one meaningful relationship than a pocket full of business cards from strangers.
What to do when you want to get away from someone and move on to someone else?
When conversation lags a simple “Let me know how your project turns out, and keep in touch” is a good way to end a conversation without appearing rude or aloof. Another tactic might be to ask them if they have seen anyone from Weinstein and Co – and tell them you would like to meet them if they are there.
The trick to terminating a painful conversation is to keep it feeling open-ended for the future.
You get back home form a networking event and you have met some really interesting people and had a series of meaningful conversation but there isn’t a likelihood that anyone you chatted with would be available or right for your own project. A good way to build your network and continue to engage is to send an email or Linkedin message.
Are you going to a networking event soon? Drop that awkwardness with the clipboard person at the door and walk with confidence knowing that you are top of the film industry news and that you and your project are as valuable as anyone else’s.
Remember, that the outcome and success of the event relies on you.