Sunday, August 02, 2015

BRINGING THE GOODNESS: Interview with Stephanie Palmer

"Good in a Room" -- as screenwriters, we've all heard this expression, which simply means "be engaging when you meet people." Seems intuitive, right? Just be cool and tell a story well.  

Yeah, that's not as easy as it seems for many of us.

Enter Stephanie Palmer. A former MGM studio executive, Palmer founded Good in a Room ten years ago and since then has given workshops for the likes of Google, Merrill Lynch, WME, Disney and Warner Bros. The company may be an answered prayer for many of us. After all, writing a good script is only half the battle. 

We caught up with Stephanie to find out a little about her and how she works her magic.

Jim Cirile: So, Stephanie, fill us in -- what exactly is Good in a Room, and how does it work?

Stephanie Palmer: “Good in a Room” is a term that agents and producers use to describe writers who present their ideas well in meetings. The purpose of Good in a Room is to help screenwriters to get meetings, pitch effectively, find agents, and sell their work.

My philosophy is that there is more to being a successful screenwriter than writing well. You also need a strategy for your career, a networking strategy to meet the right people, and a meeting strategy to perform well in any situation where you are presenting your ideas.

To help writers to create commercially viable material - and to be able to get that material in the right hands - I offer a Screenwriter Starter Kit for newcomers to the screenwriting world who sign up to my email list, and an in-depth course How To Be A Professional Writer for the more serious writers.

JC: How did you come to work for MGM?

SP: My first job was an intern on Titanic. Then, I was an assistant at Jerry Bruckheimer Films. The woman I replaced at Jerry Bruckheimer Films told me about the opportunity to work at MGM. I started as an assistant, then was the Story Editor, and then the Director of Creative Affairs.

 JC: What's your best memory of your tenure at MGM? Worst?

SP: There were lots of terrific moments from my time at MGM. I loved getting to work with some incredible writers and directors — people who were real heroes to me. I loved working with the team of script readers. I got to travel the world attending film festivals; I met basically everyone I wanted to meet in Hollywood and I got to supervise projects from the inception of the idea until the films were released.

The worst moment… well, there’s a lot of competition for that award. As an assistant I put up with a lot of harassment and verbal abuse. One time I had a stapler thrown at me (I ducked).

For the last year that I was at MGM (when the company was for sale), it was very hard to get films made because the status of the company was so tenuous. There was also one morning when I came into work early and the giant MGM lion logo on the wall in the lobby had fallen off the wall and was lying on the floor. That was a bad omen. :)

JC: What was the genesis of your book?

www.goodinaroom.comSP: I was interviewed on NPR and an agent contacted me and asked me to write a book proposal. I wrote the proposal, went to NYC, and pitched it. My first meeting completely tanked because I got nervous sitting on the other side of the desk. The irony was not lost on me that I was pitching a book called Good in a Room… and I was not.

But then I went back to the hotel, followed my own advice, got my act together, and eventually sold the book to Random House.

JC: You're delightfully candid on your website. I love the anecdotes about the house you grew up in not having TV and your theater experience. So how did you come to Hollywood and the film biz? And why did you escape to lovely Santa Fe?

SP: My college advisor was a theater, TV, and film director. While I was sure I was going to move to NYC to direct theater after graduation, my advisor strongly suggested I at least try working in Hollywood before I dismissed it out of hand.

I interned on Titanic and I loved it. I loved the pace, that there were so many creative people working together really hard - it was really exciting. I lived in LA and was immersed in the heart of the film business for 12 years.

However, I was growing tired of the traffic and commuting. I was getting married and we visited Santa Fe for a weekend and fell in love with it. We found a house that first weekend, signed up, and put our place in LA on the market. Initially, it was really just for a break, but I came to love Santa Fe. I visit LA whenever I am needed and will be moderating the American Film Market Pitch Conference on November 7th.

JC: Do you think anyone can be good in a room? Are there some hardcases who are hopeless?

SP: While there are some people who are naturally charming, extroverted, funny, and really can “wow” in the room, the goal of being “good in a room” is to express your ideas clearly and succinctly. That is something I think almost anyone can do.

Yes, there are hard cases, people who have social phobias and anxieties, but for most people, it’s understandable to be nervous pitching ideas (that you love and have worked so hard on) to strangers in high-stakes meetings. The key is to learn how to practice so that the nerves decrease enough to be able to use that nervous energy in a constructive way.

JC: At what point do you recommend writers come to you, or can best avail themselves of your services? For example, if the writing isn't there yet, is there any point in learning how to better present?

SP: What makes someone right for Good in a Room is if they are serious about selling projects and becoming full-time writers.

A common misconception is that there’s the “writing phase” where you write the script, and then the “selling phase” where you pitch and sell the script. This isn’t completely true (as you know).

The truth is that pitching is an essential part of the creative process. Professionals pitch ideas and work out the kinks long before they go to script. However, for a pitch to generate constructive feedback, it needs to be pitched to the right people in the right situations. This makes a writer’s network and meeting strategy important because of how it helps a writer to focus on the right ideas and hone them, structurally speaking, before doing the heavy lifting of writing a draft.

The fact is that the choices one makes as a writer - genre, structure, even sequences and scenes - must be tightly integrated into your overall strategy for your career. The people you meet along the way and how you handle yourself in those interactions are factors just as important to your success as your natural writing talent and dedication to the craft.

JC: How do you feel about the state of features at the moment, and the rise of television?

SP: I think there are terrific films being made (though primarily outside the studio system). The rise of television has encouraged many clients and friends who were exclusively writing film projects to shift to TV. TV offers so much more creative control and opportunities. It’s understandable that many advanced feature writers are developing material for TV.

JC: Thanks so much, Stephanie. Any advice or words of wisdom you'd like to pass along to writers?

SP: My thought here is that it’s important for writers to have hope. The way I give writers hope is by telling them the truth about how to actually achieve their dreams - I don’t make it sound easy and simple and fun, because it’s rarely all three of those things at once. What I do is share my experience with how things work in Hollywood and reveal the strategies to get results.

Anyone who would like more information can start by checking out my free guide, 20 Screenwriting Terms You Must Know and taking a look at the Most Popular Posts on