There I was, watching a cutish episode of MAJOR CRIMES, containing the kind of humor I usually find cringeworthy, when suddenly Mary McDonnell’s character, Captain Raydor, came out with the most insightful line of dialog in the history of TV. Yes, I know that a writer wrote it, probably James Duff (but I’m not finding that info on the web so if you have it let me know), McDonnell’s understated and totally sincere delivery is what made it ring so true.
The situation wasn’t exactly unique. It was one of those times when the FBI invites itself in on a local, in this case LAPD investigation, with the agent in charge calmly telling Raydor all the things the Major Crimes Unit is going to be giving him and his guys. Raydor listens calmly. Then, without blinking (a sure sign that she’s a star, btw, as Michael Caine once told me), Raydor says these immortal five words:
“What’s in it for me?”
Why are these words so important? Why do they strike me between the eyes? Well, kids, it’s like this. For over 40 years, ever since I reached a point where I had some kind of influence in showbiz, or at least appeared to have some, people have come to me every day and told me how wonderful they are as writers, actors, directors, best boys, you-name-it. Then they either ask me for a gig or to help them find a gig.
These days, I’m happy to do whatever I can in that direction because I’ve made helping people achieve their dreams the way I’ve achieved mine my purpose both professionally and personally. But that’s a fairly recent development – since the late ’90s – and, to be honest here, I still don’t know anyone else in the biz who’s actively seeking to help others succeed without wanting anything in return.
See where I’m heading? It’s that “without wanting anything in return” thing. Because just about everyone does want something in return, even though they may deny it up, down, and sideways. (Hell, they may not even realize it themselves.) So the way to get the help you need in your (for our purposes on TVWriter™ writing) career isn’t just to show that you deserve it. (I’m not saying you don’t deserve it, just that, let’s face it, there are lots and lots of talented people in the world who do.) The way to get the help you need is to offer, at the same time you make the request, the absolutely essential quid pro quo.
Which is, of course, the answer to that usually unasked question: “What’s in it for me?”
Know, before you approach another writer/producer/mentor/executive/agent, as much as you can about what that person (based on occupation, degree of success, age, background, all that stuff) probably wants and needs and figure out how you can help him/her get it. Have a way that your talent can benefit that particular oh-so-“significant-other” as much as being given the opportunity to demonstrate it can demonstrate you. Because in my experience, in terms of myself and what I’ve seen in others, that’s the real, secret key to every successful pitch.
“What’s in it for you is…”
Finish that sentence and you’ll have a much more reasonable chance of making that internal world you’ve been nurturing for so long a part of the real world at last.