You’re an aspiring screenwriter. You’ve sent out hundreds of query letters around town to various film and television producers, literary agents and managers and nothing. Zip. Nada. Crickets. Nutting’.
Then out of the blue you get a phone call from an assistant. Someone that can move your project forward wants to meet with you. Not for dinner, but coffee. It’s a start. Coffee leads to dinner, right? It’s more nerve-racking than Tinder.
After you’ve decided where you’re going to meet and what you’ll wear, it’s all go. You don’t want be too formal or too casual. Too revealing? Save it for another occasion. Never be desperate.
Screenwriters have been briefed on the machinations of a meeting, but never on the who picks up the bill.
Is there a protocol? Do you assume they pay because they drive the better car? Do you pay? Go Dutch? Do you “forget” to pay and make a run for it? Ahhh. Don’t try the last suggestion. Especially if there are burly security guards at the door.
Okay. Enough with the frivolity. I can’t believe you’ve made it this far. Let’s get serious.
Writers often face a conundrum over who pays when they have lunch with executives. I’m still lucky enough to be taken out to lunch at some classy restaurants on somebody else’s expense account, albeit not as frequently.
More recently, lunches have been replaced with a “house blend” coffee meeting, but the payment etiquette remains the same.
Coffee meetings can be like bad dates. You can escape relatively quickly if you have to. Once you know someone better, you can graduate to three course meals with room between courses to jog around the block.
Ready for the answer?
After years of intense investigation, the general protocol is that the initiator of the meeting pays. Even if it’s your agent confirming your script sale.
If you’re having multiple meetings with the same person, try alternating the payment plan. It shows decency, consideration, and gives you a reason to maintain rapport with potential collaborators. Nobody likes a moocher. Even if they have an expense account.
If you’re opting for the flip-flop alternate payment route, establish parity in terms of restaurants, bars and coffee shops you visit. You don’t want a reputation as a tightwad or a freeloader. Once a film producer told me about some “Happy Meal” screenwriter, because that’s all the guy bought the producer when he bought lunch. I hope all the food groups were represented. The social graces of business meetings!
Learn to read the situation too. What is the nature of the meeting? Is a first date or advanced business negotiations? Generally, you can take more liberties with the latter (read more alcohol).
Turn it into a game. Try to guess how much money the executive has to spend. Are they a big name or independent? What car do they drive and what are they wearing? I don’t know what it is about female executives, but they wear the most amazing shoes. I’m even starting to recognize Manolo Blahniks out of Sex In The City context.
Don’t assume your guess work will always be accurate. Beware that the person you’re meeting may not any intention of paying for your meal, even if they scheduled the meeting. Then you’re screwed. Always bring enough money to pay for your meal, at least.
If the executive pays by card, take note, if it’s blue, red, gold or platinum. It will give you insight on your future ordering protocol. Under or over.
During these times of financial restraint, you can always go Dutch. Try to maintain parity in terms of what you order. Don’t bring your own tea bag to Starbucks or order the cheapest thing on the menu at The Geisha House (the restaurant not the club.)
Business functions pose a subtle social power play between parties as each upholds a sense of decorum. You can tell a lot about somebody by what they order. Is it meat and pototoes, linguine or snow peas? I always stumble in the drinks department, because I drink water by the gallon, while my colleagues are rolling drunk. At least I can stand up!
I’ve had my fair share of peculiar meetings. Once, I had fifteen minutes to pitch to an agent at the Coffee Bean at his request. He was late and showed up just as my hot panini arrived. He didn’t order anything and rejected the coffee I bought him because he was “detoxing”. I couldn’t get a refund so I had to drink it. I also had to pitch with a full mouth because he didn’t want to interrupt my lunch. I’m not sure if he understood a word I said. And I got crumbs on him.
On another occasion, I met with a literary manager at an Italian restaurant. He insisted on paying, but only had one dollar bills in his wallet. Not enough as it were. When it transpired he couldn’t cover the bill, I offered to pay the shortfall… plus tip.
A former boss insisted I order four courses and wine. I think he was trying to fatten me up for Christmas dinner.
Regardless of how things pan out, be thankful that someone is interested enough in your screenwriting to want to meet with you. At the very least, you’ve networked and added to your list of business contacts.
Nothing beats face to face contact.
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