25 APRIL 2014
It used to be around 2009-2010, when I started this blog, the #1 question I got was "How do I meet people at Comic-Con?" It slid to the #2 spot as "How do I get a badge?" became the most common question, and then it slid to #3 as "What time do I get in line?" edged it out.
These days hardly anyone asks me that. Instead the #3 question I get, albeit in many forms, concerns self promotion. Meeting agents, making deals, getting feedback, plying your charms and your wares. Everyone's a brand these days. And Comic-Con has become increasingly viewed as a career move and networking opportunity - probably less because of the content-rich panels it offers and more because there are real live famous people around.
Who, by the way, you probably won't meet. But the Con can offer some people some professional value, if they take the right approach. Previously I talked about marketing your creative brilliance at Comic-Con - specifically, the kind of events and opportunities available to you and the assets you should prepare now.
Today I'm unleashing a torrent of advice on soft skills and mindset - areas where I see people routinely (and amusingly) blow it. Some of this is particular to creative work, some to conventions, some to networking in general. Much of it will be old hat if you're an experienced self-promoter - but most of the people I've met at Comic-Con are not.
Yes, I know - you are very special. You're not a hack like those other people; you're the real next big thing. I get it. Being any kind of artist means having faith in your talent. But sometimes this faith spills into delusion, and then that meets Comic-Con excitement, and it all flares up into an inferno of wild expectations. If you truly believe the Big Name Agent-Producer at the Con will take one look at your novel, portfolio or screenplay and sign you right then, you may want to scale your dreams down a tad.
I think too many creatives have seen the movie where someone aggressively forces themselves into an influencer's office and becomes an overnight sensation. In real life, being pushy doesn't go over so well. Especially for people who are tired from traveling/the crowds, and are already being hunted down by hopefuls just like you. Be respectful, mind your manners and remember that the person you're trying to impress has other demands on their time. Also, at the risk of being called ageist - a lot of industry top dogs are heading into their senior years, and generally older people find travel and long days more exhausting and stressful than youngsters do. Something to keep in mind at any conference or convention where you're trying to get an industry leader's attention.
But don't be a syncophant either.
"Oh, Mr. Famous Comic Book Writer, no one is as brilliant as you. I'm going to recite all 75 of my favorite lines that you've written, and then I'm going to insult all your colleagues just so you know how much I love you and only you." Servile flattery has its place in the off hours, but at the Con it's just tedious. Be open about being a novice if indeed you are, but still carry yourself like a professional. No one wants to work with (or recommend) an obsequious puppy. Also, don't give unsolicited criticism. Often following on the heels of lavish praise is a sudden complaint about a character's love life, and how that whole storyline could have been improved. Just keep it to yourself, seriously.
Learn to read the room.
I'm always amazed by people who think it's a smart idea to linger after the panel ends, approach the exiting Superstar and try to hand them a manuscript/ask 11 questions/walk with them to their hotel. Or people who persist in engaging someone who was nice enough to answer a question but is now clearly growing annoyed. If there's a line of other people waiting for sketches behind you, if that cute actress is throwing panicked looks at her handler, shut up and make a graceful exit.
Handle rejection like a pro.
Every working creative grows a thick lizard skin to deal with rejection. (And if you're thinking, ha ha, not me, I don't get rejected, then you're not aspiring high enough.) But if you're not exactly working, and have more of a future plan than a past track record, getting shut down can feel scalding. Remember that most rejection isn't about you being "bad," it's about you not being the right fit, or the art director being tired, or someone beating you to the punch. If you do get feedback, consider it a gift and a compliment - it means someone thinks you have a talent worth molding.
In fact, be professional in general.
Networking at Comic-Con and in the creative industries in general may be less formal than applying at a hedge fund, but you still need to be professional. Way too many creatives think their genius allows them to communicate in half-feral grunts while wearing a ratty t-shirt, or get black-out drunk at happy hour. No one in the actual working world has any tolerance for that nonsense. You may not be the socially smoothest person in the room, but you can definitely be clean, punctual, hone your interpersonal skills and develop a grip on basic business etiquette. It's the reliable, easy-to-work-with creatives who get hired again and again - not necessarily the most talented.
Put your ego aside.
Good advice for everyone, but especially artists. Say you're a big fish in a little art pond back home where everyone grovels at your feet, and at the Con you mingle with some industry whale who treats you like a guppy. Suck it up and see what connections you can make. Yes, even if the whale is obnoxious. You can be a passionate artist at home; at the Con, you need to be a wily and pragmatic businessperson. Also, don't exaggerate your credentials because everyone will see right through you. If you're humble but self-possessed, you're far more likely to be taken under someone's wing.
Remember you're talking to people, not opportunities.
There's this weird objectification that goes on when an aspiring artist talks to a Powerful Person. The artist seems to forget that person has feelings, idiosyncrasies, biological needs, dorky moments. Talk to the person, not the job title. You're more likely to make an authentic connection and stay in touch. (But don't overshare by mentioning your recent overdose or the restraining order against you - real life examples.) Also, if you're at a social event, don't just promote yourself all night. There is no faster way to alienate everyone. You might think that's networking 101, but you'd be surprised how many people try to turn every conversation around to their script.
You might think you're too lowly to offer anyone anything, but you're wrong. If you're ambitious and committed enough to be marketing yourself at Comic-Con, you probably have done a fair amount of homework on your industry. Share it with other beginners. Instead of just waiting to talk about yourself, listen to what others are saying and answer their questions if you can. Offer to run to Starbucks for an exhausted-looking writer trapped at a booth (if you can pull this off without seeming creepy.) People will remember you and see you as worth having around.
Don't be an industry snob.
Telling some artists not to be an art snob is like telling them to be an accountant - but try. Don't dismiss someone when they say they live in Wisconsin, don't ask pointed questions about their representation or screen credits without asking anything else. If sheer decency isn't enough to compel you, remember that even a nobody may know someone important, may become someone important. They may become your most devoted fan after you hit it big. Rather than categorizing people into some industry taxonomy, treat everyone as worthy of your time.
It's just stunning how many people will move heaven and earth to speak with an influencer in their field, then disregard everything the influencer says. Usually it's because they had an expectation the influencer didn't meet. Obviously you shouldn't take everything as gospel, but if an industry leader is giving advice, you should at least consider it. Chances are, they know what they're talking about.
At the same time, recognize a sales pitch when you get one.
This happens more at smaller cons, but I've run into it a few times at SDCC. The self-pubbed author who says you too can move 4,000 books a month if you hire her as a consultant; the rising star who seems like he wants to be friends but really just wants your contact info to assault you with marketing campaigns; the "indie reviewer" who asks you to send all your work to her free. These people aren't going to drain (much of) your bank account, but they will waste your time.
Another stunner: how often people will assume the influencer will do the work of sorting through the mess of business cards they got, reach out and stay in touch. No - they're busy. You need to follow up. Send a brief and appreciative email, and thank them for any feedback or help they gave you. Depending on the tenor of your meeting, include a link to your YouTube channel or online portfolio, or ask if you can check back for freelance work in six months. Connect on social media and be an occasional, intelligent and non-intrusive presence.
If you've read all the way to the bottom of this novella, you must really be committed to advancing your career. Good for you. I'll leave you with this. You know how many times you read a mediocre book or see clumsy film editing and wonder how that person got work? It's because they had the professional intelligence to compensate for their lack of talent. Lots of talented people half-ass it and end up with a half-assed career. Creative skill is all well and good but business skill is what takes you across the finish line.
I can't guarantee you'll meet the right collaborator, client or agent this summer. But I wish you the best of luck.