READERS are the enemy. Reviled by writers
the world over, they exist solely to prevent a writer from getting a foothold
in Hollywood. With one mighty word--PASS--they will shoot down
the script you labored over for weeks, months, even years.
They're all, every
single one of them, vindictive, frustrated wannabes who view every submission
with contempt; and if your piece has any merit at all, they will stomp it into
oblivion in order to cover their own feelings of failure and inadequacy.
You know, I used to actually believe all
that. But then a strange thing happened--as the years went by, I got fewer and
fewer PASSES, and more and more CONSIDERS. This didn't jibe at all with my
perception of readers. Because surely, ALL my scripts were great,
and these people were just idiots. So how could it be that as I became a better
writer, the coverage got better? It made no sense.
WHAT THE HECK IS COVERAGE?
Every single script submitted to an agency,
studio or production company is "covered" by
a reader. That reader may be anyone from an unpaid, unknowledgeable intern to
an assistant or junior CE (creative executive) to a razor-sharp professional
reader. These readers determine whether or not anyone else in that company will
ever read your screenplay. Said reader will evaluate the submission by way of a
reader's report, also known as "coverage."
contains a logline, character breakdown, synopsis, a page or two of
commentary/analysis, and finally a bar graph rating your script from Excellent
to Poor in the areas of Structure, Commerciality, Major Characters, Minor
Characters, Dialogue, Artistically (AKA Writing or Execution,) Premise, Visual
Elements and Title, along with the edict PASS, CONSIDER, or RECOMMEND for both
script and writer.
This coverage is generally confidential (seldom shared with
the writer.) If you are lucky enough to get a CONSIDER (less than 10% of most
submissions) your script is kicked up to the next level, and the script will be
added to the "To Be Read... Eventually" pile of the Creative Executive
or Agent (or their assistants, most likely.)
By the way, hardly anyone ever
gets a RECOMMEND, because by giving one the reader is sticking his or her neck
out and saying "Drop everything and read this NOW!" If the agent or
exec doesn't agree with the reader's assessment and resents the time spent
reading the script, that reader may not be taken seriously in the future, or
worse, could be out of a job.
So bear in mind there are usually three levels of
consider: "Strong Consider," "Consider," and "Consider
with Reservations." These allow the reader to show their enthusiasm--or
lack thereof--for the material while stile remaining safely in the CONSIDER category.
I founded Coverage, Ink. as
a way for any writer to get pro-level feedback from real studio and agency
readers for a reasonable fee. I had built a network of the best readers around
for developing my own material (yes, I often submit to my own readers, paying
the fee, under an alias!) and made this network available to others.
response far exceeded my projections; obviously we were filling a need for
low-cost, pro-level feedback. But as I read the coverage coming back from my
readers, a pattern emerged. Our clients were making the same five fatal errors
over and over.
And the CONSIDERS? Not so remarkably, they were not making these
errors. How simple it would be if somebody simply pointed out these flaws!
Could all those passes become considers?
And so we
present the five fatal flaws which immediately limit your chances with the
studio reader. Learn to spot these in your own script, and you may very well CONSIDER YOURSELF... one of the family.
1) CAN YOUR DEPTH OF CHARACTER BE MEASURED
This is by far the most common
mistake--2-dimensional characterization. It's hard for a reader to care about a
2-dimensional character. Remember, your goal is to someday have a great actor
playing your lead role. Well, great actors will fight to play someone who is
complex, richly detailed and interesting.
Does your character have a backstory?
Giving the character family, friends, hobbies, quirks, peccadilloes,
idiosyncrasies, etc., goes a long way towards building a believable character
that we want to watch a movie about. Does he or she have a dramatic flaw or a
What personal problem does this character need to solve? How can they arc
or change? What can they learn during the course of the story, and how can it
positively affect their character and enable them to resolve their issues? This
is character arc 101. And yet, this simple concept is ignored in over 85% of
Take a look at your script. Set up your
character's internal conflict in Act 1. Resolve it in Act 3. For example,
perhaps your character lacks self-confidence. By the end of the script, she should
have tackled her big problem and gained self-confidence.
Or go the other
direction: Your character is an egomaniac, full of himself.
How can he learn humility? Figure it out.
And as Michael Lent incisively
observed in a recent column, if your script is under 95 pages, that should be
an immediate red flag--what's likely missing is depth of character, which needs
to be established in the form of character-defining scenes in Act 1.
2) WE'RE ALL CLAIRVOYANT WHERE FORMULAIC
SCRIPTS ARE CONCERNED.
Every script genre has clichés and formulae.
Whenever you find your story heading in a predictable or cliché direction, do
exactly the opposite thing than what the formula dictates. That will keep your
writing fresh and give the reader that much-longed-for "surprise on every
If the reader can foresee where the plot is obviously going, you
can bet her interest will evaporate like a saucer of isopropyl in the Gobi. So throw the reader a few curve balls. Use formula to your advantage.
Know that at a certain time, formula will dictate a certain plot beat will
Then don't do it. Do something completely different instead.
makes a jaded reader love a script more than dashing their expectations! But
that doesn't mean they'll love some contrived, ludicrous plot beat just because
it breaks the mold. It still has to be logical--just unexpected. Sounds easy?
3) SHOULD YOUR EXECUTION BE EXECUTED?
Maybe you don't fully understand the
mechanics of the screenplay form, or maybe you're simply not a good writer.
These are two very different problems, but both fall under the banner of
If form and formatting are your problems, the good news is that stuff can be learned. If you're uncertain about script format, do yourself a favor and check out our Coverage, Ink. Spec Format & Style Guide 2006, an entertaining 65-page download that gives you the lowdown on format and plenty of tips to making your script jump off the page. Only $3.95.
In any event, common
mistakes include writing the script double-spaced instead of single-spaced
(which means if your script is 110 pages long, it's really only about 80 pages
long.) Using a professional writing program solves this problem by forcing you
to conform to standard format.
If you must use MS Word, make sure your line
spacing is set to 1.0, not 1.5 or 2.0. Another common formatting mistake is CAPITALIZING all SORTS of words THAT should not BE capitalized. This
immediately says "Amateur." For the record, here are the words that
should be capitalized in your script:
>> CHARACTER NAMES (first time they appear)
>> SLUG/LOCATION LINES (also shot calls, if you use them.)
You can also capitalize SOME action verbs
and some important passages to call attention to them, but use this effect
sparingly. There are numerous other formatting errors, such as centering all
the dialogue, that people make all the time.
formatting chops may not doom your script necessarily; but they certainly do
not create a good first impression with the reader. Producer Dan Ostroff once told me that a poorly written script with a great story is worth a lot more than a well-executed one with a poor idea. But
don't count on many producers being intrepid, forest-for-the-trees types. Which brings us to writing chops.
If you're the type of person who got a C- in
English, struggles with composing a sentence, doesn't understand the concept of
subject/verb agreement, etc., you should not be writing a screenplay... by
I say by yourself because whether or not you can write worth a darn,
you may have some terrific, cinematic ideas or great life experiences which
yield interesting and authentic characterizations. You might be a natural
storyteller who can hold a roomful of people captivated.
But does this mean you
can write your way out of a Glad bag? Nope. So find a partner. Enroll in a
continuing education film or writing class, then network. You may well find a
partner who's a strong wordsmith but perhaps not a great idea person.
the best writing teams have one person who's the idea guy but can't actually
write all that well, while the other person gets it all to work on paper. A
team approach also really helps during the rewriting and editing process. (It
also gives you someone to blame.)
One last execution problem is WORDINESS. A
screenplay is not a novel. An overwritten script is not going to win you any
points. Use the FEWEST WORDS POSSIBLE to convey your idea. Comb your script for
redundancies in dialogue and scene description, and excise all unnecessary words / sentences / paragraphs / pages.
Before you send the script to anyone, go
through it line by line, asking yourself "Do I need every word in this
sentence?" Remember, brevity is the soul of wit. Some good writer wrote
Thanks to spell-check, typos aren't really a
big problem any more. Amen. If you don't bother to spell-check your script, the
reader's gonna come down hard on your sorry behind. Spend the two and a half
minutes to spell-check.
4) THE $50 MILLION QUESTION.
Is your script
sponge--er, movie-worthy? Is the central idea one
that you can see millions of people spending nine bucks to see? The toughest
note a reader can give is "Even the best- executed version of this story
would likely not interest any producers."
Unfortunately, many scripts should just
never have left the drawing board. Remember that the studios and even indies are specifically looking
for projects that have a strong hook, cachet, or bring something new to the
table. They're also receiving thousands of submissions from writers with a lot
more juice than you and are adapting best-selling books.
The deck is stacked
against you to begin with. So it shouldn't be a surprise that your
straight-forward serial killer thriller isn't going to interest anyone, because
that theme is tired, your script brings nothing new to the genre, and the
buyers can always adapt a James Patterson novel if they need a serial killer
thriller to fill their slate.
Similarly, your fantasy adventure movie with the
enormous budget...why would any studio spend $100 million to make your movie
when they can adapt a bestseller with its built-in audience?
Don't waste your time writing marginal
ideas. If it takes you six months to think of a unique, high-concept,
commercial idea, then take the time, and discard the
67 also-rans. You'll know when you have The Idea when you pitch the one-liner
to someone and his eyes light up.
5) MICRO VS. MACRO.
This one has more to do with rewriting, but since practically all scripts need some work, how well the writer is capable of implementing notes has everything
to do their likelihood of being successful. Coverage, Ink.
gets a lot of resubmits. More often than not, what
happens is that the writer will implement only the easiest notes from the first
round of coverage.
For example, if the writer "hits" notes such as
"the dialogue on page 87 was a bit on the nose" and "I thought
the prosecutor could have been more forceful in his closing argument," yet
ignores "our lead vanishes for 26 pages, leaving insignificant secondary characters
to pass the time with small talk"... well, folks, that script is gonna
garner yet another PASS.
Not long ago, one writer got a bit put out when I
asked him if he'd resubmitted the same draft four months later, because the
second coverage report, from a different reader, came back almost a carbon copy
of the first reader's report. Apparently the writer had put quite a bit of work
into the new draft, yet somehow missed the big picture.
Yes, oftentimes changes that need to be made
are significant. They may require tossing out an entire act, completely rethinking
a main character, etc. In short, they may require for you to DO SOME WORK. Them's the breaks.
Know this well:
the difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one is that the
successful writer knuckles down and does the work.
Okay, okay, that's not to say every note you
get from a reader is going to be on-the-money. There are bad notes, and
sometimes readers do legitimately miss your point, or just Don't Get It. So get
a second opinion if the comment doesn't ring true.
I can't tell you how many
times I've said to my wife, "So-and-so thinks I have to completely rework
Act 2! Can you believe it???" only to have her sheepishly respond,
"Well, honey, I hate to say this, didn't want to be the one to tell you,
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
At the end of the day, most
readers really are hoping to read something that will knock them out. It makes
them look good when they find a winner. The sad reality is most scripts just
don't cut it.
But you'll be off to a running start if you can beef up your
characterizations, beware of clichés, sweat your ebullient, flowery, bloated
prose down to 2% body fat lean & mean, only write stories that are unique
or compelling in the first place, and most importantly, drop those defenses and LISTEN to constructive criticism.
Your ego is your enemy. Just because you
spent six months writing something does NOT mean it's
any good. Once you learn to listen to knowledgeable opinions, you'll be ahead
of the pack and well on your way to building the "easy to work with"
attitude necessary to forge a long career in Hollywood.