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Journey of a Screenwriter
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
What do you look for in a Script?
If you’ve read any coverage or feedback you should know most of these points I’m about to make. If you’ve read Blake Snyder you know most of it. If you’ve watched really good movies or television (Joss Whedon) you’ve absorbed some of it. But knowing how to do something and executing it are two different animals.
So histrionics aside what do I look for when I read a script?
First a word on grading. Script coverage come in three grades PASS, CONSIDER, RECOMMEND.
PASS isn’t as bad as it sounds. Everybody who’s not Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg gets a PASS. Even James Cameron got a PASS for his first draft of Avatar. PASS doesn’t mean your script is completely no good and worthless (though that is a possibility.) It could just means it’s wrong for the contest or production company you sent it to. It could mean it was good but not great. That it might be a slam dunk if they really worked with you on it, but for various reasons they simply don’t have the time. PASS is not the end of the world or even the end of that script. That’s easier to understand if you know what RECOMMEND really means.
RECOMMEND can mean one of two things. Number one the script is a winner on every level. That anyone who reads any part of it; the logline, the first 10 pages, 10 pages in the beginning, middle and end, or the entire thing will be blown away and completely in awe of your ability. That it’s commercial yet edgy. Breaks new ground yet is somehow familiar. Has characters and dialogue that name actors would kill for. Has an amazing story yet enough room for a director to add his flair and stamp to it. That’s the complete package.
Most of the RECOMMENDs are not complete packages.
Most of the RECOMMENDs come about because they fit what that particular agency or production company is looking for. If you’re reading for a particular producer or director he has a sweet spot, a kind of screenplay and movie he is just nuts about making. Recently on a job I read a script for a producer, it was like a match made in Heaven. In fact I was certain that it was done by one of his friends. Turns out it was somebody completely off his radar. But after he read it, the producer couldn’t stop gushing about it. That is what RECOMMEND really means. Fits. The. Circumstances.
Yeah it sucks because you probably don’t know the circumstances at a given agency or prodco. That’s why guys who live in LA and have contacts in those offices almost always break in sooner or later. That’s why when you go to events or conferences you have to listen very carefully to what they say they want and what they’re looking for. Writing a script that will please anyone who reads it is a noble goal but is not easy to execute. A targeted assault is easier to pull off.
CONSIDER can be harder to get than a RECOMMEND. It’s the area where the reader is exercising his discretion. The whole package isn’t perfect but the reader sees some potential, something in the script that is really amazing, something you can build a RECOMMEND around. Almost always that something is either the concept or fantastic characters and dialogue. The reader is usually sticking his neck out when he issues a CONSIDER. RECOMMENDs are the slam dunks. When in doubt PASS. CONSIDER means extra work for everyone involved. The biggest hurdle is bringing a newbie into the fold. They use the phrase “manage expectations” a lot in the business. That’s hard to do when your not 100% sold on the script to begin with.
So what do you look for when you read a script? How do you tell a PASS from a RECOMMEND from a CONSIDER. There are 10 categories that most everyone in the industry uses in one form or another.
CONCEPT/LOGLINE: What’s the concept? Is the logline catchy? Is it iconic? Does a 2 or 3 sentence summary really hook you?
FORMAT/TYPOS: Better be properly formatted without any typos to get that RECOMMEND
STRUCTURE: You get tired and bored reading one thing. Does the story break into clear acts? Do those acts give it variation and a sense of forward movement?
PLOT/STORY: Does the story and plot grab you? Does it move quickly? Are you compelled to keep reading to find out what happens?
PACING: Related to structure and plot. How is the script moving? Is it too slow? Is it too fast? Pace must match the material.
CHARACTERS: The big one next to Concept/Logline. Are the characters believable? Likable? Interesting? Do they jump off the page? Do you really want to see them win? Do you really like spending a few hours with them?
DIALOGUE: Related to Character. Is it snappy? Does it sound natural? Not everything has to be Tarantino but it should never make you stop dead in your tracks and scratch your head.
THEME: Probably the last thing a reader looks at. Is the story more than just a story? Does it touch on things important to people? Does it ask hard questions? Did it give easy answers?
STYLE/TONE: Is this a silly piece where nothing matters? Is it a dark bleak tale? Does the tone fit the genre? If you’re going to write a family film you’d better not be dropping f bombs, sex scenes, and gut spills all over the place. This can be tricky. You look around and you see movies that vary in tone and do it successfully. But most companies want to see a consistent tone throughout. That’s because variations in tone are very hard to pull off. And even if done correctly it can look wrong on the page.
MARKETABILITY: How are you going to sell this picture? Is anyone going to come see it? New writers often come up with scripts completely unique which is great. But if the story is so unique there isn’t an established audience for it, how is the poor producer going to get his money back? If the writer doesn’t want to chase the market, fine. But when it comes time to actually make money, well, the market isn’t so bad. And the market is big. This is where knowing the prodco comes into play. Not everyone wants to make blockbusters. But you have to know what they DO make and what they DO sell, because at the end of the day they have to make a living as well.
Being a reader has been one of the best things for me as a writer. The more scripts you read and the more different kinds of scripts you read the better you become. You quickly find out there’s more than one way to write a great script.
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