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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Transparency in Judging Scripts

Last evening the Wave-inatrix hunkered down with 3 readers, some delicious food and a very large, very heavy box of scripts to judge. It was a lively debate. I wish we could have filmed it for aspiring writers because it's really interesting, when a script is being discussed, what the readers said as we paused from reading to round table our "yes" and "no" decisions.

Stuff like:

*I read to page 23 and I don't get what the genre is.

*I read to page 18 and there hasn't been a really impactful inciting incident.

*It's really funny and cool but I'm a bit confused.

*I'm not sure where this is going but it's a "yes" (i.e., continue to consider) because I can't put it down even though I know I need to move on to another script.

*I hate to say "no" because the writer has an interesting voice but I can't pinpoint the genre and I'm not positive I know where this story is going.

As we read quietly, the sound of turning pages the only sound, occasionally someone would burst into laughter and say You guys! Listen to this! And read a really funny line of dialogue or even a really funny whole page or sequence.

Or - You guys - whoa! Listen to THIS and read a really scary or compelling page or moment aloud for us all to enjoy.

There was a script that had me at the first line of description under the very first slugline (and writer, if you're a Waver, you know who you are) which was (to paraphrase the slug):

INT. A bar - NIGHT

A smoke filled shit hole.

And that just got me because I so often read descriptions that while maybe even nicely written, are so much longer than that. But this writer got straight to the point and those five words: a smoke filled shit hole painted a picture for me very, very efficiently.

It was at times an excruciating experience; there were scripts that really had something special about them but side-by-side with another script that nailed genre, character and the direction of the story more quickly - in fairness had to go in the "no" pile.

I want to find a way to communicate to the writers who made it to the semifinal round that while they may not have advanced, it was a very difficult choice not to advance them. The competition is intense.

But over and over again, as a trend, the writer who most quickly, efficiently and stylishly established world, character and set up is the writer whose script consistently moved up to the top of the list.

Now mind you, all of these scripts have been vetted and re-vetted again and again. If one reader LOVED a script in an earlier round, now the sifting becomes more intense and if the majority of us in the room last night didn't agree - well - unfortunately, that's a "no" at this point.

The next and final round of judging will dig deeper - yes, you made it out of the gate quickly, efficiently and stylishly BUT did you also establish a resonant theme, execute your story structure perfectly and write a great character arc and satisfying ending? The higher your script moves into the various rounds of consideration, the higher the bar is raised.

So the quarter finalist writers know this: your script was definitely more original and better executed than the average submission.

Semi-final writers know this: your script was not only more original and better executed than the average submission, your voice is great, your premise is interesting and your pages are compelling.

The top, top eight writers who win the prizes know this: your script was not only more original and better executed than the average submission, your voice is great, your premise is interesting and your pages are compelling AND we believe you can get representation and maybe even a sale or option with this material.

So truly everybody is winner. But the criteria narrows and narrows until we find something that in our opinion is seriously competitive material meaning you should be taking meetings on this material and we're going to try to make that happen for you.

What delightful stuff we read last night. Really FUNNY moments. Readers reading quietly would suddenly burst into laughter. Or gasp because something was so scary. Or tear up a little because something was so poignant. Or read something aloud to the group because it was just so well executed. I read an opening sequence aloud because it was sheer, cinematic poetry and we were all in awe of such writing. I have to say, overall, I am pretty impressed by the quality of submissions this year. Which is why putting anyone in the "no" pile for me is very difficult.

I try to remember this: The grand prize winner is going to not only do fun stuff like meet Blake Snyder for a cocktail at the Chateau Marmont, win cash, a flight to LA and all that other cool stuff but MY reputation is on the line because they are going to sit with Stephanie Palmer and learn to pitch and then go meet with three managers who will have read the winning script. And those managers will think: Julie sent THIS writer?? Yes, I did. And even if those managers choose not to rep this writer, I want to be certain that I absolutely stand behind the writer and the material and that the writer's story will not end there. I never take it personally if a rep I approach winds up turning down a writer or a script I recommended. Because I never make a recommendation that I don't support 100%. It just wasn't the right fit.

On an ongoing basis, when I do recommend a script to a rep or production company, it's never something I kind of like and I never make a recommendation of just a logline, like some kind of slightly glorified query. I pick up the phone and discuss the script with the rep at length. I throw myself behind the writer. Why, just yesterday I got a script of a client directly into the hands of a major, major successful working screenwriter who is looking for projects to executive produce. He may love the script as much as I do or he may not. But I don't mess around when I make recommendations. Because again, selfishly, that's MY reputation on the line. Someone may pass but they won't pass plus say geez, Julie, why did you even bother talking to me about this material?? That's why I don't recommend stuff very often.

So next year, when the Silver Screenwriting Competition is in its second year and will have grown much more well known by then, I may not be able to be as candid as I have been about the judging process. But I like to think that writers appreciate having a greater understanding of exactly what goes on behind closed doors and what judging a competition really looks like from where I sit. I'm certain that other, bigger competitions have similar processes but by dint of sheer volume, they are mysterious about the process.

I hope that my sharing about the process has been illuminating for Rouge Wavers. I look across my living room and now see a stack of 18 scripts that are contending for the top prizes. One of those scripts is the grand prize winner. I'm excited to get to the next round and figure out who that writer is. Listen, this is not the cure for cancer or the Nobel Peace Prize or the Nicholl Competition (ha) - but this really could be a major turning point for the winner. He or she will make of this win what they will. Will they get sold and produced? Maybe not immediately but possibly. Repped and be taking meetings? I hope. He or she will be charged with leveraging this experience up into more inspiration, more writing and more connections than they had before. They will know one thing for sure - they have a fan in me. For whatever that's worth. I'll try to make that worth a lot.

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Emily Blake said...

That WAS helpful. You so rarely get that much insight as to the contest reading process, so thanks.

Luzid said...

And those who didn't place at all know we have a lot to learn.

Again, congrats to those who have placed and/or moved on.

Mike Scherer said...


43 scripts in five days?? Mind numbing.

You, are a saint. Saint Julie -- patron saint of screenwriters.

Thank you and your staff for everything.


E.C. Henry said...

Glad you're having fun, Julie. If you're having fun, you're doing it right.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

tc said...

I didn't submit this year, but I am currently rewriting a script and what you just posted was incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for your time and energy and willingness to share your insight. Fabulous blog.

Chris said...

Love the peek behind the judging curtain, Julie. It's killing me but I love it!

meg said...

Thanks for the insight. I read a post recently by a writer on his blog about being a judge for a competition. It was depressing. It was enough to make one reconsider ever trying. Couldn't help but wonder if that's what he was trying to encourage.

I think your competition will get big. I wish I could have entered this year. I'm a few years from that though. But I can't imagine the standards will change.

kahapeterson said...

Gee, it really would be great if you could document this process next year - via webcam podcast or something. Do your own "reality TV" web series. I think a lot of aspiring writers would appreciate it, myself included (especially if we has access to the scripts).