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Monday, January 12, 2009

Bad Coverage Sucks

We've all gotten it. Really bad coverage. Bad because the script needed work and it got slammed or bad because the reader was mean-spirited and a bad writer him or herself. The latter is the WORST feeling.

As many Wavers know, I teach a class on how to become a production company reader. A prodco reader is a bit different than a reader for, say, a company such as my own. Production company readers do not need to hand hold but they do need to come from a neutral, professional jumping off point of rating the writer and project based on an almost clinical set of guidelines. You won't see your coverage if it comes from a production company, good or bad. You'll just be told that it was good or bad.

But you might get coverage or notes from a script coverage service such as mine or a competition that gives notes and I know from experience how infuriating it is when the notes are just written badly. Because you have put so much effort into that script - whether it came out good or bad - and when someone appears to just phone in their comments without really making the effort to articulate them with insight, neutrality and half an ounce of respect - well, it makes my blood boil. I won't have it when it comes to my clientele and it makes me mad when I hear about writers getting bad coverage from other services or sources. I guess it's because I've been on the receiving end of that and because I know from experience that it isn't that hard to write great coverage. It's about respect for the writer. I mean - come on.

As I grade the coverage samples that my Reader students generate, I find myself grading them on the accuracy of their statements (because of course, I am intimately familiar with the scripts they are given for homework), their use of "coverage-speak" and their tone in general. Coverage speak is something I talked about on the Rouge Wave a million years ago and is just a sort of soft-pedal couching of statements by using words like "however" or "unfortunately" or "potential."

So rather than saying (and let me preface THIS by saying the following is pretty much the type of coverage that I have seen some readers produce): SQUIRRELS OF DETROIT is unfunny, executed badly and has a cliched premise.

Rather, one could say: SQUIRRELS OF DETROIT has a charming comedic premise with much potential; unfortunately the writer missed opportunities to really execute a unique and engaging narrative.

Both comments sum up that the script sucks. But what a difference in the way they land, right?

It's like that old methodology of not saying to a person "You always do this and you always do that" but rather "I feel this way when you do that sometimes." You know - it's all about the delivery. If you are telling someone something difficult, you want to keep your focus on a good outcome, right? So if you dash off coverage notes that are sloppy and disrespectful, the writer will of course feel TERRIBLE and probably MAD and then not really be receiving this information in such a way that they'll do a better job in their rewrite. I don't care how bad a script is: The writer, by receiving notes, just climbed a rung on the ladder and can now do better for the next go round. But not if they feel bad after having read the notes.

Being a good reader is more than identifying what doesn't work - it's about identifying it in an organized, articulate, neutral way. Slamming the writer is a no fly zone as far as I am concerned. Whether at my company or anywhere else.

Many of my students are taking the Reader Class simply to get an inside view of how scripts are covered so they can be armed with what NOT to do, etc. Which I think is pretty damn smart as a strategy. I wish I had known this stuff when I first began submitting scripts. Oh how I wish I had known.

My readers are pretty damn experienced and good at what they do and they've worked for me long enough to know what coverage makes mama happy. But by teaching this class to new readers, my objective is to raise the bar for readers - to really ask more of them. It's not rocket science to see what's wrong with a script. But it does take a certain skill set to identify problems, seek solutions, organize all of that in an easy to understand way and to give the writer this information in a way that makes them feel empowered and excited about the rewrite - not beaten down and crappy. That, believe it or not, is sometimes a reach for some readers. It's all about giving a damn how the writer will feel when they read our coverage.

As I tell the Mini-W, it's not about studying HARDER at school, it's about caring about the subject and about the work you turn in. And I am proud to say that my readers all come from that jumping off place. I wouldn't hire a reader who felt otherwise.

So this from Week Two of the Reader Course may offer more insight to you writers out there wondering how a production company rates writers and how I instruct new readers to do that from my own experience with production companies. My goal is to instruct as many readers as possible so that slowly, over time, industry readers will begin to take more pride in the importance of their jobs and slow down a bit and be thorough, professional and kind. I am not saying current prodco readers are not those things - but there are a lot of bad apples. And they're rating YOUR scripts. I hope to change the prevailing winds a little bit over time:

You are rating the writer as much as you are rating the project. Writers receive “pass,” “consider” and “recommend” ratings in the same way that the script does. A writer with a “pass” script can still receive a “consider” rating. A “consider” writer is one who executed the script very well, it’s just that this particular material is not right for the company. A “consider” writer should be considered for rewrite or assignment work down the line. He/she is, simply put, a good writer. A “pass” writer is one who just didn’t pull it off. Clumsy writing, spelling errors, poor structure, thin characters, missing theme – things of this nature. This is a writer whom the production company probably wouldn’t want to tap for assignment work because he/she just isn’t up to snuff as a writer. A “recommend” writer is obviously a stellar writer – again, you can have a “pass” script with a “recommend” writer – that just means this is a great writer but the material is not a fit for the production company.

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Luzid said...


Something else for us to consider when receiving notes is what to make of *good* coverage. Knowing that a little padding goes into critiques to protect writers from taking too much critical flak, how does it work in cases where the coverage is favorable?

When two or more readers (independent of each other) say things like "overall the visuals were stunning with poetic language", "very compelling premise" or "the script could attract name talent due to its overall ingenuity", what does one take away from it?

As writers, we all want to know others are responding to our work. But we also know to be careful not to just hear what we want to hear. What's the best way to analyze positive coverage to avoid getting the wrong idea?

Blotto P said...

>>>SQUIRRELS OF DETROIT is unfunny, executed badly and has a cliched premise.

>>>SQUIRRELS OF DETROIT has a charming comedic premise with much potential

>>>Both comments sum up that the script sucks

actually, the second one doesn't say the same thing at all. it would encourage the writer to keep rewriting the script even though the premise is horrible and it should be abandoned. hopefully that's not what you're teaching your readers to do.

Julie Gray said...

Oh Blotto. Truncating my quote there takes it out of context, doesn't it? How do you know that SQUIRRELS OF DETROIT is not a premise with much potential? A cliched premise has potential to not be cliched, doesn't it? By dint of being cliched, it has a jumping off point. Being that we are discussing a phantom script, I won't address an implication that I teach readers to say a premise has potential when it does not.

Blotto P said...

all i'm saying is that 'charming comedic premise' is not the nice version of 'cliched premise.' they say completely different things.