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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mixed Messages

Hello, Wavers! Did everybody have a nice Memorial Day weekend? I received a lengthy email from a client with a number of questions that I thought deserved a public answer since many of you may be able to relate. For ease of reading (and answering) I have translated the questions into very brief versions, distilling them down to the basic sentiments:

1. I keep getting different notes from different readers and different coverage companies. Some say "consider" and others say "pass." How the FRAK am I supposed to know what to do?

On this one, you have to take a deep breath and know that coverage, to a certain degree, is subjective. Though readers hew to certain standards, they are just people and until they invent the Auto-Reader 9000, you're stuck with that. The only advice I can give you is to take the notes that resonate for you and ignore those that do not.

2. Readers seem to have insanely high standards. It's like readers are keeping me out of Hollywood. How do I get around them? What do I make of ratings that I do not agree with?

Yes, readers have high standards. Most readers, and certainly those who work for The Script Department, come from the production company world, where giving a "consider" on a script is an act of putting one's job on the line. So readers are very hard on your script. They have to be. Giving a "consider" on a script means your boss has to read it this weekend. If your boss reads it over the weekend and disagrees that it warranted that - heads roll. So yes, sometimes readers will give a "pass" in lieu of "I'm not really sure." Believe it. I've been there. Sometimes a reader will lean on "consider with reservation" which amounts to "I'm not sure" but the production company world is quite harsh so readers work within that system. And it is a by-the-numbers system of rating and ranking scripts. Is it designed to keep you out? Yes, it is. But at a script coverage company such as The Script Department, we have no agenda except to help your writing improve. If we say your script is essentially a "pass" we mean it is not likely to fly at a production company.

Say you disagree. That's your prerogative and in fact, if you really, really disagree with that rating, then the choice is yours to go ahead and query/submit anyway. We in no way assume the authority or final word to tell you do NOT submit this script. We are just a safety system that gives you an idea of how it might fare at a production company if you submitted the draft we read.

Again, readers are tough and they are subjective. They try to be as objective as possible but they are just people doing a job. It is your gut feeling that rules what you do about your notes or about submitting the script, at the end of the day. We can't fish for you, but we can teach you how to fish. If you really disagree and think that the script just needs to get that one "yes" to get off the ground, you would be right - it does need one "yes" - that's all it takes. So it's possible that a "pass" rating by a script coverage reader might not dissuade an executive at just the right company for your script, who was in just the right mood. Use a system of odds: If three readers point out the same problem - you probably have a problem. If only one does, well, you have to use your gut instinct.

3. A reader I had recently made some comments about a particular world and situation I had set up and it was clear to me that she wasn't familiar with that particular milieu, and some of her opinions were incorrect because of that. I'm frustrated by that!

Say you're writing a script about fly fishing, or ticket scalping or space algae harvesting. When you submit that script to a production company, a reader will vet the script first. There is no way of ensuring that reader or any reader will indeed be familiar with a particular world of your script. Them's the breaks. Not every reader can have intimate knowledge of the particularity of your world. Say they ding you for stuff that you researched and know is correct.

There are two reactions you can have. One, bummer dude, you got dinged. The reader didn't get it. Try another company or reader. Subjectivity, human error and shortcomings are all an unfortunate reality in getting your material read in any venue. Essays, fiction, short fiction, scripts. Deal with it. Two, it is possible that you didn't make clear the particularity of the job or world or situation you were depicting. It is possible that had you done a better job, the reader, unfamiliar with 17th century butter churning or 21st century boiler rooms would have gotten it.

In fact, you have to plan for the possibility that not every reader who reads your script will "get" what you've written about. On the whole, because readers read such a large volume of scripts, they do have at least an inkling of what you're talking about. If they don't, they don't. I understand researchers are hard at work on the Auto-Reader which will make all coverages identical, with identical standards and results. I don't mean to be sarcastic, I mean to remind you that readers are people trained to execute a particular skill set in rapid delivery.

Rotten Rejections is a really great, entertaining and ultimately inspiring collection of rejections that famous literary authors received before going on to have huge success with the same book so insultingly rejected. Nabokov, for example, was told in a rejection letter that it would best if Lolita were "buried under a rock for a thousand years."

In fact, any Waver planning to go to the Great American Pitch Fest in Burbank this June 13th and 14th should definitely take my class, Top Ten Things Readers Hate (I actually think they politically correctly retitled it Top Ten Things Readers Aren't Crazy About or something...) and you will learn a ton of the practicalities of the life of a reader - what they get paid, how much they are expected to read, how they review scripts quickly, and more.

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martinb said...

I've been reading a lot of unproduced scripts over at Scriptshadow recently. They are scripts which have been sold or made the Black List, so they are the cream of spec scripts. And I'm struck by the variable quality of the scripts, and the differences of opinion of commenters regarding them.

In my newbie's opinion, very few are "shovel ready," in the sense that you could take the script and shoot it as is. Most of them need at least one rewrite to clarify story lines, bring characters into harder relief, or exploit missed opportunities. Some need cutting and some need more material.

Most of the research I've seen is sloppy. There's too little rather than too much. Especially of technical stuff. But then I'm a geek. I know these things.

What makes them highly rated is an interesting idea, characters one can identify with, and a strong story line which moves along at a decent pace. I.e., what Julie says.

I find errors of spelling and grammar to be particularly irritating. They take me out of the story.

Some writers try too hard to imitate Shane Black's hard-boiled style. It's not necessary. Express things your own way. A good idea, and character, story and pace are what count.

Benjamin Ray said...

Hi Julie,

Everytime you talk about Readers,
I get depressed and angry but I'm stronger.

I still can't believe how some readers were trying so hard to ram their style and likings and films down my throat. They never tried to connect with me -- as an upcoming screenwriter who likes movies like these --


attitude like these --

I respect all style of screenwriting, how come they don't respect my style of screenwriting?
Don't worry, other pro readers have connected with my scripts!

Best Regards,
Benjamin Ray

joeverkill said...

I think writers need to know that there's nothing personal about the evaluations readers are giving them. If there is, that reader isn't doing his or her job correctly.

One thing that can be sort of misleading is the convention of putting some complimentary or "nice" comments in the coverage (usually early in the "comments" sections). I think a lot of readers do this as a reflex, or because they don't want to be overly mean, or perhaps because they want to hedge their bets with their boss in case he/she eventually reads it and likes it.

Because this is done so often, these complimentary comments, I think, have lost a lot of meaning. People read past it.

A major part of a reader's job is to address a screenplay's problems. People should understand that if there is short or medium or even long laundry list of problems in coverage on their scripts, the readers are not necessarily trying to say they're bad writers. As a reader myself, I often see finished films that I like quite a bit, and I think to myself how many problems I would have written of in my coverage, if I had seen the script before the film was made. It's often more than one would assume. Finished films, even very good finished films, are rarely perfect (if ever). So it shouldn't be any special insult if a reader finds problems in one of your screenplays.

There are a lot of reasons readers pass on projects, and while quality is a major one, it's not the only one. If the script isn't right for a particular company, or if there are obvious rights issues that will make the script difficult to green light, or if the script would have a hard time finding an audience, quality matters a lot less, and that script is likely going to get a "pass" or a "weak consider" anyhow.

Back to my original point: as a reader, if a script has nothing going for it, I don't make an effort to lie and say that it does. I think it's unfair to all the writers who get praise in their coverage and take it for granted. It's also unfair to the writer of the script -- these comments can be misleading, and writers can waste lots of time and annoy quite a few people trying to push old screenplays when they should be writing new ones. I understand that a lot of readers don't have the luxury of being so honest, but I wish they could have more leeway to.

I guess my overall point is, if a reader is finding problems with your script, it's not the end of the world. There are problems in good -- and even great -- screenplays. If you're getting the same note repeatedly, yeah, think about making some changes. But don't fret because of hard coverage. And don't ignore those positive comments in the second or third paragraph of the "comments" section. Often, they're actually true.

Julie Gray said...

@Joe - great comment, thanks so much! Where do you read? As a former reader myself, I was trained to start off by saying something nice, even if it was hard to find that one thing to say. But now that I employ readers, I ask my readers to do that because it's the spoonful of sugar thing - if you can sincerely find something to compliment before you say what's not working, you get the writer feeling a bit warmed up to then hear what is NOT working. It's just basic psychology. I'd rather someone greeted me warmly before telling me the really bad news about whatever. Now of course as a pro reader you know that a writer will not see a coverage written for a prodco or agency so it doesn't matter what you say as the reader as long as to the best of your ability it's accurate. Coverages a writer SEES are coverages they have paid for at a company that provides that service, such as my own. You would be surprised (or maybe not) by the number of writers who SAY just give it to me straight but who FREAK OUT if you don't say what you have to say pretty nicely. It's human nature. So you have to be polite and at a company like mine, where our agenda is to encourage writers to improve, I find that paving the way for improvement and learning goes down more easily with a bit of sugar - because, honestly, if the one thing the writer did well was choose great character names - well, the writer should enjoy that fact - before swallowing the vegetables of what they need to learn to do better.

I continue to need to point out and remind Rouge Wave readers that prodco coverage - what we normally refer to as "coverage" is something they will never see. But feedback in the shape of coverage from companies who serve the writer directly, is for THEM. They are paying clients. And paying clients want the truth, yes, but also deserve our respect. I was a prodco reader for some time and I never disrespected the writer simply because I knew they'd never see my notes anyway. I feel like that's really bad karma and hey, I'm a writer too. So if the reader says something nice in a prodco coverage I think they are either being sincere (because again, by dint of this process, the writer will never see this anyway) or doing some ass-covering since you never know whether this script might have been written by the exec's sister, cousin or wife. That has in fact happened to me. Ouch.

As a pro reader, I know you must be referring then to readers saying something nice in coverages that readers SEE - I really don't think writer's should discount that; I do think it's sincere. I really think they should enjoy that compliment, ever so small, even if it is followed by 3 pages of notes about what isn't working because being a writer is so HARD that we have to take the compliments where we can get them while improving what is not so great too.

joeverkill said...

Ahh yes, that is a good distinction to draw. My comment was made in respect to production company/agency/management company coverage. There are situations when writers do see that stuff. You never know if you don't ask -- not that I'm recommending that anyone actually do that.

You're right about the psychology stuff and whatnot. Being 100% negative to someone is never helpful; they'll just shut out anything constructive you have to say. On the other hand, if a reader sees a work that is not going to work, and even with a great amount of rewriting is never going to work, the reader has a responsibility to say that. No use leading people on.

Anyway I think my original point was that you can find flaws even in great films. People shouldn't take it too personally when readers find flaws in their screenplays -- that's their job, regardless of whom they work for.