Thursday, June 28, 2012

How script readers rate scripts

"Anonymous" commented on my post 10 Reasons Why I Pass on Scripts: "Consider with Reservations"? That's actually a thing?

Good question. Yes, it's actually a thing! Companies ask readers to RECOMMEND, CONSIDER or PASS on scripts - and some companies also allow you to CONSIDER W/RESERVATIONS (aka WEAK CONSIDER). However, that last rating should be used very sparingly, and can sometimes be seen as a cop-out in which readers avoid providing a firm opinion. My function as a reader is to save my bosses time: I read things so they don't have to. If I Pass on something, they don't need to read it. If I Recommend or Consider something, I'm saying "You should read this." A "Consider w/Reservations" is sort of saying, "I think maybe you should read this, but I'm not totally sure" - and if I send up too many scripts with this rating, I'm not really doing my job.

Here's a breakdown of how I view the rating system:

When I Recommend a script, I'm saying: "I love this script. Not only do I think you should read this script, but I also think you should buy it and make it. Hurry up before someone else does! If you don't, you will lose out on millions of dollars and/or Academy Awards!" A script doesn't necessarily have to be flawless to get a Recommend, but it should make me think that someone is definitely going to buy it.

For what it's worth, I was once assigned a revised version of a script I had Passed on for another company. I HATED the original script - but in the rewrite, all the things I had problems with had been fixed. I was about to write Consider on the rewrite, but then in my comments I had no remaining criticisms. I couldn't think of anything bad to say or suggest any changes - and so I Recommended it.

(As you might imagine, readers use this rating VERY rarely. I have only Recommended a handful of scripts.)

This is a much safer way to pass scripts up the ladder. A Consider basically means, "I liked this and I think you should read it." My bosses can then read through my comments and see if they agree. A company once told me, "With a consider, you are not necessarily recommending that we buy the project, but that we take a closer look." I Consider lots of scripts! The scripts don't have to be perfect, but to get a Consider they must have a solid concept, solid characters, etc. Every script aims to be something different; a small indie drama might get a Consider for potential Oscar-worthy roles, while a big-budget action movie might get a Consider for box office marketability. Whether a script fits with what the company is looking for is up to my bosses.

I have heard that some companies include the rating "Strong Consider," but I feel like a script like that should just get a Recommend. If a script has some sort of weakness holding it back from being a Recommend, then I think plain old Consider is appropriate.

Again, I'm wary of giving scripts this rating because I feel like I'm not really doing  my job when I don't take a firm stand. Here's how I think of it: a Consider w/Reservations means, "There's something here, but I have reservations about it. The script has a major flaw that needs to be addressed, but you might not want to overlook this bit of potential." Maybe the concept is great, but the characters need to be overhauled or the plot has a major hole, for example. Maybe there's an amazing lead role in the script, but the tone is all wrong.  Maybe the dialogue is making me laugh out loud, but I worry that the concept is not commercial. I might also use this rating if I like a script but worry that it's too much like another script/movie, or if a script has amazing attachments but would be a Pass without them. It's important to fully explain in my comments WHY I have reservations.

If I find myself really going back and forth between Consider w/Reservations and Pass, I remind myself that my job is to weed out the scripts that my bosses don't need to read - so I Pass. As you might imagine, I Pass on scripts that I don't think are impressive and don't think my bosses should bother to read. In the world of readers, most scripts are Passes. I rarely read exceptional scripts or horrendous scripts; most fall in the middle of the bell curve. If I don't Pass, I'm taking a risk by stamping my seal of approval on a script - and I'd better be able to defend it.

My taste certainly informs my reading, but I try to rate scripts against their genres, not against my own personal tastes. I generally don't like watching action movies, but I Consider action movie scripts all the time. I figure that if I actually enjoy reading an action movie script, it must be pretty good.

If you're a reader, I'd love to hear your philosophy behind the script rating system - please comment!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

10 Reasons Why I Pass on Scripts

Thanks to everyone who participated in our script reader Tweet-chat last night! If you missed it (or aren't on Twitter), Scott Myers is planning to post a transcript on GITS soon.

 I thought I would share 10 common reasons why I pass on scripts (or in some cases, bump my recommendation down from "Recommend" to "Consider" or from "Consider" to "Consider with Reservations.")

1. Unclear concept
Scott Myers was shocked to find that all three of us readers named "no clear concept" as a big pet peeve in scripts. It's true: I read tons of scripts by writers who haven't clearly defined what their movie is about. "Friendship after college" is not a hook. Watch this simple yet incredibly helpful video from TBSR about developing your idea into an actual concept and story. An unclear concept is often paired with a lack of clear goals, ticking clocks or throughlines that give the movie momentum. Try to avoid characters who are just kind of floating around.

2. Cliche or familiar concept 
You need more than just a concept: you need an original, unique and exciting concept. Pay attention to what's selling and what's in development. It's fine for your movie to be similar to other movies, but it shouldn't be too close to the exact same thing. For readers who are working for production companies, concept trumps execution. Sure, I try to reward great writing - but I'm always asking myself, "Should this be a movie?" and "Will the company want to buy and make this?"

3. Believability/motivational problems
Characters don't necessarily have to be likable, but they should have reasons for what they do. I often find myself taken out of a script because I'm asking myself, "would that really happen?" or "would she really do that?" In this same vein, when characters are "just crazy," it might come off as a lazy way to write an undeveloped character without believable motivations. Plausibility can also be an issue on a plot level: do some internet research before making up laws, government agencies, etc.

4. Misogyny and lack of female characters
It annoys me when:
-All the women in your script sleep with (or try to sleep with) your male protagonist, even though he is a loser with no attractive qualities
-You are clearly living out your sexual fantasies in your script
-Your script contains zero women
-Your female characters are defined only in the context of men
-Your female characters lack agency and need to be saved or rescued by men
-The physical description of all your female characters is overtly sexual, even though sex isn't part of the concept and none of your male characters are described this way

I'm always on the lookout for scripts with solid female characters. If your script has zero women or only disappointing women, I ask myself, "do I really want to help this get made?" I feel like it's the tiny little difference I can make. Of course I'm not going to pass on a great script about men (I consider and recommend them all the time) - but if I'm already about to pass on a script, a lack of women might further dissuade me from championing it.

5. Race and Sexual Orientation issues 
Don't fall into stereotypes. You might also read about the notion of "hipster racism" or "ironic racism" and ask yourself if your attempt at a joke (even a satirical one) is actually just plain offensive. Similarly, I've read scripts that celebrate and condone homophobia - and that's never going to give me a good impression.

6. Length/pacing
I don't automatically pass on 122-page scripts or anything.. but if your script is super long, that likely indicates that you should do some trimming. Is your pacing off? Can you combine scenes? Cut off the beginnings or ends? Make your action/description more succinct? It's hard to recommend a script that takes me forever to get through. I'm hoping for a script that won't make me turn to Twitter for better entertainment every ten seconds.

7. Visualzzzzzzz
Don't write a movie about people sitting on a couch and talking about their lives. Please give me something to look at! Have you created a compelling visual world? I was impressed by the script RUNNER, RUNNER because unlike similar scripts about online gaming, it didn't feature a guy sitting in front of a screen for an hour. They go to Costa Rica! Ocean! Boats! Jungle! Cool!

8. Unanswered questions and world-building
I often recommend that writers wait to tackle complicated, futuristic sci-fi dystopias until they have a few scripts under their belts. Creating an entire world is hard; with a script in our current world, you can assume that we all understand what cars and Congress are. But with a sci-fi world, you have to explain everything without weighing down your plot with too much exposition. Once you introduce the idea that the government requires us all to take pills, you have to explain how long this has been going on, who's in charge, how this logistically works, how society has responded, etc. It's just hard - and you'll probably have to study a lot of similar scripts and get feedback from friends who can tell you what's confusing and undeveloped. This idea stretches to other genres as well (something as simple as "how did he know she would be there?" might have to be answered) - but it's most commonly an issue for me in sci-fi scripts.

9. Unsatisfying roles/lack of arcs
Do your characters transform over the course of the story? Would A-list actors want to play them? Characters are the most important thing to me after concept. (I've written about this before.)

10. Failing to live up to your concept
Sometimes writers choose a great hook, but then disappoint me in their exploration of the hook. If you set up a movie about the best bank robbers in the world, then your movie should include a bank robbery. I recently passed on a script with huge A-list actors attached because it was a cool thriller/action movie in concept but a static character drama in execution. I felt misled! Think about whether you're exploring the most interesting aspect of your concept, and don't disappoint the reader by failing to deliver what you've promised.

Monday, June 11, 2012

New UK screenwriting contest open to writers around the world

I'm constantly getting emails from foreign writers looking for ways to break in. Since they can't move to LA and get an assistant job without a work visa, these international screenwriters can't follow the usual path I recommend. Instead, I suggest that they try to become published writers or get industry-related jobs in their home countries, and also look for reputable contests/fellowships that accept foreign submissions, like the Nicholl Fellowship and the Sundance Feature Fellowship.

Now there's a new contest to add to the list: sponsored by Final Draft and the Raindance Film Festival, the Screenwriting Goldmine Competition is looking for "great original screenplays, 45-125 pages in any genre, from new writers from all over the world. Prizes include £1,000 in cash, Final Draft Software, Raindance Workshops, IMDB Pro memberships, and screenplay consultancy. Most important of all, the finalists will have their work read by eight heavyweight judges, opinion leaders within the industry. The quality of these judges means getting to the finals should attract you some international recognition."

Regular Submissions £32 by 1pm Thurs 5th July
Last Minute Submissions £38 by 1 pm Thurs 12th July
(All London times.)

I always warn my readers to be wary of contests, since they often take your money without really providing you access to industry insiders. But the Judges for the Screenwriting Goldmine Competition, like those in the Final Draft Big Break Contest, seem pretty legit - check them out and decide for yourself.

Remember that no one contest is going to be the key to your success. Keep looking for new ways to get your work out there!