Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What to expect in Black List and Nicholl Fellowship reader comments

Joshua Caldwell over at Hollywood Bound and Down has posted two comments he received from Nicholl readers and one comment from a Black List reader. Definitely check out the post if you're considering submitting your script to either place.

I was shocked by Comment 2, which came from a Nicholl reader. It's more personal than analytical, containing phrases like "Normally I want to run for the hills as soon as I see a script set in the Middle East. I have no patience or interest in them usually," and "This was a solid script, and even though it's not my cup of tea per se, I really did enjoy it...and that should say something."

Nicholl Comment 1 and the Black List comment were more specific and professional, but I find myself wondering: would these notes help you in a rewrite? By design, these comments are more like the ones you'd see in coverage for a studio, production company or agency. They indicate to other industry professionals if the script is worth reading; they're not crafted to be tools for writers trying to imrprove. That's not a bad thing -- but it's something to be aware of.

The Black List aims to find excellent screenplays and connect them to people looking for excellent screenplays. It is most helpful to writers whose scripts achieve a very high score (8-10), and founder Franklin Leonard has been candid about how lower-scoring scripts will probably not be discovered by industry pros on the site, telling writers, "If you're not finding traction for your script on our site, stop giving us your money." Similarly, the Nicholl aims to find the very best screenplays written by non-established writers. In 2013, it received  7,251 entries and will select only five fellows.

So here's where it gets tricky for writers: if you get a low score, especially one accompanied by comments that indicate that the reader read the script very quickly or didn't seem to "get it," should you rewrite the script based on these suggestions? And for the Black List, should you pay another $50 for another read? On one hand, the first reader is just one person with one opinion -- maybe another reader would feel differently. But on the other hand, your sense of hope is encouraging you to shell out more money, and you could get caught in an expensive cycle. "The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it," writes Scott Myers at Go Into the Story. "This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments."

I know writers who have gotten evaluations containing typos, incorrect loglines, incorrect story information/key facts, etc. But on the flip side, I know writers who got thoughtful ones. Some have even found reps and launched their careers because of the Black List.

The Black List only pays its readers $25 a script, but does at least encourage writers to contact customer service if they feel their evaluation was too rushed. From their FAQ: If you believe the reader did not thoroughly read your script, reach out to us outlining the reasons you believe so with any specifics from the review. Note that ratings themselves, whether high or low, are not an indicator of a bad review. We want to make sure that all scripts are given a thorough and fair read. Any factual inaccuracies, for instance, will be taken seriously. But we try to separate valid opinions from clear misreadings of the script.

Ultimately, if your script is in great shape, the Nicholl and the Black List might be able to help, especially if you need access more than you need notes at this point in your career. In an industry that's nearly impossible to break into, they offer rare opportunities. Maybe I'm biased because I offer notes to writers too, but if you receive an low score and evaluation you agree with, you'll probably want to rewrite the script -- and I'm not sure these types of brief comments will help you do that.


Unknown said...

To be fair to the Nicholl people, those comments were for internal purposes initially. They were never intended to be shared with the screenwriter, but Nicholl generously decided to share them as a courtesy to some of the contestants. If the script reader knew their comments would be shared, I imagine they would have been more formal. The most important evaluation of the script is the score the reader gives it (out of 100), which they didn't share with the screenwriters, and the reader notes are just there to justify the score (and I'm guessing maybe even prove that they actually read the script).

Crystal said...

I made it to the Nicholl quarterfinals but not the semi and I received two comments. They were encouraging, and they did have some helpful feedback. Mostly, they confirmed things I already knew about my script. To be honest, I'm not interested in rewriting this particular script (I would write out a large part of the hook/logline content to make the story more simple and elegant), but the comments would be helpful.

BUT-- the reason why they're so helpful is the positive as much as the negative. It felt really good to see professional readers call my characters original or proclaim me as having a fresh take.

I don't think negative comments are as helpful, especially when they are so short. You are better off paying a reader like Amanda for a thorough coverage if your script needs a lot of work.

Unknown said...

I initially submitted my comedy pilot to Blacklist for one reading. When I received my review, which was a low score, the reviewer gave me some very good advice to strengthen the plot, but I felt he didn't get the comedy. I felt some of his personal taste was seeping into the review.

My ego caused me to submit for another review. I was relieved to receive a much more positive review with some of the same lingering plot issues, but they seemed to get the comedy more than the previous reader.

Then, Blacklist offered me a third review at a discount because the disparity between my scores. My third review came in and it was positive, as well. The author even said it was hilarious, which was a massive relief, because that was my main fear. If I'm not funny, why continue to attempt a comedy pilot?

All of the reviews benefited me greatly, including bits of the negative one. I even pulled specific ideas from that review to strengthen the plot. While the feedback is very brief on the Blacklist, I feel like they have a good sense of what people in the industry are looking for, and they give their advice accordingly.

Overall, I'd have to mark my experience with Blacklist as a positive one. Despite a negative review and the disparity between the other two. It was still very helpful, despite what bias may have leaked into the authors comments.

Amanda said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences!

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thanks for your posts, Amanda. Best of luck on your writing

Matt McManus said...

I had a very similar experience to one of the above posters, after I submitted my sitcom pilot to the Black List. The first reviewer essentially hated it, giving it a 3 out of 10. The pilot garnered positive feedback from the writers group I'm in, so I decided to pay for another evaluation. The second reviewer gave it a 7, qualifying me for a discounted read (like above). The third reviewer also gave it a 7.

After reading more in-depth about the evaluations, I learned that the comments that a reviewer provides are supposed to be designed to boost your score by 3 points, if you heed their advice in your revisions.

The bottom line: if you have a phenomenal script, the Black List can be a great tool to launch your career. If your script is merely good, don't bother.