Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hold the Front Page

A particular pet hate amongst readers and execs is when they receive a script that has a photograph or image on the front cover. The title of the script and who it’s by will be underneath or amongst a picture that relates to the tone or the content of the script. Presumably, the writer (or possibly producer/director) thinks that this is an important inclusion on the front cover; a helpful image to ease the reader into the style and mood of the story. Here’s a tip: don’t do it.

You’d think that all the regular screenwriting advice would have rubbed off by now. Y’know, the basics: format, typos, short paragraphs and never put an image on your front cover. And yet scripts stream in with some or all of the typical bugbears being dutifully adhered to.

Personally, I’m not too bothered by a small misuse of format or typos or whatever, and even a front image on the cover won’t put me off too much. It’s difficult to say why an image on the cover gets people’s hackles up so much. Maybe it’s because they feel the script is trying to persuade them about mood and imagery when they’d like to make up their own mind. The one thing that is for certain is that readers and execs don’t like it, and will immediately jump on your script with a savage distaste just because of an opening image on the title page.

The credo is this: “Scripts with images on their title page are indicative of a poorly written screenplay”. And you know, by and large, this is true. This is why readers sigh with disappointment when they pick up a script that’s got a fictional photo of a rock star and the script is called: “Pop Stars R Us”. They just know the script is going to suck ass.

Because the credo is generally accurate, there must be some psychological link between poor writing and putting an image on the front cover. It suggests that the writer (usually an amateur) isn’t fully convinced of his material and wants to plonk a “striking” photo on the front to impress the reader before he’s picked up the script. Or maybe the writer is so sure of his work that he feels it necessary to heighten the flavour of the piece by showing you a glimpse of the wonderful imagery that’s in store. It really is hard to guess.

I have read scripts from a few professional writers that have had images on the front cover but I think the producer or director may be to blame here because the professional scribes deliver a more satisfying story. 90% of scripts with pictures/photos or drawings on their front cover usually indicate that the writer is trying too hard, or has an ego beyond belief, and the script will usually go on to tell a story that will fail to impress.

So, second thoughts all round about putting an image on the front cover. It’s tempting I know but unless you’re absolutely sure that your script is singing on every level, it’s best left avoided. Why not put those images and cool drawings into a separate document and submit that, along with the script, instead? The reader won’t be given the visual stuff to assess, just the script, while the exec gets the benefit of the writer’s “vision” without thinking that he’s a foolish amateur.

*** UPDATE ***
Another general no-no, although not as bad, is putting a clever tag line under the script's title. This isn't advisable because while the tag line can be clever, smart, amusing and intriging, the rest of the screenplay will usually fail to live up to its billing. So one strap line on the front cover becomes the most effective piece of writing in a 120 page screenplay. It can be cute and clever to have a tag line there, lots of people do it, but leave it to the marketing people, or better still, use it in your one page outline/pitching document which has room for that kind of stuff.


Stephen Gallagher said...

When I was starting out (brief pause for my daughter to make her usual Age of the Dinosaurs joke here) I used to blag Letraset from the Granada graphics department to give my title pages a more professional impact on the reader.

Or so I thought. What I now realise is that the reader's first impression would have been a mental image of the wannabee screenwriter rubbing away at sheets of wax letters like a retard in occupational therapy.

Tim Clague said...

Damn it! Still - it will save me on colour ink I guess.

James Moran said...

I entered a radio script competition about 12 years ago, and to spice up my hostage drama I put a picture of a gun on the cover. *At an angle*. I didn't have a picture of a gun, or internet access, so I had to make a blocky version in Deluxe Paint. And I had to print the whole script out on a shitty dot matrix that was running out of ink. And then photocopy it on a dark setting so that the ink would be more readable.

And despite my efforts, I still didn't win. Obviously they had some sort of agenda.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately for me, I struggle to draw simple stick figures so I've never been tempted to put 'cover art' on the front page of anything. Since Kindergarten.

It's nice to know that reluctance is finally paying off.


Bill Cunningham said...

I agree that the time isn't right for writers to have art on the covers of their scripts, but we have to get crap-heads like tarantino to quit doing it first (and say so). His new script has an art cover to it.

Art has its place - hell all of the movies I've written have had art done for them FIRST - and that place is on the wall near your computer to a) remind you what it is you're writing, and b)to inspire you to create story elements worthy of the art.

Chris (UK Scriptwriter) said...

Danny - You have has scripts passed to you by some big studios (if I remember some old posts), so I was wondering how many scripts are out there in the hands of studios that make these mistakes?

I imagine to get into the hands of a studio exec, a script must have come via an agent (most times). I thought you had to show really good work to get an agent, especially one that can get a script easily to a studio.

james henry said...

In my scripts, when I get to the funny bits, I like to draw stick figures pointing at the words and rolling about laughing. And it's a happy or sad ending, I like to do a big smiley or frowney face respectively (if it's bitter-sweet ending, I do a smiley face, but with one tear, just so there's no confusion).

Lucy said...

omigod. never a truer word spoken. sometimes the scripts themselves have pictures in to explain various narrative points. argh.

A. M. said...

Just barely recovered from a laughing fit (thanks Stephen, James).

Well, the true artists, capable not only of creating images with their words but also able to put something on their script covers (!!), might just be ahead of their time.... or so one might conclude after reading Scott's latest post.

All weirded out now.

screamwriter said...

The drawings that were included with the "Underworld" screenplay are supposedly what caught Kate Beckinsale's eye and got her to read the script.

Anonymous said...

Ok so the scriptwriter doesn't put a pic on the front of his/her opus.

But then the producer (or more often writer/director) litters the 'executive summary' or 'film finance package' (ahem) with artwork. Especially with lo/no/guerrilla films.

Is this still naff? what are your thoughts anyone?

Danny Stack said...

Chris, I read scripts that are submitted via agents or producers. Yes, you do have to be good to get an agent or a producer attached to your work but there's still rubbish stuff out there, with and without artwork on their front covers.

And Anon, I think an executive summary or film finance package with artwork is okay because that's where it should be really, in a separate pitching document.

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

I am attempting a Romantic Comedy and wonder what (and if) swearing is acceptable in this genre?

My main character is very bitter about life initially, and swears a lot.

How far can I push the swearing?

thanks very much,

Danny Stack said...

Good q. Next post.

Dom Carver said...

Pictures belong in comics, words belong in scripts. If you're good at the former write comics. If you're good at the later you create your own pictures - Dom Carver 11/07/06

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