Monday, October 16, 2006

Tips for Rejection

No, this isn’t about how to cope with rejection. This is a post for all you script editors, producers and execs out there. It’s about how you can give rejection without making the writer feel miserable or perplexed with your response. We’re talking about good timing, decent contact and honest phrasing.

Let me put this into context. This morning, my script editor at Doctors emails to say that one of my recent pitch-outlines has been rejected. Fine. No problem. Except the email is the first in my inbox, received before 9am even, and signs off with a merry: “have a good day”. Well, I was having a good day, thank you, until your email came along. Rejection is par for the course, we writers have learned to develop a thick skin, but when you get a rebuff without any kind of explanation before you’ve had your snap, crackle and pop, then it’s a bit of a psychological blow.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a rejection at 8.30pm on Friday night with the cheerful salute of: “have a great weekend”. After I read the email, all hope of having a good weekend evaporated because the rejection stewed in my brain for the entirety.

And then, there’s the huge gap of response where months go by without any contact. The writer is waiting on tenterhooks for a significant decision on their work (we care about our scripts and we want you to like them, we even think that you might). In quiet desperation, a few polite nudge-emails are sent. Still nothing. And then, a couple of weeks later, a response to your nudge-email, a brief apology for not getting back to you sooner, and a rather bland: “thanks for letting us read it…but it’s not for us. Good luck with setting it up elsewhere.”

“Good luck with setting it up elsewhere” is particularly annoying. Even more maddening is “you’ll have no problem setting this up elsewhere.” Execs and editors take note: despite the well-meaning and soft-cushion intention, the standard phrases for rejection are predictable, generic and frustrating.

When’s a good time for rejection? After lunch is my suggestion. We’ve got the afternoon to digest and accept the decision. Then, we can put it aside and try to focus on something else. Basically, get some more work done before clocking-off; the rejection being part of the day rather than a lingering criticism that niggles throughout the evening.

What about communication? If you haven’t replied to us within a month, send us an email to give us an idea when we might hear from you. Try to be as specific as possible (“I’m filming for the next three months so won’t be able to get back to you until Christmas, at the earliest”). This helps us understand your workload, and give you the time and space to assess our work without feeling that a commission, email, phone call is coming… any, day, now.

And the choice of phrase? Using snippets of the coverage is good, or if you’ve read it yourself, even better: tell us what you think. We know you’re trying to be constructive and genial, but if you thought the script was a stinker, then feel free to tell us why. You can do this without us thinking you’re the devil. And giving us a lot of positives about the script without counterbalancing it with why you’ve rejected it leaves us confused. If you loved the characters, thought the dialogue was funny and the writing was visual and evocative, then why did you pass?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having a go. I know your workload is heavy and the demand on your time is constant. But spare a little thought for the timing and effect of your rejection on the beleaguered writer. We know rejections are coming, we’ve learned to live with them, but sometimes they pinch or confuse more than usual when they are seemingly ill-timed or poorly phrased (bad grammar and spelling mistakes a particular aggravation).

One of the producers I met in Cannes has been an absolute powerhouse of professionalism and courtesy. He’s kept in contact, apologised for delays (with reasoning), and even phoned ‘from his cell in LA’ to keep me up-to-date. I know he’s kept a similar line of communication with a few other writers too. I don’t care if he rejects my scripts now. All I know is that I want to work with this guy. His polite and considered response is the communication-nirvana that writers only dream about. And this guy’s a Hollywood high roller.

So, dear script editors, producers and execs, spare a few more thoughts about your contact and approach. We know you don’t have to give extra consideration to what you’ve already decided is a rejection (and may not have the time), but it certainly helps if you do…


Phillip Barron said...

Even at my low level, I've had to tell people I can't work on their script. The problem I've found is, if I go into too much detail I start getting long emails asking me to clarify specific points. Before I know it, I end up script editing something for free instead of the offered fee.

I'm all for helping people, and I do enjoy giving advice/assistance when I can; but sometimes it's hard to find the time and at the end of the day, I'm in it for the money. (A bit like Han Solo, only ginger and not nearly so handsome.)

I generally find it easier to pin the blame on me: I don't feel I can do your script justice, I'm not the best person to carry this forward, etc.

On the flip side, when I get rejected I try to remember it's not me who's getting rejected, it's not even my work in general, it's that particular piece of work. I try to thank whoever for taking the time to read it and make some mention of maybe working together in the future.

Seems to work, people who didn't like the script I sent them often get back in touch months later about something different.

Politeness really does pay.

Lucy said...

I'm with Philip about not getting into a dialogue about rejection or even crossing the line into free script editing. However, there are things that (even could be true!) that rejectors could tell rejectees other than, "thanks but no thanks" which all writers take as, let's face it - "thanks but no thanks 'cos you suck ass. Mate."

Like this for instance: "Thank you for your script, it was an engaging read and there were genuinely moments when I felt fear/sympathy/empathy etc (delete as appropriate) for *insert character*. You clearly have promise but sadly, the material/story/script/genre (delete as appropriate again) is not for us at this time."

Not a lot of feedback, sure - but it shows the script's been read and the effort has been appreciated. The rejector hasn't even said the Writer is GOOD or AMAZING or promised anything for the future. It really is, "thanks but no thanks" without the YOU SUCK! Or could be...

English Dave said...

I don't mind rejection. But lazy rejection makes me wonder about the quality of the producer/reader.

There is one particular producer at a very big prodco whom I have told my agents never to send another script to.

That's not spite. That's me thinking about the quality of any possible working relationship.

Producers are split into diamonds and dickheads. When you find a diamond you stick with them. And a diamond isn't someone who just praises you to the heavens. When they say 'It's crap' they tell you why its crap. And they are right.

James Moran said...

Danny, you forgot to add:

P.S. You're a bastard and I didn't want to sell you my script anyway, so up yours. Thppppppp.

P.P.S. I know where you live

potdoll said...

rejection can be wretched for producers, too. after months, sometimes years, of supporting a writer and having dreams of this script becoming a film the script is rejected over and over on their long journey to secure funding. the writer won't even know about half of these rejections and it's the producer who takes the brunt. Okay they haven't written it but they've taken it on and publicly announced that they thing this will make a great film. everybody 'agrees' yet they don't want to part with their money or their reputation. you need a pretty strong producer to stay standing.

i think the worst rejection is when the thing gets made and the public hates it. savage.

james henry said...

From the 'coping with rejection' side, I've always found that if you're already working on something else by the time the rejection comes, its sting is considerably lessened.

And one excuse on the behalf of producers who send out rather curt rejections emails: possibly they assume the writer has sufficient experience that they get three or four similar emails a day, so one more is no biggie. What I find more annoying (in fact, almost unforgiveable) is when said person never ever gets back to you at all...

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea how full to bursting our lives are? How chaotic? How many scripts and development notes and publishers weeklys are piled up on our desks vying for our attention? Do you know how many projects, producers, agents, ideas, writers, funding bodies etc we have to juggle? And do you know how little we get paid for all this shit?

But above all - it's very difficult to give constructive criticism on something that is completely and utterly worthless. Most scripts are without merit, just fall short of the line, and so only a quick non-committal 'no, good luck' will do, without showing our true feelings for the rubbish we are forced to read.

kirstie said...

Wow, somebody got out of bed the wrong side, Mr Anonymous ... If you hate writers and the "worthless" stuff they are writing with the sole purpose of making your life difficult may I politely suggest you are in the wrong job. The purpose of a GOOD script editor is to help writers, not see them as annoying creatures who insist of filling your in-tray and 'forcing' you to read their scripts. As a script editor I find your comments really worrying, you are giving the rest of us a bad name.

Lucy said...

I'm with Kirsty. "MOST scripts are without merit"?? WTF??? As a script editor I find that worrying too. Sure, some scripts have made my eyes roll, others have freaked me out, some have even made me angry if they contain, say, too much racism etc, but always, ALWAYS, there's at least one thing good about them, even if it's just one solitary line of dialogue. From small acorns and all that...

Danny Stack said...

I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say 'you go for it Anonymous'. A lot of script editors on TV series are stressed, overworked and deal with poor spec submissions all the time. Script editors for features on the other hand have to dig deep into the project and try to help the writer see the light.

I suspect Anonymous's view is coming from the TV side of things, and that's cool. But do read the "Don't get me wrong" bit in the post. I love you guys really. I've been script editing spec and commissioned features for the last few years now and I haven't had to give rejection as such, but I have noticed that a well-chosen word or offer of advice goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

who 'forces' you to read rubbish Mr anonymous? If you hate it - get out now and retrain as a librarian

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon - if your life is so bursting and chaotic and you are frantically juggling and reading our awful scripts how did you find the time to read Danny's blog? Are you working today?

James Moran said...

Danny: come on, own up, that was you, wasn't it? Trying to start fights again, I've told you about that. Put the knife down, mate. It's not worth it.

If you're real, Mr Anon - start a blog and talk about it, then we can leave comments on it about how awful and tragic it is to be a writer, and the entire merry circle will be complete. I'm serious about the blog though, be good to get the view from the other side, so to speak. Don't expect any sympathy though, we've got enough bloody problems of our own, thanks. At least you get paid either way.

The Moviequill said...

got this nice rejection "Unfortunately, we're going to pass on your screenplay. It isn't quite what we are looking for, but don't let that deter you from submitting it to as many places as possible. Tastes are so fickle in this industry that finding the one person who falls in love with your material could be the most difficult part of screenwriting.

Best of luck in the future."

Danny Stack said...

That's a really interesting response Movie-Q!

Anonymous said...

ok. It's me, Anon. In my post I was really saying two things.

1) cut us some slack. We're over-worked and chaotic and we are human. Sorry, we could probably do better sometimes, but the next thing is coming along and something you learn real quick in the movie biz is that everything is always URGENT! It's always hurry up! (... and wait.)

2) I'm being cruel to be kind. None of you are good enough yet. I haven't read any of your work but I know it. Be honest with yourselves - is your work really going to stand up against the work of the pros? If I have a choice between hiring you and, I dunno, Jeffrey Caine or (cheaper) Martin McDonagh who would I choose? Who do you think I could convince my bosses to hire? I have to make the case to them and I don't want them to be able to ridicule me and I don't want them to fire me.
I want you to read sites like this, read lots of scripts, watch lots of films and LIVE LOTS OF LIFE and write a hell of a lot more. I want you to do all that before you send me anything. Because what you and the rest of them are sending me now just isn't good enough. Don't give up. Don't ever give up, but remember there's more to life than writing films. And there's more to writing films than writing films.