One thing I’ve noticed recently about ‘script development’ is the huge difference in reading a screenplay completely cold, i.e. with no prior knowledge to its development, and one that you’ve been working on with a writer or script editor. The ‘completely cold’ assessments are usually done by readers or execs, and their opinion on the work is usually of a damning nature. However, when you’re more familiar and close to a project, everyone (from producer, writer, script editor and other staff) can see the value of the story and how it’s favourably taking shape. Obviously, they have a less critical eye over the script because they’re already attached to it, emotionally and financially, and certainly there’s no amazing insight in saying that a script reads differently ‘cold’ versus ‘knowing its development’.
But it goes deeper than that. There’s an element of ego and ignorance involved. A kind of moral superiority over the work, as if everyone should have known better, or should have identified the script’s obvious flaws much, much sooner. The ‘cold’ read never acknowledges or thinks about the writer’s choices, the ones he took, or was forced to take. You read the script and think: “ppfhht, nothing special, I could do MUCH better than that”. And there’s the key. “I could do MUCH better than that”. You might, but you probably won’t. This is not to say you don’t possess the talent, it’s just that you may go through a similar experience of development and choices (forced by a producer/script editor, or not) and you end up with a script that’s indistinguishable in terms of content & delivery as the one you’ve previously dismissed. Worse, you think it’s head and shoulders above that script - because YOU know how much work has gone into it, and how difficult it all was - but then someone reads your script ‘cold’, and is suitably not impressed.
Basically, I think what I’m getting at is that my days as a script reader are pretty much over. At least, the times when I would read ten scripts a week and give breezy judgement on them, and deem the writers unworthy of further attention. I remembered that I had read the script for The Accidental Husband a few years back so I revisited my report to see what I had said. I was balanced about its overall content but also quite smug and superior that the script didn't have much going for it. And all I could think when re-reading the coverage was: gee, that might appear balanced but it's actually a touch arrogant and completely subjective.
I’ve been script editing a couple of projects lately (a feature and a new TV series) and have been talking to the writers about their inspiration, their process and generally trying to help them with their scripts. And it’s been a real treat. I love writers, and love experiencing both sides of the coin as a script editor and writer. When working with other writers, I enjoy listening to them explain their passion, excitement, ideas and craft. It gives you a whole new appreciation for them and their work. But when you read a script ‘cold’, you don’t have that benefit. That’s fair enough, there’s nothing you can do about that ‘cold read’. However, professional script developers should be able to recognise some sort of craft and merit in the script, and not be so judgemental. Screenwriting is such a difficult and subjective medium, so whatever you think might be ‘rubbish’ could actually make a mint at the box office. Your opinion could be right, it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is understanding the script - its background, its development and where it can go from there. Keep the ‘cold reads’ for private reading, and keep an open mind for everything else.