Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Likes & Dislikes

Script readers are a notoriously picky and grumpy bunch because they’re underpaid and overworked. In the UK, the standard fee for ‘coverage’ is £40 - Working Title recently went to £45 (hurrah) - while the top price to receive is £50 (Film Council and a few select production companies). It was £35 for a long, long time. On average, it takes (me) one hour and a half to read a script and one hour to write the coverage. This may take longer if the script is poor, meaning that the reader will struggle to write a synopsis (which is incredibly annoying, I can tell you). Sometimes, even coming up with a decent logline can take forever.

I once read & reviewed a script for Miramax in 1.5 hours flat (they phoned saying ‘where’s the coverage?’ and I went ‘whaddyamean? you want it today?’), which I think may be a record, but I’m sure there are readers out there that can beat that. Thankfully, the speedy coverage I did was for a very good script (easy & entertaining read) and helped me to hit the deadline. Also, I can type very fast. Anyway, the point is, readers work hard. They really try to concentrate and focus on your script, and when it doesn’t deliver, they get disappointed or worse, bloody annoyed.

There are ways to ease their workload and brighten their day. It’s deceptively easy and simple of course but it’s advice oft-repeated but seldom used. There’s no excuse really because there are books dedicated to how the reader’s mindset works. “500 Ways to Beat The Hollywood Scriptreader” tells you that there are least 500 (500! and they’re all true) annoying habits of wannabe writers. I’m probably a bit more forgiving and sympathetic than the normal reader (especially when I started to develop my own writing) but that doesn’t mean that I don’t bristle with annoyance at the more common and quite frankly, inexcusable mistakes that people make.

Let’s start with basic spelling and grammar. It’s a screenplay so there’s a certain flexibility with regard to syntax and expression. That’s a given. But people can’t spell. I can forgive one typo, just one, after that it’s unacceptable. My particular pet hate is the regular misuse of ‘their, they’re, there’, ‘it’s, its, it is’, ‘your, you’re’. Honest to god, when a script correctly uses ‘its’ instead of ‘it is’, the quality of the screenplay is always that bit better than a script that doesn’t know its it’s from its whatsits. This is being pedantic and anal I know but in every excellent script I read, there isn’t a blemish amongst them. I think I made this point before. They’re clean, polished and professional. A lot of scripts in the spec market are riddled with poor spelling, sloppy and plain description and a consistent misuse of the Queen’s English.

Format. Everyone knows this one surely? Not so. You don’t even need Final Draft for crying out loud, just whack Courier pt 12 on your Word font and you’re away. Once you’ve checked your margins and dialogue tabs of course.

Craft. Where’s the story? Why am I asleep and it’s only page 15? Is there any structure at all? A lot of writers deride structure (see earlier post) but then don’t include any story or causal sense in their own narrative. Why? I’ve already talked about the first ten pages of a script and the more cliché ways to begin your story but I particularly like it when someone opens with an assured sense of TONE and PACE. A friend of mine read one of my scripts once - he’s not a reader or has anything to do with the biz - and he said: “I was on page 60 before I realised it but I was wondering when anything was going to happen”. Which is the best compliment/criticism I've ever received.

Now I’m well aware that being a reader gives you a certain high ground to be dismissive and cynical. If I can dish out the advice, then why aren’t I raking in the bucks with my own work? There’s the rub. It’s not that simple. In my work, I avoid the common mistakes made in screenplays and genuinely try to deliver something that’s fresh, easy to read and entertaining. And I’ve managed to option three scripts, get meetings and pitch for work. But it’s often not enough.

I’ve seen reports of my own scripts which have been scathing and dismissive, just in the same way that my reports on other people’s can be. It’s entirely subjective and it often comes down to your story, what you have to say, that will get a response from a reader/exec. Those who don’t connect to your script can simply apply all the usual screenplay criticisms, usually with some validity (because all scripts need work), and that’s the end of that. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s unfair. So when you’re a new writer and you do manage to write a good script, you can still expect just as much rejection and criticism as when you first typed ‘fade out’. But if you do it professionally, with a clean style and correct format, then you’re one step ahead of thousands of scripts that are already out there.

On a final note: the use of ‘we’, as in ‘we see, we hear’ in the script is another one that divides opinion. Personally, I’m not bothered by its use but, as with anything else, if it’s over used then it becomes a distraction. However, it should be pointed out that everything in your screenplay is what ‘we see’ so there’s an argument that its use is entirely superfluous to your narrative description. More: the use of ‘is’ (as in ‘John is in the car’) and of passive verbs (running, walking, sliding etc). I think these are wholly acceptable but again, don’t overuse.

-Won't be able to post until after the weekend but thanks for stopping by.


Anonymous said...

I think all of us bloggers should form a Reading Committe and circulate around our latest screenplay/writing example...and be brutally honest with each other (I love your blog BTW and that was as honest as I get)

Scott the Reader said...

The best readers are the ones who are brutally honest, though I'm too nice to be really brutal; I tend to just give a ton of suggestions on how to make stuff better (which writers might find brutal or not, depending on how I'm undercutting their expectations).

Still, if someone tells you "I liked it, it was good", they really aren't being any help at all.

Quill, I'll read anything of yours, though if I find any horrid typos I may make fun of them on my blog ;-)

bot37363838 said...

Great post. I'd love to quote a bit of it in my next catalogue.

Danny Stack said...

Catalogue? Blimey. Quote away my good man.

bot37363838 said...

Thanks. I work for a company that produces an IT-based catalogue aimed at the audio/video/independent production market, as well as education. I'd like to use a few of your words, and we'll name-check your blog, too.

Matthew Reynolds said...

Hey Danny,

How does one go about becoming a script reader? I'm living in the States but I'm from the UK.



Danny Stack said...

Hi Matt

Here's what I did:

I read a couple of scripts, for free, for a production company and then from the coverage I did, they became my 'sample reports' that I could submit to other companies.

This is standard practice. If a production company is looking for a new reader, they'll either ask you to do a sample report for free (of one of their own scripts) or they'll expect to see some samples of your own. Often, they'll ask for both (a sample, and a free report).

If you don't have any samples and a production company won't consider you without one, then offer to do one for free. I've had to do a sample report for free for almost every company I've read for, despite my 'reliable reputation'.

If you have no luck getting access to scripts or production companies then most agents are behind with scripts they need to read from potential new writers so you could offer to read a few for free to gather your samples.

After that, it's pot luck and being at the right place, at the right time. I didn't know anyone in the game but I managed to get in with one company, who then recommended me to another, who in turn led me to another etc.

I don't know if this is the same in the States so if any of the American readers out there would care to advise, that would be great.

Good luck!

Scott the Reader said...

What Danny says is spot-on. In the U.S., it helps - a lot - to live in Los Angeles or New York City, because that's where the work is. Particularly L.A.

The day may be coming where things can be sent out over e-mail, but it isn't here yet.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

Hi Danny,

Finally got round to adding you're ;) link to my page. Sorry for the delay.

What do you think of the UK industry? Do you think the UK industry is looking for anything different from the US industry? I ask because all by ideas seem to take place in the US. Should a UK based writer give up if he can't come up with a UK based story?

Questions, questions, questions :)

PS I hope you noticed the smiley next to the 'you're' above. I was trying to add humour and be 'on topic' with the post. I agree with the spelling thing. We can all hit F7 and let the computer handle it for us, but we must remember to reread and check what the result is.

Danny Stack said...

I think the UK is divided into two main areas: the 'director-led' material that won't make much money but will rake in the critics (Mike Leigh etc) and genre-fare that will actually make a buck or two but will never quite match the success of their American counterparts.

I think you bring up a very interesting consideration about whether to go US or UK with your scripts. It seems we're so familiar with US culture and their TV/film output that we feel confident to write stuff based there even when we mightn't have one clue about what it's actually like to live in New York or whatever. I would love to crack the US market but to-date, my scripts have been based in Ireland and the UK, because that's what I know. I wouldn't feel comfortable writing a US-set movie unless I knew enough about the location, culture, tone etc to make my script stand out more. Six Feet Under is a good example of this. Its depiction of L.A. life is humdrum suburban but still quite unique and distinctive.