Top Readers Answer Common Questions

Jun 6, 2014 by

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We assembled a trio of top industry story analysts to answer some frequent questions about screenwriting and screenplay coverage.

Our panel includes:

Bart Gold is a sold WGA screenwriter who has read thousands of screenplays for numerous studios and producers including Dreamworks, New Line, Brett Ratner and Jerry Bruckheimer.  In addition to selling a feature spec to Universal, Bart has also had six original script options.

Andrew Hilton, also known as “The Screenplay Mechanic”, has read over 7,000 screenplays in his work as a story analyst at New Regency and as a story editor for a producer at Paramount.  Andrew has also worked in development and as a writer and producer on various projects.

Rob Ripley has written over 2,000 coverage reports working for Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros and Cruise/Wagner.  He has also been a paid screenwriter and taught screenwriting and story analysis at numerous educational institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University.

 

Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes):  What are the most common problems you see in screenplays?

Bart Gold (Ext. Hollywood – Day):  One of the most common, most crippling problems in specs is a failure to earn the audience’s investment.  Just because you capitalize TOM’s name on page 1 doesn’t mean anyone’s rooting for him yet.  A Save the Cat moment is needed at a minimum, but it’s best if that moment that first wins us over is a engineered to highlight the unique-to-the-movie way that the lead character confronts problems.

Structure is a biggie too.  Excellent writing without a structured story doesn’t carry.

Andrew Hilton (The Screenplay Mechanic):  If I had to pick the Top 3 I see most often… Overwriting the narrative, an unappealing protagonist, and a subject matter which won’t draw an audience.

Many new writers tend to overwrite their material.  They’ll use twenty words in a paragraph, when ten would easily suffice.  Brevity is a crucial skill for screenwriters.  Give the reader the most knowledge, while taking away the least of their time.

A protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but it’s absolutely vital for the hero (or anti-hero) to be interesting.  If the reader or filmgoer cannot become emotionally-invested in the main character, the story isn’t likely to work.

Finally, too many writers tackle stories which just aren’t commercial or they merely recycle what we’ve already seen.  It’s important to remember that before an audience even sees the film, an investor will have to sink millions into the production.  That investor is going to want their money back, so the project must motivate potential filmgoers to get off their couch and spend $10 on a movie ticket.  Too often, stories are too niche, too bizarre, too derivative, or they tackle stories (e.g. a crime drama) which can be consumed on TV every night for free.

Rob Ripley (The Third Act):  In order of occurrence:

1. Protagonist/plot congruency

2. Faulty / non-existent logic

3. Overwriting (action/description, story events, dialog, character, etc.)

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Kevin:  It’s said that the first ten pages of a script are incredibly important.  How important are the first ten pages of a screenplay, really?

Bart:  A solid first ten is vital in the same way the first ten minutes of a date are vital.  You know that fast whether you’re interested or not.

Imagine being the head of a film production company that has made a billion dollars in box office.  Everyone in town, your acquaintances, your last film’s director, your last film’s star and your mother’s hairstylist’s kid wants to sell you a screenplay.  Scripts come at you at the pace of candies on a factory conveyor belt.  It’s presumptuous to think that a busy exec is going to tough it out to the end of a script that doesn’t quickly interest her.

Andrew:  Crucial, simply because too few people in the industry like to read, or have the time to read.  Many execs and producers will go home from the office on Friday with a huge stack of screenplays to wade through over the weekend (the infamous “Weekend Read”).  Chances are, they’re hoping the first ten pages are flawed or they simply don’t like them, so they can dismiss that script and move onto the next one.  Most readers with experience (whether a producer or an actual reader) can also tell in the first couple of pages whether a writer has talent.  Sadly, I know many who make up their minds about the writer (not necessarily the story) on page one.

Think about how long you give a TV show you’re watching for the first time.  If it hasn’t grabbed you before the first commercial break, you’ll probably change the channel.  The same applies when that story is still on paper.

Rob:  Every  page is incredibly important. It does a writer no good to have an amazing first ten pages and the rest of it be less so. Every page needs to be clean, with loads of white space, really move things ahead, reveal compelling character and do so by giving us the absolute minimum to create the movie in our mind. Apply those principles and readers will want to keep reading.

Kevin:  Do you check to see how long a script is, prior to reading?  If so, how does script length affect your analysis?

Bart:  When I was a film company reader, a last-page number-check was pretty much standard.  The conventional wisdom was that nobody reads over 120 pages.  So if the script was 128-  it was a good bet the reader would find 8 pages to skip or skim.  Write lean and most scripts don’t need to be over 110.

Andrew:  Every time.  In the old days, before we all had iPads, I could tell how long a screenplay was just by feel.  Depending on the genre, the page count can indicate whether the author has overwritten or underwritten the story.  For example, a comedy or a children’s film should never really span 120+ pages.  That would indicate the author needs to streamline and tighten up their narrative.  Likewise, a political thriller which runs 90 pages is most likely underdeveloped.  Of course, there are always exceptions, but page count can be a reliable indicator of the writer’s structural and pacing skills.

Most recipients of a script will also do a quick “white-count.”  Simply put, they’ll flip through the pages to determine the ratio of black text to white paper.  Screenplays which are filled with dense text are going to take longer to read and might be overwritten.  Again, genre comes into play.  If it’s a comedy, you want to see lots of white paper because much of the humor will arise from the dialogue, not from bulky paragraphs of description.

Let me stress, being aware of the script length before reading the content rarely impacts the final analysis.  More often than not, it will merely dictate how big of a coffee I order before reading it.  A 90 page comedy might only take an hour to read, whereas a 125 page fantasy epic could demand two+ hours of my time (and a coffee refill).

Rob:  Yes I do and no it doesn’t. That said, long scripts do make me sigh a little and hope against hope it will defy the odds and be amazing. Sadly though, there’s a strong correlation between the length of a script over 110 pages being in direct proportion to it not working. This is not anecdotal, I have data to back up the claim.

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Kevin:  How important are character names in a screenplay?  If a script has characters with particularly memorable names, or conversely with names that are too similar or confusing, how does that affect the reading of it?

Bart:  Obviously you want to avoid confusion within the script itself.  So two totally different and unrelated bit characters named Sue and Susan is a needless reader-confusing trap.  That’s pretty common advice.  Memorable names are handy.  Too many common names can give a script a weird been-there-done-that vibe.  Unfortunately, most readers are not just reading your script that day.  If the reader is reading a ton of scripts, all the Mikes might blur together.

Imagine that you get three scripts in a day.  Script A: Mike is a groom out to have a last hurrah with best buddies Tom and Mark but the bride’s mob father Mick is trying to stop the fun.  Script B:  Mick and Tom are helicopter pilots out to rescue scientist Mike from a volcano and the heavy is Mark, the idiot trying to set off volcanoes for the precious gems inside.   Script C: Mark is a bitter doctor whose wife Mike (Short for Michaela) is fighting him for custody of Mick the dog.  Both their lawyers are named Tom because there’s a joke on page 15 that all lawyers are dicks named Tom.  Now go write those three synopses before the boss gets back from lunch at that diner from HEAT.

Conversely…  for me it’s also distracting when the names are so ridiculous they don’t feel real.  Sometimes in action scripts you see guys with born-badass names like Tricker, Grind, Killshot or Bricker Steel.  I would be careful to ground it in reality.  When some ordinary cab driver just happens to be the guy that picks up the wrong fare and has to race to save the city, that’s getting on the silly side.  Sillier still if he just happens to be named Lightning Smacktower.

Andrew:  When most people read, they hear themselves reading aloud in their mind.  This is called subvocalization.  For that reason, you should use character names which are easy to pronounce and easily spelled.  Otherwise, you risk the reader mentally stumbling over the name each and every time it appears.  Don’t get too exotic with the spelling either, e.g. why have silent letters in a character name?

The most common mistake I see in terms of character names is using similar-sounding or similarly-spelled names in the same story.  I read a script recently in which 6 or 7 character names began with the same letter.  That unnecessarily risks confusing the reader.

Rob:  Memorable names aren’t a boon and most feel like they’re trying too hard to be interesting or unique (remember, character’s actions are what make them memorable). But similar or confusing names will kill a script immediately and asking a reader to follow a script with Sarah, Sallie and Sammie isn’t doing you any favors.

Kevin:  While many screenwriters think that their script is truly amazing, what percentage of screenplays would you actually say you give a “recommend” to and what are some of the things that make them stand out?

Bart:  Well the percentages of decent scripts will vary depending on what sources a company accepts them from.   A film company reader is going to be following the bosses’ mandate on grading.  Consider might be between 5 and 10% depending on the producer.  An outright recommend?  That has to be under 1%.  I can only think of 4 times I ranked a script that high within my producers’ parameters.

Andrew:  These days, I read an average of 300 scripts per year.  My version of “Recommend” is a “Full Consider” (next level down is a “Consider With Reservations”).  I probably award 1-3 screenplays per year with that highest grade.  To get a Full Consider from me, it has to be a genuinely well-written script which I firmly believe has commercial potential.  In such instances, I almost always try and help the writer get exposure with the script by passing it onto managers or producers that I know.

Rob:  A clear and controlled point of view, protagonist / plot congruency, simple structure and economy are what make great scripts stand out. About 5% of what I read have that combination.

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Kevin:  Are there any types of stories or genres that you’d suggest writers to avoid if possible and if so, why?

Bart:  There’s some stories that recur pretty constantly.  There was an onslaught of ‘old band gets back together’ scripts for a while.  Probably the most common thing you see over and over regardless of year is the old “I just got out of college and moved to LA and the big city sure is cruel” saga.

Another tip, given by a CE friend, is ‘by the time you can detect a trend it’s too late to capitalize on it.’

Andrew:  I try to avoid discouraging anyone from telling the story they want to tell.  Sometimes a writer just needs to get that particular story out of their head.  In my own experience, I once had an agent dissuade me from writing a specific story as my next spec and he pushed me towards writing something else.  A year later, I finally sat down and wrote the script I wanted to write and it quickly became the most popular script I’ve written.  It’s bounced from producer to producer, director to director, and even landed me a first-class trip to Germany courtesy of BMW.  But had I listened to that agent, I would never have written it.  In short, you have to follow your gut and write stories that ignite your passion and your love of the craft.

Now, all that said, most aspiring writers are setting up obstacles for themselves if they try to break into the business with big-budget stories.  I read too many sci-fi epics which would cost $200m and the odds of gaining traction with that kind of script are slim to none.  So instead of trying to write the next PACIFIC RIM or ENDER’S GAME, why not try and impress the industry with something like SHALLOW GRAVE, THE RAID, or THE WAY, WAY BACK?  If you write a film that would cost $2m to make, there might be 200 producers who could potentially produce it.  If you write a tent-pole that will cost $100m+, there are only a handful of producers who might be able to manage a project of that scale.  Worse, they will be extremely reluctant to take that level of financial risk on a new writer.

Keep your story’s commercial potential in mind too.  Coming-of-age stories rarely make money at the box-office, whereas horror films are more reliable.  For better or worse, foreign sales drive the market these days so your story has to not only fare well domestically, but also overseas.  While writers shouldn’t focus too much on the business side, they should certainly keep it in mind and be pragmatic about how the industry works.  It’s important to accept that the film industry is 50/50 art and business.  Alas, it’s probably closer to 30/70.  Awareness and acceptance of that reality will help place you ahead of the curve.

Rob:  Just write your passion. But know what the market’s looking for and what it’s burnt out on. A really amazing script that won’t sell can still be a fantastic writing sample (and let’s be honest, that road is where most of our jobs exist).

Kevin:  What are your favorite screenwriting resources?

Bart:  Humans.  A variety of opinions is always handy.  More often than not any group of experienced readers will agree on major story issues.

Andrew:  I always stress to writers that the best screenwriting education they can get will come from reading screenplays.  Writers should devour as many scripts as they can get their hands on, from every genre and every talent level.  Don’t just go out and read the latest Charlie Kauffman or Quentin Tarantino spec.  Read everything, good and bad.  My “expertise” is the result of reading 7000 scripts.  No book, seminar, or podcast can deliver that kind of education.

Rob:  Good In a Room, John Logan, the Scrappy Screenwriter, Dan Calvisi’s book have all been incredibly informative and helpful. But mostly, it’s just watching lots and lots of movies and television shows.

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Kevin:  If a feature film was going to be made based on a mascot/character from a breakfast cereal box, which one would you pick to be the protagonist and why?

Bart:  Heh.  You know when I was in high school I used to write, cartoon and publish a magazine called Cereal Killer which centered around the lampooning of merchandizing characters, pre-Family Guy.  I was pretty rough on that Keebler elf.  So this is actually a tall order for me in the shadow of past work.

To develop an actual movie…  for my personal taste it would have to be ironic somehow.  Like there was an issue of the superhero comic Astro City that dealt with a washed up Tony The Tiger type who’d been yanked out of ‘the cartoon world’ and brought to life, and was fed up shilling for crappy products.   Alas, that kind of story is probably not going to be what Kellogg’s wants to do with their property.

In a way, this is kind of a big question.  In theory, a writer should be able to work with anything when opportunity knocks.  If they come at you to write a movie about Mr. Clean you should at least be able to pitch something with stakes, the same way you would if they came to you to about Wonder Woman.  The trick is always finding feature-worthy stakes.

It might be fun to sort out what ever happened to the Super Sugar Crisp Bear.  That bear seemed like he was probably out getting high a lot in his off hours.

Andrew:  This is a no-brainer.  Count Chocula.  I’ve always enjoyed vampire stories (even if they are somewhat fatigued these days) and I’m an incurable chocoholic.  So maybe an animated kids’ film about a young vampire who is shunned by his family because he’s addicted to chocolate instead of blood…

Rob:  Is this a trick question?  I would say ‘Freakies’  (The cereal entered the marketplace in 1972 and was taken off the shelves in 1976. A Cocoa version called “Cocoa Freakies” was available in 1973 and a fruit version titled “Fruity Freakies” was available in 1975-1976.)

The Freakies were made up of seven creatures named Hamhose, Gargle, Cowmumble, Grumble, Goody-Goody, Snorkeldorf and the leader, BossMoss.

I’d pick them because A) Those names are badass; and B) I love a great ensemble action/adventure.

 

For more info on Bart, Andrew and Rob’s screenplay coverage services, check out the Script Coverage Services info page.

*NOTE:  Scripts & Scribes is not affiliated with Ext. Hollywood – Day, the Screenplay Mechanic or Third Act Screenplays.  S&S does not offer any paid screenplay coverage or script consulting services.*

Kevin

Kevin

I invented the Frappucino. My dream is to visit Dollywood. Sometimes I host a podcast on writing @ScriptsScribes. Only one of those things is true.
Kevin

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