by David Santo
Join me now as we travel to a bachelor party in a Detroit home that has run off the rails and there are naked people everywhere. I find the sight a bit disturbing; not because of the nudity but to get completely naked you have to take your guns off and there’s loaded weapons lying all over the place. But I know this scene will end up in my current script so I stay put and secretly jot down notes. Later, I transcribe these events (with the obligatory exaggeration) into Final Draft and I’m certain this is the missing penultimate piece of the puzzle for my current low-brow raunch-com.
Flash-forward a few months and my screenplay is complete. My endless rewrites are finally finished. But I’ve been screenwriting for a long time and experience has taught me a few things; I may feel like a great writer but I know my script is a hot mess. I just can’t see it. So I’m faced with sending my intellectually deformed and embarrassingly crude screenplay (or as I like to think of it - pure genius) off to a consultant to get covered.
Now for those of you who don’t know what coverage is - it’s a brief industry report that summarizes your script and you get one of three grades: pass, consider, recommend. It’s done for the benefit of important people with money who don’t have time to read. The report is brutal and you always fail. But as a screenwriter you pay for this information because you want to know how your script is going to be received: good, bad, where the logic gaps are, etc. This way you can fix it prior to submission for the best possible chance of success.
Now the person who reads your script - a professional script reader - will wax poetically about how they long to read a great screenplay if they could just find one. This is a lie.
YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH
A professional reader is convinced the creative cupboards are bare and all the scripts they receive are garbage. It helps them feel superior to the subject matter and the writer so the reward - however meager - is they get to hand down their “tough love” wisdom and guidance. In other words - they get to feel smart. There’s also a huge dis-incentive to give a script high marks. Most movies don’t make money. If you were the reader that recommended a script that just died in development or lost money at the box office you might get fired. It’s easier and safer to fail every script and protect your job.
And readers are a handful when it comes to their personalities, too. Here’s an excerpt from the website of a professional reader who is proud to advertise…
“I’m that guy you need to get past at the agencies and production companies; the first one in the office to read the script. I am the Gatekeeper. But you can call me Zuul, or just ‘The Bitter Script Reader.’ Please NO requests to read your material. All such queries will be ignored and deleted unread. I do NOT have a notes service so please don’t send me an email asking about rates. And in case it wasn’t clear the first time - DO NOT ASK ME TO READ YOUR SCRIPT!”
Now in all fairness readers do get a ton of scripts that are complete crap. Then they get paid worse than crap to put that filth into their dome. Then they must spit out their best interpretation of the miserable dreck they just read and create a cohesive report. And to top it all off they get treated like they’re a nickel whore and everybody they meet has a quarter to spend. So I don’t envy them or their task.
And at this point a few of you might be shaking your head in disagreement at my bleak assessment because you’ve either given positive coverage as a reader or you’ve received positive notes as a writer. Let’s say you’re a writer and you got the all mighty “recommend”. I can explain this discrepancy in five simple words. You write better than me.
But the vast majority of screenplays and screenwriters receive a “pass” and some pretty nasty comments to go with it. So you must find a reader independent of the studio system that can, and will, say something nice if they feel like it, with no other consequence to their actions. And you want to spend the least amount of money possible to get this information because failure is guaranteed.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL
And I quote from their home page…
“Broken Light Entertainment is a screenplay and production consulting service offered by Steve Emmerson. At its heart, it is a service to provide filmmakers and other media professionals with creative guidance in the execution of their stories.”
I recently chitchatted with Steve via email…
Your services are the cheapest I’ve ever seen. How can you read scripts for such a low low price?
You could ask the same of a business who offers discounts through Groupon. We’ve done very well accumulating a healthy volume of business from repeat customers. Writers who appreciate the quality of our service submit new drafts of work they’ve had me read before as well as new work. Our overhead is not as high as other script services, so we can afford to charge less. Most services charge high fees based on the resumes of people featured on their website, and then farm the work out to outside readers, paying those readers about what we’re charging. All of our reading is done internally so what we’re doing is cutting out the middleman. Also, we charge on an a la carte basis. A writer can purchase only analytical notes on their screenplay or only a breakdown of their characters detailing ways they could be stronger. To round things out, we even offer to craft budgets and profit projection for your screenplay that helps when pitching it to a producer.
How do you think your low cost coverage compares to higher cost services?
I would say that my services are superior for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you know exactly who is reading your script. If a producer with a few credits is running a script consultation service, you can bet that your script will be farmed out to a freelance reader, intern, USC film student, or whatever, who will write the analysis for a small fraction of whatever you paid as a fee. And lots of other services only provide lists of production companies for which they have read, without actually providing their names of their readers or their specific backgrounds. With Broken Light, what you see is literally what you get. I do all of the reading, and if I bring in another reader or readers, those individuals’ names and qualifications will be on the website for customers to evaluate.
Broken Light Entertainment operates with the philosophy that any screenplay can be turned into a successful story on screen if sufficiently polished and taken to a high enough level. On this basis, I provide constructive analysis of your script, focused on how I would execute certain elements if it were my name on the title page.
How did you get started as a script reader?
Anyone trying to build a career in script development in Los Angeles ends up reading hundreds if not thousands of scripts for various producers and agents who don’t have the time or inclination to do the reading themselves. In my case, I’ve done this and also read for foreign film distributors in countries such as Germany and Japan. I would evaluate screenplays of projects in various stages of development in terms of how successful these projects would be based on each country’s cultural sensibilities. It becomes an issue when you get into territories like the Middle East where they have censorship boards. Having read scripts for services that charge hundreds of dollars, it seemed like someone should be providing writers with analysis at a price they could afford.
What’s the first thing that tips you off a script is going to be good?
Lots of readers have their own “hook” for what starts a script. For me, it’s a combination of many factors. Is the very first image engaging when visualized? Is there an excess of dialogue that is either overly expository, tries too hard to be clever, or is just unnecessary? Do the descriptions contain more of the writer’s attitude than the actual story?
The thing to remember is that a screenplay is a description of what an audience is seeing and hearing. When a writer gets too far away from that, the story gets lost. A screenplay is a tool to be used and interpreted by a director, actors, a cinematographer, and various other technical professionals to create a visual narrative. So professionalism itself is key.
What’s the first thing that tips you off a script is going to be bad?
I once read a script that was written as an epic poem, two-hundred-and-fifty pages long. Another script opened with a character monologue that ran one-and-a-half pages without any description of the scene or what was going. And another one used began with a letter from the writer to potential producers about all the money this script could make.
Extraneous elements that have little to nothing to do with the story tell the reader and the audience that you have no value for their time. When you’re dealing with a reader who skims—not reads, skims—a dozen or more scripts a day, you have to stick to what is critical.
Do you believe the first 10 pages are the most important?
Absolutely. Those are the pages that establish your main characters and their overall circumstances, even if you don’t get to the first major turning point of the story until page 25 or 30. You want to hook the audience in the theater. From the perspective of the readers, it’s the chance to introduce your quality and style of writing, and determines the amount of concentration they will give to the rest of your script.
Does a writer need to live in Hollywood to succeed?
No. Writers outside of Los Angeles break in every year. And it’s important to realize that the entertainment industry is becoming more and more decentralized all the time. This is the age of email, instant messaging, and Skype. There are social networking sites devoted specifically to the entertainment industry. You can pitch to a producer or agent from across a table at Starbucks or across a few time zones. If your idea is strong and you push it enough, you will inevitably meet the right people face-to-face. Writers who are also lawyers, accountants, and teachers are selling their script or find independent producers more local to them. Writers can shoot their ideas with a camera from Best Buy on a shoestring budget and submit it to a festival where it could win a few awards and get them noticed. With a lot of drive and a little luck, a writer can succeed no matter where they are from.
Your website is clean and easy to navigate. Did you make that yourself?
I conceived the layout of the sight and the overall page design, the order of the pages, and details like that. A friend of mine designed the light-bulb logo. A web designer named Katherine King refined the aesthetics and provided the automated email form in the Contact section. Katherine operates a media design company called Hidden Design (http://www.hiddendesign.com) and I highly recommend her services.
What are 3 things you wish writers would do before they send in their scripts? And you can’t say “use spell check”.
1. Outline your script before and after each draft is written, going scene-by-scene, determining what each scene accomplishes, if and how it could be tighter, and whether it is necessary.
2. Watch or read the scripts of 3-5 of the movies that inspired your concept or are at least similar in theme. Then, ask yourself what makes these movies work, what are their shortcomings, and determine if your script has any of the same elements working for and against it.
3. Take the time to really play the script as a movie in your head. Use your imagination as the forty-foot high screen where you want your story to eventually be projected. And scrutinize it for faults the same way as you do when you’re watching a movie at the cineplex.
LOUIE, I THINK THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
As the curtain closes a few final words from Steve Emmerson…
Read lots and lots of scripts of multiple genres, both of produced movies and spec scripts to hone your understanding of what works and what does not.
Outlining and planning your story before you actually write the script is every bit as important as the writing itself. You wouldn’t drive from New York to Los Angeles without mapping your route, and crafting a screenplay is every bit as perilous a journey.
Organize all of your drafts, outlines, and various notes to make them easy to find as you’re writing each draft. Use features like the Scriptnotes feature in Final Draft that lets you put little digital Post-Its at various points in your script.
Catch up with David Santo || www.ScreenwriterDave.com