This is the first in a series of blog entries on cleverly creating cinema—starting with the screenplay.
Is This Script Worth Filming?
Yeah yeah, your script is brilliant. But is it? If you wrote it, it could be pure grade-A manure and you would still think it's epic. You're too invested. Good scripts are fairly rare, even among the ones handled by agents. In fact, during the boom years from the early 1990s until 2007, fewer than 200 spec scripts were bought each year. Consider that number in relation to the fact that each year hundreds of thousands of scripts are written.
In 2009, only 67 spec scripts were bought. That dropped to 55 the following year. The studios had bought too many scripts to develop during the boom years, and they've been developing in house ideas, as well as contracting with major property houses like Marvel and DC Comics. Let's be realistic: The likelihood of you selling a script to a studio for big bucks and retaining any kind of participation is about as likely as likely as Harvey Weinstein asking me to friend him on Facebook. While that could happen, it's not going to.
So how do you recognize a good script? Learn from the experts. Ron Howard is a guy who really knows a good story, and he testified to the value of concepts advanced by script expert Linda Seger in her Making a Good Script Great book and seminar series. You can take more advice from award-winning screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn, who taught me screenwriting. He said, “Don't even think about getting coverage from family or friends. They will either be overly critical or say what they think you want to hear. In either case, they don't know what they're talking about.” He also said: “Writing is rewriting. No, it's much worse than that—it's killing your babies.” Some of the best scenes you will ever write may have to be discarded because they don't serve the script as a whole.
The good news is that the trend in script purchases has been slowly reversing over the last three years. But it's still a tough road. For example, Jason Scoggins reports that 132 Scripts sold in 2012. That's not just studio deals, but every script known to have been sold to anybody. Drama was out of style at only about 8% of sales. Buyers are looking for wow factor, which explains why 27% of sales were thrillers, 22% action-adventure, and 21% allegedly comedies. Add to that another 11% for the sci-fi fans and 10% for the horror genre. If you're interested in more of that kind of info, you can go deeper with this analysis by writer-producer Erik Bork.
Okay, then. Why are so many bad movies made? Because many studio executives with greenlight authority wouldn't know a great script if it bit them in the ass. Not all of them, now, but a few. They tend to get caught up in the hype surrounding a given script. Someone famous for buying crap was Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBCU. He allegedly bought, and canceled, more awful shows than possibly anyone in the history of TV, and drove NBC to the bottom of the charts in the process. I think he has no feel for quality and was seduced by trendy hype from friends who had certain conflicts of interest. But that is another story. Hype is not your thing.
Now, guys like Harvey Weinstein? They know a good script when they see it. Suffice it to say that you want to find out if the studios would be interested in making your movie. The following suggestion will serve you well in several ways…first to see if it's good enough for the big boys to consider and is it good enough for you to consider.
Still from Barton Fink
Why Do You Not Want Any Studio to Make Your Movie?
I will be brief. Unless you are well established, or the hot writer of the moment, you are not likely to get a studio deal that you will be happy with. Sure, your script may be filmed. But not, most likely, until it has been ripped apart and put back together by committee. You won't recognize it. That's just the reality. You are unlikely to have any control whatsoever, because you will have signed over all rights. And, usually, the studio will not want you around while they kill your baby. If you sold your script for a dollar and a promise of back-end participation, you are unlikely to see anything from the deal due to what's widely thought to be creative bookkeeping on the part of the studios.
These are good reasons for you to make your own film. Nobody else will give it the attention and love that you will. But only do it if you have the talent for it. Otherwise, you could end up broke and depressed and disillusioned. We do not want that.
Seek Professional Help
To find out if your script is worth making as a big-budget film, Start by getting coverage. What is coverage? It's having your script read by professionals who know what a good script is. They recognize a viable story, well-told, and they are in a position to recommend the script to industry professionals. I spent a year providing script coverage in Beverly Hills for a literary agent who handled scripts as well as books. I read too many scripts.
It was a difficult job because so many scripts were so crappy. I felt like an intestinal polyp mired in … well, you get the picture. We have a three-word code in the business: pass, consider, recommend. Out of my first 100 scripts, I stamped pass on 92 of them. That's not because I'm a hard-ass, but because they were just awful. I stamped consider on six and recommend on only two. Out of 100. I was paid $125.00 each and it was not worth it!
Be prepared to be disappointed, but you should get professional coverage, and that means getting your script read by someone who knows good scripts. Here are a few places that are very reasonably priced—cheaper than I am, anyway—and yet these readers are pros, having read for top agents and studios. In any case, you'll get an honest, objective opinion from a person who is aware of the current scene and has no axes to grind with you. Here are a few places for you to check out. If you can afford it, check more than one place, as each piece of coverage is but one professional's opinion:
- If you're looking for very reasonable pricing (under $100), the coverage service from www.screenplaycoverage.com is worth a look. It's an inexpensive starting place.
- More comprehensive service is a little more expensive, but offers many services such as story analysis, premium coverage with more than one reader's opinions, and a whole development bundle for those of you with a story idea and no clue how to write the script. They will run you through a process similar to that used in script development at the studios. Pricing for different types of coverage ranges from $100 on the low end to $800 for full coverage from multiple readers. This is a professional bunch working with script-tracking site The Tracking Board, called Launch Pad.
- Here is a more expensive (and, I suspect, more thorough) script coverage option from a very experienced pro, Lynne Pembroke. This will not be an anonymous read, but you'll get Lynne's honest opinion; someone with a serious reputation. She offers a number of services but I recommend her Screenplay Rewrite Analysis Package, which starts at $185 for a 120-page script. http://coverscript.com/
- Use your research skills and Google to see if there are better options out there for you.
Learn to Recognize Good Writing
Ultimately you have to become your own expert, and I'm going to recommend two YouTube resources to teach yourself what to look for. One is legendary and the other is up-and-coming. There will be more on this in my post on directing. First, Nina Foch is the authority on how to direct actors, but more than that, she talks about what an actor needs from the script to give a great performance. Second is Darious J. Britt. I know you never heard of him, and worse, he's a young kid. But this is no ordinary kid. Watch his short piece on “How to Avoid Overacting,” below. Subscribe to his channel.
Make It Yourself
Let's assume your writing is good enough to earn a “consider” stamp or better. I still recommend that you don't go through the heartache of submitting to the studios unless that is your dream.
The bottom line? Don't start making your movie until you know you have a worthy property. Why? Because making a movie is like having a baby—if it were an elephant.
This series of blogs is about becoming a clever filmmaker. Of course you already think you are a clever film maker, or you wouldn't be reading this. Right? Obviously, you've read the best-regarded books out there on filmmaking. I expect that as a minimum.
Okay. I want to help you become even more clever. Since we've already talked about financing some time ago (here and here), I'll have upcoming blogs on really clever ways to cast your film with outstanding talent, and then tips on directing actors. It's not as easy as you might expect. Perhaps the most important we'll look into clever ways to get your film distributed. I mean we're all crazy dreamers being in this business in the first place, let's make the best of it.
Best till next blog where we will look at casting your film…cleverly.