BIZ TIP TUESDAY:
SHOULD I PAY FOR NOTES?
Full disclosure - I have read scripts for money. For a long time I read my friend's scripts (for free, of course) and gave them feedback... that's basically where my book came from. But after the book came out, people kept asking me to read their scripts. Total strangers! You know, I have this little side job called writing movies. At the time I was having a couple of scripts hit the screen every year and hardly had time to write all of my specs, let alone read someone else's! But after a couple of years of getting hammered by requests, I caved... and picked a price I thought everyone would say "no" to and leave me alone... but still had to read some scripts. Though some of the scripts were pretty good, many were very bad... they read like first drafts of first scripts. So I raised my price so high that I didn't think anyone could afford me and posted that I did not want to read first scripts or first drafts... And *still* got a whole lot of very bad scripts (and a couple of good ones). I'm afraid I was more of a Script Insultant than Script Consultant - after reading so many bad scripts I was sure I was getting permanent brain damage! Since I never wanted to read scripts for money in the first place, I stopped cold. Hey, more time to write *my* scripts!
So, I will not read your script for money... but there are plenty of other people who will. Should you pay them?
Call me cheap or call me cautious, but the only reason why I would hire someone to give me notes is to find the problems I don't know exist. Which means I would try to do everything possible to get feedback for free before I paid someone. Paying for notes would be the last thing I would do - which doesn't mean I wouldn't ever do it, I would just do all of the other stuff first. What other stuff?
If you are just starting out, and this is your first or second script, I'd suggest you start by swapping scripts with people online. There are some "peer review groups" online like Zoetrope, Trigger Street, Greenlight and Helium, and though you're going to get reviews from people who may not know anything, they will at least be people who have read your script and can tell you where they were confused and where they got bored. I think the key with sites like this is to weed out the people who don't know what they are talking about to find those who do - and then seek those people out with each rewrite or new screenplay.
You may think the bad news with sites like this is that you also have to read their scripts, including the idiot's - but you'd be surprised at how much you can learn from other people's mistakes. Learning to analyze other people's scripts and try to pinpoint the exact problems and explain them will train your brain to see problems in your own script. You can actually learn how to write good scripts from reading bad ones... you just can't read *only* bad scripts, or your head will explode. Just as you are searching for the people who give intelligent feedback on your script, others are looking for the same, and eventually you find the folks who are not idiots and you swap scripts with them either through the system or outside the system by e-mail. You are finding people at your level (or maybe a step ahead of you) and forming an online friendship with them. You swap scripts and if you have some screenwriting epiphany you pass it around so that everyone else learns.
I have "friends" online from all over the world that I have never met, and you probably do, too. You want to find friends who share your interest and passion in screenwriting and help each other out by swapping scripts. Oh, and you can swap produced scripts and contact information and anything else that will eventually lead you to a sale.
Done Deal's website has a section where you can post a couple of pages of your screenplay and have them torn apart - and that may help you with the small stuff (the writing part, rather than the story part). There are so many different elements of screenwriting that are important, you may have the general story stuff under control but your writing is confusing or boring or has some other problem that someone can help you with.
When you get feedback from people who may know only as much as you, you have to skip anything that's "how they would write the script" and focus on places where they got confused or didn't understand what you were doing - the places where your script didn't communicate what was in your mind. But if everyone who reads your script says that the same thing didn't work for them - it doesn't work... fix it. Usually when people have some weird idea of how they would write the story, it may mean that the story just didn't do it for them at some point. So ask yourself *why* and look at that point in your script.
One of the issues with zoetrope (and many other places) is that you often get folks who don't know what they are talking about doing a lot of talking. It's common for a new writer who has a flaw in their work to forgive that same flaw in the work of others... or even see it as brilliance (because that flaw is something they do, and they are brilliant). This creates warped feedback where the good parts of scripts can be seen as bad and the bad parts seen as good. One thing to do is compare your script to the majority of produced scripts (not the exceptions) to see how it holds up.
But never discount a note because you don't like it - those are always the good ones. The ones that tell you you're brilliant are the ones to disregard.
Though I'm not going to read your script, asking people here (on the message boards) probably isn't a bad idea. You can swap electronic copies and give notes by e-mail.
Join a writer's group and swap scripts. The personal, face-to-face version of online script swapping. Here in Los Angeles there are a bunch of small screenwriting groups that meet and swap scripts or read scripts aloud in the group for comments. Many of these groups are looking for new members (new blood) and advertize on screenwriting message boards and Craig's List and bulletin boards at coffee shops. I'm a longtime member of the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles, and they have both smaller groups that meet in different neighborhoods around Los Angeles (and maybe the world - there are members all over, now) and a program called Triads (which is not to be confused with Asian Crime Gangs) where three screenwriters swap scripts with each other and then give each other feedback. The great thing about the Triads is that you get two people's feedback on your script, and it's often more comfortable to tell someone what's wrong with their script if there's another person also giving them feedback - even if it just supplies a referee when the fists start flying.
There are probably screenwriting groups almost everywhere, many Barnes & Noble bookstore and Borders bookstores have groups that meet once a week - and there's usually a screenwriting group. I believe there's one in my podunk hometown. And if there's *not* a screenwriting group in your area? Start one! Post a note somewhere, put an ad on Craig's List, go down to your local bookstore or community college or just walk around with a cardboard sign. Sometimes people are just waiting for someone to start a group - so start one! The purpose of feedback is a different pair of eyes - someone who sees what you may have missed. I can read a script a dozen times and never spot that typo on page 7... someone else sees it right away. Feedback helps you with your next rewrite. Sometimes just hearing your words aloud when you are reading your script to others points out some of the problems.
Eventually you want to build a network of trusted friends. People who share your sensibilities and are on the same road to success as you are, and swap scripts with them. These people will continue to give you feedback on your screenplays even after you are writing professionally. Back in the 70s, this group of screenwriters and directors known as The Movie Brats used to offer feedback on each other's scripts and films. So this guy name Martin Scorsese would screen a rough cut of his film for a bunch of friends including this guy named Steven Spielberg and this guy named Paul Schrader and this guy named Brian DePalma and... I have no idea what kind of feedback they gave each other, but you've probably heard of all of these guys, right?
These days we have a new crew of writer-directors who show each other rough cuts and scripts, including Tarantino and Rodriguez and Roth and Rockwell and several others. The directors seem to be easier to spot than screenwriters, because they often show up in each other's films and talk about getting ideas or feedback from each other. But most professional screenwriters have a couple of trusted friends they let read their scripts before they unleash them into the world.
If your friends don't read, you need to make some new ones. Wherever you live there are other people there who write and maybe even some who write scripts. From online, I know a guy who lives in the wilds of Alaska... and writes scripts. So, even if you live on Jupiter there is probably someone near you who is writing scripts or novels or even making short films. Find those people!
As writers, we tend to be hermits - bad idea. It takes you out of the world we are writing about, away from people (all stories are about people) and deadends just about every career plan you may have. You need to mingle. You need to seek out people with similar interests. You need to assemble your team!
As we climb up the ladder of experience, from folks you swap scripts with at Zoetrope to writing groups to trusted friends, you are (hopefully) getting better notes that will fine tune your screenplay. The more people know about screenwriting, the better the quality of their feedback. Reading your script outloud in a writer's group will point out some performance problems, but a staged reading will suddenly turn your words into... well, kind of a stageplay with bad blocking. Real actors reading your lines will make them sing or drop like a stone, and you can see where things that looked great on paper don't quite work in real life. There are screenwriting groups in Los Angeles that have partnerships with acting groups, to do staged readings of new scripts.
But just like everything else, if you don't have something like this where you are - start it yourself! Find the closest community theater group and ask if they'd like to practice their cold reading skills with your screenplay. Everybody wins. The community theater group gets to practice their acting and you get to hear what your dialogue sounds like coming from the mouths of actors. Plus, you get to network a little, and meet some local actors.
COVERAGE vs. DETAILED NOTES
Let's say you've gone through most of these steps and you'd still like a professional opinion - you want to pay for notes. The first thing I would do is all of the free stuff and make sure your script is "perfect" in your eyes, so that the folks you pay can only find flaws you've missed. You don't want to pay for someone to give you notes on the obvious - one of the problems I had with some of the scripts that I read for money was that many had completely basic problems that should have been corrected before they ever got to me. I'm not just talking about spelling and typos (my spelling is so bad, I can't complain), I'm talking about very very basic formatting issues. People sent me screenplays in stage play format, and some sort of novel/screenplay hybrid format. It was as if they had never even seen a screenplay before. That meant instead of my giving notes on story and character, most of my notes were basic screenwriting instruction. What a waste of my time and their money!
Do you know the old joke about the guy whose car breaks down, so he calls a tow truck, and when he finds out the tow truck charges an outrageous amount per mile, he puts the brakes on in order to get his money's worth...
That's the logic behind paying for notes when your script isn't absolutely the greatest it can be. You end up paying a lot of money to get the same exact feedback you'd get at someplace like Zoetrope for free. That's why you want to start with all of the free stuff first, and do as many rewrites as you can so that the consultant is giving you fine tuning notes rather than basic stuff.
There are two types of feedback you can pay for - coverage and detailed notes (consulting). Coverage is what a studio reader does - usually a couple of pages of synopsis and a couple of pages of analysis, and the "box scores" that rate some basic aspects of your screenplay. You may think the synopsis part is a waste of time, but that's often what points out what you have written vs. what you *think* you have written. Problems with the basic story can often be found in the synopsis - if the reader thought you were going for one thing when you were really going for something else. Or if they completely misunderstand some aspect of your story. Or if they have no idea who your lead character is or what the genre is... If your story isn't clear enough to the reader that they can't figure out what it's about, you need to clarify things. The analysis part may be brief, but it will give you all of the problems and weaknesses of your script.
The good thing about coverage is that you are probably getting it from the same reader who would cover your script for a producer or studio. These folks do coverage for screenwriters on the side, so it's like insider info - seeing what the producer or studio would think of your screenplay. Coverage is also fairly inexpensive, since most of these folks make their living reading scripts for producers and this is just a sideline. Though I have never used Scott The Reader's notes service, I know him and he's a good guy (who would probably be the guy covering your script if you sent it to any of a number of mini-majors and high end producers. Recently on Done Deal a bunch of people have had good things to say about Screenplay Mechanic, another reader who moonlights
a little doing coverage for screenwriters. Both Scott and The Mechanic give more notes to writers than simple coverage, because they are writers themselves and want to help you improve your work. There are many more, and part of the process is to find the one who gives you the most value for the money and thinks the way you do.
Consulting can be damned expensive. Creative Screenwriting does a (flawed) market test of consultants every so often, and what amazes me is how much some of these people charge! I thought I was going to scare away business when I charged $300 - there are folks who charge *thousands* of dollars to give you notes. Yikes! No wonder when I raised my price to $500, it still didn't stop people from sending me scripts. Why? Because there are guys out there charging $5,000 to read your script! I was recently at an event where one of the speakers charges $2,500 to read your script... and I had never heard of her. Linda Seger charges a couple of thousand (or more) and Creative Screenwriting's favorite was Robert Flaxman who doesn't tell you what he charges on his website, so my guess it's over $1,000. I don't know what my friend John Hill who QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER charges, and I don't know what kind of service he gives, but at least he's got some experience writing movies that you have heard of.
Though you may think having credits on a real film isn't a requirement for giving good notes, there's a big difference between what is "theoretically correct" and what a real producer or real studio wants and needs. You may get great notes on how to make your script "artistically good" but get nothing that addresses the commercial and practical production aspects of your script that will get it bounced by the first producer who reads it.
And, let me add: sometimes consultants are complete industry outsiders who have no idea what they are doing. I knew a completely failed screenwriter - 20 years trying to break in and never even got a nibble on a script - who was supporting himself as a script consultant. He had a nice Beverly Hills PO Box address and a really crappy apartment in North Hollywood, and charged $750 a script. Here's the problem - this guy had certain things that he thought made a script great... and not a single other person within the 30 mile production zone agreed with him. So, he would give people in Ohio notes that were just plain wrong. Notes that would turn a saleable script into a completely unsaleable script. All of the flaws that prevented his scripts from ever selling he passed on to you. This is the kind of guy who gives script consultants a bad name.
There are plenty of bad consultants out there and plenty who really are just in it for the money... and some good consultants. I'd take a look at that Creative Screenwriting article before I sent anyone money (and the flaw with the Creative Screenwriting article was that the script they sent out was not a "control" script where they knew what was right and wrong with it so that they could compare, it was just the article writer's script - so you had to go by how they felt about the feedback on their script - not exactly unbiased and objective!) Don't be afraid to ask the consultant for referals - people who have used their service before that you can contact. By the way, this is also why it is important to have trusted friends or belong to a screenwriting group - those people can tell you about *their* experiences with specific consultants.
I believe there is value in getting detailed notes on your script. My notes were always in two parts - overall notes about story and structure and characters and the things that happened over the entire screenplay, and line-by-line notes about specific dialogue or action. Most of the scripts I read had major story and structure problems that some guy on Zoetrope probably could have spotted. It was a waste of my time and their money to point out these problems and explain them. This is why I think paying for notes should be the last thing you do. And if you can find some trusted friends to give you the detailed notes, even better.
Notes are to help you rewrite the script. If a consultant or reader says you have written the greatest script they've ever read, I don't think that matters much to the producer or agent reading the query letter. They still want to read the script themselves - and only if it has a compelling, interesting and involving story idea. So great coverage isn't going to open all kinds of doors for you (though some services like Script Shark will try to find an interested producer if they really think your script is great). The only person who will care about these notes is you - so use them wisely and rewrite your script until it sparkles.
DO IT YOURSELF
And my final advice: read your five favorite screenplays (not scripts from your five favorite movies, I'm talking about the scripts you have read that you really love) - then read your script. If your script reads like the other five, you're ready to go... If it doesn't - what's the difference? That's what you need to work on.
Biggest problems with pre-pro scripts I've read: Story wanders all over the place and/or is usually dull. So make sure *every scene* in your script is telling the story and leading to the end that you know is there (but will come as unexpected to the audience). And make sure you have a story that is film material - something that hundreds of millions of people will want to pay to see.
I say - try to find the free way before you pay anything.
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Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling application specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays. Its ease-of-use and time-saving features have attracted writers for almost two decades positioning Final Draft as the Professional Screenwriters Choice. Final Draft power users include Academy, Emmy and BAFTA award winning writers like Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and more.
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