Should You Pay For It?

structure1

“PLEASE DON’T PAY PEOPLE TO READ YOUR WORK.”This was the subject line of a thread on a popular screenwriting message board. The writer was a frequent contributor to the message board with very strong opinions on a variety of subjects.

The author of the message went on to say that he had never paid to have his material read and critiqued, none of the professional writers the author of this thread knew had ever paid to get their work read, and neither should anyone else. The author ended with a bit of cheerleader pie-in-the-sky along the lines that if someone is persistent and has a good script, they will make it to the top.

The responses to his post were almost unanimous in their assumption that nobody can learn anything useful from anyone when it comes to writing, all quality writing comes from within, we should all just write whatever feels good to us and not worry about the commercial aspects of the business, we should each discover our own way to the craft and not rely on someone else to point us in any direction, and all script consultants are just failed writers.

I debated for a couple of days before deciding to respond to this thread. There was so much wrong with the underlying logic, so much misinformation, and frankly, so little understanding about the business of writing that I didn’t know where to begin.

It seemed to me that what had not been appreciated in this thread was the incredibly small window of opportunity a spec screenplay has to impress a studio, agent or producer. The expression “you only get one chance to make a good first impression” has never been more true than when it’s applied to trying to sell a script.

If you go out to the town with a script and it doesn’t sell, you can’t gather together your notes (if you even get any), rewrite the script, and then go out with it again to the same producers. Most of them will not spend the time to re-read a script they’ve already passed on unless there is some compelling reason to do so (an actor or director attached that means something…some financing that is legitimately in place if it’s an independent movie). A rewrite of the script does not qualify as a compelling reason.

“You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” So what do you do? You get some feedback first, and THEN go out with the script. Now the question is, to whom do you go for this feedback?

You probably know by now that you are the worst person to evaluate your script because you are either too green or too close to the material or both. If you are like most aspiring writers, you give it to some trusted friends to read.

What are their credentials? If they are just as green and unproven as you, their only benefit is distance from the material and that’s not enough to be helpful. How much do they really know about screenwriting? How many scripts have they read? Just because they also write screenplays doesn’t mean that they know what they’re doing. Worse, it doesn’t mean that they know what you’re doing. My eight year old makes interesting abstract pictures. I wouldn’t go to her for an explanation of Picasso’s “blue period.”Just because everyone’s writing doesn’t mean that everyone knows how to write.

I get infuriated by the hypocrisy some writers (aspiring and professional) allow themselves to unknowingly help promulgate. As writers we can’t both complain that not enough people value our contributions to movies while also believing that there is no method to the profession outside of what we can discover on our own. We can’t complain that our currency is devalued while we also believe that everyone can mint equal coins in their basement.

Writing is an art and a craft and, yes, a business. It is a profession for some, a hobby and hoped-for career for others. Some aspects of it are gifted to us. Some can be learned and acquired.

You have to ask yourself where you are in that continuum between “aspiring” and “working?” If you’re not far enough along for your liking, how do you get to where you want to be?

Firstly, you write. And after you write, you make certain that what you’ve written is representative of the scripts found on that area on the continuum you wish to populate. You do that by finding people who know what those scripts look like, both artistically and commercially. These people may or may not be the ones you have easy access to. That’s why many writers hire qualified, experienced script readers instead of friends.

Can your friends advise you about similar films in development? Can your friends advise you about trends in the marketplace? Can they tell you which producers are looking for your kind of material and which have sworn that they’ll never again make another western/horror/musical? Can they tell you how your script compares to others like it? Do they know why the others like it worked and can they identify those elements in yours?

Can they tell you what they liked about your script? Oh…they didn’t like your script? That’s even better. Can they tell you exactly what they didn’t like and why? Best of all, can they tell you how to fix the problems based not on their opinion (your opinion is just as valid as theirs) but on an empirical knowledge about screenwriting? This is what a skilled reader brings to your project.

The people who have said that professionals don’t pay to have their scripts read are wrong. I personally pay at least 15% of everything I earn to have my material read before I go out with it; I have two agents, one in Canada and one in Los Angeles and they split 15%. Part of their job is to read my material and make sure that it’s as good as it can be before we shop it to producers.

Why should I seek out their opinions? I’m a WGA, Emmy, WGC, and BAFTA nominated writer, producer, and director. I’ve been in the WGA for 20 years. I’ve earned my living exclusively as a screenwriter for two decades. Don’t I know how to write by now? The bottom line is that even my scripts only get one chance per producer to make a good impression. And what would I do if I didn’t have agents whose opinions, taste and business acumen I trusted? I’d hire the best script reader I could find and afford to make sure that I didn’t blow that one chance my script has of making a good first impression.

Yes, there are some readers out there whose only qualifications are “failed writer.” Yes, there are some readers out there who are only marginally more qualified than you to critique your script. There are also some very sharp people who can help you. Search for them the way you would search for the best medical specialist to cure a sick child. As with anything in life, you must make your own calculation between value and price.

“Please don’t pay people to read your work.” This is a blanket statement.As with all blanket statements there are times when it is absolutely right. There are also times when following it will guarantee that you labor in obscurity yet longer.

— Jeffrey Alan Schechter

5 Responses to “Should You Pay For It?”

  1. Lars Fischmann April 2, 2009 at 8:56 am #

    Hi Jeff

    My little team and I have purchased Contour on the release date (it fails to install for some reason though). This blog is a tough cookie, but I believe that you are right about being picky with who reads your work, and the tough bit is, that it could mean you’d have to pay for it. I don’t suppose we would have to like it, but it’s probably the nature of the beast. I could use a better comparison to finding a talented reader than the doctor example though, as we have universal free health care in my country, but that’s a bit besides the point, since I see what you mean.

    I think the thing I’m getting at is, how should I go about finding the right reader? How can I tell the good ones from the bad ones? How much is too much and how on Earth am I going to go about it, when I don’t have money to spend? 🙂

    I’m currently in the first rewrite phase of my first script, while writing a first draft of a second, so ultimately, it would be nice to know how to spot adequate readers. 🙂

    • totallywrite April 2, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

      Finding a good reader is tricky, but not impossible. For a fast list, you could post an inquiry on the excellent Done Deal forum. That should generate a slew of responses from other writers.

      Once you get the list, check out their websites and then contact your top 2 or 3 choices. Pick readers who are currently reading for real producers and studios…not someone who used to be a professional reader. You want someone who has their finger on the pulse of what studios are looking at RIGHT NOW.

      From there, ask for references. It’s important to follow up with fellow writers, but make sure you ask the right questions: how detailed was the analysis? Was the reader clear? Was the reader available to talk through any notes? What DIDN’T they like about the analysis? When the script finally went out, did the writer get back comments that jived with the readers notes? You don’t want to hire a reader who gave notes to a writer who followed them, only to discover that agents/producers/studios disagreed with the changes.

      Not having money to spend is a big problem, however it’s the cost of doing business. The important thing is spend the money on the right person. As with many things, even after you do your due diligence you might hire someone whose taste and ideas you don’t agree with. Sadly, that’s ALSO the cost of doing business.

      Please let me know how it goes! As far as Contour not installing, have you contacted Mariner support? They’re really good over there at fixing stuff like this.

      JEFF

  2. Lars Fischmann April 6, 2009 at 4:15 am #

    Hi again Jeff

    Thanks for posting the link. When I wrote that I didn’t have any money to spend, it was slightly exaggerated. It was just to see what one would do, if there wasn’t any cash involved 🙂

    I’ll let you know how it goes. Presently, I need to rewrite everything. The story is there, and so is the major lines, but it’s the detail, how to execute the plots and dialogue, that needs special attention now. Maybe you’d like to read it some time? 🙂

    Yes, we did contact the support, but so far I don’t know if it’s been solved. I’m not the one talking with them (we’re a small team working together, reading, commenting and learning), so I really can’t say for sure if there’s been any breakthrough. I suspect that it was the download that went wrong somehow.

    Kind Regards,
    Lars

  3. Lars Fischmann April 6, 2009 at 4:15 am #

    Hi again Jeff

    Thanks for posting the link. When I wrote that I didn’t have any money to spend, it was slightly exaggerated. It was just to see what one would do, if there wasn’t any cash involved 🙂

    I’ll let you know how it goes. Presently, I need to rewrite everything. The story is there, and so is the major lines, but it’s the detail, how to execute the plots and dialogue, that needs special attention now. Maybe you’d like to read it some time? 🙂

    Yes, we did contact the support, but so far I don’t know if it’s been solved. I’m not the one talking with them (we’re a small team working together, reading, commenting and learning), so I really can’t say for sure if there’s been any breakthrough. I suspect that it was the download that went wrong somehow.

    Kind Regards,
    Lars

Leave a Reply