Monday, June 23, 2008

Who Are You Gonna Call?

Whether you are a producer, writer or director, sooner or later your project needs the advice of an expert. Movies cost millions. Their development is much like the setup of a million-dollar business. So think of the expert as a business coach. Major decisions will indirectly impact on your business' bottom line. Any advice leading to those decisions will in some way or other contribute to the success or failure of your project, your slate, your career.

It all starts with that first draft.

You give it to a friend, because your friend likes you enough to sacrifice a couple of hours and help your future Hollywood career.

But unless that friend is a pro, how can you expect expert advise? Your friend may have never read a single screenplay, produced or unproduced.

McKee says: don't ask your friends to read your script, but to listen to your story summary, told over a coffee. Ten minutes, no more.

So how is that going to help you?

I'm not sure your friend will distinguish a wonderfully told screen story with engaging characters from something that is wildly imaginitive but plain wrong for the screen.

If your friend doesn't work in a creative position in the industry, will you get reliable career advise? I think not.

Honest advise you may get from a producer or an agent, even an experienced fellow writer. These people's businesses rely on stories that sell. You might ask a director or actor for their opinion, but - with all due respect - it will be less reliable.

If no working professional sacrifices their time to further your aspirations, don't despair. There is an army of script editors, screenplay consultants, story analysts etc. out there to help you.

Whether you like it or not, you are going to pay them.


If you are a first-time writer, you will need input on more than one draft and over the course of many months until your script is ready to go into the world and compete with already established writers.

If you are serious about breaking in and earning a buck, think hard about who you are giving your money to. Good advice can be costly.

But cheap advice can be far more costly.

Too many screenwriters make life-changing decisions based on advice given by their friends, peers or so-called experts. Because people are writers themselves or have web sites advertising their services, they are not necessarily qualified to decide over your future.

The type of collaboration you are entering into is so crucially important, you really need to do your research. Here are a number of questions to consider before you make a decision. And when I speak of (script) editor, I mean 'story or script consultant' in the broader sense.

1. What is the editor's vision on screenwriting?

If you believe real characters don't change and your consultant insists that you must have a character transformation, you are effectively on a different wave length. Check out the consultants' web sites. Does it show their vision on story and script development? Or is it full of marketing speak, flowery promises about bringing out your voice, adding to the local culture etc.? Ultimately you want to become a successful writer, earn money and build a career.

2. What is the editor's vision on script development?

Is it a 'snapshot person'? An experienced reader, specialised merely in providing script notes and assessments? Or is the focus on getting your script from its current draft to something that can be marketed or produced? Does the consultant's approach dig to the core of the story or does it only fiddle with format and style on the surface?

3. What is the script editor's taste for movies?

If yours is an edgy sci-fi with elements of raw graphic violence, your money will be wasted on the king of romantic comedy. Can you find a set of favourite movies you both know? Does the consultant have taste that is broad enough for a true professional?

4. Does the editor differentiate between story and script?

Story deals with plot, which is how most audiences will refer to your film. Script deals with the detailed expression of story on the scene level. Writing script notes takes time but is relatively simple (I'll give you a whole list of tips & tricks for free). When you choose your consultant, be aware of these two areas of expertise.

5. Does the script editor speak your language?

If you talk about story like Syd Field, in Plot Point One and Plot Point Two, things may get complicated when your consultant prefers Crossing the First and Second Threshold. Conversely, if your editor doesn't believe in The Hero's Journey, you have a good reason for concern . A good consultant knows most if not all story theories and establish a terminology that fits your taste and beliefs.

6. Has the script editor published anything?

Does the web site give you more than fees and contact details? Is there a blog? Does it express the type of advice you expect? Are the views expressed on the blog or web site original? Can you find an insight you haven't found anywhere else before, which makes total sense? Or does it all read like a collection of cut-and-paste jobs from Robert McKee or - worse - other web sites?

7. Does the script editor share your passion?

If they care about the craft, it will transpire through their writing. If they are passionate, they will want you to succeed. If they love movies, they will know examples from both mainstream and specialty cinema. If they want you to succeed, they will quote from successful movies and reference the principles that made those movies great.

8. Is the script editor predominantly a writer?

Writers may be able to find creative solutions. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a consultant who is primarily an artist, the worldview of that writer may transpire through the advice. Writers by definition try to tell their own story. And some have trouble suppressing the artist inside in order to put the client before the art. Better to work with someone who has a broader understanding of the whole industry.

9. Do credits and testimonials give you confidence?

Do testimonials give evidence of a sharp, constructive and creative insight? Or just a 'nice person'? In fairness, editors can't (always) be blamed for the failure of films. But if you find a list of failed films, the message may not be the right one. If you want to write for the cinema and credits are biased towards television, you may want to look further.

10. Does the editor offer the service you require?

If you are working on an early draft, you need feedback on the story. It would be a waste of your money (and everybody's time) to get detailed script notes on style, formatting, dialogue etc. Different stages call for different types of advice. Does the consultant offer you these options? Or are all options skewed towards 'script notes'?


Recently I have heard three stories first-hand from writers who had been given poor advice by 'senior American development people', 'produced writers', 'published screenwriting teachers' etc.

One writer believed she got the deal of the century when a former studio executive offered a Reader's Report for less than $150. When the report arrived, the excitement faded rapidly: a synopsis, a list of subjective character comments and 'apart from that, the story works fine.'

An other writer paid handsomely for a series of consultations with a respected author of screenwriting books. Although he ended up with a formally impressive draft, the writer soon realised the editor had not addressed an obvious, major structural weakness in the screenplay (as an experienced industry friend later revealed after a free reading of the script).

If someone works from LA, it doesn't mean they will give you better results. An emerging writer paid an established American script consultant top rates for several months. The script didn't even get shortlisted in a program for beginning screenwriters (in which two of the scripts I worked on received a big wad of development cash).


The first three readers brave enough to have (parts of) their synopsis published, I will offer a free Story Diagnosis. If you believe your synopsis is ready-to-go, I'll focus on the document's style and selling power.

Same for your script: send me the first fifteen pages of your screenplay. If you allow me to publish excerpts online, I will give you detailed scene feedback.

Please don't send any documents yet. Just send me an email to express interest and I'll get in touch about the next step.

Now, read the really small print below.


Isn't there a risk of my story being stolen?

Yes, there is.

It happens rarely but you can't eliminate the risk. That is why you need to register your screenplay first. I prefer you send me a synopsis of a draft you have already written and registered. Ideas cannot be protected. Screenplays can.

Alternatively, you can always send me something you had abandoned because it didn't work and you want to know why it didn't. In this case it's more about the learning experience than about getting that specific project up.

1 comment:

Susan Plunkett said...

Hi..interesting topic and great offer you have out there!

Re your point 1. I have a slightly different reaction to that issue. If I believe that a character does not change and the consultant is telling me about character arc and giving me example after example of films that attest to that, then I consider it somewhat foolish if I don't listen and don't take the concept on board.

This said, I have seen a discussion on Story Dept where a reader (?) gave an example of a character NOT having an arc. You agreed with that Karel. I appreciate your open mind on these matters.

To me, if you trust your consultant then you are willing to suspend your view and at least engage in some rigorous discourse.

I must say that I have seen examples of generalists giving 'better' advice and responses than so called experts. I am not talking about comments on script structure and sequences but rather giving more accurate feedback on whether the basic story 'works'; whether it is confusing and whether one can connect with the protagonist.

If I pay for consultancy, I expect detailed analysis and review from the consultant and for my part, to be pushed. I don't expect to be praised unless I am really 'getting it'. This craft is a HUGE learning curve and I think one needs to accept generating multiple errors for a while and that this doesn't equate failure; its just the way it is. If I was given a lot of praise for my first attempts I would either consider enrolling for Mensa or, highly suspicious! :)