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Is Your Script Ready for Its Close-Up?
Written by Christina Hamlett
Writing is—and has always been—a solitary craft. As such, it’s hard sometimes to know if your latest script is a hit or a miss until someone else gets their eyes on it. Ideally that someone should be a professional who (1) is well-versed in the craft and (2) understands what makes a commercially viable film or TV show.
As a script consultant, I receive no shortage of emails which declare, “My mom really loved this,” or “My best friend says this is a movie he’d definitely go see.” While opinions can certainly be a barometer of how effectively you’ve told your story, family members and friends bring a bias to the equation which either inflates one’s expectations or crushes one’s enthusiasm. To really know if you’re on the right track, there may come a time when the feedback of an industry expert will be of benefit to you and your screenwriting career. Tapping the insights of someone who can provide guidance on how to fix trouble spots can make all the difference between a script that gets produced and one that languishes on a flash drive.
First and foremost, keep in mind the subjective nature of working with a script consultant. One of the caveats I always include in my coverage notes is that it’s ultimately up to the individual whether or not to incorporate my recommendations into subsequent drafts. It’s the writer’s story, not mine, and I respect any author’s passion to keep his/her own voice as much as possible.
At the same time, any criticism I render is based on the quality and originality of the work, not the personality or life experiences of the person who penned it. Just because a particular script doesn’t resonate with me personally (i.e., slasher, horror, science fiction), the next 10 people who read it might feel exactly the opposite.
If you decide to get a professional evaluation of your work, the following things should be taken into consideration:
- What are your expectations of the critique? (i.e., an evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, a referral to a studio or agent, a mentoring relationship.)
- What are the qualifications of the consultant who will be reviewing your script? What do others have to say about the quality of his/her work?
- What can you afford to spend on script coverage? Since fees range from less than $100 to over $1,000, it pays to shop around.
- What kind of timeframe is involved between submission and receipt of a critique? (Note: If you’re planning to enter the script into competition, allow at least four to six weeks in order to have the coverage done and address any recommended fixes.)
- Do you need the entire script reviewed or just a few scenes that you feel are cumbersome? Some consultants, such as myself, will do mini-appraisals that not only save you money but enable you to assess whether you could have a comfortable relationship.
- How well do handle criticism?
- Are there provisions in place for follow-up questions with the consultant after receipt of his/her critique of your script?
- Is the consultant amenable to second reads of the same material?
MAKING A SMART IMPRESSION
In any given week I receive unsolicited submissions from aspiring screenwriters of all ages who not only attach their full scripts but ask if I can read their material for free. The answer? No. This is akin to telling a doctor you can’t afford surgery so could he just remove your spleen at no charge on his day off. Be respectful. If you query a consultant, keep your pitch brief and request fee information.
Never boast that your idea is truly the next (fill in the blank). Over 60 percent of scripts I receive are knock-offs of award-winning films. Been there, done that. Snore. If you can’t be original or serve up a fresh spin on classic literature, you’re not trying hard enough.
Eschew informality and texting habits in your queries (i.e., “Hey, Stella! How R U?”). Do not insert emojis, copious exclamation points, or type in all caps. Aggressively proofread your email for typos. Nor should you ever reference who you think should play the lead roles (i.e., “If you like my script, can you get it to Brad Pitt for me?”)
Have you entered your screenplay in any professional competitions? Even better, have you won any awards for it? Contests aren’t only a great way to get feedback from judges but favorable outcomes always reflect well with script consultants.
A lot of newbies tell me their projects are “based on a true story,” their thinking being that “real” life automatically translates to “reel” gold. It doesn’t. If your memoir/personal adventures aren’t relatable to a broad swath of the movie-watching public, it’ll be a hard sell. Further, if this true epic is based on someone else’s life, have you acquired the legal permissions to use it?
What do you do if the critique you receive is less glowing than what you were anticipating? For as many clients as I mentor who come away with a clearer understanding of what needs to be done in order to make their work stand up to scrutiny and tough competition, I have an equal number who take a defensive stance and spend more time arguing than learning. This is not a good strategy to embrace. Nor should you demand your money back if you’re not happy with the advice. You’re not paying someone to like what you’ve written; you’re paying them to tell you what honestly works and what doesn’t.
A case in point is that I once had a teen screenwriter who threatened to come to my house and set my hair on fire because I was critical of her first draft. She then followed up with an email asking if I could give her Steven Spielberg’s home phone number because she was certain he would appreciate her brilliance much more than I did.
Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award-winning author whose credits to date include 44 books, 243 plays, 5 optioned feature films and squillions of articles and interviews. She is also a script consultant for stage and screen (which means she stops a lot of bad ideas from coming to theatres near you) and a professional ghostwriter (which does not mean she talks to dead people). To learn more, visit www.authorhamlett.com.