BALLS OF STEEL: Script Consultants – Are They Worth It?

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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BALLS OF STEEL: Script Consultants - Are They Worth It? by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman | Script Magazine #scriptchat #amwriting
In my job, I come across all kinds of writers at varying stages in their careers. The up-and-coming ones often ask me to read their scripts, even offering to pay me. Unfortunately, with a full-time job, a family, and my own writing to do, I don’t have time to read everyone’s work, provide feedback, and offer the kind of detailed advice their stories need. So I do try to steer them toward a qualified script consultant.

#PIMPtipoftheday: Not everyone who is a screenwriter makes a good script consultant.

The market is flooded with “professional” consultants who have no business being one. Hence, the ones who are indeed qualified, end up getting a bad rap.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Are script consultants even necessary?

This is a topic that’s highly debated in the industry. Erik Bork, writer and producer of HBO’s Band of Brothers, recently wrote a great piece on his website, giving his own viewpoint. I highly recommend you read the full article, but here’s a snippet of Erik’s opinion:

I do agree that it is possible to “get there” on the cheap, with only a minimal amount spent on classes, books, etc. — and nothing at all for writers groups, bartering of feedback, and one’s own immersion in understanding the craft from produced scripts. I agree that screenwriting is, ultimately, free.  And that success in it, in theory, can also be free. (And no “script consultant” should even hint at promising financial success, a sale, or a writing career. If they do, I agree that you should run away from them.)

But in my experience, for most aspiring writers who are really serious about moving forward, the really cheap or free resources don’t seem to be enough. And they don’t have access to free professional-level feedback on their work. But they seem to benefit the most from that — where someone who has done it (professionally written, produced, etc.) applies all they’ve learned to a writer’s work in a detailed, ongoing, one-on-one way.

If a writer can afford to purchase such a service, I believe it can be the most helpful and efficient thing they can do to move forward.

I ditto Erik’s thoughts.

I have used professional script consultants in the past, and I will again. Why? Because sometimes I need an opinion from someone who has experience developing screenplays and/or a fresh set of eyes. However, I typically do not use a consultant until I have hit a block or exhausted my personal network of readers. When under a tight deadline, however, I will absolutely use one if I need professional notes fast so I can finish a rewrite efficiently and meet my deadline.

Sometimes I simply need someone to tell me, STOP THE MADNESS… this baby is ready to go out into the world… or get your ass back in the seat; this is crap. My consultants give it to me straight, no sugarcoating and no bull. That’s how I roll.

Do professional screenwriters use script consultants?

While this would hardly qualify as scientific research, I asked a few produced screenwriters in my network and, at this stage of their career, none of them pay for feedback. They don’t need to. They have other professionals giving them script advice – agents, managers, producers, etc. (But let’s remember, they do ultimately end up paying their agents and managers in commission… so I’d hardly say they’re getting free advice.)

But a few did tell me prior to breaking in, they either had limited disposable income or no knowledge of which consultants existed (pre-Internet), therefore they predominantly got their script advice from their professors, fellow writers and/or agents. One reminded me production companies sometimes use consulting services if the producers have too many projects on their plates that are in need of assistance in the development process. There are only so many hours in the day.

Another form of “consultant” is the writer for hire. The heavy hands. The one who studios hire to rewrite a pro’s script without forking over writing credit, just a big fat check. Yep. There is a Justice League of Screenwriters who are anonymous, in the shadows and fixing scripts of professional writers, even award-winning ones. A different kind of consultant… one who, instead of giving advice, does the actual rewriting.

But studios and producers aren’t just using any script consultant who hangs up a shingle.

Which brings us to…

What makes a good script consultant?

Online, I’ve seen many people say they only want to learn from someone who has been a successful screenwriter themselves.

In the land of unicorns and leprechauns, that might just be possible. But guess what? Not all produced screenwriters make good consultants. Being a great consultant requires a degree of patience, hand holding, and tolerance to help elevate writing that is sometimes horrendous.

You also don’t have to be a produced writer to know what makes a good story. Many script consultants have read thousands of scripts. Not all writers have. The more you read, the more you learn how to be an effective storyteller.

Think about it. Those readers the studios use… the ones who decide the fate of your script. Did they have a screenwriting credit? Um, not so much. But they do know about the industry, what moviegoers’ expectations are, what their studio’s needs are, and what makes a solid story. Since they read an incredible volume of scripts each week, they know when a great story comes across their desk.

Having said that, if you can find a produced screenwriter who has the skill set to consult, even better. They’ve walked the walk and will hopefully give you the advice they wished someone had given them when they were starting out.

Here’s a quick list of qualities a great script consultant needs:

  • Knowledge of the craft – structure, format, character development, etc.
  • Knowledge of the industry – what’s commercial, what does an audience expect, what’s selling.
  • Script development knowledge – how does a studio develop a script, what are the steps, how to give feedback that’s constructive.
  • Testimonials and referrals – their site should either have testimonials or allow you access to prior clients for referrals.
  • Does NOT promise they can get your script read by executives or get your work produced… and certainly does NOT have you pay extra for them to do that!

Now I need to speak more about that last point. Never in a million years would I EVER (yes, I’m yelling here) use someone who says they can get my work read for me if I pay them. Why would I want them to use my writing talent to open doors for them when I can open them myself and build my own network by pitching my work Jeanne style?

Be your own pimp. It ain’t that hard to get read, trust me. You’re way better off using that money to attend a pitching event. By doing so, you will make your own connections, build your network, practice the skill of pitching (because you’ll need to be a master pitcher for generals), and learn even more about the industry by taking classes. I may add, you can attend a conference/pitchfest and get all of those benefits for the same price as paying someone to pitch your work for you… and get squat. (Note: As we countdown to Screenwriters World Conference, I’ll be writing more posts about maximizing your pitchfest experience. Stay tuned.)

Need I say more? If so, I’ll write a whole post about it, because it boils my blood to see people take advantage of writers. Funk that. And if you’re tempted to pay someone to pitch for you, look within yourself. What are you afraid of? Why won’t you put your money where your mouth is and pitch your own work? (Yes, I’m a screenwriter’s therapist. Seriously. I am. I’ve spent enough time on my own therapist’s couch to have learned all the reasons for self sabotage. Email me later. We can chat.)

What if I can’t afford one… how do I get help?

Let’s get to the bottom-line – money. In this economy, I’m the first one to admit it is not easy coming up with disposable income to hire a consultant. I struggle with this one a lot.

I am, for the most part, self-taught. I didn’t go to film school. I never got a Fellowship. I didn’t have mentors or anyone to guide me. All I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. I had to figure it all out myself, just like many of you. Plus, as a mother, I didn’t have the time to go to school full-time. (If you want a full peek into how naïve I was when I started, read Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter.)

I began by reading screenwriting books. Since I live in the country, I took online classes, which then led me to Twitter, where I quickly found other screenwriters and became a co-founder of Scriptchat, along with Zac Sanford, Jamie Livingston and Kim Garland. With that group, my network grew, and I suddenly had people to exchange scripts with and give me feedback. All of that online networking was free.

The bigger my network got, the higher caliber writer I was able to connect with. I strongly recommend getting feedback from a writer you feel is better than you are. It will raise the bar for your writing.

After a few years of writing scripts, going to conferences and not getting enough traction, I realized it was because my scripts weren’t polished enough. I was putting them out too soon.

But could I afford a script consultant? Then it hit me; a consultant is simply a one-on-one teacher. This is my education. This is my film school. How much was I willing to pay for my education? I added up the receipts I had accumulated over the years for books, software, conferences, etc. They totaled less than one semester of my college education at Cornell… back in the 80s when college was much less expensive than it is now.

I spent the money on a consultant to invest in my writing. I was worth it. I am worth it. I continue to be worth it, as does my craft. Until I could build my network enough to get a mentor of my own, I was willing to pay for it. (There’s a that’s-what-she-said joke in there somewhere…)

Above all, the most important reason to get feedback on your script, paid or not, is to elevate the quality of your writing. One thing is for certain, once you get a top production company to request your script, if it’s not the best it can be, you don’t have a shot at a sale. Not only that, you will be FOREVER (yes, I’m yelling again) in their database with a label “not good enough” next to your John Hancock.

I’d pay any amount of money to not have that mark on my writer tombstone.

Yes, Virginia, screenwriting consultants are worth it.

Next week, I’ll delve into how to find a mentor, or other people, to help propel your writing and your career.

Download a list of necessary qualities and questions to ask BEFORE hiring a script consultant with our FREE download!

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6 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Script Consultants – Are They Worth It?

  1. Devo

    Hi, great article. Very thoughtful and thorough. Definitely have some thoughts to add. Looking forward to your follow-up article on getting a mentor. The right mentor is often key to one’s success, and helps get out from under the daunting feeling of what is the best way in. That person helps open doors and helps the screenwriter navigate the often bizarro world of getting a script ready and into the right hands. Can someone help you (for money) find a home for your script with an agent or production company? I think they can. And of course you will say I have an investment in my point of view. But before you do, let’s agree that any artist needs to be careful who you entrust your beloved script (or work of art) with. Being open to get notes can be devastating if the person giving them doesn’t get you or your idea — or is out of touch with the market place. I have had this happen, and I went outside my producer to get some notes, and the consultant was so negative, I stopped writing for awhile on a script that had been optioned. However, the right person(s) for notes and guidance will give any writer a boost in confidence and access complimenting their own independent efforts. Building your team of advisors (lawyers, reps, consultants) can help you get a leg up. I just take a bit of an issue that you say across the board avoid anyone who asks for money. My experience colors my opinion of course, and I have had script consultants, execs, managers and friends help me get my scripts optioned and/or produced. I do believe you are you own best calling card. Also, learning your greatest strengths (and weaknesses, which may even end up being strengths you just have not capitalized on) will help you. There are a lot of good people out there, and like you said, just make sure you get testimonials and talk to folks who have worked with them. Everyone has a few bad experiences, but if someone has a good track record and you like them and they inspire you, whether you pay for it or get it for free, get the help you need. I know it has helped me advance in my writing, producing and directing career. I have stayed friends with my advisors, my students and others where we have helped each other — and there is a circle of love and support that I value. Everyone has to create it for themselves. And, as you stated in your article I agree that a lot of these pitching conferences are a great way to meet folks. I like NALIP as an organization that has a strong support base in the industry that is growing. There are pitch fests and pitching posts galore. Just check out the feedback and ask around to know what might be a fit. Thanks so much for all you do for writers, and somewhere there’s a link to the article I wrote a while ago for SCRIPT on dialogue: Walking the Talk. If not, I can send it to you. Love what you do. Thanks. Just for my own growth, I went back to set my masters the last two years on creative writing, to plug in and have time just to focus on my own work. It’s been challenging and fun. Graduate this May from the MPW at USC. Wishing you all the best and to all the writers out there — Hang in there… It is just a matter of time!
    Devo

  2. K. Rowe

    Excellent article! Thank you, THANK you, THANK YOU! We seem to have a few things in common: living in the country doesn’t allow us to get out to the big cities very often. I’m not only an author, but a farmer with 100 acres and close to 30 animals to care for, so my time is limited.

    I’ve taken some online classes, read all the recommended screenwriting books, and gotten several rounds of coverage on my script. But still something magical is lacking. When I was living near a big city, I got to take advantage of a screenwriting seminar. That helped a lot.

    After, I kept my connection with the instructor, and in the course of the last year, she’s given me some helpful nudges. One of them was a script consultant. Granted, the cost of it is currently within my bank balance (royalties from my 8 novels have been pretty good lately!). So I signed up to have my script read and analyzed in hopes she can find what needs to be fixed. All the coverage notes I’d gotten seemed to contradict each other, just confusing me more. Admittedly, writing a 80,000 word novel is FAR easier than a 115 page screenplay.

    My consult isn’t for a few months, and I’m hoping in that time I can read a few more books and polish the script some more. Then when she sees it, I can honestly say I’ve given it my all. Hopefully she’ll see where the script needs work, and give me some focused constructive criticism on how I can fix it. The feedback I’ve gotten from the novel suggests that folks would love to see it as a movie. If I can do that, great!

    Thanks for helping me validate my decision to put out the funds for the script consultant. Fingers crossed that she’ll help me out and make my script shine.

  3. Patrick Mahon

    Since the number one mistake new writers make, as you yourself admit, is going out with material too early – and therefore risk an eternal black mark against your name in dreaded company databases – surely it is a no brainer to get feedback from a vetted consultant?

    The money invested will either save you from making the mistake of sending out work not yet ready for the industry. Or it will boost your confidence, reinforcing the belief that you are on the right track.

    I remember Corey Mandell at the Great American Pitch Fest suggesting paying actual industry readers to give you professional coverage to see how your script stacks up BEFORE officially sending it out, and judging whether to make any changes in light of this.

    Think of it as a dress rehearsal.

    Obviously, this is dependent on finances. But if you can spare the cash, and find the right professional to give you honest no-bull feedback, to my mind it’s foolish not to do this.

    It can save you a whole lot more pain in the long run. And might make the difference in being seen as a Professional when you script goes out to the town.

    As well as giving you peace of mind, knowing you’ve done everything possible to make it the best draft you can.

  4. T. Jay O'Brientjaymod

    Excellent article. Details the pros and cons of considering and using a script consultant. Kind of like the Wild West out there as far as consultants go. Writers should definitely do their homework and ask around and check credentials. Also know exactly what you want to get out of the evaluation. Good evaluations should supply reasoned and rational notes for improving various elements of your script; grounded and informed opinions, not promises. Good consultants are really another arrow in your creative quiver.

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