Legally Speaking, It Depends: Script Consultants, Good, Bad?

With the recent debates on twitter, the web and here on the pages of this magazine (see Jeanne Bowerman’s recent Balls of Steel columns) there has been a lot of discussion on the topic of Script Consultants. This column adds a few bits to the discussion. The hope is that with enough information readers can see more clearly the lay of the land and be able to pick a path of action for themselves that avoids precipices and quagmires while possibly leading to your very own scripting El Dorado. Or allow you to decide that the risks of the journey aren’t worth it.

Script Consulscript consultantstant Defined

The first problem we face is that there is no strict definition of what a script consultant actually is. There is set definition, list of parameters, assets, offerings or options. There are no tests to take to become one; no licensing bureau keeping tabs on whether you’re any good. Anyone can hang a shingle and claim to be a consultant, guru or script doctor (I hate that this name has been co-opted by certain people). And the same services offered by so called script consultants can often be found being offered by others, managers, agents, or “screenwriter with benefits” (made that one up, but, not too far off.)

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll offer this intentionally vague definition in order to move forward. A Script Consultant is someone who offers their opinion on a script, often for some form of compensation, without a direct vested interest in the property. This definition will allow us to differentiate the consultant from a producer giving notes in order to further the production, or your agent giving notes in order to make the script more salable (and therefore earn their percentage.)

With such a broad definition, it is clear that virtually anyone could fall into the category of script consultant. This is both a good thing and a potentially bad one. You can find helpful script consultancy virtually anywhere. But with no license needed and no oversight, you’ll have to keep a keen eye out to prevent being taken advantage of. Beware. Reputation is everything, check it out beforehand.

What Kind of Consultant Would Be Best?

Some struggling writers think that the best consultant for them could only come from screenwriters who are successful, working screenwriters. These could be useful resources, but, (you knew it had to crop up in my article somewhere) it depends. Let’s look at an analogy.

If you have a car that isn’t running right would you seek to have it worked on only by the last winner of the Indy 500? Some drivers know very little about how their car got into the state it was to win the race. It would be better to seek out their mechanics or car designers for more direct knowledge of what worked for them. And realize that they may only be able to work on Indy cars. You might find the best advice for what doesn’t work on your vehicle from a neighborly shade-tree mechanic. Sure he doesn’t have the prestige of the big boys nor any racing experience of note but, if he can fix your car then he’s the man for the job. But if you find yourself with an opportunity to discuss your car’s woes with Danica Patrick do it. Remember working her way through different racing circuits she might have picked up a thing or two.

In other words, if you get the ear of a source who might be able to help and shows interest in trying they may know what they’re talking about. It’s worth a shot.

Should you Pay for Consultants?

The big kerfuffle recently was a flap over whether you should ever pay for a script consultant. Some say reading a script should always be for free. Others say that a legitimate service provided has a cost and a fee payment is a proper course for recompense. I can see both sides’ points. From my perspective (and this is strictly my own opinion), everything of value should be appreciated appropriately for the value received. That doesn’t always equate to a dollar exchange. Even someone who is reading your work for free usually isn’t doing it magnanimously. They might be doing it as a form of pay-back for someone kindly offering the same in their past. They may be “networking,” trading current good will in exchange for potential assistance in kind later, such as when fellow writers at a similar career level read each others’ work. When an agent or manager does it, there is a secondary effect that reaches their financial interest eventually. There are tons of ways these “free” reads can be recompensed. The recipient should recognize these and honor those real commitments.

If a consultant decides to directly charge for a reading service the question becomes clearer. Are you getting something in return that correlates with the amount of outlay being charged? If not, run away. If there seems to be a real potential benefit, then maybe it is worth it. Make certain of the realities (as opposed to empty promises) and decide for yourself. It’s similar to the question of whether a script competition is worth the entry fee for you. An eyes-wide-open evaluation, based on your individual criteria is the best determinant.

It is always important, regardless of from whom you are getting the feedback, that the value you receive is proportionate to the outlay being requested. Ask yourself, are they benefiting from my work in some way (e.g. producers shouldn’t be asking for fees since they’ll be able to shop the product once it gets better, in fact, their benefits should call for them to be compensating you to make the changes.)

Be Careful

Some of the promised services from some of these self-proclaimed consultants can be problematic. If you are being promised something more than notes and/or feedback on your script, be alert.

Paying for industry contacts is a risk on both sides of the equation.

On the writer’s side, if you are paying for the service, is the recommendation being premised on the payment of a fee or on the quality of the actual script? If it is not on the strength of the script alone, are you really gaining access or are you wasting your one shot at that door before your script is ready? One has to be aware of the entirety of the benefit you are expecting to get in such an arrangement and make sure it is worth the cost to you.

On the other side, if a “consultant” ends up merely offering to pass your script onto their contacts for a fee that becomes suspiciously like the practice in film finance of charging a finder’s fee to connect a producer with money people. This financing practice is highly regulated and can only be practiced by people who have become licensed broker/dealers and abide by all the governmental regulations put up to protect the players. There’s a reason the government has stepped in to oversee these types of transactions. If you find yourself in a similar situation beware.

Risks to Watch Out For

Even if a consultant is above board and you are happy with the feedback and relationship established, you still need to be careful about the details of that relationship to make sure it doesn’t interfere with your career as a screenwriter.

Make sure that the relationship has a documented, contractual understanding about who the owner is of the material. Without such a clear definition, a claim could be made that the modifications are works of co-authors creating a joint work. Your “consultant” could start claiming that they have ownership rights to the work and cause major headaches.

Even if the consultant doesn’t make these claims, an astute producer might halt a purchase agreement until the writer can assure them that there are no other legitimate claims of authorship. The writer would have to scramble to get that documentation and if this takes a while to accomplish, the heat of the property might cool in the producer’s eye.

Regardless, if your contract with the producer has an indemnity clause for the sale and the consultant suddenly decides to make a claim of co-authorship it would fall on the writer to defend the producer, taking the costs and responsibility of settling the consultant’s claims out of the writer’s pocket.

I’ve used paid script consultants, free ones, been a script consultant for others, had producers, directors, actors and civilians read my scripts. Each of these experiences have helped my writing in some fashion. Be honest with your expectations and the critiques. Be discerning. The things that work, work. The things that don’t you know to avoid or to not try again. If you choose to search for a script consultant that will benefit you in bettering your scripts, here’s hoping that your quest will be more fruitful than the historical searches for El Dorado have been.

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2 thoughts on “Legally Speaking, It Depends: Script Consultants, Good, Bad?

  1. SallyMc

    It is hard enough to break into the industry as an unproduced writer, but to try without a serious review of your latest masterpiece is foolish. Because there is a wide variety of consultants out there from barely qualified to excellent, I submit one script to three consultants and meet in the middle of their coverage. Seems extreme but knowing, “one consultant’s trash is another consultant’s treasure,” calls for the response.
    I figure it this way: I could put all my eggs into one basket and pay a higher consultant fee and hope for good advice/suggestions or I could get three perspectives, three separate eyes and experiences and if the script passes in critical elements, I’m good to go with my bases covered. A word of caution: chose consultants who are in your writing genre, have produced work within the past six years (why only six years? If they are so good, why are they stepping down to consult? In Hollywood years, their ship has sailed and things change – you must stay with the current trends) and who give written reviews. Telephone consultations never cover all the bases.
    Last but not least, you want honesty. There is a fine line between honesty and cruelty. While they, the consultants, might say you have “sour grapes” or need to grow thicker skin, if you dislike their coverage, the line is still there. Constructive criticism is honest and will build your work up. It will give you tips on how to make your story or character stronger. It shares the knowledge of great storytelling and helps polish your script. But if the coverage rips you a new one or crushs your spirit – submit your story, unchanged, to another consultant for coverage. A bad consultant is not worth the hair pulling, anger, sadness or “why am I doing this?”
    In the end, it is far better to find and use a great consultant than have a production company ask to read your script then pass on it because of simple, easy to correct, structure flaws or had the hallmarks of “amateur” written all over it because you didn’t let a creditable industry insider review it first.

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