Today’s question comes from Anthony, who responded to my March 4th post, “Why Winning a Contest Rarely Gives Your Script an Edge.” Anthony writes (I’m abridging for time/length)…
Let’s say a writer takes things seriously… studies the books (Trottier, Snyder, Field, etc.)… signs up for a few classes on the Writer’s Store to be evaluated by professionals.
[He] writes a screenplay… sends it in for coverage from a professional coverage service. Revises it based off their notes, sends it in again and gets a \recommend\ grade. Maybe he even pays [a script coverage service] to develop a killer log line.
How does he let people know this is a writing sample he is trying to use to get more work? Once you have written something that a professional service considers great, how do you get people to know this is your writing sample and you are a writer?
This is one of my favorite recent posts, because it gives such insight into the strategies and processes of writers fighting to break in.
Now… before I answer this, a disclaimer: I am answering this based only on my experience in television, where I’ve worked as a writer, producer, and executive. I can’t speak for the film world (but I’m willing to bet most of this still holds true).
So, Anthony, let me first answer a larger question, which you didn’t actually ask:
STOP USING PROFESSIONAL COVERAGE SERVICES.
They’re a waste of your time, your hopes, your creative energies.
Not because they’re no good; their “readers” and “consultants” may be literary geniuses—it doesn’t matter.
They’re a waste of time because, by design, they can almost never give you what you actually need to succeed.
1. You rarely know who’s reading your script.
Some coverage services use “faceless” readers and consultants; you send in your script, it comes back with a shiny, professional-looking report. But you have no idea who actually did the work. Was it someone who spent 20 years as the VP of Development at Sony Television? Or someone who spent six months as an assistant for a boutique talent agency?
In some regards, it doesn’t matter. I’ve known assistants who gave phenomenal notes and coverage… and I’ve known higher-ups who couldn’t articulate a thought to save their lives.
But when you partner, as a writer, with a specific company or producer, at least you’re making that decision with your eyes open. You may not know they’re going to give horrible notes or guidance, but you knew who you were getting in bed with; you had an opportunity to ask around, gauge their reputation, or—at the very least—look at other movies or shows they’ve worked on. But many coverage services offer little, if any, information about who’s reading your work.
Some services do allow you to pick your reader, but they don’t give you the person’s real name. So your only knowledge of the person advising you—on the most important thing you’ve ever written—is a short paragraph… which may or may not be accurate.
The point is… you don’t know. Your comedy script could be read by an action fan. Or someone who hates period pieces. Or a low-level exec who has worked at a ton of great companies… and was fired from each because he has poor development instincts.
Your script could even be read by the exact right person… or the exact wrong person.
And if you’re going to spend money to have someone help you perfect your script, you should know who’s helping you. You should find someone who understands you, your writing process, the story you want to tell, how you see the world. You are, essentially, looking for someone to be a creative/spiritual coach… even if for only a few brief moments.
Going to a coverage service is like flipping through the phone book to find a therapist. You might get the exact right person reading your script… but I wouldn’t put money it.
2. It doesn’t matter if they like your script.
Maybe you’re not looking for a “creative/spiritual coach” to get in the trenches and improve your writing. Maybe you just want a quick opinion on the quality or sale-ability of your script. Would/could your script get through the reader/evaluation process at a network, studio, or agency? Fair enough.
So you send in your script, and the coverage comes back positive. Maybe even glowing. So what?…
This means nothing. Why?…
Well, first of all, you don’t know who “liked” (or “disliked”) your script. It may have been read and covered by someone who has never developed an actual project. It may have been read by someone who loves anything about aliens. Or someone who hates anything about aliens. In other words, you have no idea what factors may be informing their opinion. (And while you may not know who’s reading your script when you send it to CAA, or Universal, or Imagine… you’re not paying these people to read you. Plus, you can research these companies, understand their “personality” or what they like… so while you may not know precisely who’s reading you, you can have a sense of what they might respond to.)
But more importantly…
The opinions of a random, generic reader do not reflect what’s sell-able.
In other words, studios and production companies aren’t looking to buy great scripts. They’re looking to buy great scripts of specific ideas they want right now.
When I was an executive (with a company based at NBC Studios and, later, Paramount), we used to have specific areas we wanted to develop in: male-driven romantic comedies, female-driven action shows, aspirational reality, whatever. Sometimes we got more specific: spy shows about married couples, teen shows about girls with powers, family dramedies with a dog.
Sometimes we were basing these “areas” on what we knew studios or networks wanted to buy. Other times they were just areas that interested us; we’d read a novel or seen a play that inspired us. Many times they were just areas particular people had a passion for; one exec loved animals… another was a rock fan… another liked 80s comedies.
It changed all the time… and the only people who knew what we wanted at any given time were the agents, managers, producers, and execs who checked in on a regular basis (just like we did with other companies). Not once… I repeat: not once… did we ever receive a call from a coverage service asking what we were looking for or buying.
So… you might have the world’s best written horror script about vampire cats terrorizing a trailer park. A hundred “coverage readers” may tell you it’s wonderful; they may even claim to pass it on to great production companies where they have “connections.” But unless they’re so connected that they know what specific companies are actively looking right now… and which specific company wants horror scripts about vampires or animals… all their recommendations are worthless—just like the money you gave them to read the script.
(And FYI– if these people had their fingers on the pulse of what production companies and studios were actively seeking, they wouldn’t be working at coverage services; they’d be working at agencies or management firms or studios. Agencies and studios have people who track this stuff on a daily basis—which is how quickly it changes.)
Now, to be fair, I used to work as a reader at several places (CAA, NBC, and a couple film companies that no longer exist) and rarely did I know exactly why I was reading something. They never said to me, “Evaluate this as a writing sample for rewrites,” or “We’re looking for an action-comedy for Tom Cruise.” I would just go in, pick up a stack of scripts, and go home. However… there had been a vetting process before me. For instance, at NBC I was reading specifically for the movies and minis department; any script I picked up had already been deemed a possibility for a MOW or mini-series. At CAA, scripts were sent to my boss (who would dole them out to readers) for very particular reasons… even if the other readers and I rarely knew what those were. Sometimes, I would learn afterward, agents wanted the script read to see if the script had opportunities for a specific actor– or for CAA talent in general. Other times, the scripts were written by an up-and-coming writer for consideration on another project (I once read an unproduced script by Josh Friedman, who went on to write War of the Worlds and create Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), and to this day it remains one of the greatest things I’ve ever read (alongside J.J. Abrams’ Alias pilot script; they’re two of the most jaw-dropping pieces of writing ever). But never– not once– did I read a script submitted by a random writer for “general” evaluation; everything I read was being read for a specific purpose… even if I didn’t always know what that purpose was.
(Another FYI—I am not saying coverage services can’t provide insightful coverage on your script. What I’m saying is that they’re rarely tuned in to the market enough to offer relevant “sale-ability” feedback. And while they may tell you whether or not your script is “good,” I refer you back to point #1: it’s usually not helpful just to know whether or not your script is “good.” If you want notes, suggestions, guidance, or thoughts on your script’s quality, they should come from someone who understands you, your vision, your goals, etc.—not a random, nameless reader just taking their $100 to write a report.)
3. Execs, producers, and agents do not rely on these services.
This may be the most important reason of all. Despite what coverage services tell you, most of them do not have the ear of studios, production companies, agents, or managers.
Sure, they may know people at those companies; they may have friends who work there, or old colleagues… they may even have an “open invitation” to send over material. But execs and producers do not look at these services as reliable places to find material. They may occasionally accept “submissions” from these places, but—I promise you—those submissions mostly go into the execs’ “low priority piles;” the piles of contest winners, cold queries, unsolicited submissions, babysitters’ boyfriends, etc.
After all, producers and studios, while eager to find fresh new material, have limited time, energy, and resources… which is why they return to the same wells over and over: the agents, managers, and colleagues who have repeatedly recommended stellar, buyable material. Producers and execs may occasionally try new places (I used to like going to plays… a co-worker would read independent comics…), but these sources rarely yield huge amounts of rewards.
Execs and producers—to paraphrase TLC—don’t have much time to go chasing waterfalls, so they stick to the rivers and lakes that they’re used to. Which means they sometimes miss wonderful diamonds in the rough… or brilliant scripts and writers trying to break in… but the truth is: most scripts and writers trying to break in aren’t worth reading. And while yours may be the exception, it’s usually not cost-effective to spend too much time looking for exceptions.
(Coverage services obviously know this… which is why they claim to offer whatever writer wants: insightful professional feedback, a path around the system, etc. But these services aren’t usually a path around the system, and their insightful professional feedback may or may not be that “insightful” or “professional.” Yet like airport security, they offer writers an illusion, the belief that they’re doing the right thing.)
(And for the record… I don’t think most of these services are doing this maliciously; they’re not scams. They’re simply, like the writers they try to help, working outside a system that won’t let them in.)
So, to recap quickly, you shouldn’t be using coverage services because…
• You shouldn’t be getting “intimate” development guidance from a stranger who doesn’t know—or have a genuine investment in—you, your story, your process.
• The opinion of a random reader is irrelevant and doesn’t usually reflect the marketplace (a random reader may be able to tell you if your script works or not… but then I refer you back to #1).
• Most legitimate companies, the kinds of companies these services claim to connect you with, don’t actually utilize or rely on these services.
So then… WHAT DO YOU DO?!
If you’re a struggling writer looking for development notes, guidance, feedback… where do you turn?
1. JOIN A WRITERS GROUP
Find one already established… or, if you can’t find one you like, form your own! This should be a group of professional-minded writers intent on improving their work for sale, production, or publication; it should not be composed or both hobbyists and professional-minded people. The group should consist of people who share and understand the same goals… and are, therefore, looking for a similar experience: to share their material, give each other feedback, and/or offer professional advice.
Ideally, you want people who know and understand you, your work, your goals, your vision, etc. This may mean assembling a group of old colleagues or friends; or it may mean finding people—through work, church, online, whatever it takes—who share your goals and sensibilities.
2. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL CONSULTANT
This is different than a coverage service. A consultant sits down with you… talks to you… gets to know you, your project, your perspective, your tastes, etc. They’re a true coach, working closely to help improve both your script and your writing abilities.
Beware, however: do NOT hire just “anyone.” This industry is FULL of unqualified “consultants” who have no real experience and no business advising writers or developing projects. Read. Research. Interview. You want someone who has extensive professional experience working with writers and developing projects (similar to yours). People like Jen Grisanti or Carole Kirschner, who have had long careers as bona fide execs and producers, working with writers at all levels.
(DISCLAIMER: I’m friends with both those women, and I’m not using their names to give them plugs, I’m just using them as examples of people I consider qualified to do this work. They may be completely wrong for your project. For example, I’ve done consulting myself, but there are plenty of projects and genres I just wouldn’t be qualified to do… and a good consultant should tell you whether or not they think they’re right to help with your material.)
You’ll probably spend more money on a consultant than you would on a coverage service, but it’s money much better spent.
Now, if you’re not looking for creative feedback… if you’re looking to know whether or not there’s a market for your script… or for connections and recommendations… again, stay away from coverage services.
(As a general rule, you should never be paying, up front, for someone to recommend or peddle your material. Agents and managers are paid to sell your work, but they work on commission… so they only take clients they believe in… and only get paid when those clients get paid.)
This is where you need to build and utilize your own professional network, so you can get direct, accurate, up-to-date information from your own trusted contacts and relationships. You can also call on these people to pass along your scripts or recommend you to other professionals… and a recommendation from someone who knows you personally is infinitely stronger than a recommendation from a service who was paid, up front, to pass you along (even if they claim to have a “vetting process”).
- So, how do you build a professional network? (I’ve talked about this extensively on this blog, so I won’t go into detail)…
- Get a job in the industry, even a low-level job as an assistant, intern, PA, or runner.
- Join professional networking groups like JHRTS, HRTS, or Connecting Reality. (These particular organizations are geared toward TV, but I’m sure there are corresponding groups in the feature world.)
- Attend panels and special events put on by professional guilds and organizations like the WGA, SAG, PGA, or DGA.
- Join industry-oriented clubs or groups through schools, alumni organizations, churches, etc.
As your network grows, you’ll identify people who can give you accurate info and helpful recommendations… and these will be much stronger than recommendations, or information, you “buy” through a coverage service.
Hopefully, you’ll also meet people willing to read your scripts, give you constructive feedback, and pass them along to producers, execs, or buyers—which is exactly what you hoped the coverage services would do. Only this is a much, much stronger… and cheaper!… path.
Anyway, Anthony, thanks a million for your question… and I hope this answer was helpful. If you—or anyone else—have other questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them in the comment section below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org