Fair warning to everyone: y’all are about to get a Spike rant.
Just know I warned you.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there are a lot of awesome aspects to working as a contest judge and screenwriting coach. I get to read stories all day, many of which have legitimately awesome concepts. It allows me to explore my passion for narrative escapism on a daily basis. And nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the feeling I get when one of my clients has that “Aha!” moment and applies what they’ve learned to their work. I objectively have a very cool job.
And yet there’s always that one person who has to go and ruin a good thing. How’s that saying go? “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel?”
I was doing a session the other day with someone who had hired me to read their screenplay. And while I always know that there’s a spectrum of reactions whenever you give notes on a story, this one left me feeling … well … never mind, continue reading and see for yourself.
It went something like:
“Spike,” this person started after I had given a few suggestions, “I just don’t think you get what I’m going for. You don’t see my vision. In fact, I think you’re entirely wrong about my story! Everyone I’ve given it to prior to this has loved my writing! Literally everyone. They didn’t have a bad thing to say about it! I can’t believe I paid for this! Obviously, you’re a moron who doesn’t know anything about anything, and I demand a refund. You deserve to go to prison and rot with the murderers and pedophiles, you ugly-faced chum bucket!!!”
Fine, they didn’t say that last part.
And no, I did not give this client a refund. Because this person made the mistake of paying for script coverage when what they were really looking for was external validation. They didn’t want to actually make their script better. They just wanted someone other than themselves to say what they already thought about their work. That’s not what you get here. Sorry, not sorry.
Before I go on, I also feel it’s important to say that this is not an isolated case—I’ve had this exact same exchange with others in the past, and I’m sure I will again. I’m not picking on this person, but I do feel it’s extremely important to dive into this idea a little bit.
What do you actually get when you hire a coverage service? Should you hire someone to give notes on your story? And how do you know if it is going to give you what you’re looking for? Truly, I want each and every one of you to be better prepared when ordering coverage in the future, but also, I have some things I need to get off my chest.
There is no such thing as a screenplay EVERYONE loves. That absolutely, unequivocally, does not exist. There are too many varying degrees of taste and types of films that people like for that to be a true statement. As an example, I recently read a spec pilot for Script Pipeline that I adored. I thought this thing was the bees’ knees. I laughed on page one, was completely engrossed in the story, and I felt something for the characters. It hit on every damn marker I look for in a spec! But when I gave this to another exec, he could barely get through it [editor's note: "I just didn't get what the script was supposed to be," claims exec]! We saw the exact same piece of material entirely differently.
And you know what, boys and girls? That’s Hollywood.
The script for Passengers (the movie that starred Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. And I’ve gotten into screaming matches with people who think that screenplay needs to be set ablaze (for reasons I won’t get into here). I absolutely hated the written version of Moonlight—that film went on to win Best Picture. The entirety of the entertainment business is based on perception. Two people can each read your script and walk away with opposing reactions to it.
Newsflash: you’ll never be able to escape this reality, and if you can’t handle that, you aren’t meant to be a professional writer.
Far too many people believe this job is about writing whatever you want and then sitting back as companies shower you with big money offers and endless adulation. You need to be prepared for the inevitable truth that much of what you write will receive zero interest from producers. While spec action like this can be a piece of the income pie, most paying gigs will come in the form of writing things for other people (assignment work). And assignment work comes with lots and lots of notes.
Which is why, if you want to be a professional screenwriter, you need to be prepared to write someone else’s stories. This is the vast majority of what you will do. And this means you’ll need to learn how to write stories that resonate with various types of audiences. If you’re considering buying script coverage (whether it’s from me, or Script Pipeline, or any of the numerous companies out there who provide this service), I want all of you reading this to think about why you’re seeking feedback. If you aspire to be a working writer, our insight can likely help you get closer to your goal. But if you’re writing for your own sense of personal fulfillment, that’s totally fine! Nobody is forcing you to write for any other reason! If that’s true, though, then you don’t need coverage. It’s unnecessary for you to hire a professional reader and receive feedback on your story. If all you’re looking for is validation, there are a lot safer (and cheaper … er, free) places to get that.
We’ll come back to this point in a second, but first I want to address the other part of my client’s recent feedback to me:
“Other people told me my script was good, so you should like it, too.”
This is honestly one of the most naïve notions I’ve ever heard.
Who are these people? Are they fellow writers? And if so, are they any good? Do they create material you admire? Have they been hired by legitimate companies on professional assignments?
Or are they your friends from high school who’ve never read a screenplay before? Do they have any context as to what makes for a good story? Are they the type of people who walk into a cinema and exit two hours later unable to tell you a single thing about the film?
Are they, perhaps, your mother?
There’s nothing wrong with having your mother read your work, mind you. I send my mommy stuff all the time! She reads little stories that I jot down, and these articles that I write for Pipeline Artists (including this one … hi mom!). But here’s the thing: nobody in Hollywood cares if your mother likes your screenplay. Unless your mother happens to be a powerful CAA agent, a studio executive, or Linda flipping Obst, it doesn’t matter.
Your mother’s opinion on your writing is good for one thing only: validation. It makes you feel good to know that someone you love is proud of something you created. But it’s not going to get you paid, and it’s not going to get you any closer to achieving your goal of being a professional scribe.
If you do decide that coverage is something you’re interested in, then there’s an often-overlooked element you might want to consider too: just who, exactly, is giving notes on your story? I mean it when I say not enough young writers take this into consideration when ordering notes. They see the flashy website and a long list of names who have benefitted from doing this without stopping to think about this all-important aspect. Because some services are just smoke and mirrors.
Without calling anyone out directly (believe me, my editors would redact me if I even tried), I can tell you that several prominent outlets skimp on the quality of their employees. I once heard of a huge coverage service hiring college kids (ostensibly interns) to deliver coverage for the whopping compensation of $10 a screenplay. Not only is that NOT a living wage in Los Angeles, but the people giving this feedback had basically no experience in story analysis! The quality of the notes was iffy under the best of circumstances.
And if you think this might be an isolated case, there are organizations (who shall also remain unnamed) reading your work that use volunteer or very-low-paid readers in 2021. Meaning your script might get passed up by someone who has minimal experience reviewing professional material and has little to no background in real-world development, relative to other companies who hire more seasoned readers.
Does that sound problematic to ya’ll, or is it just me?
While it might not seem like it on the surface, professional reading is a skillset. It takes years of practice, and thousands of scripts to be able to identify the really good from the merely average. And it takes even more work still to be able to identify, precisely and specifically, what is wrong with a story and how to fix it. Say nothing of being articulate enough to communicate this information to the writer in a clear and concise way, that still leaves them feeling positive and good about themselves. Not everyone has the ability to do this. Certainly not an intern fresh off the bus who hasn’t even had a job in the industry yet.
Without propping myself up too much, I’ll just lay out my personal CV as an example of what you should be looking for.
My first three years in Los Angeles were spent working for two literary agents, who operated out of a mid-major agency. It wasn’t CAA or WME, but we had clients who brought in millions of dollars a year with their work. I read new material for everyone on their list and gave notes to make the material more marketable. After that, I moved on to a production company that had created several successful TV shows, oversaw a superhero franchise, and had dozens of active projects in development. I gave notes on those projects, often multiple drafts of the same script, and read incoming specs to add to the slate. The final four and a half years of my career saw me work at a TV network, giving notes on active shows, development projects, and listening to incoming pitches for potential consideration. All this on top of the half dozen or so contests for which I’ve acted as a judge.
Is my background rather extensive? Yes. Do coverage readers need to have this much experience in order to give you valuable feedback on your screenplay? No. But they do need to have some idea of what they’re doing. They need to have spent years in the industry, working with writers and on projects.
Look, is my opinion on scripts the definitive, be-all-end-all for writing? No, it isn’t. I can only rely on my personal taste. I’ve been wrong before, I’ll readily admit.
But put my notes, or any notes written by someone with a strong development background, up against anyone else’s, and I guarantee you’ll be getting quality, thoughtful feedback on your story. Better notes than you’ll be getting from your mother, anyway.
Godspeed, everyone, and happy writing.
*Feature Image: "Scream" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)