Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where do these terrible scripts come from?

Josh sent me a question via email last week:

Please help reconcile these two thoughts, seemingly at odds:

1. You (and all script readers) frequently gripe about the horrible shit you've had to read set in non-Courier fonts, riddled with typos, and bogged down by trite cliches, exclamation points, song playlists, lengthy descriptions of the ingenue's cleavage, and so many other red flags.

2. It's virtually impossible to get an unrepresented script onto your desk.

Therefore, by law of modus tollens, are these affronts to screenwriting being delivered by managers and agents? How and why does this happen? How does my screenplay, unrepresented but otherwise respectable, land on a gatekeeper's desk?

First, good question, Josh. When I first started working as a reader, I had plenty of days where I thought to myself, "How did this manage to squeak through the system to the point where I have to read this drek?" I'll try to explain the most common reasons a really amateurish spec can get to someone reading for an agency or production company.

Favors. Yeah, you knew this was coming. The Development VP's college roommate's kid just wrote an "awesome" sci-fi adventure; or maybe that junior agent at International Creative Artists Agents for the Performing Arts has a friend who persuaded him to submit his script. Either way, you're the one stuck reading it. I'd probably guess that 3 out of 5 times, when a reader complains about bad formatting in a spec, this is the cause.

Queries. It's rare, but it happens every now and then that a query from a newbie might find the right executive or agent at the right moment. Maybe the writer knew how to pitch the script but not to write it - and if you're the poor bastard reading for agent or executive, you'll find that out really fast.

I'd also group the Slush Pile in with these, as there may be some smaller agents and managers who will accept anything so long as it comes with a release form. (Whether those managers are at all useful to one's career is another matter.) The Slush Pile is a curious entity. At times it's unclear just where all these scripts came from, or why we're wasting resources on reading them. My own theory is that bad scripts often mate and spawn in there.

Contests. If you're reading for a smaller agency or management company, it's possible that your bosses will either sponsor a screenplay contest, or at least work out a deal where they read the Top 10 scripts from said contest. A lot of these contests, quite frankly, aren't that good. The quality of submission is often as poor as anything you'll find on the slush pile.

Now, you might be thinking "Yeah, but aren't the readers supposed to weed out the bad ones?" It doesn't always work that way. My first internship was with such a company and they had the INTERNS doing the reading. People almost as inexperienced as the writers were making the call as to what made it to the final rounds. You'll also often see internet ads seeking contest readers, and often, their criteria for those readers might be lax. Usually, the less they pay, the worse you can count on the readers to be. I've seen some places advertise that they pay the readers $20-$30 a script for coverage. That's close to slave wages for readers - and so a lot of good readers don't apply. Thus, you're left with people who might not know what to look for. The same thing goes for peer review contests, like the late, lamented Project Greenlight.

Also, when I read for Big Deal Agency, they requested the Top Ten Finalists from a competition that I'd describe as a mid-level contest. I read at least four of those and a lot of them were as weakly written as material I'd seen back in screenwriting classes, and they included a generous helping of Our Favorite Mistakes.

Readers working for script consulting companies, like the ones mentioned here, probably see a lot of scripts that treat script formatting like Ned Beatty in Deliverance. (Too old a reference? Then assume I said, "like Zed treats Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction." If that's not clear enough, then I can't help you.)

And though it's rare to find major formatting issues in scripts sent out by agents and managers, I've seen it happen. There are a lot of bottom-of-the-barrel agencies out there, and if my experience when reading for a producer who loved horror is anything to go by, they lack a critical eye towards the material and sometimes the formatting of said material. You might not find mechanical formatting errors in these scripts, but you'll find damn near everything else - including long descriptions of cleavage, song selections, and all our other favorite red flags. Sad as it is to say, there are some agents who just don't care.

I hope this answers your question, Josh.


  1. Thanks for the insight into your world, bitter script reader. Always nice to get a more educated view as to what's happening in the trenches.

    The line about scripts mating and spawing in the slush pile was funny.

    Hope ya find a GOOD script every once in a while that entertains you. Hope it's not all bad...

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. There's one thing about formatting, font, etc., that I'm failing to understand with most people out there... buy screenwriting software!
    It does everything for you. Practically anyway. I wouldn't go so far as to swear by FD, but, if nothing else, it makes writing a heck of a lot easier when changing between scene descriptions, dialogue, etc.
    Granted, when it comes to going on about details on a female characters anatomy, how big the villains gun is, the song you love, etc, that's definitely on you.

  3. Just look at the current and upcoming slate of movies and ask yourself "how in the hell did these movies get greenlit?" We've got "Asteroids," and "Battleship" and "Viewmaster: The movie" greenlit and fast tracked!

    There is a creative vacuum in Hollywood that is nauseating. Nobody has any imagination or creativity anymore. The audiences are to blame as well. The higher ups now realize that they can greenlight almost -any- script now, and so long as it is marketed effectively, it will at least break even.

    The original screenwriters at the start of the motion picture business had great plays and great stories to draw upon. As the business grew older, younger filmmakers borrowed, begged and stole from the older films they grew up on, but still came up with something unique.

    Now we've reached the Terminus point of what has been going on for at least twenty years. The current generation of filmmakers are drawing their creative juices from films made after 1990, most of which are crap.

    Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the average filmgoer today was raised on a "fast food" diet of crap films and television all their lives AND has a poor education. They don't know the history of film, television, or any history of ANYTHING.

    I made a reference about a co-worker possibly having a "Three's Company" date situation to another co-worker. Neither person (both in their late twenties) knew what they hell was I talking about. I'm not talking about them not knowing about Jack Tripper juggling two dates at once, I'm talking about them not knowing anything about "Three's Company" AT ALL.

    I've been writing for almost two years now and I've slowly realized that my competiton is not any of my idols of the past. My competition is "PAUL BLART: MALL COP."

  4. Just wondering if the companies you have worked for request winners/finalists from the top screenwriting contests?

  5. Purple I totally agree with about the average filmgoers today. There is a lack of exposure, knowledge and education of the history in tv and film. There are so many amazing films out there, but the kids will only know of Paul Blart and Meet the Spartans.

    I've somewhat kind of made it a personal battle to promote the classics over a lot of the mainstream of today. My little brother started talk about Lil' Wayne (party rap crap), so I had to force feed him some Tribe Called Quest (90s hiphop). He received it well, so there is hope hehe.

    So I shall keep fightin the good fight.

  6. Jim E. - Yep. It definately happens. I don't read all of them, but I've certainly seen some finalists from "the big ones." It's also why when someone tells me their spec was a Nichols finalist, my first thought isn't "Holy shit! I have to read that next! It's definately going to be amazing!"

    Or to put it another way, when you're reading for a company that's in the business of making movies intended to appeal to wide audiences, the first place you look won't be the finalists in the big screenwriting contests.

  7. It still boggles my mind that people submit screenplays with major formatting errors. There is so much you can get wrong, so much personal judgment that goes into whether or not a script gets past the reader, format is the only thing you know FOR SURE that you can do right. Why ruin the only guarantee you have?

  8. I'm gonna take a guess here and say...

    part of the reason industry readers still come across so much dross is b/c other industry pros (at prod cos, agencies etc...) are not so much concerned with the writing as they are the concept.

    It's the "we'll rewrite it later" mantality. Which leads to the "it was bought for the concept" situation. Which leads to development hell & 12 writers on a project... which leads to you know what...

    The idea that scripts need (and will definately get) endless rewrites at all stages of development is entrenched. And some people take it to such an extreme that they let egregious mistakes slide and don't penalize the writer as harshly as they should (IOW, dump it in the waste bin).

    Everyone is looking for a great commercial concept, and they'll ignore spelling errors, bad grammar, over-written description, etc in order to get it.