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.
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