This post first appeared on Monday, April 6, 2009.
So you’ve just finished your awesome script and are ready to send it off to an agent. It took several dozen query letters but finally someone requested the script and you just know that once they read it, they’ll be bowled over with your brilliance. However, you happen to have written a sci-fi film with lots of weird-looking aliens and ships, and you want to make sure they visualize everything properly. In that instance, there’s no harm in including a little conceptual art to give the agent something to work from, right?
This falls into the category of one of those seemingly arbitrary no-nos that everyone in the biz knows about, but no one is sure where the rule came from. Including supplementary materials is usually seen as the mistake of an amateur, and as we’ve often discussed, the last thing you want is for your audience to think they’re dealing with an amateur. It gets you off on the wrong foot with your reader.
Now, I’m sure that no one ever got a PASS just because they dared include a few conceptual drawings. I can say that over the years I’ve gotten more than a few scripts with such supplements, and the corollary usually holds that the greater the quantity of the supplements, the worse the quality of the script.
On the other side of the fence, I read an interview with Kate Beckinsale years ago and she said that when her agent sent her the script for Underworld, Len Wiseman’s had included a drawing of the character Selene. Apparently it got her attention and the look of the character helped sell her on the idea of doing the movie.
The worst supplement I ever got with a submission was a 20 minute CD presentation that I was instructed to play on my computer. The notes suggested that I might find it more engaging if I turned off the lights in my room and had a strong speaker set-up, so before I even put the disc in, I was rolling my eyes. Then, it refused to work on either of the two PCs put it into first attempted on, and only ran on my roommate’s MacBook.
What followed was one of the most laughable efforts at self-promotion that I have ever seen. Not only was the music akin to what one might hear in a planetarium, but the narrator’s voice was narcolepsy-inducing. The images themselves were an odd and inconsistent mix of actual photographs taken in space, and draw clip-art that were clearly cobbled from several different sources. Not only did this make for an inconsistent patchwork of art design, but I recognized the sources of many of the drawings. A few seemed to have been taken from technical books inspired by the Star Wars trilogy, while images of other creatures like bears and dragons appeared to have been scanned in from drawings in children’s books.
On top of that, this 22-minute presentation wasn’t just an introduction to the story – it told the whole story! All 140 pages of it. Have you ever listened to someone give a 22 minute verbal description of a screenplay? For most people, five minutes would be testing their limits and a few might check out at three. If it takes this much explaining for someone to understand a story, no one will want to buy it. When it comes time to sell this movie to an audience, the concept will need to be explainable within the time allotted to a movie trailer – three minutes tops.
Then, just to top off the experience, the writer included a timeline of historical events (this film took place in the far future and involved some time travel.) Guess what? The written timeline didn’t match the timeline of the events on the CD.
So in this case, I hadn’t even read one word of the screenplay, hadn’t even turned back the cover page, and I already knew it was going to be bad. That’s not a fun feeling.
Don’t waste your time making these supplements. Most of the time, this material will never be read if it’s submitted to a production company or an agency. Having worked in those places during both internships and paid jobs, this reader can state that the supplementary materials are immediately cast aside 99 times out of a hundred. Furthermore, that remaining 1% of the time, it’s likely that your material will be an annoyance rather than an asset.