Thursday, April 5, 2012

Inside the submission process with Gavin Polone

If you haven't already checked out Gavin Polone's weekly Vulture column, head over there and check it out to get an agent/producer's take on how script submissions are evaluated.

I also closely read scripts that my friends send me or those that have been submitted by writers with whom I’ve worked before. But other than that, scripts submitted to me as possible development projects are given to my development executive and our assistants, who write a synopsis and critique on each. When an agent calls and says, “I’m going out with this project that I think you’ll love,” I always reply, “Thanks, I’ll read it right away," but both he and I know that what I really meant by "it" was the write-up from my assistant, not the script. 

It goes without saying that this is how most scripts end up in my hands.  With dozens of scripts coming into the office each week, it's the only way the people at the top can focus on the stronger material and get their jobs done.  I know there are plenty of aspiring writers who will argue about the unfairness of that practice, but logically it's the only way any development office can function.  It's not (usually) because the producer is lazy and hates to read - it's because there's just so much to read.

If my assistant really liked it and my development executive concurs, I will read about twenty pages; if I like those twenty pages, I read on until I don’t like it anymore or I finish. If I get all of the way through, I probably will get involved with the project in some way; if I pass (which is the usual outcome), I will send an e-mail to the agent thanking him for thinking of me but declining to produce the project. I’ll offer some reason as to why I’m passing — maybe I didn't "relate to the premise" or "connect to the characters" — but, of course, anything specific I say is actually plagiarized from the document my assistant gave me urging me to pass. 

Twenty pages.  There.  You have it right there from someone at the top.  I've gotten some flack in the past when I've harped on the importance of having a strong first fifteen pages.  Some writers have shot back, "But you have to read the whole thing!  Why should I write to your laziness if my awesome spec scripts needs thirty pages of build-up?"

Because you're not just writing to my "laziness." You have to write to the habits of people like Gavin too. Even if you catch me on a generous day, you'll still have to knock it out of the park with those above my paygrade - and they're a lot harder to impress.

If this seems disingenuous, keep in mind that the writer's agent probably didn't read the script either: A more genuine process would be to have my assistant deal directly with his assistant, since they're the only ones who did read it. But to preserve the illusion on all sides, when the agent calls his client and goes over the list of producers to whom he submitted the script, he will say, “Gavin Polone passed,” not “Gavin Polone’s assistant told him to pass.” 

I'll admit that this process breaks down when the agent's assistant is a moron with no taste.  I've gotten submissions where I've had zero trouble believing that the submitting agent never even skimmed the script.  I'd like to see more quality control in what gets sent out, but when you mix fringe agents with story editors and creative execs who are still making names for themselves, you end up with a less than perfect screening process.  Still, I don't know what a fringe agent gains from setting our rubbish and having that swill associated with their name.

In fact, there's one agent who - at least based on his submissions - couldn't recognize a truly shitty script if bad writing looked like a naked Brooklyn Decker and good writing resembled Golda Meir!

And as we've said before, the best way to avoid getting screwed by this process is to write an awesome screenplay.

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