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Screenplay Coverage & Questions For A Script Consultant

By Sandy Eiges

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Question: What exactly is a script consultant? Is it the same thing as a script doctor? What's the difference between a script consultant and a "reader?"

Answer: We are shadowy creatures, aren't we? Lurking behind every good script, a script consultant is like a secret weapon - although few writers, and even fewer producers, will admit to using a consultant, or "script doctor." So what do we do that justifies the kind of fees we command?

Question: Which would be?

Answer: A script consultant can charge anything he or she thinks the market will bear, and there is a difference between what writers pay and what producers pay. The lowest I've come across is $300; the highest is $7500 (I'm not kidding)! The higher-end fees are generally for projects in development, where you know you'll be called in for endless meetings and phone calls. But all script consultants should be available for phone calls throughout the rewrite process, without any extra charge.

Question: So what is it you do exactly that is worth that kind of money? And why should a new screenwriter hire you?

Answer: All writers fall in love with their story, their characters, their dialogue, their premise - if they didn't, they had no business writing the script in the first place! But this relationship between the writer and his or her work is like the beginning of a romance, where all is glorious and one tends not to see the beloved's flaws. New writers, especially, have no idea whether they've written a script that not only looks professional, but reads like a movie - and a pretty compelling movie at that. They absolutely need feedback from someone who isn't their best friend. In fact most writers, even those who have already sold material, get feedback from someone, after they've finished the first or second draft. It doesn't have to be a script consultant - even a class, or a writer's group, can be a great thing. But a script consultant gives your script far more time and attention than you get in a class setting.

Essentially, a script consultant takes a long, hard look at your script - the plot, structure, story logic, narrative drive, character development and characterization, theme, dialogue, and format - to determine if your screenplay works. It's not good enough for your friends and family to love your writing, unless they're in a position to buy it. People often come to me for approval - they want to hear that their script is pretty great, and they only have to make a couple of tiny changes to make a million-dollar sale. All writers will tell you what they think their weakness is; I listen to what they say, and try to respond to those issues within the context of the consultation. But I take a more "holistic" approach - what a client thinks is the problem may be the problem, but it might just be a symptom of the problem. I evaluate the script for problem areas - and then I tell you how to fix them, hence the term "script doctor."

Question: Do you actually write new dialogue? Or do your recommendations mostly concern plot and structure, leaving it to your client to create any new dialogue necessary?

Answer: My recommendations focus on improving the overall storytelling quality of the script, its readability and "understandability," including premise, plot, structure, theme, narrative drive, format, genre-related issues, character development, and dialogue. And unless I've been hired by a company or a producer to rewrite the script, I'd never rewrite the dialogue for the writer!

In short, a script consultant analyzes and evaluates your screenplay, identifies and solves story problems, provides suggestions for re-structuring, and hopefully, helps you develop more compelling characters. How was that for a sound bite?

Question: Perfect. But you said something earlier about the difference between an evaluation and coverage. Can you say more about that?

Answer: There are many people calling themselves script consultants these days. But someone providing 2-3 pages of  "in-depth notes", is more likely a "reader," hopefully with some experience doing something called "coverage" for major production companies and/or studios. Coverage is the assessment that most agents, producers and studios use when they read your script, and essentially tells them whether this is a project to consider or recommend - or to pass on. Since most screenplays get a pass, getting script coverage before you send your script out will help you determine whether your script is actually ready for the market, and, if not, what broad areas still need work. Most script consultants who do full evaluations will also do coverage for you.

Question: Okay. But I still don't get the difference.

Answer: Coverage is a very structured summary, kind of like a book report (remember those?). The first page contains the basic information on the manuscript, book or script - name, author, producer (if any), other elements (talent already attached, like a director or actors). Below that is a one line premise, or logline, followed by one short paragraph evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the script. Below that is what is called a "boxed rating" - a grid that includes categories like story, premise, character development, structure, visual appeal, and that rates them as anywhere from poor to excellent. The second page is generally a synopsis of the project; this can be short, or quite detailed, depending on the company. The final page is the evaluation, which expands upon the strengths and weaknesses of the script. The first paragraph of the evaluation page is often the same as the evaluation paragraph on the first page. And, oh yeah, the words pass, recommend or consider appear on both the first and the last page.

At the risk of boring you to death, a full evaluation, or consultation, is very different. An evaluation can run to 20 pages, and it doesn't just rate your script - it goes into excruciating detail as to each of the elements, what works and what doesn't, and makes suggestions for what you can do to address these issues. And this is just in the "general notes" section of the evaluation! After that there will be a painstaking (and often painful) page by page (and sometimes even line-by-line) analysis of your script, not just an overview. Issues of format may also come up - most consultants will make corrections on the script itself, if necessary.

While coverage can be very valuable, particularly for writers who can't afford a comprehensive consultation, not all readers are created equal. And whether a writer is looking for a script consultant or a reader, it's always a good idea to check out their background and credentials, and ask for references.

Question: Speaking of credentials, how did you arrive at your current position of script consultant, and how have you managed to establish, and maintain, your contacts within the industry?

Answer: That's an interesting story. In this case, I didn't have to claw my way to the top - this is something that more or less fell into my lap. I had been working thanklessly (as in, on my own spec scripts) as a screenwriter for some time, when one of my screenplays, MISERY LOVES COMPANY, attracted a lot of attention, getting me a major agent and meetings all over town. My own script consultant on that project, and screenwriting mentor (and now close personal friend), Chris Vogler (author of "The Writers Journey") asked if I would be willing to take referrals for script consulting. This was back in 1994; and, although I still see myself primarily as a screenwriter, I have been consulting with writers, directors, producers, and studios ever since. This has included working as a story analyst and script consultant for such companies as Twentieth Century Fox, TNT, Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Lifetime, among others; acting as a judge for the now-defunct CableAce Awards, for dramatic writing for movies, mini-series and children's programming; and assessing projects for financing for, of all things, the New Zealand Film Commission. Don't ask, but I'm big in New Zealand.

As you know, and will hear time and time again, this is an industry based on personal contacts. It is also an industry with a voracious appetite, always looking for the next big thing; and while it seems like it's hard for a newcomer to break in, it is much easier when people already know you, like you, like your work, and, as a story analyst and script consultant, like your taste. In fact most of my work, both as a writer and as a script consultant, comes from referrals from people I've worked with before. And my industry contacts know that I wouldn't call them about a script I think they should read unless I really thought it was worthy of their attention. This is often frustrating to some of my clients who are new writers, and believe their work is ready for a studio submission, when it's not; and while I understand their impatience, I also know what executives are looking for, and how important it is to make a good first impression. In fact, I'm sure that's how I maintain my good relations - they know I'm not going to waste their time!

Question: Many writers struggle to find a balance between writing a script that is close to their heart and writing a script that is obviously commercial. What are your thoughts on this difficult decision between following your heart and following the money?

Answer: I hear this idea all the time, that, to be successful in Hollywood, screenwriters feel like they have to abandon their art, and all deeply held beliefs, concerns, morals, etc., etc. Frankly, I am disturbed by this continuing schism between the concept "passion project" and "marketability." As far as I'm concerned, if you are writing a screenplay, then you had better care about it, and it had better bear some resemblance to something we can identify as a movie, or it's not going to be satisfying to anyone but the writer.

We all know how difficult it is to come up with that "high concept" idea - that simple premise that can be summarized in a sentence, that has universal, instantly understandable appeal - that is obviously highly marketable; but any project should engage your passion and creativity, or it's not going to read well to anyone. And even those high concept genre scripts need to achieve a level of execution that is intelligent and sophisticated, in terms of story and character development. If your script doesn't reach that level, and take the reader on a unique and original ride, then no one is going to want to read it, much less finance it, make it or flock to it. If you really care about your story, you will do everything you need to do as a writer to make sure your story has a central idea, and make that idea sparkle and shine. As a writer of anything but a journal, or maybe letters to your mother (who will love you no matter what you write), you are always writing for yourself and your audience. Experimental film aside, the trick is to capture your passion for your story, and your central idea, in a way that speaks to other people - that is the hard work of writing for any writer. For a screenwriter it's even more difficult, since screen stories are told in a kind of verbal and visual shorthand that is a language unto itself.

To get back to your question, even small, personal, quirky projects have proven to be successful in the marketplace (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, anyone? Or even AMERICAN BEAUTY, for that matter), when the writer had an original story to tell, and told it well. The trick here is to learn how to work at telling it well, finding the heart of your story and learning to cast aside the dross surrounding it, instead of assuming that every word you write is gold, or high art. That said, perhaps it is also worth taking a look at whether your story idea has a concept suitable to a screen story, or whether it would be better served as a novel, a short story, a play, or even a TV series. Pitching your idea to your writers group, or other industry professionals, will help there. Any professional should be able to tell you whether your material is commercially viable; many experienced readers can do the same.

Question: One of your skills is taking a script and preparing it to go on the market. What does that process involve?

Answer: For a writer, preparing a script to go on the market involves what sometimes feels like endless rewriting. As I said earlier, when a writer brings me a script (or even a synopsis or a treatment) for evaluation, I take a look at story structure, story line, character development, dialogue, theme, and of course, the premise. I try to get a feel for the overall "shape" of the script, and what I think the writer is going for; and then I try to mirror that back to them, with what the broad strokes of the overall story, and each act individually, should achieve. I then give the writer detailed notes, both on the above issues as well as on specific pages and scenes, with suggestions for the rewrite.

I also suggest movies in the same or similar genre, that the writer should take a look at. You have no idea how many would-be screenwriters rarely see movies, because "there isn't anything out there they want to see" - ever! Or they don't see how they can learn anything from someone else's film. There are no new stories out there. there are just endlessly new ways of telling them; you owe it to your audience to be aware of what's gone before, and to make yours different (and better, deeper, more entertaining, etc.)

Taking a script from first to final draft can be a painstaking process, and can feel somewhat brutal, especially to new writers who aren't accustomed to getting a professional critique. It is, in fact, very similar to the development process, where executives, once they own the script (and presumably already love it), give you massive amounts of notes for the endless rewriting they expect you to do. So, if you are hoping to work as a professional screenwriter, it is a good idea to learn to work from notes right from the start. Of course, every writer is the best judge as to whether the comments make sense to them - I always tell my clients, use what makes sense to you, and toss the rest.

Once I've finished the script notes I will schedule a story conference, whether by phone or in person, so that we can review the notes, and perhaps come up with some new ideas as to how to approach problem issues. This process, of notes, rewriting, and review, can continue for as long as it takes to get what I would consider a decent submission draft.

Question: How can writers better prepare themselves for the process of offering their work for sale? What do they need to be wary of?

Answer: Before you give your script to anyone, you should register the script with the Writers Guild of America, either the East Coast or West Coast branch; or other country guilds/copyright offices outside of the US. In fact, if you are pitching a story idea, before you've written the screenplay, you should register the synopsis, no matter how short it is. This will afford you some proof, should that producer make a film that looks suspiciously like yours, that they had access to your idea, to your registered story. Does this stop producers from stealing material? No. Sadly, ideas are "borrowed," all the time. But hopefully it gives some of them pause. To afford yourself of real legal protection, particularly in the case of a unique premise, you may want to copyright your script with the Library of Congress. Copyright infringement is a punishable offense; registration infringement is not.

The next thing a writer should do is learn to accept criticism and rejection! I'm not kidding - this is not a career for the faint of heart. Does that mean a writer should accept every critique offered, and frantically scramble to rewrite every time a rejection letter arrives? No, of course not. But if you're not truly ready to hear any criticism of your work, if your first, second and third response is to stubbornly defend every word you wrote, then you're not ready to send your screenplay out into the marketplace. If you're unsure, test the waters by giving your script to your writers group, using a script consultant; or by getting coverage before sending out your script.

Once you are ready to take your script out, it's always a good idea to know your market, and what projects specific producers and studios have in development or production. If you are trying to sell your screenplay yourself, instead of through an agent, then you must know who is doing what. Tracking recent sales, reading the trades, and, believe it or not, actually going to the movies, will be a big help here.

Once you've passed these hurdles, and have gotten someone to read your script, they will often have you sign a release form. These forms, while they look scary, actually afford you some legal protection, proving that this company read your script. Most companies won't read your script without one. Oh, and one more thing - other than a script consultant whom you've hired to give you notes on your script, no "producer," "production company" or "agent" should charge you a reading fee just to read your script.

Let's say that an agent reads your script, loves it, and wants to take it out, and/or sign you as a client. They will have you sign a contract, binding you to them for a period of time. Typically this is one year, although two isn't uncommon. If you're not comfortable with the time period, try negotiating - remember, the agent is supposed to be working for you, and not the other way around. But before you sign, it's a good idea to get some idea of how they plan to market your script. You want to know if you are both thinking in the same direction, and whether they have the level of contacts that will get your script in the right hands.

Now let's say that a producer reads your script, loves it, and wants to option it. Congratulations! Before you break out the champagne, check to see who these producers are - has anyone ever heard of them, have they made any movies, or, if not, do they have the kind of relationships where they can get your screenplay to someone who will? Also, don't be afraid to ask if there is actual payment involved. While free options aren't all that unusual, you may let them take the script out for a specified amount of time - say, three months - but you may not want to sign a binding contract with that producer. And if there is pay, there should be a contract stipulating what the terms are, what the sale price will be, etc. I have had, and seen, enough bad agreements to know that, no matter how poor you think you are, and how good the offer looks on the face of it, you can't afford not to use an entertainment attorney to negotiate this for you. In fact, any time you feel nervous or concerned about a negotiation, it is wise to consult an attorney. And one who will work for an hourly rate, and not for a percentage of your sale.

Question: Any final words of advice?

Answer: It's a sad fact that most writers send out their scripts before they're ready, almost guaranteeing a pass. Before sending an untested script out into the marketplace, I recommend getting feedback from someone, other than your husband, wife or mother. You need to get an honest response, and preferably from someone in the industry. As I said earlier, even if a full script evaluation with a consultant isn't an option, a writer should at least try to get "coverage", or extended coverage, of their script.

I know this is a lot to think about - you just want to sell your script! Criticism? Restructuring? Rewriting? Whatever happened to creativity? This is your script, after all, and you think it's the best work you've ever done. It may be - but it's my job as a script consultant to take your raw talent to the next level. Think of me as a coach - even the best athlete still needs one. A script consultant can mean the difference between placing in a contest and winning the contest, between rejection and sale. But using a script consultant is still no magic bullet - it's your job to come up with your brilliant, profound, disturbing, hilarious, terrifying premise, and use the consultant to help you develop that premise, rewrite and rewrite again, until your script shines, and you make that lucrative deal.

Good luck to all of you in your writing!

About Sandy Eiges

Sandy Eiges is an award-winning screenwriter, story analyst and script consultant, with major experience in identifying and solving story problems. She has worked with many writers, producers and studios, including Twentieth Century Fox, Samuel Goldwyn Films, TNT and the New Zealand Film Commission, among others. She has also served as a judge for the CableAce Awards and for several screenwriting competitions; and was the winner of the 1998 K.A.S.A. Screenwriting Award for a quirky comedy, subsequently purchased by Kingman Films. She has a family drama in development with Irish Dreamtime, Pierce Brosnan's company; and an independent film in development with Lyra Films.

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