Friday, May 29, 2009

Meet the Reader: Readers (Don't) Suck

As I mentioned in my last post, Script recently reprinted an old column of mine call “How Not to Annoy a Reader” -- a humorous list of do’s and don’ts for screenwriters based on the mistakes I’ve encountered in the thousands of screenplays that I’ve read over the years. I also reported that the response to the reprint was generally positive, although there were a few negative reviews as well. One of my favorites was a delightfully cranky diatribe against the very idea of readers. The comment echoed the usual complaint that writers have against professional readers, which goes something like this:

Readers are all angry, low-paid cretins -- would-be writers who couldn’t make it and are now so full of spite and bile that they hate everything they read even when it's brilliant and routinely pass on terrific screenplays because they are so jealous of genuinely talented writers that they do everything they can to sabotage those writers’ careers. Even if readers do like something, it doesn’t matter because they are so lowly and unimportant that no one listens to them anyway. The commenter went so far as to opine: “If a 'reader' is reading your script, nothing will happen with it. Readers are the step before the producer’s assistant. You need to meet producers and directors to have a chance at getting your work made.” It’s a popular assessment, but it’s not accurate and I thought it might be a good idea to set the record just a little bit straighter.

Readers are the first link in the development chain -- it’s their job to take the piles of scripts that a production entity (a studio, production company, or independent producer’s office) receives and separate the wheat from the chaff. They carefully read (not just skim through the first 10 pages while watching TV, talking on the phone, and eating crullers, as many urban legends allege) and assess (in a carefully written report) each piece, passing on the obviously bad or unsuitable (if you’re reading for a company that’s forte is horror films, then a rom-com, no matter how well written, just isn’t going to cut it) scripts and then identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those that remain, before finally either suggesting that the production entity give a piece serious consideration (this rating is usually given to a script that has a great deal of promise but that also has a number of significant problems that need to be solved) or else heartily recommending it as an absolute slam dunk (this rating is given to scripts that are pretty much perfect. For obvious reasons, it is given only rarely). Depending on the structure of the company, a reader usually reports to a story editor or a development executive -- not the producer’s secretary. If the office is small enough, the reader may report directly to the producer him/herself. Obviously, the reader is not the one that makes the final decision or anywhere near about whether a script is bought and/or made, but it is his/her initial assessment that sets the wheels in motion. I can count five or six scripts (including one pretty big Oscar-winner) that were produced by companies that I worked for and that I know I did the initial assessment on. I am in no way claiming that I’m responsible for getting these scripts made, but I know that I certainly played a not-unimportant role in the process.

Most readers are pretty darn smart, many are highly educated, and yes, many are aspiring writers. Almost none of the ones I’ve met are particularly angry, although they can sometimes get a bit sarcastic (so would you if you had to read as many bad scripts as they do). They do pass on a majority of the scripts they read -- not because they’re jealous, but because most of the scripts out there just aren’t very good (sorry, but it’s true). Because they read so much junk, most readers I know are thrilled when they come across a good script (because reading one literally restores your faith in the art form) and rather than kill it, do whatever they can to bring it to the right person’s attention. (Sometimes going to ridiculous lengths. Several years ago, I read a script that I thought was terrific. The prodco I read it for passed, so I’ve been carrying it around ever since and give it to anyone I think might be interested. No takers yet, but I’m not giving up.)

It hurts to have a script rejected -- it is, after all, your sweat and blood -- and when this happens it is probably easier to blame it on some imaginary villain than to accept the fact that your piece just wasn’t up to snuff. But if you’ve come up with something extraordinary, then believe me, a reader’s going to be your very best friend -- a friend that may need to borrow a dollar to get a cheeseburger (because that whole low-paid thing is true), but a friend nonetheless.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

Monday, May 18, 2009

Creating Your First Web Series: Zerks Log

You never have a second chance to make a first impression.

It’s cliché, but true -- especially in the world of entertainment. When an agent, manager or executive sees your work for the first time, he categorizes you in his mind: comedy or drama, TV or film, good or not good. If you’re not on your game, you can spend years fighting against that first impression.

When you’re considering putting your work online, give careful consideration to the fact that it will live forever. Bad screenplays can be tucked away, horrible student films can hide on your DVD shelf, but online content -- especially a first publicized Web series -- can cement your brand for years to come.

Production company StoryForge Labs was recently wrestling with this very issue. Founded to create sci-fi entertainment, they wanted their first Web series to be representative of their years of production experience. “We wanted to make something fun that would be manageable to produce,” says Executive Producer Steve Lettieri, “and also showcase what we were about in terms of sci-fi storytelling and visual effects.”

Out of that thinking came Zerks Log, an 18-episode Web series about the captain of the Venturi 553, a long-lost alien spacecraft, whose video log entries were discovered in the ship’s black box. The narrative of the story leads up to the ship’s mysterious disappearance, as explained by the hapless Captain Zerks. His underplayed comedic tone colors his thoughts on mundane ship business, romantic aspirations, and the serious questioning of one’s own life purpose.

The show’s camerawork is simple: a single locked-off shot, where Captain Zerks shares his thoughts. It’s a familiar set-up to fans of reality TV or LonelyGirl15: a confessional given straight to camera. But the production values are extremely complex. The costume, character puppetry, makeup, and visual effects are top-notch.

Of course, Lettieri and his team at StoryForge want their show to be successful. Lettieri states, “Like [most] of us working in the Web video space, we’re still trying to figure out the business model.” Beyond revenues and audience numbers, part of the measure of success of the show is to introduce a small corner of a larger story. StoryForge has already released two issues of In The Engine Room, an online comic based on the engineers hard at work in the belly of Zerks’ ship. This type of meta-content has already proven success for TV shows like NBC’s Heroes and ABC’s Lost. Lettieri promises more locations and characters in the second season of Zerks Log, already in pre-production. In the future, the expansive story they’ve begun to tell could be licensed, leveraged, or sold.

But perhaps the most crucial benefit of creating Zerks Log is the razor-focused publicity StoryForge is generating for their work. Lettieri and his team have created a great first impression as excellent production artists, with a unique point of view on science-fiction.

It’s easy to envision a scenario where a Hollywood studio producer needs someone to create aliens for a big-budget feature film, or a TV show’s executive producer needs a writer who’s had experience with underplayed sci-fi comedy. In either case, StoryForge has created the first essence of a brand that may pay lasting dividends.

You can watch Zerks Log at:

Alec McNayr is a writer and executive producer at Space Shank Media, a digital media production company. He serves as a member of the International Academy of Web Television, the voting body for the Streamy Awards.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wesley Rowe: The Common Touch

It has been argued by various teachers -- convincingly, I think -- that students stand to learn more from the failures in their chosen art field than the successes. The best failures to learn from are your own, and writing teachers -- from actual instructors to the members of a writers group or just interested friends -- can provide you with very useful critique of the mechanics of your work.

But it's a truism in Hollywood that commerce comes before art. If you want to make money as a screenwriter, you must learn not only what interests people very much like yourself, but the vast swath of America (and the world) that is not. As helpful as these "instructors" can be, their very interest in your screenplay makes them highly unlikely to have tastes in line with the "bubba factor" -- masses that must turn out in droves to a Hollywood movie for it to be profitable. In this regard, people like you don’t have much more insight than you, though they may be able to inform you that the general audience wants or needs you to "keep it simple, stupid (KISS)."

While you can't reach 100 million bubbas on the phone, they have a highly evolved method of communicating their loves, wishes, disappointments and appetites. No, not voting on American Idol. Box-office data. Movie tastes are tallied in dollars.

So, which box-office lessons offer the best instruction on Wide America? The answer is different for everyone. The failure with the most to teach you is the one you didn't see coming or, even better, the one whose box-office failure you still can't fathom. Conversely, the success of a movie you loathe can show you a lot about your blind spots as an aspiring writer.

Even though each individual's tastes are different -- and you, Dear Reader, are the absolutely unique snowflake your mom has told you over and over that you are -- I can make a few educated guesses about what movies might teach you a lesson. You are, after all, a film buff. And the very definition of a movie that film buffs love but bubbas don't is the "cult classic."

The classic I'll pick this time is The Big Lebowski. It only made $17.4 million in the U.S., and about half that internationally. And it must not have wholly satisfied those people who saw it, reflected in its 37% drop in box office from the first weekend in release to the second. Yet your interest in screenwriting makes you quite likely, in my experience, to rank it among your top 5 or 10 comedies of all time, and you probably own a copy. This is the kind of disconnect between student and bubba that is instructive. Lebowski is a big blind spot for me (I own a copy), but I'll give you my most objective effort at gleaning lessons (spoilers!):

1. Don't do drugs. People in big, coastal cities tend to overestimate the "drug tolerance" of people everywhere else. Harold & Kumar smoked a lot of pot in New Jersey to the tune of a very Lebowski-like $18 million. Half Baked did the same.
2. Don't
kill the one character in the movie who absolutely doesn't deserve it, and certainly don't do it near the end. It leaves a bad taste.
3. Don't leave a lot of fat in the second act. The thing with the private detective in a VW bug was funny, but probably asked too much of attention spans.
4. Don't go watch the movie again until you get to the end of the list.
5. Don't build a third act from a series of anti-climaxes. The Dude's "big realization" leaves him with no one to pursue. He and Walter brawl with the red herring (the Nihilists), and then the funeral home, and the funeral, and finally the last scene at the bowling alley, but it's not the tournament we've been hearing so much about ...
6. But that's what happens when the movie's main inspiration is The Big Sleep, which is legendar
y for its anarchy and lack of cohesion. Best to avoid that, too.
7. Bubba probably hasn't seen The Big Sleep.
8. Don't expect a broad audience to dig the resonance between the anticlimactic ending and your theme of nihilism. Corollary: use language everyone understands.

Please critique or rage in the comments section. Or drop a suggestion for other movies that bear such discussion, and maybe we'll get to them in a future episode.

Wesley Rowe, a freelance writer and independent producer, draws upon work experience ranging from, more recently, creative executive positions at two studio-based production companies, to, in his youth, designing mechanical parts for an NASA satellite that tested Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. He lives in L.A.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dr. Format: The Industry Standard

I hear constant references to the industry standard for formatting. Does it actually exist, and, if so, where was it last spotted? And why is there so much confusion around it? I’ll explain and explode a couple of myths along the way just for fun. This should relax you to the point that you’ll not only feel encouraged to write (in correct format), but you’ll get a positive bounce in your immune system as well.

Myth #1There is only one specific standard that all writers, producers, readers, and agents adhere to

Screenwriters craft two types of scripts -- spec scripts and shooting scripts -- and each has its own standard. Unless you are being paid in advance to write, you are writing a spec script. Thus, the vast majority of writers write specs. The industry standard for spec writing is explained in The Screenwriter’s Bible. Shooting script style is found in The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. Both major software applications, Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, are defaulted for spec writing conventions, so you can feel safe with the tabs and margins they preset for you. In addition, both software programs allow you to select shooting script conventions (such as scene numbering) if needed.

Have you noticed that just about everyone has their own idea of correct spec format? The good news is there is one generally accepted industry standard for spec scripts. However, you may see slight variations on the same theme. Let me explain with an example.

One maxim is that dialogue should be indented 10 spaces (one inch) -- that’s the standard -- but I’ve seen scripts written for a particular production company indented 12 spaces. In my view, and in the view of most professionals, the specific number is not crucial in this case. And that leads us to our next myth.

Myth #2 – Your script must be perfectly formatted or it will be thrown out

Virtually all producers, readers, and agents are fine with occasional errors, but when those errors become distractions, the reader may lose patience. Does that mean you can get lax about formatting your script? After all, isn’t the content more important? The story is more important, but its presentation can enhance its chances in the marketplace. May I illustrate with an example?

Suppose I offer you a piece of delicious chocolate cake. You say, “Yes, yummy.” So I grab a chunk with my hand and slap it down on the table. You say, “That’s not very appealing.” And I reply, “Isn’t the content more important than the presentation?”

It’s true that many professionals don’t care much about formatting specifics as long as you are close and the script “looks basically okay,” but others are sticklers. So it is in your best interest to adhere to the industry standard for spec writing as best you can. On the other hand, don’t drive yourself nuts trying to make the script perfect. As I like to tell my students and clients, “The goal is excellence, not perfection.”

The bedrock of spec writing

You want to sell your script. The path to a sale is through the reader. In terms of formatting and spec writing, the reader wants three things -- clarity, readability and uniformity.

CLARITY. You cannot afford to lose or confuse a reader that usually reads quickly. Lately, I’ve seen some sloppy writing. I occasionally stop reading and wonder where I am or whether or not a particular scene is a flashback, or what happened, or whether or not JIM the same as the MAN back on page 7. When in doubt about what to do, err on the side of clarity.

READABILITY. The essence of spec screenwriting is to say as much with as few words as possible. The current trend is towards "lean and clean" screenwriting: shorter screenplays, shorter paragraphs, shorter speeches, and more white space. Your script needs to flow like a river into the mind of the reader. Make your script an “easy read” of a compelling story.

UNIFORMITY. A reader wants your script to be formatted more or less like other scripts he or she has read. And that means adherence to the industry standard for spec writing.

Now relax, have fun, and keep writing.

Dave Trottier (Dr. Format) is the author of The Screenwriter’s Bible and a produced screenwriter with 10 scripts sold or optioned. As a script consultant he provides absolute honesty at reasonable rates, and evaluates screenplays in 14 key screenwriting areas. Hundreds of his clients and students have sold their work or advanced their writing careers. For a free newsletter and information, visit

Monday, May 11, 2009

Who Saw Star Trek?

Who saw Star Trek this weekend? What did you think?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Meet the Reader: Here We Go Again ...

The "Meet the Reader" column ran in Script from 2001 to 2006, at which point it was pulled from the print edition so that it could be moved to this website. Although this took a bit longer to accomplish than originally expected, we’re here now and so I’ll carry on as I did before, offering observations and tips for screenwriters inspired by the hundreds of scripts that I read and analyze each year.

During the print hiatus, Script reprinted one of my old columns in the site. How Not to Annoy a Reader was a humorous list of mistakes for screenwriters to avoid that I developed based on the errors that I have encountered in script after script. The response to the reprint was generally very positive -- I received many complimentary notes from as near as Hollywood and as far as Lebanon and Iran. However, one response was not so favorable. Fed up with the avalanche of edicts that shower down upon scriptwriters from the experts -- the myriad of analysts, teachers, how-to-book authors, and gurus that make up the screenwriting support industry, all of whom insist that their rules are the rules, despite the fact that the advice offered by one often conflicts terribly with that given by another -- one reader opined, “Ask one simple question to three of you and get 250 totally contradictory answers.”

All of this confusion generates a great deal of anxiety, which is only made worse by the insistence by many of the experts that if a screenwriter doesn’t follow every last bit of their advice, then he/she can expect that his/her script will be forever consigned to the seventh circle of development hell. I encounter this anxiety all of the time in nervous writers asking if it's true that if their first-act plot turn occurs ¾ of the way down page 22 rather than ½ of the way down (because that’s the way some screenwriting book said it had to be), if a particular bit of dialogue runs longer than three lines (because a script analyst said it couldn’t), or if their actions scenes were punctuated with a few periods instead of solely with exclamation points (because a renowned screenwriting guru said this was the only way to let the reader know that the scene was supposed to be exciting), then I will give their script a pass and have them permanently blackballed from the industry. (I’m not making any of this up, by the way. These are all actual bits of advice given to screenwriters by some alleged “experts.”) To help alleviate this anxiety, I thought it would be a good idea to answer the eternal question -- are there really inviolate “rules” for screenwriting? At the risk of further irking my already irritated reader, the answer is yes. And no.

There are very definitely some core principles of dramatic construction -- those first codified by Aristotle in his Poetics and re-explained in various ways over the eons, perhaps most clearly for screenwriters by Syd Field in his book Screenplay -- and, yes, they must be followed, because if they’re not, you may wind up with a ream of pages filled with words, but you’ll never have a story. There is also a standard format for screenplays that must be adhered to because it’s the common blueprint of filmmaking, and if you don’t use it properly no one will know how to interpret your tale for the screen. Finally, there are also the basic rules of proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You have to follow these because you want people to understand what you’ve written and because you’ll look like an illiterate moron if you don’t.

As for all of those other rules -- those suggestions, guidelines, tips, and imperatives that insist that certain story points must occur on certain pages, require that there be a strict percentage of ink to blank space on each sheet, and insist that character names in comedies can end only in “k” -- some of them are useful and many are just silly. So, my advice is to implement the ones that help your script and forget the rest. Ultimately, the only rule you have to follow is the prime commandment of storytelling: tell a good one, because if you don’t, then following all of the rules in the world ain’t gonna help you.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at

Monday, May 4, 2009

Discussing May/June With Andrew Shearer

Greetings, avid Script readers, and welcome to the first edition of the issue discussion blog. I look forward to many insightful, productive conversations as well as the spirited and conveniently anonymous disagreements that naturally follow.

As screenwriters trying to make it in Hollywood, we already know reality bites. Only about five percent of all professional specs that go out sell these days. Audiences are watching movies on smaller and smaller screens with shorter and shorter attention spans. And the traffic out here makes our struggling lives all the more hellish. However, Phil Gladwin’s article Reality Bites: Writers Get Clever inspired me to look at how reality sucks in a newer, more positive light.

Let me be clear that I’m someone who downright loathes reality TV and arrogantly prides myself on having never seen an episode of Survivor or American Idol or the next one of whatever. But while reading Gladwin’s retelling of Jade Goody's story, I actually got caught up in it as a dramatic, true-to-life concept. I enjoyed it on the page before it was ruined by the exploitative presentation reality TV often lends itself to. And that got me very excited. It got me thinking about how we as writers often complain about what’s wrong with current trends and simply stick to what we’re comfortable with. But as Gladwin’s article points out, with the decline of reality TV and the rise of new media, we’re arriving at the next step in our yet-to-be-written history as writers: What will our stamp be on the direction of new media content?

Personally, I’m not that interested in watching a podcast or anything really on a screen the size of a Gameboy. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy writing the content if it’s a good story! It’s pretty exciting too because even writers can do it yourself -- inexpensively. Short films, the kind that go to festivals, cost money (my credit card bill reminds me of that monthly). And they usually require a lot of production. But the kind of new media content intended for the Internet needs only a unique script, a cheap camera, and a couple people willing to get in front of it. Okay, maybe a little more than that. But go watch the shorts on, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s online shorts site, specifically “The Landlord.” Ninety percent of the pie is creativity -- some of their best videos are the cheapest.

Also, take the example in Robert Gustafson’s and Alec McNayr’s article Anytime Creativity Strikes. The idea of a talk show in less than five minutes is immediately interesting simply because it’s never been done. Now obviously, as the article points out, those guys already had access to celebrities which draws audience. The same goes for Funny or Die.

That brings me to my question. What are you watching? Webisodes, podcasts? Are you writing any content for new media? Where do you think is the direction of new media content?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

What Do You Think?

Dear Script readers,

I recently received an e-mail that asserts that Script paints too rosy a picture of the screenwriting business. We don’t, the writer claimed, focus enough on the despair and frustration inherent in a career as a screenwriter.

My first instinct was to bundle up a few recent articles to send the e-mailer's way: interviews with A-list writers explaining their struggles against studio notes that grind against their artistic sensibilities. Or about the niceties of team writing and arbitration on countless blockbusters. Aaron Mendelsohn’s moving strike article outlining how, perhaps despite the fact that he has written one of the most profitable franchises in Disney history, he sometimes wonders from month to month how he’ll pay the mortgage. Discussions of new media and reality outlets that circumvent WGA protections by declining to call writers writers. And columnists who -- while lending a decidedly humorous bend to the news -- explain in issue after issue how writers are pushed out, lied to, and downright disrespected in the creative process. Not to mention writers we’ve covered full of hope and promise who have seen their projects crash and burn, or haven’t landed a job in years, or have produced a verifiably intelligent blockbuster, only to have an actor or director take credit for writing the majority of the material (or, conversely, blame the writer above all others when a project bombs due to too-many-cooks syndrome).

In the theatre, they have an adage: If you can imagine yourself doing anything else in the world, by all means, do it. I’m certain the saying has been applied in many screenwriting books and workshops as well. But the point is, even after knowing all of that, thousands of people -- maybe you -- work or aspire to work as scriptwriters for film, television, videogames, and new media. And when you achieve that work, is it wrong for a publication such as ours to celebrate those achievements, especially when very few outlets do?

This year, Dustin Lance Black and Simon Beaufoy did not discuss the darker side of the business in promoting their Oscar®-winning films. Instead they discussed the creative challenges of their respective journeys as they researched their screenplays. Is talking about the creative process over contempt for the studio too rosy a picture? Shawn Ryan changed the face of cable programming with a small cop drama that focused on character over set-pieces. Isn’t that worth celebrating?

If celebrating these writers and their stories is painting too rosy a picture of an industry often filled with disappointment and bad news, then I guess we’re guilty. We aren’t oblivious to the fact that sometimes it takes an invocation of the gods and the movement of heaven and earth to get someone to look at your script. But we do think that there's something of value in examining the successes as well as the failures and frustrations in this industry.

What do you think?

Maureen Green
Web Editor

Friday, May 1, 2009

Welcome to

Starting Monday, May 4, hear from our new bloggers.