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Are You Ready for the Marketplace?

By Donie Nelson

1. Your First Five Scripts

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is Is my script ready? Whether or not a specific script is ready is open to interpretation, based on who is reading the script. However, here are some guidelines I have developed based on my own experience as a development executive and after talking to producers, managers and agents.

How do you know when you are ready?
The first three to five scripts you write are usually for yourself -- they are your experiments. They are often not yet good enough to be submitted to a producer or agent. However, they are not a waste of your time. You've submitted them to your friends and family, and perhaps to members of your writing group. You've listened. You've learned. You now know script formatting, what brads and covers to use and have mastered your screenwriting program or designed some macros which work for you. Your margins are set to industry standards, and the page numbers are the right size and in the right place.

By this time, you probably also know where to buy those brass brads (the Writers Store of course), what your title page should look like and what color of script covers (if any) you prefer. You've even learned how to proofread your script, and you catch those words your spell check misses. You know the ones, they are spelled right, but used incorrectly. And for the many writers who have consistent spelling and grammatical problems, you've had the good sense to recruit someone else to proofread for you.

More importantly, you now have a working knowledge of the basics of script structure, can tell a story and are well on your way to creating unique and believable characters. You also have a bookshelf of your favorite 'how-to' screenwriting books, subscribe to The Hollywood Screenwriter, Scr(i)pt Magazine and/or Creative Screenwriting, and you have a few books which explain how Hollywood works. You've explored websites and have your favorite ones bookmarked. You are itching to get noticed by Hollywood. But having the basics down is just the beginning. There are thousands of writers out there itching to get noticed. To greatly increase your chances, there are several very important steps you need to take.

2. Exercise Your Creative Voice

By about your sixth script, you've found your creative voice and have a pretty good idea of what genre fully engages your imagination and readily showcases your inherent talents. Now, you immerse yourself in honing your craft. You've probably also acquired a sense of whether your scripts are headed for the independent market or have a commercial hook unique enough for the major studios, top producers and stars to see dollar signs while reading.

While there are no magic formulas, I usually recommend that once you find your creative voice, you should exercise it. This means: write three to four scripts in one genre. Why? Because it hones your craft. If your first romantic comedy is good, then your second should be better. And your third or fourth should be terrific.

A writer with one terrific romantic comedy can open a number of producers' doors. But a writer with one terrific and two to three very good romantic comedies, can keep those doors open long enough to sneak in and develop a relationship with several different producers and their development executives. Whatever the genre, you should write several scripts in that genre to develop your craft and build up a solid body of work.

Hollywood loves to pigeonhole people, and you don't want to be pigeonholed, right? I sympathize, but it is easier getting into a locked house if you concentrate on one particular door, rather than running from door to door and then trying the windows. Visualize your body of work as a 'battering ram' knocking on Hollywood's door. We can hear you better if the knock is loud and consistent. Once the door opens, you can dazzle us with 1, 2, 3 or 4 scripts, all in one genre. You have also proved to us that your one terrific script wasn't a fluke. And now that you've honed your skills, let's look at the best ways to get professional feedback.

3. Writing Contests: Valuable & Inexpensive Feedback plus Marketing!

Okay, let's review your progress: you've found your voice, honed your craft, and developed a body of work. How do you determine if you AND your scripts are ready for the market? You need feedback. It's time to move beyond the opinions of your family and friends. What about classes and writer's groups? Both of these sources can be helpful in providing feedback to a writer. However, in many cases, the feedback might be from writers whose skill level may not be as high as yours. And, in a classroom situation, the instructor may not be able to read each student's script in its entirety.

An inexpensive place to get feedback is through a screenwriting contest. Nominal submission fees (less than $100) encourage you to enter your script in a number of contests. Be selective. Most contests, unless they indicate otherwise, are biased toward dramatic scripts about something. That trendy teen comedy, action-packed martial arts script or high-budgeted sci-fi adventure probably won't impress most contest judges, who are usually not interested in the commercial potential -- they are interested in terrific writing. Study the entry rules and the promotional materials about contests.

Some of the better contests for novice writers are those sponsored by film festivals or film commissions, or even writer's groups. Who are the judges, and how are the winners determined? Blue-ribbon judging panels are often producers, agents, development executives or writers. Depending on the contest sponsor, they may be well-known professionals or absolute newcomers. Each contest has its own system, but, in general, most contests have a systematic screening process, involving staff members, unpaid volunteers or interns before the best scripts reach the blue-ribbon panel. Script finalists are usually read at least three or more times.

A few of the contests will give feedback, but that's not a given. In fact, unless you pay for it, the usual feedback a writer receives is SILENCE. If you don't make it into the finals, semi-finals or quarter-finals of a contest, that's a comment on your writing. But, if your script does well, then you have an advertisement when it comes time to market yourself and your script. More later about contests.

What are some of the other sources for feedback? Should you pay for an evaluation?

4. Getting Feedback On Your Script: Paying a Reading Service

Breaking into the business and getting recognition for your writing is time consuming and disappointing if the script isn't ready. Many writers make the mistake of marketing themselves and their scripts before they are ready. Haven't you heard? Hollywood rewrites scripts all the time. Why should I rewrite it; they will just rewrite my script anyway.

Yes, every script that's optioned or bought is rewritten numerous times, but in all my years working for a studio or production companies, I cannot recall anyone saying, Let's buy this script and then spend hundreds of thousands of dollars rewriting it. Most scripts are purchased or optioned because the story is terrific, and the writing is compelling. Rewrites are ordered to address deeper problems, which seemed minor in the initial evaluation stage. And, scripts are rewritten because after the deal is made, the script is further scrutinized, and changes are needed to accommodate a director or a star, or to address some new information in the marketplace.

So before you write a query letter, go to a pitching event, or call your relative or buddy in the biz, get professional feedback. On a budget? There are a number of reading services that advertise coverage. The bulk of these services are on the internet, and their fees are more than the contest submission fees, but less than what you would pay a professional script consultant. This is a crowded niche, and some of the services are criticized for aggressive marketing tactics and the contracts you must sign. However, for a modest fee, they promise that an industry reader or development executive will read your script and provide you with a written evaluation.

My advice? Find out who is really reading your script. The company may be owned by a real person who will give you their bio and/or credits, but is that the person reading your script? If an unpaid intern or a novice story analyst is reading your script, then you may need to get several evaluations from several reading services before you can feel comfortable with the evaluations on your script. But, if your reader is a development exec in between jobs or temporarily freelancing, then you have a good chance of getting the opinion of a seasoned pro. Their evaluation may closely mirror how your script may fare when a production company or studio covers it.

However, if you can invest more bucks in your screenwriting career, you might discover a professional script consultant will give you more bang than a reading service. Professional consultants will be the topic of my next article.

TO BE CONTINUED...
Copyright 2003 by Donie Nelson

Meet the Author: Donie Nelson