Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Death By.... Encoragement!

(originally posted eight years ago)

Many pre-pro writers send out their scripts to agents or managers or producers and (usually as a result of hammering away for a response) get a nice rejection note saying that their masterpiece is “Well written, but not right for us”, or they “Loved it, but we have something similar in development”, or some other exciting and positive thing about how much they loved your screenplay. They celebrate how close they came to selling their script and brag to all of their friends that they are almost over that big wall that surrounds Hollywood. Everyone loved their script! They are great writers!

When I was living in my home town dreaming of Hollywood I had a chance to give a copy of one of my scripts to my idol at the time, Paul Schrader. He wrote TAXI DRIVER and OBSESSION and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and THE YAKUZA and ROLLING THUNDER and OLD BOYFRIENDS and other films I loved... and he took a copy of my script and read it (or had someone read it) and sent me a great letter of encouragement. I sent the same script to my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, and he had someone read it, and they sent me this great letter of encouragement on Columbia Pictures stationery! My script was the greatest script on the world!

Of course, when I read that script today I cringe at how awful it is and am embarrassed that people I admired had to read it - or get their assistants to read it. That script just sucked.

Pauline Kael once said, “Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

No one will ever tell you that your script sucks. The reason why is simple - they read your current script, which sucks, but what if you keep working hard at this screenwriting thing and improve and a few years later you write a great script. One of those scripts that everyone in Hollywood is fighting with each other over. There are bidding wars - and the winner not only gets to pay you a huge amount of money, they get that amazing script you have written. But if Joe’s Productions tells you that your earlier script sucks, they won’t be part of that bidding war. You will not take your script there. What Joe’s Productions wants is for you to be the *first* place you go with that great new script - so that they can maybe buy it before there is a bidding war... or at least be the friendly producer that you want to sell the script to. So, instead of saying “Your script sucks” they come up with a euphemism like “Loved it, but we have something similar in development.”

That really means your script sucks.

Here’s how to tell if they *really* loved it:

1) They buy it or option it (for real money).
2) They want to meet with you to discuss other projects.
3) They offer you a writing assignment.
4) They *request* your next script or ask to read other scripts you have written.

I have a script tip on this floating around on my website, but you should even beware of producers who want to option your script for $1 or no money. Basically, you get what they pay for. If they have a dollar invested, that is what your script is worth to them, and tells you how hard they will work to bring it to the screen. In that tip, I talk about a producer I know of who literally options every script he can get his hands on for $1 and never reads any of them. He is a “material pack rat” and his theory is that if he options 100 scripts for $1 (sight unseen) one of them has to either be good enough to set up somewhere or has some strange elements that some real producer may be looking for. This guy has you write down “keywords” about your script, then takes your script to a warehouse where it will be forgotten like the Lost Ark, and if any real producer is looking for a script with the keywords for your script - this guy tries to set up a deal. If you’ve read any of those strange script requirements in InkTip listings, you know how oddly specific some producer’s needs are. And this guy has a warehouse full of scripts he *owns*, and one may fit those strange needs. If not, he’s only out $1. The thing about options - if they pay you $1, that’s what they think your script is worth, and most likely it’s not a real option. Sure, sometimes there are underfunded legit producers looking to have control over a script when they take it into a studio... but usually the $1 option isn’t much different than no option at all. And how much can you celebrate when all you have is $1?

If they read your script and did have something just like it in development, but thought the writing was great, they will ask to read something else or want to meet with you. If they actively pursue you, you have something they want (writing). If they say nice things but don’t *do anything*, they don’t think the writing is strong enough to follow up on.

Just like in a screenplay, in real life - actions speak louder than words.

Producers will tell you all kinds of nice things, but what they *do* tells you want they really think. If they do nothing, well...

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean your script *completely sucks*, but it’s just not there yet. Keep working at it, and eventually they *will* do something. They won’t just say, “We loved it but it’s not for us”, they will want to meet with you to discuss anything you may have that *may be* for them. Because producers need screenplays and they need screenwriters. Can’t make a movie without a script.

No matter how many great things they say about your script, look at what they *do* - that will tell you what they really think. And if they don’t do anything, all is not lost! You just need to keep writing until you get that script where they actually do something... not just tell you how much they loved it.

- Bill

10 comments:

Kendo said...

Fantastic post, though I must admit I would probably swoon if Paul Schrader complimented my tie, let alone my writing.

Racicot said...

I learned early (last year) not to take *positive rejection* seriously when, after submitting a feature spec to a Toronto agent, I received this kind statement: Although we commend you on your spirited writing, we don't see how we could bring this to market.

I submitted a 30 Rock Spec a few months later and received the same rejection notice -- for a television spec that's not MEANT for the market.

Needless to say I won't submit anything to them in the future.

Eric said...

Great post. Totally agree.

At the same time, while they're surely being political, who are producers and directors to discourage a potential writer from pursuing their dream?

A writer's best bet is to get some honest, critical friends. Don't take their comments personally - they're doing you a favor.

wcmartell said...

Exactly - I think that's the mark of a writer who will be successful: they don't just want their butt kissed, they don't just want people to tell them they are brilliant and right and amazing - they wany to keep learning and growing.

nshumate said...

When I started Arkham Tales, I had a notion to give personalized rejections to all submissions (aside from those we accepted, of course). I kept that up for maybe a week.

The problem was that it's easy to point out the flaws in a near-miss submission, or in something that's well-written but out of character for your market. It's a lot hard to write a displomatic and helpful version of "I'm sorry, but I wouldn't trust you to scratch your name in the dirt with a stick."

So instead, I've got an email template that simply says it's "not what we're looking for right now," with an option to include a sentence inviting the writer to try us with something else.

Sad, but true.

Z. LaPorte Airey said...

awesome post! thanks!

Todd said...

the ultimate irony is that the moment you get some honest negative criticism on your script it really means they liked it ha

SUPER O TEAM said...

Send it, forget it. Rejection, forget it. Be prepared for interest, but don't wait for it. Keep writing.

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