Sunday, January 13, 2008

Selecting a Screenplay

This is one of my favorite stories from NYU film school.

Our screenwriting teacher, Mary, used to write for a half hour drama TV show in the 60s. One day, her boss pulled her aside. "Janice chooses the scripts we shoot every week, but she's out sick today. Can you fill in for her?"

"Me? I don't really know the first thing about sorting through scripts."

He leaned closer. "Trust me, it's easy. Come on, I'll show you." He led her down the hallway to the Script Room.

The Script Room was a smallish room, probably 10 by 10 feet, but felt much smaller because it was stacked from floor to ceiling with screenplays in US Letter-sized envelopes. Mary reeled back, eyes wide. "My God, there must be 10,000 scripts in here... there's no way I could read all of them!"

He smiled. "Don't worry. Take this script, for example." He grabbed the first envelope in arm's reach, raising his eyebrows at its 2 inch thickness. "Too many pages. If 1 page is 1 minute of screen time, and we only do 30 minute dramas, this is War and Peace." He threw it out.

"You're not even going to open it?"

"What for? They obviously sent it to the wrong producers." He picked up another script. "And this one has a coffee stain on the outside. This tells me, 'breakfast writer'—we don't work with breakfast writers." Trash.

He held up another, gently bouncing it in the air. "Ah, this one is about right."


"The weight. If the envelope is the right thickness and the writer used the correct paper stock for a 30 page script, then the envelope should be a certain weight." He set it aside. "This one is probably a legitimate script. Next you open the envelope. If it's not typed—"

"—I throw it away."

"Right." He picked up another envelope and opened it, smiling. "Blue cover", he said, and slid the script back inside, dropping it in the bin. "If they don't use screenwriting format, throw it away. If they use binder clips instead of brads, throw it away. If they use 3 brads instead of 2, throw it away. If it's a comedy, throw it away. After all that, you should only have about 100 scripts left. Of those 100, read the first 3 pages of each, which is about 10% of the entire script. If you're not immediately taken in by those 3 pages, then you're reading 3 minutes of dead screen time—which means viewers will have changed channels, meaning: throw it away. Finally, you'll end up with 10 scripts you've read from page to page and you'll love only 5 or 6. Of those, recommend your favorite 3 scripts and we'll choose 1 to produce."

Moral to the story: when submitting a screenplay or a manuscript, no problem is too small to fix. Typos on the first page are strictly verboten!


Elver said...

I wonder, is this still a problem today? Because Final Draft and Celtx and other screenwriting software already give you the proper format along with spell-checking.

Ross Pruden said...

To be honest, I wouldn't know because I'm not a Hollywood reader, but here are my 2¢: for producers, I'd say that because Final Draft programs exist and every submission can look alike, I would think it's even harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even so, players follow a moving target and so different standards would probably emerge, e.g., are there typos on the first page? Is the grammar bad? Are the action paragraphs longer than 4 lines? Some people still use 3 brads instead of 2, etc. And most scripts now are also vetted by requiring a proxy to submit, either by agent or by a lawyer.