So You Think Your Script Is Finished? Not So Fast, Pilgrim!
by William M. Akers
Compared to the next step, writing a screenplay is a cinch. Getting someone to read the damn thing is much, much more difficult. Like levitating. Once you press “print,” it seems like everyone you ever met suddenly vanishes like cockroaches when you turn on a light. Especially if they’re in the entertainment business, or if they know someone in the entertainment business. Getting your script read is as tough as cracking rocks on a chain gang.
Don’t blow the chance when it comes ‘round, ‘cause, baby, it don’t come ‘round all that often...
If you can find someone “real” who wants to read your script, you're a lucky writer. By real, I mean a director or producer or development person or actor or someone who knows someone in a position to help you. Someone in the movie business.
Treat this opportunity like gold. If you give your script to someone real and they read it and it wasn’t FANTASTIC, they’ll a.) never read anything you write in the future, or b.) if they do read your next screenplay, they’ll remember the first one wasn’t so hot and it will color their perception of your new work. Ghastly, but true.
They can say how excited they are to read your work, but don’t you believe it. Don’t fall into the trap of, “This guy wants to read it, so I better hurry up and get it to him.” Believe me, they don’t care if you ever send it, so you may as well take an extra six months to make it dazzling. Do drop them a line every couple of months to say you’re not dead, so they won’t forget they promised to read it.
The first script I wrote, The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, a book adaptation, took me three or four months of non-stop work. Maybe six months. One fine day, I finished it. I was ecstatic. I wanted it to go into production the next week. Oh happy day, a friend of my sister’s was dating a well-known actress. She volunteered to read my screenplay, and, amazingly, to help me. I was doubly ecstatic. I drove up to the Chateau Marmont and dropped it at the desk. I left on a cloud. My script was finished and the road to wealth and happiness lay shining before me.
I stopped off at my friend Steve Bloom's house. Later on, he would co-write The Sure Thing and Tall Tale, and James And The Giant Peach. He volunteered to read my hot-off-the-presses screenplay. Right then! I trundled off to his living room and read a book. It was dark by the time he finished, and I went back into his office.
I still remember him in his chair, rocked back, my script on his lap. He started flipping through it, but instead of singing my praises, he tore it to pieces. Like he'd shot it with a sixteen inch shell, it exploded in front of my eyes. As soon as he began gently disemboweling it, I was instantly able to see it clearly. I saw tons of mistakes, ones he hadn't even pointed out. It was depressing, of course, because I had thought my work was done, but it was exhilarating because, armed with his stellar criticism, I was going to be able to make the script even better!
Then I remembered the famous actress. She had my script! She was going to read this monumental piece of garbage and not only not help me, but have me hunted down and killed for wasting her time.
I felt terrible and stupid and a thousand other sweat-inducing emotions. Mortified, I called her back in New York to tell her I had to rewrite the script and, um, er, ah, please not read it. But, before I could say a word, she apologized because the hotel had lost it! Yee ha! Good news!
Dodged a bullet there.
I dove back into my script and spent three more months rewriting it. Total writing time: nine months. But, when I was done, it was good. It got optioned and eventually was produced. I was launched as a writer. All because my friend blasted my half baked script, that I had thought was perfect, clean out of the water.
Keep in mind these deathless quotations...
“Just because you're sick of your script doesn't mean it's finished.”
William M. Akers
“How do you know when your script is ready? When the only choice is do another draft or blow your brains out.”
Max Wong, producer
However, once you really DO get your screenplay finished, please keep this in mind...
No one owes you a read.
“If I read a bad script, which takes me forty five minutes, I can't ask for my money back or my time back and I am filled with incalculable amounts of rage.”
Los Angeles producer
No one owes you anything.
Just because you took the time to write your fabulous screenplay doesn't mean anybody Out There is honor bound to read it. It may be the greatest screenplay on earth, but there are plenty of scripts floating around and if they miss out on reading yours, they won’t lose sleep over it.
Get into the mind of the person you are asking to read your material. Remember the massive amount of stress and time involved to be in the movie and television business. When you approach someone “real,” be aware of their schedule and what you are asking them to do. If you ask someone to read your script, you are begging for a couple of hours out of their life, that you can’t give back. You can give them a nice present, a cool book, or a Starbucks gift card... but listening to their advice, and taking their suggestions, is not a bad way to go, either.
You must be endlessly gracious, not overly pushy, and very understanding. If someone agrees to read your screenplay, you must treat them like a precious jewel and never assume they'll get to it this weekend, despite what they say.
Don't call them Monday to see what they thought. You have to constantly keep in mind how many people are pulling them in how many different, and painful, directions. Don't call for a couple of weeks. Then send them a gentle Email noodge. A month later, another one. After that, forget them.
Be sweet. Be patient. Be tolerant. And don’t act like an idiot.
The last thing you want to do is come at somebody, guns blazing, upset that they haven't gotten to your phenomenal screenplay quickly enough to suit you. You're lucky they'll take your calls, so act accordingly.
And, if perchance, they are thoughtful enough to give you notes, take them!
“No one is as arrogant as a beginner.”
If somebody reads your script and doesn't want to canonize you as quickly as you'd like, but they have notes, then dutifully write them down and act interested. I get this a lot with writers who have never had anything produced. Newbies are often less open to criticism than professionals.
Do not fight the guy giving notes.
Do not say, “but the act break is there, you just can't see it…!” Do not claw for every yard like it's Omaha Beach. Copy down what they say, murmur gracious acceptance, and say “thank you” at the end. Don't act like you know more about screenplays than they do. Don't act like they're idiots because they don't understand what you've so generously taken the time to have written!
When I was in film school, we showed our pathetic little first projects and one guy’s was terrible. It happens. So, we were going around the room and giving our most afraid-of-being-hurtful comments, and he said, really scorched, “It's a personal film! You're not supposed to understand it!” He vanished soon thereafter.
If you find someone to read your script, the door to Hollywood opens. Slightly.
If someone reads your script and is kind enough to give you notes, but because of some insane sense of entitlement, you fight them on the notes, that great golden door will begin to close. You won't see it close either, because these guys are smooth, like the Flusher in college fraternities -- the pleasant guy during rush who leads the loser to the back door, all charm and grace and understanding… he gently explains to the dweeb that perhaps he might try his luck at a frat house down the road… and the guy leaves all smiles, unaware he's a dead man walking. That's how it is when the Hollywood door closes. You never feel the needle enter your brain.
These people read twenty or thirty scripts a week. They have no time or tolerance for arrogance. Remember, it only crosses the reader’s mind how long it took to read, not how long you took to write it.
If you refute the notes, he or she is absolutely going to think, “Dude, I took an hour of my weekend to read your fucking script. You're a guy who has never done anything, and there's a shot I could know what I'm talking about... at least listen!”
And the great, golden door will lock. The producer will go off to her production meetings and casting sessions and free lunches and massages and first days of principal photography… and you will be left alone on a raw, windy sidewalk, clutching your screenplay, looking at the high wall and the closed steel door… wondering why it's got no handle.
William M. Akers
Author of Your Screenplay Sucks!, 100 Ways To Make It Great, William M. Akers is a Lifetime Member of the WGA and has had three feature films produced from his screenplays. Akers has written for studios, independent producers, and the major television networks. He teaches screenwriting at Vanderbilt University and, if you give him money, will be happy to critique your screenplay.
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