Film Fund-amentals: Advice for the Lonely Screenwriter

Writing a screenplay is a lonely pursuit. Just the writer and a blank screen trying to conjure something magical from various loose strings of words and ideas. But the first-time screenwriter no longer needs to be alone. A vast army of people are just waiting to be your friends, for the right price.

That’s the underlying pitch for the ever-growing network of companies offering screenplay evaluations. Now that OTX is getting ready to enter the business, screenwriters will have no limit to the number of folks available to tell them what they did wrong. OK, the service that OTX is offering will cost you around $5,000, but they will bring you the same type of market research that they provide to the major studios for their releases. They will even pitch your script to 1,500 people as a sample audience to see if they would be willing to see the movie. It may be an expensive service, but the screenwriter gets wall to wall…well, what exactly does anyone get from any of this stuff (aside from 1,500 people waiting to tell you what they think you did wrong)?

All you have to do is go to Google, type in “screenplay evaluation” and you will find an incredibly long list of companies (and individuals) ready to read your script with prices ranging from $25 (initial consultation) to $3,000 or more. A few offer “free” assessments. Oddly enough, you will be strongly advised after the assessment to go for the extra paid services. The real standard rate for most of these companies will actually come in around $2,500 (this is a low-ball estimate). Most likely, your script will show great promise and simply need their “professional” services. I have never heard of a single person who has ever been rejected by any of these companies. If you have been rejected, please let me know (and keep in mind that you must be a truly singular talent).

So is it worth the cost for a screenwriter to use an evaluation service? The answer is tricky, mainly because it is pretty difficult to evaluate the evaluators without going through the service (which is expensive), and anything I might have to say on the subject will have to be viewed as mere opinion based upon little hard data. Unfortunately, the lack of real data is one of the things that such services depend upon, and that fact would make me step back about twenty paces from the whole deal. Well that and the price tag. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know plenty of people who will tell me what is wrong with my script, and they don’t even charge.

But they are not “professionals.” That is always the piece of candy dangled in front of the starving screenwriter. For a big chunk of change, your script will be read by real screenwriters with real experience who really work within the industry and have solid, real credits.

OK, not exactly real screenwriters. In fact, exactly how do you define “screenwriters”? Do you mean the listed names on the website (ironically, a lot of them are academics) who have “lent” their names (usually for cash) to the site, or do you mean the graduate student types who (if you are lucky) may actually be looking at anything sent in (and may even have graduated with any kind of a degree that relates to the process)? Or do you mean somebody who actually has not only written a script, but actually has gotten it made into a movie? By the way, how do you define “movie?” Do you mean something seen in a theater? Maybe even viewed by a paying audience that actually wanted to see it? Whoa, you’re picky!

Unfortunately, this is pretty much the setup with most of these companies. It all goes back to the infamous Famous Writers School scandal back in the 1970s. Granted, there are some variations and many differences today from the old dubious system that was cooked up back then by Bennett Cerf and friends. Some of these services are actually pretty straightforward and could even be seen as useful.

For example, the system that OTX is preparing to roll out is pretty much an elaboration of their approach to pre-release movie testing (which makes it slightly different from most other “evaluation” services). They will examine the script based on models from previous successful scripts based on genre, narrative, characters, etc., and will attempt to create a quantifiable analysis that will allow the screenwriter to change the script and fashion it into a more commercial format. In a sense, it’s all very precise and almost scientific, just like the market research they do with movies just prior to their release.

For many screenwriters, it will give them a sense of deep insider knowledge. Too bad it doesn’t mean squat. For one thing, the fine science of movie test screening and market research is open to debate (or at least it would be if anyone ever cared to open up the process for review). The success record isn’t exactly all that impressive, which suggests that the methodology is either unsound or deeply flawed (based on my own experience with market research studies, I very strongly suspect the latter). Either way, the approach often ends up being a collection of general assumptions and invalid models.

However, it is highly likely that the screenplay will end up reflecting current mainstream Hollywood (this is much more likely through the OTX process than some of the rival systems). The downside is that the screenplay will end up reflecting the same bland products that the Hollywood sausage factory has been consistently handing out with diminishing returns. Nothing more, nothing less. Most likely, you could save on the $5,000 price tag by just going to a ton of current major movies, taking a few notes, and then shamelessly regurgitating the formula. Despite the current cost of tickets, you will still come out a couple thousand bucks ahead (unless you insist on 3D and buttered popcorn).

Or you could do something a tad more traditional. Work at your craft and carefully develop the ability to critique yourself as you work. Develop your voice and sensibilities, and don’t spend excessive effort on simply trying to recycle everything you’ve seen in other movies. Learn to not only deal with rejection but even to learn from it. Learn to listen politely but critically to people’s thoughts about your work (other people are not always wrong, but they are also not always right). Certainly this demands a lot of hard work, effort and discipline. But that’s part of being a writer.

And it’s a lot cheaper than any of these services.