The big thumbs down or PASS is a heart-wrenching experience of every screenwriter. Get used to it. Sometimes you hear back from a production company with a polite “not for us” message. Most times, you don’t hear back at all. When writers enter their screenplays into screenwriting contests, they often feel their entry has entered a black hole, because they have no idea where their screenplay ranked in the contest. Creative Screenwriting Magazine contributor, Mark Sevi shares his insights into this matter.
Why do most scripts not make the cut either in screenwriting contests or at film and TV production companies? There are probably more reasons than there are gatekeepers in Hollywood. However, from hard-won experience on both sides of the equation as a film producer, screenwriting contest judge, and long-time screenwriter, there are some key reasons that stand out to those writing masterpieces being rejected.
Let’s start with the most obvious reason you’re being rejected – you’re not writing something that anyone at that movie production company wants. Do your research; target your film script to match the production company’s needs. A simple example is, don’t send a horror film script or an adult romance to a company like Disney. They clearly specialize in PG movies and animation. Their Marvel and Pixar brands (again obviously) produce specialty films, so sending anything to Disney that doesn’t fall into that narrow band is futile. It also makes you look like a screenwriting amateur.
Also, don’t send a production company something they’ve already done. You might somehow get a script read at 20th Century Fox that involves a face-sucking alien, but it’s doubtful they’ll respond to it because they are responsible for the “Alien” franchise, and the chances they already have five face-sucking alien movie scripts under development in-house is pretty high.
If you’re sending to a screenplay contest, consider spending some time narrowing down who and what has won in the past. Many times, although the judges may change, the screenwriting contest company brings on judges with similar sensibilities. Consider sending your screenplay to a contest that has a specific theme like aspirational/ faith-based film scripts or genres like horror or sci-fi.
Since there are a lot of good screenwriting contests around, it won’t hurt to do some winnowing down to pick one or two in which you’ll have the best chance of placing.
Do issues like incorrect format and grammar really get you rejected?
No, probably not. But –
THEN WHY WORRY ABOUT IT?
For good reason. This is the thinking…
Giving the reader any reason to put down a movie script is a very bad idea. Producers, agents, managers, script readers (the ‘real’ gatekeepers) for example, take home 5-10 film scripts a week, likely more. This is typically not a joyous experience for them. It’s homework. Did you like homework?
When I did screenplay coverage for a literary agent, I took a very dim view of work that was less than stellar. It was my job to read the entire film script, but there were many times bad format or grammar colored my final judgment.
If someone is reading your work and you’re wearing out your welcome by making things too difficult to read, there’s a good chance they’ll put aside your script ‘for later’ and may never come back to it.
Sometimes a movie script is on the fence concept-wise. Solid writing and attention to detail may still not get your work sold, but it may get you into a meeting. It did for me and that meeting started my career.
If your film or TV script is convoluted or challenging because of simple stuff like sluglines or bad grammar, not only are you perhaps offending the reader and causing them to think less of you as a screenwriter, but you’re giving them an easy out to reject your work.
So let me break this down into subcategories.
You get no style points for funny or invasively “creative” sluglines. Sluglines should simply be INT./EXT., a brief location, and DAY/NIGHT period. Sunrise, sunset, etc. should be put into the narrative.
EXT. BEACH – DAY
Just before sunset.
Location? Who cares what beach (unless it’s vital to your story) and what are you going to say about a beach that hasn’t been said before?
K.I.S.S. Keep It (A) Simple Slugline (all right so that’s not great but hopefully you’ll remember it.)
GRAMMAR and PUNCTUATION
Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the criticisms of this: Only really fussy people care about punctuation and grammar. It’s a different world. Readers understand that you’re using texting rules. Blah, blah, blah.
Bad punctuation and grammar just make you look ignorant or hasty.
Scriptwriters don’t have to be great grammarians, but a few simple rules will keep you from appearing to have spent all your school years in the playground.
Nothing gets certain people more riled up than suggesting that really cleverly written description (action) is or isn’t part of a script.
It informs the work, one side says. You’re not writing a novel, the other group states emphatically.
Me, I’m okay with a bit of prosaic writing, but don’t take it to extremes.
For example, Taylor Sheridan who wrote and directed “Wind River” has an amazing writing style.
This: Clumps of sagebrush, huddled together like angry gnomes, are the only evidence of life in this place.
That is a truly beautiful, really well-written narrative. The imagery is perfect.
Another example: Her white pants match the snow, her black hair matches the night — all we can see is a baby-blue coat that floats above the plains like a wayward balloon, bouncing above a white desert.
However, this – Cory warms his free hand against the truck’s vent. Grabs his coffee. Takes a sip. The coffee’s cold. Doesn’t matter — not his first cold cup of coffee. He stares at the road. If the truck had a radio that worked, he’d turn it on.
– is practically useless. It does nothing for the story, does not inform anything, is in no way is visible to the audience, and just creates a paragraph that can (and should) be ignored. Pointless writing like this simply makes the script heavier without reason and slows down the read.
DON’T DIRECT THE MOVIE
I had a student recently write something to this effect:
The scene: The good guys were on horseback trying to get somewhere.
They take off and ride – yeehaw (or words to that effect.)
CUT TO: A critter on the side of the road that is startled and runs away while the hoofs beat past it.
Why? What purpose does that scene have to the story?
Ths issue is this that is a directorial choice, not a story choice. It felt odd and intrusive to read and the class workshop told the student that. Too many times this sort of thing marks a script as too rough to read further and may cause the reader to toss it.
Can or should you use camera directions? In a word, no. Just write your scene. Anyone in this business for more than five minutes can figure out what you mean and/or where to put the camera without your inexperienced and potentially clumsy help.
BORING (OR CLICHED) BEGINNINGS
A de rigeur line in my class workshop (which I swear I’m going to have put on a t-shirt) is: “It’s in the next ten pages.” I hear this at least once a class and it usually means the student has been critiqued and defends the pages by saying “that’s coming.”
This is especially true of openings. While you don’t have to open with a crashing plane, you do have to compel and engage your audience (reader) instantly. Opening with a character shutting off the alarm is the biggest cliche you can imagine – and IT’S BORING! Don’t do it! How about opening with your character getting a cup of coffee at a coffee cart or coffee shop? Zzzzzz. Already dozing off. How many times do we really need to see these scenes?
Start hard. Get the reader engaged immediately even if you’re writing a PG-13 drama. This is the first impression of your work. A great beginning is like that really nice, firm handshake and warm smile. It flavors the rest of the meeting for good. But the opposite and you will tread a tough road to get your reader engaged in your story.
Study the masters and find out how they open a film/script. Hint: WITH POWER.
By the time you see something in the theaters or streaming it’s already old and the industry is probably moving on.
“This Is Us” was a surprise hit. Many people fell in love with the TV show and the character stories. Deciding that you’re going to write something similar is just going to get you frustrated. The gatekeepers who decide what does and doesn’t get made have already read a dozen scripts like that because by the time “This Is Us” got to the screen it was already months into its production schedule and buzz was everywhere that it was a solid production that might be a hit.
Plus, that TV pilot script may have been passed around to a dozen TV production companies before it was sold, so the people who passed on it have already decided it wasn’t for them.
TV streaming is even worse. “Stranger Things” delivers all eight episodes at once so you can binge watch it. It takes a lot of time to develop and film an entire season of episodes. This is like the starlight that reaches us here on Earth – it’s already been traveling for many years. Whatever you’re seeing on Netflix is already an old story in the industry.
Just don’t write to trends. Carve your own path out of the Hollywood jungle.
CULTURALLY INSENSITIVE WRITING
Is your writing racist? Culturally insensitive? Misogynistic? I’m not talking about a character who espouses a distasteful theme, but your actual writing.
Describing a character in these terms: She was a muy hot slice of Spanish pie is almost guaranteed to offend anyone in our #politicallycorrect culture.
How about this in the narrative? Some might have called him a towel-head, but he was a really cool dude.
Okay, so I’m exaggerating to make my point, but understand that your views are reflected in your writing and you need to be careful about the expression of those views.
It’s a vast, multi-cultural entertainment world. Act like you belong.
OVERLY CUTE WRITING
Style is one thing; pushing a style is another. Being “too hip” or constantly drawing attention to your style is anathema to a good movie script. Don’t write boring narrative, but don’t push it your reader’s face and overuse hip-hop slang and street jargon.
Writing a movie script is different than a book in case that wasn’t obvious. In a novel, you come for the language, the words, the style. In a script, not so much.
In a novel, a room should be detailed: the carpet, walls, windows, view, etc. In a script you say INT. ROOM – DAY and unless it’s a very special room you’re basically done.
Narrative should exist to inform, but not overly so.
You’re writing about cops but you’re just regurgitating TV shows. It’s easy to see when a scriptwriter really knows his or her stuff and when they’re just copying the latest episode of a cop show.
I’ve called the Army, Navy, local police department, CDC, FBI – you name it and I’ll do the research by directly contacting these organizations’ PIO (public information officers.) Hey, it’s fun! At least I think so.
Do the research – it actually helps your story quite a bit.
Will any of this advice get your film or TV script sold?
It couldn’t hurt.