Sunday, 28 November 2010

LSF 6 : Meet the Gatekeepers

Meet the Gatekeepers was a chance for most of the writers in the room to put a face to and get an insight from the people most likely to read their scripts. Chaired by Evan Leighton Davis, the panel included Jamie Wolpert, Sarah Olley, Alex Mandell and probably more familiar to you all, Danny Stack and Lucy V Hay.

So what is a gatekeeper? It's not people to keep writers out. Honestly. It's most likely to be the initial filter facing your script. There's too much material floating around for the execs and producers to read, so they will use readers. Readers will write a synopsis, a report, and typically deliver a verdict like Pass, Low Consider, Consider and Recommend.

So what are they looking for and how do writers get through this initial pass?

JW: His job has been mainly to find writing talent as opposed to projects. Most people he has worked for have more than enough projects already on their slate. But what there's a deficit of is really talented writers they can bring to them. So an original, strong voice, a real depth and authenticity to the writing. His big thing with scripts is that the vast majority of the ones he reads have series of scenes that are either a story scene, a character scene or a twist scene - and if you watch really good TV, all of those are happening in the same scene. And a writer who can do that, even if the overall script is a mess, is someone he would want to meet.

DS: The companies he has read for want to know two things - is the writing any good and therefore is the writer of interest? And is this project something that they would possibly be interested in making? They look at the front sheet of the report first, and maybe last. Does it say Pass or Consider etc - and then the premise Danny has written of your script (note not yours. His. That's how clear it has to be cos someone else will be interpreting it.) And most execs just read that and if it doesn't do anything for them they won't read any more. Some might read the synopsis (again the reader has written it, not the writer. So the plot better be clear,) and actually think this is interesting after all and decide to read the first 10 pages or whatever, to see for themselves. But that's pretty rare. The main things Danny's looking for is originality, style of writing, is it commercial, is it a genre film? And the more you read the more you realise that so little is out and out original. What hasn't been done before? So much is derivative that it's hard to come up with something truly original. But that said, you can still stand out by doing whatever it is you are doing, really well.

ELD: What the execs he's worked with really want to know is; if I pass on this project am I potentially passing on something that will be a really good bit of business? If I pass on this will I lose my job if it goes elsewhere and does really well? If I pass on this project and don't meet this writer, am I passing on what could be a really considerable piece of talent? People work with the same people over and over again - and relationships tend to be long term. As Tim Bevan said, he managed to get Richard Curtis and that relationship drove much of Working Title's business in the early years.

SO: The commercial potential is really important. Has it got a new hook that will raise it above the other stuff that's out there? Can I imagine the poster campaign on the tube? Horror was a really important genre but it's saturated the market now - so there has to be something fresh to make it stand out. The biggest thing for her is structure. Because if a writer can't structure a story properly there will be too much work to get something off the ground.

LVH: The biggest problem she sees is with structure. Secondly, character. A lot of writers seem pretty good at evoking a mood and dialogue. But dialogue is probably the least important thing. Structure and plot are probably the most important thing because there are so many ways in which it can go wrong. If characters aren't following an arc of some kind it's very easy to get bored. Structure is not a miracle cure despite it being a script buzz word not that long ago. And whilst we don't want tick the box screenwriting, everything should have a beginning, middle and end, no matter if you call it three acts, 21 steps, whatever, whatever. Otherwise it can kind of all unravel - especially after the initial set up.

SO: If a writer sends a script in and the structure is a mess, but they have brilliant characters and a strong voice etc, it might be that she still wants to meet them and get to know them. It's just that they probably aren't ready to come in on something being worked on now.

JW: Obviously structure is vital. But the 'what' isn't as important as the 'why' and the 'how'. He'd much rather find an interesting voice in a jumble of a script, because you can sort out structure. It's harder to sort out lack of character or story. If it's not there it's not there. But if a writer has great characters, dialogue, setting etc, structure can be worked out together. That's what he does as a script editor.

AM: There are two schools of thought. The US and the European. US is more focused on the structure and European more on character. If you have a story, and character building from that, that's half the battle. Dialogue comes last because it can be changed easily. The first 20 pages are crucial. If you've got a mesmerising opening then you've got someone hooked. Of course you then have to keep the interest, the pace etc, but if you've got them hooked they will finish the script. If you don't deliver in the first 10-20 pages they probably won't read any more. From a studio point of view high concept is also really important. That one sentence log line that makes you go I want to read that.

JW: In TV high concept has probably had its day. Even in film, in this country, your high concept idea will still probably feel like a diet version of something else. The big thing for him was the distinction between Plot and Story. Story is what happens and why. It's the meaning of the thing. Plot is the order those things happen. So the example he heard from Paul Abbott is that the Plot is the King and Queen die - the Story is that the King dies and then the Queen dies of a broken heart. If you have an interesting story with interesting characters, you can mess around with the plot until you find the best way of telling that story. But that's not to imply that structure isn't important. If it's near impossible to follow what is going on then people who don't have to read the whole script may well not bother. Readers have to because that's their job. But a producer doesn't and might not.

ELD: What are the shortest cuts to antagonise readers; what makes your heart sink quickly?

JW: "I'm in my twenties and a drink a lot and club a lot and here's a story about me and my mates drinking a lot and clubbing a lot." And it's relevant to anyone else how? You might be great and the dialogue might be great, and in fact he read one recently which was, but he didn't care if the character got the girl or not because the writer didn't care if he got the girl or not because he was with a different one every night. Autobiographical is great but it's got to have a meaning. Your life is not necessarily interesting to someone else just because you've written it down. There's got to be more to it.

SO: Don't try and tell someone the whole story in one massive email. Keep your approach brief. If a writer has a lack of market awareness and you don't know what your audience and genre is, that shows you're not really aware. Also not knowing your central conflict, what's it about - and a vagueness; so is this a rom com, a thriller, TV show, film? That's pretty annoying.

LVH: A sense of audience is really important. So many scripts seem really conflicted. She sees a lot of stuff that appears to be for children and yet there is loads of swearing in it. It's really important you know who you are writing for and what the restrictions are. And the other thing that really bothers her in scripts is rape being just a beat in a story. Not against stories about rape like The Accused or The General's Daughter, which are important films. But rape that happens to both female and male characters as just something that happens and isn't it shocking but now lets move on to the real story. And it's not great.

JW: Second to drug addiction that's absolutely true as the most overused plot device. The number of times he's seen a script where a female character's motivation was because twenty years ago she was raped - and the glibness of it is really offensive. If you are going to use something that emotive and difficult, you have to really use it and honour it. Changing the subject. When sending in a script you also need a sense of perspective. Readers might have over a hundred scripts sitting on their desks so don't send an email two days letter asking if they've read it yet and what their notes are. He once had a writer send in an 180 page script in iambic pentameter and when he hadn't read it a week later, was asked to send it back with an apology.

DS: First thing a reader does when picking up a script is flip to the last page and see how long it is. So if it's a feature and it's over 120 pages that's a bad sign. If it's a TV hour and it's over 70 pages, that's a bad sign. And then scripts with basic formatting issues are a bad sign. Everyone seems to have Final Draft these days which is great but scripts still come in with green font, and dialogue centred, and scene description centred. And notes to the reader; "dear reader please consider... or please press play on track 2 on the accompanying CD in scene 2.... or did you enjoy the chocolates that came with the script..." All true apparently. Chunky paragraphs of descriptions, even in the most pacy written scripts, are also just visually still a turn off. Keep it lean.

ELD: Exposition would be top of the list. It's incredibly lazy screenwriting. Characters telling each other or asking each other things they blatantly already know just because the writer wants to convey the information to the reader. It's a massive turn off. Another pet hate is too many characters introduced in a rapid period of time early on in the script. It might be late at night, a reader has read umpteen scripts that day, and the last thing they want to do is double back on pages thinking who is that again?

AM: Loads of characters with the same or similar sounding names. Because you just lose track of who you are referring to the whole time.

ELD: Audience again. So important. Knowing who the audience is. And not kidding yourself either into thinking (and stating) that this is for absolutely everyone. Everyone in the whole world will want to see this movie.

Just a few final points that arose in the session:

The majority of the stuff you read as a freelance reader you wouldn't take to anyone else. But all the panel, and I would echo this, were clear in that readers want more than anyone to find great scripts and writing talent. And if they do they will hook them up as best they can. Because as well as it being quid pro quo, you also want to be connected to the next big thing, to say yes I know them or we helped get that off the ground. Because it does you no harm and you might want to work with them in the future somehow.

Don't send out stuff too early. What you send out should in your opinion be the final draft. (It won't be, but you have to see it like that at that stage.) If you know there is stuff still to work on, there's no point. Obviously this particularly applies to companies and producers, but even if you are sending something to a script consultant. If you know some areas need work, you are wasting your money. Send stuff to them when you've done all you can, and you can no longer see the wood from the trees, and you really need help now and a fresh pair of eyes to take the project to the next level.

Readers will have favourite genres just like everyone else does. And writers often feel that they might get unlucky or a bad report if their script happens to be in a genre the reader doesn't like. But as Lucy pointed out, she hates vampires cos they have been done to death, (my bad pun, not hers) but counters that with the fact that one of her all time fave specs had vampires in it. She's not a fan of Sci-Fi but has read some brilliant sci-fi scripts. With good writing it doesn't matter. And in some ways it's better to impress the non fans of that genre as opposed to those who love it and may want to make apologies for it. I totally agree. I hate horror and would never pay to go and see one. (I did once cos my mate was booking the tickets and for some reason booked Stigmata rather than American Beauty.) But that said, one of the best specs I've ever read was a horror script that was bloody scary even to just read it on the page.

For new writers this session was probably the best and most informative one I went to. So many scripts fail for silly, basic reasons and the more writers who cut that out, the more the overall quality of the slush pile rises, the better for everyone. But what's interesting is look at what the guys say is the priority of what they are looking for. Some emphasise character, some structure, some a strong authorial voice. But you don't get to choose your reader. How are you going to know which one you are going to get? How do you know that if your structure is really tight but your characters could do with work, that you'll get the reader who will empathise with that. Or what if you have something really interesting to say but haven't done so with clarity at the moment. Will you risk the reader being more interested in one than the other? The answer of course has to be no. And so - as obvious as it may seem - the overall answer to what are people looking for in a script, is that it is good. In. Every. Single. Area.

That's really, really hard. But that's what it takes. And if it was easy, we probably wouldn't need or want seminars like this one.


Anonymous said...

Great, great write-up. Cheers, Jez.

Jez Freedman said...

you're very welcome. one more to go!

Sarah Olley said...

Hi Jez,

Just a thought on the structure, character etc. debate – I was saying that if I’m assessing a writer’s work as a development producer/script editor looking for someone I can work with right away on a low budget drama series, then in that case it’s important that they’ve mastered structure. Otherwise they won’t be able to deliver work on a fast enough turnaround. They need to have written enough scripts to have absorbed that basic skill of following one central, escalating conflict throughout, with a clear beginning, middle and end. There will always be drafts to get the structure better, but a writer who hasn’t mastered the basics would just need toooo many.

Jamie, (who’s been working with Paul Abbott assessing new writers), was coming at it from the perspective of someone who has a bit more time to work with writers developing things, rather than needing them to hit the ground running. If you’re assessing scripts in terms of raw talent or someone with a voice who might be worked with longer term then I’d agree with Jamie that structure wouldn’t necessarily be the main thing. (Unfortunately too few companies have the luxury to work with new writers on a particularly long term).

Rather than a reader’s personal preferences I’d say it’s really more to do with who you’re assessing scripts for and for what purpose. For example, if I was assessing a script for a big company in terms of something camera ready they could invest in - the script would have to be working on every level, including having a sufficient original hook.

As freelancers most of the panel will have worn quite a few different hats and I felt the conversation was perhaps only scratching the surface of the detail we could have gone into in terms of the different ‘Gatekeeper’ roles out there and ways to approach them and build relationships. Something for another day perhaps!

Jez Freedman said...

Hi Sarah

Thanks very much for that and you're absolutely right of course. That was exactly what you and Jamie said and my over simplification of it to get it all into one manageable blog post has certainly not done justice to a very interesting session that lasted over an hour. (Maybe you guys can come back and do a part one and part two next year?)

And whilst I totally agree with you - the crux of the issue for writers remains. All you have is your script. And whilst working on the next one you want to be sending the one you just finished to as many contacts as you have. And that might range from people looking for new talent, or people assessing potential projects. You might not even know which is which. So just don't risk it.

Get it as good as you possibly can, in every single department, by rewriting and getting feedback - first from friends and peers, then people like Sarah, Lucy and me :-) It's never gonna be the final draft anyway. Rewrites will still be needed. And some areas will naturally be stronger than others because like everyone else different writers have different strengths and weaknesses.

But give yourselves the best shot of getting the meeting no matter what desk your script lands on by putting in the work before you even send it out.

Sarah Olley said...

Hear, hear!