photo by walter parenteau
I was reading an article by Ted Hope this week, called Ten Things to Do Before You Submit a Script
It was reading it because I wanted a producer’s perspective on the spec screenplay market. Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the working relationship between producers and writers. My take: the traditional relationship between writers and producers, the spec script market, that particular method for developing projects, just isn’t working.
Ted Hope’s article supported and confirmed my overall view of how things stand at the moment. His company receives in excess of three-thousand spec scripts a year. A process he tries to filter by preferring agent submitted scripts. Just in terms of time management, three-thousand scripts a year means that either his staff would each have to constantly devote a couple of hours in every working day to reading specs, or they have to rapidly weed that pile of three-thousand down to a manageable size.
Although Ted doesn’t describe how his team handles that problem in his article, I would put good money on those piles of scripts getting a rapid and efficient filtering.
Given the same problem, I would skim the first ten pages from the pile of scripts and toss every script that obviously wasn’t well written and which didn’t immediately draw me into the story. The remaining scripts I would then filter based on the loglines. I would even bother to read anything where the core premise didn’t fascinate me and which also hit areas and genres I knew worked for my business; unless I was reading it as a calling card script. Now, this method of filtering is designed to firstly identify who can write and then looks at ideas... it's a writer's approach. My guess is that most producers approach this the other way around: they filter ideas and then filter writing, a process that is more likely to filter out good writers. On top of that, I'm also going to suggest that in most production companies the filtering process is delegated to the office junior.
However, the core of what I'm saying is that, given the same problem, it wouldn’t be that hard for me to reduce that pile of three-thousand scripts to thirty. Thirty scripts a year that were worth reading properly. Thirty scripts that I would be prepared to give two hours reading time to. Sixty hours a year seems about the right amount of time a year to put into looking for new projects, as opposed to six-thousand. And, I can pretty much guarantee that most of the slots in that pile of thirty scripts, would be filled by writers I already had an interest in. I may be wrong about this, but I believe this is a fairly accurate snapshot of the gritty day-to-day realities of the spec script market. Producers, swamped by material, streamline the process down to 1% of submissions and largely read scripts from people they know or have been referred to them by a trusted contact. Actually, I suspect that very few producers read anywhere near as much as 1% of the spec scripts they are sent.
It seems to me that this way of working doesn’t really serve anyone well. Every producer I have ever met sees spec scripts as a burden. And every year writers are committing thousands of hours to projects that will only be given cursory reads, at best. It is a process that the industry seem locked into, which really only causes frustration for everyone and which generates huge amounts of unproductive work.
Every spec script written represents about one-hundred-and-fifty hours of work. Which means that the three-thousand specs submitted to Ted Hope alone, represent in excess of at least four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand hours of labour. And, lets be honest, in terms of putting movies into production, the vast majority of that time is wasted time. Any way you look at it, the spec market as a project development process is insane.
So, the real question is, how can we alter this?
Well, personally I believe writers need to stop writing spec scripts... and producers need to stop reading them. Instead of writers using scripts as their preferred method of slinging ideas at producers, we need to build an industry that revolves around relationships. Writers and producers have to start thinking in terms of collaborating on the development of scripts, where the producer provides a clear brief about what they need for their business, and the writer then writes to that brief. Sure, the writing can still be speculative, but at least by entering into a working relationship with a writer, the producer knows that they only have to read scripts that meet their specific brief, and writers know they’re only writing scripts that will be read.
In order to get to this point, writers and producers need to interrupt the spec script market. Writers, in particular, need to get out of their knee-jerk desire to pitch ideas, in the hope that an idea will stick, and instead they need to ask producers for a clear explanation of what they need before developing ideas. Basically, the producer/writer relationship needs to grow up. No sane or profitable business in the world develops products or talent in the puerile way the movie industry does.
These days, I just won’t pitch to a producer unless they can tell me what the buying profile of their distributor is. I won’t do it, because any producer who can’t tell me their distributor profile isn’t going to be able to secure pre-sales, and therefore isn’t going to get production investment, and therefore isn’t going to be able to pay me. Any producer who’d rather have me guess at what they really need, instead of talking to me about their business, is actually telling me that they’re quite happy for me to commit to one-hundred-and-fifty hours of unpaid work, to produce a script, that they’ll more than likely reject or want rewritten, because it doesn’t meet their current needs. There is a word for that kind of person... wanker. There really isn't any point at all in writing for producers who don't understand, value or appreciate the labour that goes into writing a script. And, unfortunately what the spec script market has created, is a industry full of producers who believe that writers should be prepared to parade endless ideas and scripts in front of them, until they stumble across one that takes their fancy... well, providing they can delegate the filtering process to other people: agents, unpaid interns, their PA etc etc.
However, the only way we’ll ever change the way producers work, is if writers are prepared to stop feeding the spec script market. Yes, every writer needs a calling card script. But beyond that, I strongly believe the way forward is to form relationships with producers, find out what they really need and then offer to develop the concept with them. If we've got project we just have to write regardless... well, in that case we should also have the stones to self-produce.
I know I keep on banging on about this, but if you bring together a producer who knows what they want to take to the market, a screenwriter capable of developing creative cinematic ideas, and a good script editor... that is the way to develop movies. A team of people getting the core idea right, before the actual scripting process takes place... instead of asking writer to develop and write a script, which the development team then re-writes to fix all the problems that could have been avoided by a proper brief.
I have never submitted a script to Ted Hope’s company, even though he is a producer I admire and would love to work with. But, I respect his time and the value of my own work too much, to ever add my script to a pile of three-thousand others.
And, actually, that is the real point of this week’s article. Screenwriters need to have a hell of a lot more respect for the work that we do. That one-hundred-and-fifty hours of labour has to treated with respect by ourselves in the first place, if we are ever to expect producers to do the same.
I have one more thing to add to Ted Hope's list of things to do before you submit a script
11) DON'T. Just say No to spec scripts.
keep writing, respect the work, and viva la revolution