OBSERVATIONS OF A SCRIPT READER (2012)


By now, I had meant to do more entries in my series about issues I’ve been running across while reading screenplays for coverage and script consultation, but I got behind and am only now doing my second one. So, so sorry to be so sluggish. This particular column might seem a tad trivial, but it will focus on the use of two words I’ve seen crop up over and over again over the past couple of years, the use of which strike me as rather odd (if not maddening). The first one is “ironic” or “ironically” and the second is “smirk”.

I am constantly running across dialog in which the actor is instructed to say something “ironically’. I have to be honest. I have absolutely no idea what that means or how you say something ironically. I suspect that they mean “sarcastically”, “tongue in cheek”, “dryly” or something akin to that. This may be a generational thing and perhaps those younger than me have an idiomatic or slang use of the word that I’m unfamiliar with.

However, that is not the only use of the word that puzzles me. More and more, I’m running across narrative in which someone is described as “wearing a shirt ironically” or “has an ironic hair style”. I really, truly have no idea what this means. But even more importantly perhaps when it comes to writing a screenplay, that is not an action. From an audience stand point (and certainly from a reader’s standpoint), a character can’t do something or wear something or have a style of dress that is ironic (in the opening scene of The Social Network, when Zuckerberg is accused of wearing sandals and socks ironically, no one in the audience would have come to that conclusion without the line of dialog).

The second word is “smirk”. I have seen this crop up for a number of years as a synonym for smile. At least I think that’s how it’s being used. But “smirk” is a smile that is derisive or superior in some way. All smirks are smiles, but not all smiles are smirks. But when I see it used, it is used by a character in which the attitude isn’t remotely derisive. At first I thought “smirk” was being used in this way because English was a second language for the author of the screenplay since the stories took place in another country or were about characters who were immigrants. But more and more, it’s being used anywhere and everywhere.

It is possible that it is being used because of the recent advice that is constantly cropping up about not employing “neutral” or “bland” words in the narrative (i.e., not “run”, but “dashes” or “zooms”—I will have a column about this in the future). Maybe some writers feel “smile” is too bland and want to spice up their narrative. But whatever the reason, it really causes a disconnect when I read since it is constantly being used incorrectly.

So in conclusion, don’t use “ironic” or “ironically”, ever. If you mean to use it in place of “sarcastically” or a word like that, don’t; use “sarcastically”. In the same way, don’t use “smirk” unless the person is giving a smug, derisive smile. Otherwise just use “smile”.

JUDGING SCREENPLAYS FOR COMPETITIONS (2012)


I’m now in full swing in my reading for various screenplay competitions and various coverage services, including my own, and I thought I would occasionally share some observations I have made.
I have noticed that the genre, themes and plots that most interest me are mysteries of some sort.   At the same time, simply because they hold my interest the most, that doesn’t seem to be helping the screenplays do any better than any others and the reason they fall short falls into a couple of categories:  
1.  The author hasn’t shown their scripts to experts in law authority or the legal profession and the story isn’t particularly believable.
2.  The fact that it is a genre that interests me most can ironically make it harder to make an impact since it may be harder to find a way to make this particular story stand out from all the hundreds of others I’ve read.
3.  Usually the area where a genre stands out is in characters, but though these screenplays often have an interesting plot or hook, the characters often take second place and aren’t very compelling.  Writers often don’t understand that it doesn’t matter how well structured or clever a plot is, without original and vibrant characters, the screenplay is almost never going to go anyplace. 
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PITCHING: a facebook discussion


I will be pitching my work over lunch to a Hollywood producer next week. It’s a first for me. What do I need to do, aside from printing for him my scripts and loglines?

    • Awesome! Good for you. How many do you get to pitch, or are you planning to pitch?

    • I’m planning to pitch one script, one pilot and one treatment.
    • Howard Casner Does he do TV and features? If he does both, have a few pitches for each. If he only does one, have a few pitches for that. But there’s no point pitching a pilot to someone who doesn’t do TV, for example. Start with your strongest or the one you are most passionate about and then if he asks for others, be ready with those. Have at least three pitches for either features or TV, or both if he does both.


    • Okay. But how do you pitch? Is it synopsis you need to recite? Is it the logline? A mixture of both?

    • Howard Casner It’s best to check a few books or others who are more expert, but start with log lines. If he wants to hear more, he’ll start asking questions. He’ll probably start with some variation on “What do you have for me” and you give him a log line. You might want to try to find some people who have done this and see if you can practice on them.

    • Thanks, Howard! I’ll try to research some material on pitches until then.

    • Practice your logline and pitch until you can say it in your sleep
    • The Memphis Filmfest had a little pitchfest contest in front of four produced screenplay authors, who then critiqued your pitched and gave a prize for the best. For it there was a logline then a two minute synopsis and then Q&A. But that was a more of a practice for one of those cold pitchefest scenarios. I assume you have an interested party so that might make it a different animal. Just don’t get in a hurry to sign anything until an agent and lawyer look it over… your agent or lawyer. Excited though you may be, this is a business transaction. Let all of us be excited for you… and envious as hell.

    • I’ve been in L.A. this week doing just that. I would suggest (humbly) chit-chatting…finding a common bond, getting to know the person a little and ease into it. Don’t make it feel like a sales meeting, but make sure you get your ideas out there. You’ll know quickly if the idea is anything they want/need/are interested in. And then slide out of that and onto the next. Make sure you know what they’ve produced, ask what they are developing, it gives a real sense of what to lead off with, what may not be in their wheelhouse. Pitch just the log line or general idea and if they are interested more, they’ll ask. But overall, ENJOY IT! It’s a very social business and if the person likes you, it won’t be a one time meeting and you’ll have an open door for a long time.

    • Thanks! I’m going to watch some of his movies tonight on Netflix, and see what he’s able of. He sounded very accessible on the phone.

    • Congrats! My two cents would r to know your story inside out.

    • Pitching is something that’s a bit artform, a bit technique, and a bit “What was that???”. Mostly that last part.
      But just a few quick things to put in the back of your mind:
      Make sure your pitches give him what he wants and needs to know. Don’t get bogged down in details, don’t try to explain things that can be better served with a quick analogy or metaphor.
      Understand he wants reasons to sell your projects. Get a feel for what he is more disposed toward and use it as a selling point. As cynical as this sounds, your fascination with the glass ceiling in the field of Women’s Swim Competition coaching might not be as interesting as the idea of athletic women in wet speedos. (and, by the way, selling on one point doesn’t preclude the other).
      As has been stated, rehearse your pitches. They need to be fairly quick, definitely concise, absolutely intriguing and leave with a feeling of wanting to know more.
      Don’t argue or be defensive. If he has suggestions or other ways he would do it, listen and nod your head. You can always say “I didn’t think about that, let me give it some thought”.
      At the same time, your rehearsed pitch still has to be presented in a casual, spontaneous conversational manner. He knows you’re pitching, but how you pitch will indicate your ease with it.
      The second hardest thing for people to come up with is the opening sentence. Come up with a killer way to open the pitch. Rehearse it.
      The hardest thing to come up with? The way to end it. Too many people get to the end and don’t feel they’ve said enough to sell their idea (HINT: you never will, no one ever feels that way). The result is that, unless stopped, they will keep rambling, hoping for that “ah HAH” spark from their listener. Don’t count on it. Rehearse your pitch end, hit it, and STOP.
      When you do finish, there are going to be a lot of questions…. or not. Either way, you need to answer in a positive proactive manner. Even if you don’t know the answer, embrace it as something you are eager to explore.
      Make sure you know what your audience is hearing in your pitch. What you think you are pitching might not be what’s getting across. I don’t know if you have time, but here’s a good practice for you:
      Take a friend to lunch. Someone who doesn’t know your pitch. When the waiter takes your drink order and heads off, launch into your pitch. When the waiter comes back with the drinks, STOP. No matter where you are, wrap it up and finish. Then ask your friend to tell you what your series/story is about. Listen carefully, because that’s what you got across under pressure. Do this often enough and I can guarantee you, pitching to execs will be a relief.
      And, of course, HAVE FUN. The world does not rest on this pitch. Someone wants to hear you tell stories: how cool is that? Enjoy it.
      No, seriously… enjoy it.

    • That’s great. I wish you the best of luck. Try to stay calm, be friendly and talk to him about your project. The more questions he asks, the better. Keep him talking as long as you can. Please let us know how it goes, this is very exciting!!

    • And take the water. Always take the water.


    • Over lunch – just talk about your stuff, casual. Like you are telling your friend what your new script is about. Don’t spit food on them. Don’t expect to actually eat anything.

    • Congrats! I’d say try to give him/her just a taste of the scripts. Make them want to read the whole thing.

FACEBOOK DISCUSSION ON MARKETING SCREENPLAYS AND WHETHER QUALITY SCREENPLAYS ARE EASIER TO MARKET


What are some good ways you know of, or heard of, to get your material optioned or sold?

    • I have no connections or networks, so that is my question.

    • Inktip…. networking. i.e linkden, facebook, twitter, sites like Talentville, competitions. Will try and think of some more 🙂

    • And there’s just being bare-faced about it. Get the actor’s, their agent’s, director’s and/or producer’s address and posting the script. All it costs…is the price of a stamp 😉

    • I suppose that would work as well…

    • All of the above, yes. But network not with the goal of selling; the goal should be to meet people with whom you connect in a real way and with whom you enjoy exchanging ideas, talking and/or spending time. Become a friend first. Friends want to help friends. I’ve had actor friends pitch my stuff on their own, without me having to do anything but say “yes”. But that only happens once you have a real relationship.

    • of course. I think its better to find people who are into the same things as you, help them or learn from them… and become friends first. 🙂

    • Well, I don’t know if it is the most common way, but my blog has helped me a lot. It got my first short scripts sold.

    • Write great material.

    • network not so much for selling but for forging friendships and meeting talented and creative people. Let the “maybe we should work together sometime” come naturally, and a little later. Film festivals are great places to make those kinds of friends — filmmakers on their way to becoming someone who can option your script.

    • networking is the key. and having material to network about, of course. If you have halfway decent material, you can placate yourself with competitions and writing groups. But if you don’t have connections, chances are the writing career won’t go far. I’m not good at networking. I don’t like to bother people… Inktip got me my first option, though.

    • My first screenplay was really high budget so had little chance of getting made. My second one is much more down-to-earth, so I think there will be more opportunities, eg on Inktip.

    • write good. schmooze even more betterly. I have trouble with both.

    • Howard Casner At the risk at really stirring a hornet’s nest, William, I have to say I disagree. In fact, writing great material can be quite immaterial and even work against you.

    • Howard, how is that?

    • Howard Casner I wish I knew how is that. It’s very frustrating. One would think the quality of a script would be the most important part of it, but alas, alack, it’s not. One possibility is that the better written the script is, the smaller an audience it will attract and therefore, the fewer productions companies will be interested in it. Most production companies (not all, by any means), tend to value middle brow writing with perhaps just a touch of edginess over real quality scripts. The ones who can testify to this most strongly are people who read for competitions and productions companies and agents. They look around at the movies being made and know that very few of them are great material. They then look at the great material they have recommended and realize how few of them get made. That’s one of the reasons why networking is far more important than writing great material.

    • ‎”Great” is subjective, but it’s a start. Networking your face off is the key that opens the door. Getting a referral from an optioned/sold screenwriter friend to an agent is a strong step inside the door. Those are my thoughts on the matter.

    • Attach actors, get a “Recommend” from one of the biggies, go to pitchfests (with a high concept project), comtact production companies that produce your genre, network and make connections, get to know assistants, get financing, make your manager/agent work. Did I leave anything out :-)?

    • I have to agree with Howard Casner, but I also remember something * once said when I was more active at the Scriptwriters Network (a group here in LA). Bill, you were either a member, or you spoke there, or both – it was a long time ago. But it resonates today, and I believe it’s very true. You said that if we were going to network, don’t do it with other writers because they don’t open doors. Do it with filmmakers, producers, directors. They’re the ones looking for material – not other writers… and I do believe that makes a lot of sense.

    • ‘ve been fortunate enough to form a really good relationship with a particular producer. He’s option four of my scripts and things are finally starting to come together.

    • Great quality scripts often don’t get made or optioned because if the prodution company/studio looks at potential internationals sales distribution first. If they don’t think they can sell it and make money, no deal. At least that’s what happened at the top companies/studios I worked at.
    • I am with Howard. It appears that quality scripts place in contests, but tend not to get made as it may be too “deep” for the mass audience to digest.
      Look at what’s in theaters. Slim pickins.

    • okay, so if we are supposed to network with the people who actually make the movies as opposed to other writers, how do we do that? they don’t have FB pages!

    • quality scripts often don’t get made? So, the “Best Picture” Oscar list are filled with second-tier script movies? I find that hard to believe.

    • ‎”One possibility is that the better written the script is, the smaller an audience it will attract…” Sounds to me like someone’s confusing quality with sophistication, or a Woody Allen script, or “high brow”. IMO, quality is quality and it crosses all income levels, races and nationalities. I doubt “The Help” will do well internationally, as it is pure Americana, but I feel that was a quality script.

    • Howard Casner Yes, the best picture Oscar list is filled with second tier script movies. It often has been if you look at the past nominations. I don’t find that hard to believe at all. I find it hard to believe that you find it hard to believe. There are exceptions, there are always exceptions, but we’re doing percentages here, what happens most of the time. You liked The Help; fine. I thought it was okay, but definitely middle brow, second tier (the 21st century equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a slight more edge, but just as middle brow and second tier). It doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, it doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, it doesn’t mean it’s awful; but second tier, yes. Saying the Help is a quality script is like saying Daphne du Maruier is a quality writer; she’s good and entertaining, but she’s no Faulkner or Hemingway. I’ve read tons of scripts that are much, much better that have never gotten made.

    • My thought is to first get representation. It’s an agent or manager’s job to get you work. To get representation:

      -be sure you have the basics down (screenplay format/story structure)
      -write familiar but original

      If you’re lucky enough to sell or option your work, you can now pitch that quirky but brilliant 175 page masterpiece about a girl from Uganda who struggles to reach her dream of being the first human to walk on mars.

    • I never said quality scripts never get made.

    • I never said you did. I’m pretty sure I took your direct quote, but I could be mistaken…

    • Obviously, you opinion of “great” differs wildly from mine, and apparently my opinion of great seems to be more in line with AMPAS and the general public. But this debate is silly for the very reason I stated above- “great” is subjective. I’m sure politics, and studios and money have all played a part in discounting one “great” picture over another, but to insinuate that the majority of what the industry standard of “great” is “second tier”, and to believe that a high number of “great” scripts are floating around Hollywood not being bought, sold, or produced (but winning contests and getting similar types of accolades)- well, I just can’t stop laughing at that premise. I guess we should all stop trying for that “brass ring” and perhaps set our sights a little lower and reach down for the tin one. If second-tier is what they want, I should have an Oscar winner somewhere around here…

    • I really don’t buy into the idea that ‘quality scripts don’t get made’… McKee always says ‘the films you see ARE the best out there and the likelihood that stored away in some attic is an Oscar winning script is rubbish’.. if it was quality.. it would be on the big screen.. and friend (script sales include Warners & GKFIlms) once told me.. agents are failed lawyers.. they didn’t feel like putting in the time and ended up in LA to try and get a piece of Hollywood.. but EVEN THEY would know a great script if they read it.. and the idea that great scripts are ‘missed’ is just preposterous.

      I think the problem is what a writer’s perception of ‘quality’ really is. Film is NOT an art. It’s a business. If you are making films for art.. enjoy the 3 people in the audience that appreciate it and come to terms with the fact that you WILL NOT make money as a successful screenwriter. Film is a business.. black and white — your script either sells or it doesn’t. A studio will never invest money unless the foresee a return on investment. Period. That’s business. If your script is great.. if a script in a Contest is great.. the film will get made.. or at least the script will get bought.. it’s a tough thing to come to terms with for all of us.. if your scripts aren’t selling, the fact of the matter is that your just ‘not there yet’.. the key word being YET.

      A great writer understands and can recognize his weaknesses.. we can say all we want about some terrible movie that we saw, but in the end.. it was one of the best 2,000 or so script of that year — how do we know? Because you watched the movie. How do we know ours aren’t one of the best 2,000 specs? Because it’s not a movie.

      The best way to get your stuff out there.. is to write quality stuff.. not one script, not two.. if you haven’t written at least 4 or 5.. you’re not there yet. Again, it’s a tough pill to swallow.. but it’s a fact. I wrote my first script and had no doubts that it was an Oscar winner compared to the drill that was in theaters.. but the reality check –> it took me 6 more scripts to get a film made. And that being said.. I’m not Goyer, I’m not Kasdan.. but maybe in 6 more I could be.. that’s the attitude you need.. just keep writing.. keep getting better.. every script is an evolution in your talent.. not every DRAFT.. every SCRIPT..

    • Howard Casner Go for it. Write those second tier scripts and you may very well make it one day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having that as a goal. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, he discovered that the way to make it in Hollywood is to write bad scripts, but do it very well. But for the others reading this thread, there are a couple of ways one can have a more objective view of the situation. When it comes to whether great scripts are being missed: look at the movies being made–how many of them do you like and how many of them do you think are great scripts, or even good scripts–I think you’ll find, if you are honest with yourself, that you don’t think very many are at all (and based on the various threads I read on facebook and how people complain about how bad movies are, I’m very convinced at that); then look at all the scripts you read for contests, agencies, etc. How many of the greats one get made? You do the math. I think you’ll find that a huge number of great scripts are being passed over and mediocre and bland scripts are being made. As for whether the Academy only nominates the great films (a claim that I not only find astonishing, but may be the first time I’ve ever heard anyone make such a claim on facebook or anywhere), make a list of all the films that are considered the great films in U.S. history (and British, since they stand an equal chance of getting nominated) and look at how many got nominated for best picture–I think you’ll find that they are in the minority. Then look at all the ones that got nominated and ask yourself how many of them are considered great anymore. Don’t take anybody’s opinion about it on this thread, do the research yourself and do the math. You may come to Geno and Walker’s conclusion or you may come to mine. But either way, do the research yourself.

    • There are a lot of reasons that scripts get made in the film business. Quality could be a reason but it’s not the only reason, and I would also suggest that it’s probably not the top reason. There’s also a lot of reasons scripts don’t get made, and quality is one of those reasons. But again, I would say it’s not the top reason.

      Quality is subjective. We could all read ten scripts and if we were asked which one was the best, it’s likely that we could have seven or eight different answers. Quality can’t be quantified in Hollywood because it means different things to different people. None of us have the same definition other than to say, “I know it when I read it.”

      This all goes back to the William Goldman line, “In Hollywood, nobody knows nothing.” That’s maybe the one thing we can all agree on.

    • Blue book of agents. If you like rejection, call then email them. Google entertainment lawyers. Call the big agencies get a name and beg to send in a log line.

    • I’d start with an ELEVATED concept. Work to make sure my writing is the best I can be, place in a contest or see if you can get a script request or two before I representation. I’m merely a student at this point. Just happy to be along for the ride!

    • Of course writing a post with a couple of glasses of wine under the belt doesn’t help!