You hear myths, half-truths, and clichés all the time in this business. Some involve the “secret” to success, while others are urban-legend-style horror stories or lists of “no-nos” that are supposedly guaranteed to instantly turn off the decision-makers. This series of articles will honestly – (to the point of bluntness, at times) – cover “common advice” as varied as “you need a high concept” or “X genre is in right now” to technical tips such as “never include parentheticals” or “don’t insert your own voice into the description.”
I want to start off by making it clear that in my experience just about nothing is absolute. People have their own preferences, and many Hollywood “myths” are rare enough not to worry about, yet still come to fruition on rare occasions as the result of a nitpicky or eccentric reader or an exec with a pet peeve or surprising soft spot. You can learn how to maximize your chances and minimize your missteps, but there isn’t a way to completely eliminate volatility. That’s Hollywood; that’s life.
What I can tell you is that I’ve worked extensively as a reader for some of the world’s biggest agencies and production companies, I’ve also spent considerable time in-office at one of those agencies, and I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by an Executive Story Editor who is one of the savviest people in this business. At times, I’ve been (as far as physical proximity) close enough to the highest echelon of the business to observe the decision-making process for projects involving the world’s biggest movie stars, and I’ve also helped judge minor screenwriting contests. I’ve watched this business unfold from so many levels and angles that it would overwhelm an origami master and a geometry professor working as a team.
Yet, while my background may be extensive and diverse, just because I’ve had certain experiences doesn’t mean somebody else hasn’t legitimately had different experiences – the key dichotomy here is that this isn’t a rule-book sort of industry, but there are still very specific things you can do (and not do) that substantially affect your chances. With that sort-of disclaimer out of the way, I assure you that I’m confident about dismissing, explaining, and confirming the “common advice” covered here.
So, without further ado, here are some of the most common Hollywood myths, half-truths, and clichés rated with a “Truth Score” of 1 (total BS) to 10 (universally true).
1) “They Only Read the First Ten Pages!”
TRUTH SCORE: 2/10 (for Agencies, Production Companies, and Studios), 4/10 (for Contests)
I read the entire screenplay. On rare occasions, I might catch myself skimming a bit – (this is always way past page 10, though, and when I say “rare occasions” I mean it). Maybe the script’s really awful, I’m really tired, and/or it’s a 194-page epic. If this is the case, and I notice I’m skimming, guess what I do. The gold star goes to anybody who picked “refocus and finish my job properly.” Of course, I learned from somebody who feels strongly about this.
The Executive Story Editor who mentored me and whom I mentioned earlier in this article reads every page of everything. I’ve seen his process at work multiple times, and I guarantee he really does this. And he’s spent over a decade as the main guy vetting potential A-list projects specifically for a long list of top-tier movie stars for two of the world’s biggest agencies.
Other established Hollywood folk I’ve talked to about this have also told me they read the whole script cover to cover. I don’t know most of these people well enough to truly “vouch” for them, but their answers make sense. For one thing, writing a synopsis is usually part of the reader’s job. Every major agency and production company I have ever worked for required a page-long synopsis as part of standard coverage. It would take Hippopotamus balls to just read ten pages and then fake that sucker. So, if you want a “guarantee” that your entire screenplay gets read, make sure you send it somewhere that requires a synopsis, as well as comments. Honestly, it’s not something I’d bother worrying about, but if you are still worried about it, that’s an easy way to 99% confirm your entire screenplay gets read.
Let’s sum part of it up this way: The “they only read the first ten pages” thing is damn-near a myth when it comes to the first reader at agencies and production companies.
And even after a screenplay successfully moves up the coverage ladder, the actual decision-making agents and executives tend to rely so heavily on the coverage written by their right-hand people that how much they read is rarely a major issue. Many don’t read at all (seriously), just going by the coverage, while others read the whole script, and I’m sure a few do only read the first few pages, skim, or maybe even consult an astrologist (although, even these cases tend to be in conjunction with reading and valuing the coverage and not as a substitute for it).
There’s no ten-page magic number, either. Maybe you get a good coverage report from the first reader, and your script gets passed up to the agent or producer, and he or she reads it for a while, and somewhere around page 11 or 19 or 40 or 73, decides it’s just not for him or her. I’m not saying reading a few pages and quitting never happens in the industry, but it happens extremely rarely with the first reader, and knowing it might happen slightly more often with the actual decision-maker is not really knowledge that allows you to do anything special to improve your chances. In a general sense, if you get your foot in the door, you’ll get your shot.
Contests are a little different, as contest-readers are much more likely than agency or production-company readers to only read part of the screenplay (although generally still more than 10 pages). Contests often charge too small an entry fee to actually employ readers at a normal rate, leading to an implicit understanding that the reader can toss aside “sure losers” partway through and/or do some skimming. Some contests are even upfront about the fact that all screenplays may not be read in their entirety. The lack of required written evaluations for many contests also encourages this sort of behavior. It’s still not generally a “first ten pages” situation with contests, but it’s fair to say your screenplay is unlikely to get as much attention from most contests (until the final stages, if you get that far) than from most agencies and prodcos. And, while I’m writing about contests…
2) “Contests Don’t Mean Anything!”
TRUTH SCORE: 7/10
I have a friend whose career was jumpstarted by winning an extremely prestigious contest. He’s still not where he wants to be, but he has an agent at a top agency, he’s getting re-write work, and a legit feature director is interested in one of his screenplays. It’s a huge step forward and a great accomplishment for him, and it was a process that, in many ways, started with that contest. So why am I giving “Contests Don’t Mean Anything!” a 7/10 Truth Score then?
Good question. Answer: The vast majority of contests don’t mean anything, and even the ones that do often don’t. Many people who have won the same contest as my friend don’t go anywhere with their careers, and it’s probably the most prestigious screenwriting contest out there. I’m not saying don’t enter the top contests – if you feel good about your screenplay and don’t mind paying entry fees knowing (even with a great screenplay) that your work is likely to disappear during the “minefield” stages of the contest.
This “minefield” stage exists because the early levels of most contests are very dependent on the whim of somebody who is generally underpaid and overworked and may not be especially thorough (as covered in the last section)… and if you get past them, you usually get a different reader in the same situation – in a sense, your odds are decreasing exponentially during this stage of contests. Yet, if you survive past this stage and get deep enough in a contest, usually multiple people will read your screenplay and debate its merits. This sounds really cool; however, getting through the minefield to reach this point rarely happens (even with awesome screenplays), and, to top it off, for whatever reason, contest judges often have substantially different criteria than the actual decision-makers at agencies, prodcos, and studios.
You can count the contests that matter on your hands – if you do a little research it will become clear almost immediately which ones are the most prominent and meaningful. Unfortunately, even those contests tend to usually have a “minefield” element (and don’t always end up mattering), and the other contests very rarely matter.
My advice is to focus on getting your work to agents and producers, and then if you want to throw in an entry to the few contests that matter each year, go ahead. You never know how you might catch a break, but entering a bunch of smaller contests is one of the least efficient uses of your money. It’s my theory that many people enter contests because they think they won’t be able to get a foot in the door at agencies and production companies without the sort of credentials they imagine contests provide. However, these “credentials” usually don’t matter much (except for the very top contests, as explained earlier), and it’s actually much easier to reach major companies directly than most people think, which leads us to…
3) “Query Letters Don’t Work!”
3a) “Only Carefully Targeted Query Letters Work – ‘Query Blasts’ are a Waste of Time!”
TRUTH SCORE: For 3 (1 out of 10), for 3a (1 out of 10)
You know what’s true – bad query letters don’t work. Good ones are really effective.
You know how I know this? I’ve sent out query letters for my own screenplays and have never sent out a set – (which generally consists of many, many queries, using a “query blast” website – my favorite is venicearts.com, which has given me my best results) – and received less than four requests. I have screenwriter friends who have done the same thing and always received requests. It’s not at all unheard of to get requests in the double-digits this way. And we’re talking major agencies, major companies, and people whose names you would know, along with plenty of perfectly legitimate lesser-known agents and producers. Yes, there is a catch, but this catch is pretty straightforward – it only works if you send a good query letter.
I have actually read somebody on a screenwriting message board write (in response to somebody asking about the effectiveness of query blasts) something along the lines of “if you wanted to find a girlfriend, would you just send a form e-mail to hundreds of random girls, or would you approach somebody in a personal way who was a good match for you.” Short of recommending guzzling Draino as a headache cure, that’s about as bad as advice can get. Yet, it’s actually (in various forms that are not usually quite as absurd), fairly common advice amateurs will give about “mass queries” or “query blasts.” Some people take this advice even further and suggest that queries in general are a waste of time and are simply never read.
I’m sure many queries get deleted or trashed and truly are never read. Fine – let’s say you send out 250 queries through a “query blast” and 60% of them are trashed. That means a hundred of them get read. And I honestly doubt anywhere near 60% are trashed, based on my personal experience. Many will be read by assistants or interns first and then passed up the ladder if that person likes it. Many will be read directly by the person it’s e-mailed to – I’ve had a famous actor request a script from me personally (via his prodco) almost immediately after a query blast was sent out. People tend to read their e-mail, and it only takes a few seconds to read a logline and some brief info and say “yes” or “no.”
It’s not at all like finding a life partner; this process is more about agents and producers wanting an extremely elusive high level of “quality” – (which is way too subjective to really apply in the dating analogy) – than about either you or them looking for the right “fit” – (which is what the dating analogy is all about). Most agents and companies simply want great work more than any sort of specific “match” and if they’re legitimate and love your writing, you probably want to work with them. If your query is well-written, and somebody with the authority to request a screenplay reads that query and likes your concept, he or she will usually ask for the script. I don’t even think credentials matter much – great credentials obviously don’t hurt, but it’s pretty easy to judge whether somebody presents his or her work professionally by the query itself.
How to write a professional-level query is another article in itself (LINK TO ARTICLE I WRITE ON HOW TO WRITE A QUERY). For now, it’s worth at least understanding that less is more, that your logline has to be a well-written expression of a compelling concept (LINK TO MY LOGLINE ARTICLE), and that you don’t want to load up on unimpressive credentials, since including the fact that you were a semi-finalist in some minor contest, or simply rambling off barely related accomplishments can be more off-putting than encouraging.
Here’s the blunt truth about why so many people are against queries and query blasts: it didn’t work for them because they didn’t write well enough. Most people don’t like admitting their flaws, so it becomes much easier to blame the method than to look inwards.
I have a tough time imagining somebody who is a professional-level screenwriter sending out a legitimate query blast and not getting any requests. The quality of writing in the query, including, most importantly, the logline, is going to be at least partially indicative of the quality of writing in the screenplay. If you have a good concept and you sound articulate, succinct, and professional, you’ll get some requests. Most people don’t meet those requirements, and instead of learning to meet those requirements, they give up on queries (or only write them in an oddly and irrelevantly personal way to some company they’ve researched and decided is a “good fit”). Cool – the less people in the mix, potentially oversaturating the market, the better for you. At this point in time, if you learn how to write a top-shelf query, you’ll always be able to get your work into the hands of a few legitimate companies and (most of the time) at least a couple of true big shots whenever you feel like it.
Queries don’t just work – when done well, they’re a fantastic method for getting your foot in the door.
Article by Gideon C., Script-Fix reader