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How Do You Know When Your Script Is Good, Done And Ready For Production?

Features
by Tambay A. Obenson
February 13, 2013 2:36 PM
14 Comments
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I'm sent a lot of scripts to read and films to watch on a weekly basis, and I do read and watch as many as my time will allow, which isn't much; but I've been doing this long enough that I've watched a lot of films and read many screenplays.

I don't really have a method of picking which film I will watch and when, or what script to read. It really comes down to which ones get my attention first - and that could be, in the case of films, the film's synopsis and trailer; and in the case of a script, the synopsis first, and how the writer presents himself/herself in the email they send me, second. And if I'm already familiar with the writer's past work, then even better.

As I'm sure every filmmaker knows, filmmaking is a resource drain - money, time, and people. It's certainly not for the weak. Yes, advancements in technology have democratized the process, allowing more of us the opportunity to create content, but that doesn't mean that everyone with a copy of Final Draft, a camera and light kit, is a filmmaker.

Spike Lee and many others have stressed this a lot: know your craft! Especially before you embark on investing lots of money and time into producing a film, whether it be a short or a feature.

Why go through the entire process - especially at the indie level, where money and time are a luxury - if you're not aiming for the heavens from the moment you open up Final Draft and type that first "action" statement or line of dialogue?

The studios can afford to throw away millions of dollars on weak material, because they can. It's almost as if they're throwing darts at a cement wall, hoping that one eventually sticks, is a box office smash, makes them a ton of money, making up for the other 10 films that lost money, or just broke even.

But at the indie level, you just don't have that luxury in opportunities; so every outing should get your best effort - at the writing stage, while directing/shooting, in post-production, etc. Every film should be your best film!

The common saying is that it all starts on the page - the written word; if it's not on the page, then you're bound to run into problems while you're shooting, or in post-production, in trying to find your story, or a character's arc, etc. Of course that's not a steadfast rule. Some filmmakers prefer to improvise while shooting, although they usually still have some outline of what the story is that they're trying to tell; or, in the case of a Mike Leigh for example, he often workshops his projects with his cast, for many months, before a single foot of film is exposed to light. So that by the time they actually start shooting the film, the actors have practically become the characters they play in the film, because they've not only lived with them for so long, they actually helped develop them during that workshop period.

But I'm assuming most indie filmmakers don't have that luxury either - casting your actors first, and then workshopping an outline for 6 months, developing the script as you go, before shooting.

So, it starts with the script. Yes, what you end up with after post-production is complete, may not be exactly what you started with, at the script stage; but, as a general rule, any film instructor will likely emphasize the need to make sure your script is solid before moving on.

Which brings me to my question - how do you know you have a good script that's ready to go into production? When you're confident that you have something that's definitely sound and solid?

I've asked filmmakers that question in the past, during interviews, and the one common reply I receive is that, it starts when you've given the script to others to read for constructive feedback.

But here's the catch - don't just give it to your friends - unless of course you have a smart, eclectic group of friends who aren't afraid to challenge you; but even if you do, as one person said to me, it's important that you expand your COI (circle of influence), and make sure the script is read by people who have absolutely no investment in you, whether as a person or a filmmaker, but whose opinions you respect for one reason or another. Maybe they are filmmakers as well, and you've seen their work, which you respect; or maybe it's a film critic or journalist you respect; maybe it's a professor; maybe it's an author; or maybe it's someone who isn't involved in the arts at all, but is intelligent and opinionated. Or it could even be someone you don't like, but can't help but respect. I feel like we probably all know somebody like that.

Or you could be lucky enough to be selected for any one of the existing screenwriters labs, offered by the likes of Sundance and the IFP. I know some who have paid for professional feedback - there are people and companies that offer that service.

But the point is, expand your circle of influence. In other words, get a nice, wide variety of opinions on your script, and then collect all that feedback and do something with it - especially if you find that there are common reactions/suggestions that are shared by several of your readers.

Of course, you could be so confident in your abilities that you don't feel like you need to to get constructive feedback from anyone. And if you're that person, good luck to you! I guess your work will do the talking eventually.

But if I can offer just one piece of advice, since I get asked these things often, expand your COI, and embrace the feedback that they give, even though it stings at times. Your work will be stronger for it.

And yes, I realize that it's not always easy to get others, especially those outside your circle, to take the time to read your 120-page screenplay. It's a time-consuming task that not every person is up for. But at least make the attempt to inquire. You never know unless you ask, right?

I'm often asked by readers who really only know me from the writing I do here on S&A. And, when I can, I oblige. Or, as I've done with others, I tell them to send me their scripts, but not to expect that I'm going to get back to them with feedback immediately, because it takes time, and I have other duties.

So, I think you'll find that there are those who genuinely want to assist, if only because they want to see black filmmakers and black films do well; and it really all starts with your initial approach. 

And if you can afford it, as some can and do, use a reputable script consulting service. For exmaple, Tanya Steele, who writes a monthly column for this blog, is one such person. And I believe the Slamdance Film Festival also has a consulting service.

Or enter your script into competitions and see how you fare; in some of those case, although often for an extra fee, they'll give you feedback on your work.

Again, the overall goal here is to help improve the quality of the work that's in circulation; after watching countless black indies, and read several scripts, I have to question how many of you are really workshopping your screenplays before you go into production.

And if you're not, why aren't you?

Granted, some will say that the writing never ends, and you're constantly rewriting, even while you're shooting; but at some point, you decide that you have something worth investing money and time in, and rounding up a cast and crew for.

When does that moment happen for you, and how do you know when you're there?

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14 Comments

  • Dankwa Brooks | May 28, 2013 7:13 PMReply

    I TOTALLY AGREE with WILLIE DYNAMITE "Writers have to study form and structure. Most scripts are doomed from the start because of poor structuring."

    I studied screenwriting as part of my undergrad and learned structure like the back of my hand. It's amazing when I read stuff that is hardly in a basic format. People don't realize that screenwriting isn't like story writing and vice versa. Yes books are very helpful and I was blessed to have my scripts worked on in an academic setting with professors and other writers. That feedback was very helpful in my development. I think some sort of informed/critical feedback is important. Not just a family member who even if they tell you they "didn't like it" can't give you more than that.

  • Deborah Goodwin | February 14, 2013 6:44 PMReply

    We are aware (aren't we?) that there is no "black" or "white"
    writing. Just writing that works and writing that does not.
    Instead of focusing on who will read your draft-- better to spend time
    learning to CRAFT your draft. READ good writers! WATCH how good
    writing works onscreen-- and when the writing fails... listen to good
    writers & directors discuss filmmaking. Repeat. Be brave. Be diligent.
    Regardless of whether you are writing-directing black stories.

  • CC | February 14, 2013 8:57 PM

    Makes sense to me Deborah. As my mother always told me "Don't waste your time listening to people who "think" they know, spend your time learning from those who has walked the talk.

    Deborah Goodwin is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. Born in Manchester, England, raised in the Montreal art scene, graduate of Dawson College's drama department and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, Los Angeles refugee; (where she went to the AFI for screen writing & worked at USA Networks, CBS kids programming, CAA's basement and Sanford-Pillsbury Productions as head of development). An Film Independent screenwriter's & producer's lab alumni, Urbanworld Film Festival Best Screenplay award winner for her family drama, 'Cherry's, with her first feature film "Vampires in Venice" making its sales debut at Cannes Market 2011.

  • willie dynamite | February 13, 2013 7:30 PMReply

    This is a great discussion that is very needed. Knowing the craft is essential and not just the craft of writing. Filmmakers are so anxious to shoot that they rarely ask themselves key questions that are vital to the life of the film. Why am I telling this story? What is the theme of this story? Is their an audience for this film? Because it has black people in it is not enough. Is it a festival type of film or is it more commercially driven? Who would you market it to? So many questions can be asked. In terms of the actual script, to seek consultation or not. It can go both ways. Before it even reaches them the writer has to check their ego and scrutinize their script harder than anyone. M. Night said he did not realize that the character of Bruce Willis should be dead until the 6th draft. Just because you wrote something or wrote it very quickly doesn't make you a prodigy. Writing is rewriting. Just like an athlete who shoots the game winning free throw was able to do this because of the 1000 free throws he shot every day for years. Writers have to study form and structure. Most scripts are doomed from the start because of poor structuring. Donnie Leapheart was joking but made a great point. You have to educate your self on structure, books like Story by Robert Mckee, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, help enlighten you to structure, but the work does not stop there. Study great scripts, their is a formula, the magic is in cloaking that formula so that your reader gets immersed in the story. Tambay is correct in finding someone outside of your fans to read your script and give you honest constructive criticism, but be careful because some writers as talented as they are, give horrendous notes and try to push you in to the story they would tell. That is why you have to go back to the initial questions you asked yourself, why am I telling this story? What is the central theme to this story? having that foundation will help keep you from veering off track while allowing yourself to be open for ways to improve your script. Lastly, separate yourself from your script. You are not your script. Just because the draft someone just read was garbage does not mean you are a garbage writer that just means that you have a lot of work to do. Most great writers know that the first few drafts are well below par and know that they have a lot of work to do, its all a part of the process.

  • scripttease | October 14, 2013 10:35 PM

    "Tambay is correct in finding someone outside of your fans to read your script and give you honest constructive criticism, but be careful because some writers as talented as they are, give horrendous notes and try to push you in to the story they would tell."

    I know this is old, but Google brought me hear. This is what I am going through right now with a woman from the UK.

  • CareyCarey | February 13, 2013 6:06 PMReply

    "As I'm sure every filmmaker knows, filmmaking is a resource drain - money, time, and people. It's certainly not for the weak" [...] "Spike Lee and many others have stressed this a lot: know your craft!"

    I highlighted those words because they speak THOUSANDS!

    When I hear the words "know your craft", I have to ask myself what exactly is my craft, my lane, goals and expectations? I am I scriptwriter who merely wants to sell my script, wash my hands and be done? Or, do I have aspirations like that of the producers Ron Simons & April Yvette Thompson of SimonSays Entertainment? The major message I received from their in-depth conversation with Tambay was KNOW THE BUSINESS first. Also, they've been known to "hand carry" a script from start to it's final resting place. So, again, what's my lane, my goals, my expertise and do I know the road in front of me? Am I a writer, a producer, a director, a filmmaker, an "investor" or all of the above? If so, do I know the business and "my craft" (whatever that may be)?

    But it's a great headsup that S&A brings to the floor. We've be exposed to the best black screenwriters, DP's, casting agents, filmmakers, film equipment, producers, film critics, actors and directors, all of which has dropped a wealth of knowledge. Many of whom share their knowledge free of charge and for the love of the art and for the need to tell our stories. However, many times we skip over a major player... that be Mr. Money.

    Granted, there are those who do it for "love", but money is always lurking somewhere in the wings. To that point, it would be nice if we could see the actual breakdown of the money trail. For example, in S&A's interview with Salli Richardson-Whitfield, she said actors didn't make much money from movies. Well, who is she talking about?

    More importantly, from the time the pen hits the paper, it would be nice to knowwho gets paid, who pays who, and how aad when is the money divided? As SimonSays said... KNOW THE BUSINESS!

    So again, it would be nice to see the actual breakdown of a movie's money trail (expenses & revenues) from script, through production, through distribution, to the theater, on to DVD.

    "after several more months, the writer/director Tanya Hamilton came to me. We met at a Starbucks in New Jersey, and she said, Ron I want you to produce this film; will you consider producing this yourself?" ~ SimonSays

    Stop right there. Wouldn't it be nice if all aspiring filmmakers could get a glimpse of the time and money Tanya had already invested up to this point? And then, it would be nice to see how future monies where distributed?

    Matthew Cherry took us along on his journey while making The Last Fall, but we never get to see the actual money pits and how the money is being distributed? So, I wish a filmmaker/producer would step-up, walk up to the mic with a past project in their hand, and speak to us in straight talk. Who got paid what... and when, and who splits future profits? Hey, inquiring minds want to know the whole/complete story. I mean, if we don't know where we're going, how will we know when we've arrived?

  • Tim | February 13, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    While expanding your "COI" sounds great, it's hard to find people you aren't friends with who are willing to put in the effort of giving thorough feedback. The ideal is to have friends who are fellow artists and who understand the value of extensive, in depth constructive criticism. One of the benefits of film school is that ideally, it should teach you how to critique others work and how to receive critiques yourself.

    I actually consider myself incredibly fortunate in that when I was in high school I was part of an extracurricular writing workshop taught by an octogenerian hard ass who treated his students like adults. A lot of kids would join the program and leave the next day because they were used to being coddled and were looking for an echo chamber. But those of us that stuck with it came out with a skill set and an attitude that has helped us the rest of our lives. One of my fellow students from that program I'm still friends with, and we're always sending each other our writing for feedback, usually with the request "tear it to shreds!" We know the value of a tough but sympathetic critique and how difficult it is to find someone who's good at giving one.

  • Do Better | February 13, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    Great write up, Tambay. The real question no one seems to be asking is: Is every independent filmmaker a writer director? We can endlessly discuss the writing process and the script feedback/consultation process, but that doesn't get to the core (and overwhelming influx ) of poorly written material. It's incredibly difficult to direct, let alone write and direct. Some are talented directors. Some are talented writers. Some are neither. It's incredibly difficult and rare to be good at both. Knowing what you're honestly good at, is a start.

  • Do Better | February 13, 2013 3:42 PM

    I just realized I used "incredibly difficult" twice. Goes to show how difficult writing can be, and this is just a blog comment.

  • Keith Purvis | February 13, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    A great help to all filmmakers is to send your script to a script consultant. A few well known screenwriters suggested that to me a few years ago and it really helps you get from one level of writing to the next, even if you don't agree with all the points the consultant brings up. You can pay a reputable consultant or if you have ties with an established writer, get it over to them. It's the best feedback you can get and every screenwriter (new and established ones) go through a few rounds with a consultant before they even label their screenplay as draft 1.

  • jasmine | February 13, 2013 5:17 PM

    I also believe script consultants is the way to go. Script consultants may not be writers but many of them are. There are legitimate consultants out there that will give advice. It's important to have a professional look at your screenplay. I've seen some that are reasonable and some that are ridiculous and charge by the page! Having another set of eyes to look at your script is very important. You don't have to go by everything they say, but their job is to make sure you have a character arc, compelling scenes, and eliminate needless dialogue.

    There is the indie route and there is the hollywood route. There are probably others but if you write the script yourself and make your indie film, there will still be changes to the written script. Changes like the arrest scene in 'middle of nowhere' was turned into a flashback in the movie. There are movies released now and in the past, that could of had changes to them. And if you go the hollywood route, and if your lucky enough to have gotten that far, then they will provide the screenwriter with notes. And if you don't agree with them, they'll pass, hire someone else and the credits will read, "story by...." How do you know if your script is ready for production? It really might not be till production but it's important to have the best draft you can get. Don't under estimate the power of us. I feel like I'm an employer. Thanks to us, everyone gets hired. Costume designers, script supervisor, make up artist, assistant director 1 & 2, cinematographer, keygrip, sound engineers, music supervisor, music composer, obviously director...

  • Tim | February 13, 2013 4:04 PM

    I'd actually advise against paying script consultants. The problem is that most script consultants aren't writers. If they have any background in the film industry, it's usually as a "reader" - the gatekeepers at the bottom rung of the studio ladder. So essentially the advice they give will be based on what they think producers are looking for (often based on decades old experience), whereas an actual writer has a way of thinking about writing that you can only get by spending a lot of time doing it. Walter Murch once wrote that when doing test screenings, you have to learn to interpret advice like a doctor interprets symptoms - the audience will say the problem is in one scene, but you have to trace it back to its true source in an even earlier scene. Similarly, a script consultant might be able to identify the symptom, but anyone can do that... what they probably can't do is give an accurate assessment of what's really causing it.

    I'm curious where your "every screenwriter..." comment comes from. I've never once heard an established screenwriter recommend a script consultant. If you listen to Script Notes, the podcast by John August (Big Fish, Frankenweenie) and Craig Mazin (Identity Thief), they have a five minute long anti-script consultant rant practically every other episode. Actually, if you google the phrase "script consultant," one of their rants is the very first result!

    If you can get an actual talented screenwriter to look at your work, then yeah, definitely do that. But even if you can't, you're better off asking a friend or teacher whose writing abilities you respect for advice than paying hundreds to a charlatan.

  • Donnie Leapheart | February 13, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    For many indie black filmmakers, the script is ready to be filmed once they've gotten the first act down to 60 pages, the Second Act down to 15 and the Third Act down to 10....Picture's Up!

  • Dankwa Brooks | May 28, 2013 6:52 PM

    ^^^LMAO^^^

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