Thursday, October 19, 2006

Coverage Tips [UPDATED -- I forgot to label it!]

I've posted a little bit about this before, but thought I'd expand.

The only coverage that matters is bad coverage. Sure, folks will tell you that a Recommend can get you work, get you a meeting, and agent, blah blah blah, but let me tell you from experience -- I've blown off positive coverage with no ill effects, but every bit of bad coverage I've received on a project has dogged my footsteps.

What is coverage, exactly? It's a two to four-page report generated by a (usually freelance) "reader" which summarizes and evaluates a manuscript. It typically comes with a cover page that gives an at-a-glance "snapshot" of the project: logline, brief description of the story, and a grid that provides a short-hand for the reader's evaluation of the major elements of a script. Usually, the scores are on a five point scale and cover Characters, Plot, Dialogue, and Story Structure. Then, there's that little box that matters most: OVERALL.

Readers frequently have a disproportionate amount of power in the industry. Sometimes it is justified (I worked with some crackerjack union guys when I was at the studio, folks with a deep understanding of story), often it isn't. While there are shops where the head of the studio is a literate, well-read cineaste, and there are also those where the boss doesn't even read coverage and instead each movie depends on the exec's pitching skills and the effectiveness of the lobby from its agents and managers. The only way to get through all of this is by mastering your craft, keeping your eye on the marketplace, and networking, aka the good old fashioned way.

There are ways to "write with the reader" in mind that won't compromise the artistic integrity of the script, but these things are best thought of after you've put the piece through your own rigorous artistic machine, not before. That said, let's go through a few:

1. Professional formatting.
I cannot tell you how often I've heard of folks tossing a script because it came in a 3-ring binder. That is about as asnine as putting a script in one in the first place. And two wrongs don't make a right. Because you can't count on getting a reader with a sense of work ethic, please show yours by submitting screenplays secured with 2 brads, one in the top hole and one in the bottom hole -- and go the extra mile to get "industry standard brads" i.e. ACCO Solid Brass Fasteners, 1 1/4 inch No. 5. Hollywood is a rigid, image conscious place. The nail that stands up gets hammered down. Remember that.

2. To paraphrase Cameron Crowe (stealing from Billy Wilder, I think), write the script as if you're writing a letter to a friend.
I say this in regards to the descriptive action, of course. I do not recommend you do this on the first, or even fourth pass. Wait until you are ready to send the script out, then, carefully, go through it and keep in mind that someone is reading this. Does your description invite the reader into your story? Are you clear and unambiguous in your choices? Can someone reading the script enjoy the time s/he spends with you and your story? Shane Black has made a career out of this, and is worth studying. I recommend reading only the descriptive text to test flow. This is also another candidate for the little black box method, and if you have a friend who loves you, perhaps you can provide enough beer and pizza to get them to do the reading for you and you can sit back and listen. Or you can use the Final Draft voice box, but I wouldn't recommend it -- no poetry.... Still, any port in a storm.
3. Plug Logic Holes.
Readers love to find logic problems with a script. If you have done a solid job with characterization and the tone feels right, these types of problems will be forgiven, but there are readers out there who rejoice in finding flaws in a screenplay's structure and will allow these flaws to dominate their analyses of a screenplay. Find as many logic-minded folks as you possibly can and get them to comb through the screenplay. Address their problems. Even if it kills you and upsets the delicate dramatic balance you've crafted. Even if it costs you a laugh. Don't get nutty and throw the baby out with the bathwater, but at the very least, tip your hat to the logic-fascists.
4. Keep your tongue out of your cheek and don't wink at anybody.
While you want the script to be reader-friendly, don't go overboard and put on a show just for the reader. I'm sure Scott the Reader has a few things to say about this, I dug round the archive but don't have the time to find a good post to link. Anyway, executives, producers, directors and readers hate it when writers "break the fourth wall" and ruin the flow of a screenplay by facing camera and doing a softshoe.

All of this sort of assumes you've exercised basic craft and found a story that's compelling. Again, that OVERALL box is a killer, but if you can get high marks in the other areas a story is evaluated for -- i.e. Characters, Plot, Dialogue, Story Structure -- you may get passed to the next level... underpaid story editor.

Good luck and toss questions where you think they'll do the most damage. :-)


wcdixon said...

I dig this post...again.

I'll think about a rewrite post, but I'm not really a 'craft' guy. See if this helps reboot - first place I always start is asking 3 questions:

1) What happens in the story? This is a more or less linear telling of the plot, as if you were telling it to a friend outloud over coffee....this happens, and then this happens, etc...

2) What drives the action of the story? This is the thing that without it happening or occurring or being said or done, the story wouldn't take place (it usually starts with the inciting incident, and can continue through the story, or trigger dominoes. It's what makes things happen.

3) What is the story about? This usually thematic or the artsy fartsy stuff I say ... "A man rediscovers his passion for music and in doing so, learns to love his son again." It's what happens underneath what the plot has happening.

And then I dig whether this start can help clean up your lead's emotional arc is another question altogether - have to think on that one...


wcdixon said...

Feel a little bit like I'm talking to myself, but realized the above post doesn't really suggest what to do with what you figure out. I use it to see if the plot/story is working, has an organic and logical beginning, middle, and end. It does, however, speak to where my scripts can tend to suffer..and that's that they are a little too - um...clinical. Or technical. Or lack heart or emotion or passion. I am aware of that and do try to go back and bump that stuff up once I feel the story is working, but its still tends to be more plot driven than character driven. Take from that what you will...

Chris said...

film diva,

i'm looking to take on some freelance coverage myself in my free time if possible. do you know of anyone amongst your contacts who might be looking for a reasonably intelligent person to read some scripts for them? i have a sample and would be willing to do the usual free read for them if necessary. thanks!

Chopped Nuts said...

I'm the opposite W.C., all my stuff comes from character first. Usually I know who they are in the beginning and the person they are at the end (after all the stuff has happened to them). It's making all that "stuff" groovy that is the biggest chore for me. Ah well, I've read that Robert Towne had the same problem, so that's not bad company to be in. :)

Webs said...

No surprise, really, but the writing advice isn't only for screenplays.

I could apply them to the years and years of journalism editing I've done.

The Film Diva said...

It's nice to hear this stuff explicated though, doesn't leave one anyplace to hide. :-)