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?