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BIZ: First Step on the Ladder, Confessions of a Development Guy

BIZ: First Step on the Ladder, Confessions of a Development Guy

by Kevin Dreyfuss

It’s an ungodly early hour on the F train. I’m reading a script for work as I run errands around town. We’ve got red signals ahead of us. This is the moment when the man next to me decides to buttonhole me about the script I’m reading, then happens to mention his own script. It’s a 600-page epic adventure movie, and when I politely suggest that most film companies might find that a wee bit long, he gets huffy and insists that he won’t cut a word. The ideas in the script are so good, he plans to sell it first, then let someone else cut it. . .

Now obviously this guy was more naive than most about how the New York indie film development scene works, but like many others, he has basic questions that somehow never get answered. Like, who actually reads the script? How do you get it to them? How does a script work its way “up the ladder”?

First things first. That man or woman you are accosting on the subway is more often than not a Script Reader, (sometimes called a story analyst for those looking for a fancy job title). This person is a freelancer; they work for one or more indie film studios or literary agencies around town, and they make shit money. They read 10-15 scripts, books and plays a week, they work seven days straight, they keep odd hours and have weird habits, and they are most likely frustrated writer-directors themselves. These are the gatekeepers, and at least initially, this is your core audience. They are the first to read and evaluate your piece, passing it up to a Story Editor, who passes it up to a Creative Executive, who passes it along to a Director of Development, to a VP of Development, to a Weinstein brother at Miramax, or a De Luca at New Line, or a Schamus or a Hope at Good Machine.

Let’s say you’ve just finished your script, you’re admiring it in its fancy cover. Now what? As a rule, almost every film company in New York refuses to accept unsolicited material. It’s got to go through an agent, or a lawyer, or you have to be a close personal friend of De Niro’s mother.

There are end runs around this initial roadblock. If you win a big screenplay competition, like the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science’s Nicholls Fellowship, then your work will most definitely get a read. There are Web sites popping up everywhere, purporting to be avenues to getting your scripts to reputable companies. Alas, most of them are full of crap. Some are legit, like Francis Ford Coppola‘s Zoetrope Screenplay Reading site, but for the most part the Web’s got a long way to go as a viable development medium.

Sometimes, a good, old-fashioned query letter sent to the film company can do the trick. Make it short, sweet, professional, tell enough about your script to titillate but don’t give away the whole candy store. There are, of course, some mistakes to avoid. When I worked at Tribeca, we received a nice query letter accompanied by a beautifully bound script. Unfortunately, it was all in Japanese.

However you’ve done it, you’ve gotten your script to a film company, where it’s joined a pile of like material on the desk of a Story Editor, whose first action is to pass it along to a freelance Script Reader. It is rare that a Reader has the opportunity to bring in material themselves; the company usually assigns the work. The Reader’s job is just what it sounds like; they read. And read and read and read. Then, they write up coverage of the script, usually comprised of some introductory blurbs and graphs detailing high level thoughts on the script, a detailed synopsis, and a page of comment breaking the script down into its constituent parts — story, character, dialogue, originality, visual flair.

And there are other concerns to think about — is this similar to something already in development? Is it such a huge budget piece that it’s out of our league right off the bat? These are issues you should be thinking about before you even send out letters or submit material to a particular company. See what they have in development, get a feel for their taste, what they might be looking for. This is all information that an agent or manager is paid to know, it’s actually the lion’s share of their jobs, but if you don’t have an agent, you’re going to have to find out on your own.

Because the development world is swamped with literally tens of thousands of scripts a year, 90% of which are absolutely dismal, coverage is the heart of the process, a necessary evil. It is sometimes (or often) the only thing an executive will get a chance to read, and it is based almost solely on coverage that a script goes anywhere within the company. Get good coverage, and at a place like New Line or Miramax, it’s passed around to all the different corporate divisions to peruse, from marketing to production to TV and foreign.

Readers are not by nature vicious, hateful people. By and large they want to like what they’re reading. Unlike actual full time company employees, script readers have no real industry pressures weighing on them; they are just looking for quality stuff, period. And there are many instances where the script itself isn’t right for the company to make, but the writer is someone to watch. If you’ve written a script that is rejected, but the company recognizes you as a solid writer worthy of tracking in the future, than you’ve won a significant victory. Bear in mind that it takes years to cobble together a career, and every script submitted is a building block.

Let’s say the reader loves your script and recommends it heartily. What then? Well, the reader brings in the coverage, and if they really love the piece, they rush around the company offices gushing to everyone and anyone about it. This is the point when politics will enter the picture, as it always does.

Here are some pragmatic thoughts about a film company. Everyone is working together for a common goal; they all want the company to make interesting, successful films. But they are also independent free agents in competition with each other, always angling for an edge, something to bring into that weekly development meeting and wow the boss with. As with all politics, this is good and bad. On the minus side, there is backstabbing and territorial excesses and ritual slayings, and the copy room floor is littered with wonderful scripts that have died for political reasons entirely beyond their control. But on the plus side, the constant competition keeps everyone hungry, no matter how far up they’ve moved in the development continuum. Everyone in the indie scene worth his or her salt, absolutely everyone, is constantly on the lookout for the next big thing.

I’ll leave off with some thoughts about getting a script past the gatekeepers and into the belly of the development beast. Think back again to whom the script reader is — bitter, overworked

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