by Gabriel Storment (@SeaStorm24)
You should never submit a first draft of a screenplay to a competition. Never. That’s the rule. As much as you’d like to, as many hours, days, months, even years you put into it, it’s just not a good idea.
So of course, that’s what I did with my very first screenplay. I’d been working on it for a little over a year. I tinkered. I polished. Mostly I reread what was on the page and patted myself on the back for creating such beautiful word magic. Never before had anyone told a story with such depth of emotion, humor, and intelligence! It was a very smart script, I felt. Producers would slowly nod their heads while reading it in appreciation of my genius. An understanding that I was special. A kinship between true cinephiles. They would read my words and reprioritize everything to get my movie made.
My lack of experience didn’t matter. Inciting incident? Sure, it’s in there… somewhere. Structure? FADE IN and FADE OUT with magic in the middle, that’s my structure. I was an alchemist, and I had to show the world what I had created.
The Feedback Loop
I submitted my screenplay to one of the larger, more widely known competitions in the country and received the friendly confirmation email thanking me for my submission. “You thank me now, just wait ‘til you READ it,” I thought. Then I waited, patiently. Given the number of submissions received by this particular competition, the judging takes months. After the list of quarterfinalists was finally released, I scrolled the list of names and mine was not among them.
Of course it wasn’t. It was the first draft of my first screenplay. You never submit your first draft to a competition.
But, along with the submission I opted to purchase their screenplay coverage, which included 4-5 pages of detailed feedback including notes on structure, characters, and dialogue. This was what I really needed.
Thankfully, the reader who had the honor of pulling my script from the pile was in a forgiving mood. Much of the feedback was encouraging. I could tell they made an effort to highlight the strong areas. And on the weak points, of which there were many, they offered constructive criticism and even a few suggestions. Most of the weak points I already knew needed work but I either glossed over them or assumed the reader would let them slide given how AMAZING the rest of the script was.
Overall, this was great. This was the first professional feedback I’d ever received, and it was reassuring. I thought, maybe I could do this. So, over the next few months, I overhauled the script. I gave characters more depth. I had a clear and decisive inciting incident. It was a real Hero’s Journey now with a clear storyline. And I cut. I cut words, sentences, paragraphs. My action and descriptions were efficient. Lean.
Once I was satisfied with my progress, I decided to put it back out there. Instead of another competition, I uploaded the script to The Blacklist, the online database where, for a fee, writers can have their work evaluated and possibly seen (and bought! and produced!) by industry professionals. After a few weeks I received my evaluation, and… it was great! Overall, it scored an 8 out of 10! This was incredible! I was on top of the world. Obviously, my screenplay was amazing. And I must be brilliant to have created it.
Since the script received such a good score, The Blacklist offered an additional evaluation at a discount. Makes sense; they want to promote the scripts that do well. Scripts with higher scores rank higher in their database and therefore have a better chance of being checked out by the industry pros. So of course I purchased another one. Everything was going perfectly. I was already writing my Oscar acceptance speech in my head.
And then the second evaluation came through.
It was as if all the previous feedback had been the setup to a cruel joke. A terrible score. Poor ratings throughout, in every category. I was crushed. My dreams of box office riches and Oscar glory were dashed.
It had to be a mistake. Whoever that particular reader was, they just didn’t understand where my story was coming from. Maybe they weren’t in the right mindset. Maybe they’d just read three interplanetary Kung-Fu love stories and weren’t ready for the subtle nuance of my script. I had to order another evaluation to wash the taste of failure out of my mouth.
This time, a good score. Not great, not bad, but good. At this point, I didn’t know how to react. What did it mean? And then I finally started to understand. I forced myself not to buy any more evaluations.
3 Rules for Getting and Using Feedback
The thing about The Black List is that they offer cheap feedback, and I mean that in both senses of the word. They offer feedback at a very affordable price — $50 a script, currently, in addition to the monthly membership fee — but the feedback is also far from the best.
The readers are getting about $20 a script to read and review your work. Think about that. Do you imagine the Black List has people with serious industry or screenwriting experience evaluating your work at that price? Nope. It’s people who have maybe had an internship and written a first draft of their own. You may get lucky and get a reader who really knows their stuff, but it’s a crap shoot.
And the problem is, the reader who tells you your work is amazing can be just as dangerous as the reader who tells you it’s crap. They’re both leading you astray.
So here are the three big rules I learned from this feedback experience:
1. Invest in coverage from a quality service or consultant.
Top level coverage services aren’t cheap, but you get much more for your money. With a reputable coverage service, you can be sure that a qualified reader is reading your script according to an industry standard, and that the feedback they give you will help you become a better writer. LA Screenwriter highly recommends the coverage services of Script Pipeline and Launch Pad.
2. No matter who you get feedback from, only take the notes that are helpful.
That may sound like a no brainer, but it’s easier said than done. As a screenwriter, everyone from your mom to your agent might give you notes. Wherever the notes are coming from, assess (1) how thoroughly you trust the opinion of the person/service, (2) which notes can really help your script improve, and (3) which notes you can set aside. Sometimes you’ll get a note and be certain the note is just flat wrong. Sometimes you’ll get contradictory notes from two different people. It’s when you get the same note from a few different sources that you know you should listen.
3. Approach feedback with the right attitude.
Chances are your script isn’t quite there yet. That doesn’t make you a bad writer. Critical notes aren’t a reflection of you or your talent. Everyone writes a shitty first draft. Most people write shitty second and third and fourth drafts, too. The important thing is maintaining confidence in yourself and putting in the hard work to get to that quality body of work that will get your foot in the door.
[Read about The Screenwriter’s Creative Process]
Not everyone is going to love everything you write. Some people might. Many others probably won’t. The tricky thing about feedback is that, whether it’s good or bad, all of it needs to be evaluated by the writer. Yes, the evaluation must be evaluated. You have to sift through the scores and ratings and notes to determine which points can really make your story better.
“Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” – William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade