What is script coverage? Why do we have it? Is it useful? Has anyone ever gotten their big break off of it? And, more importantly, can you? Read on to get all of your most pressing questions about screenplay coverage answered.
Coverage is essentially a memo, usually somewhere between 2-6 pages, analyzing all the most important elements of a spec (logline, budget, synopsis, strengths, and weaknesses), and grading the spec on a scale of “pass,” “consider,” or “recommend.” The writer is usually also graded on the same scale.
Why does coverage exist?
Back in the Golden Age, the cheapest way for studios to produce new screenplays was to retain staff writers. You’ve probably heard the stories of how the studio heads, returning from their overly long lunches would take a stroll along the writers’ room corridor. If they didn’t hear the din of dozens of typewriters, heads would roll!
These typing factories produced forests of screenplays. How was a studio exec ever to decide between various projects without having to read the actual scripts from the vast stacks? Coverage was born.
In-house coverage was used by each of the studios. Every reader was trained by the same senior staff member, who’d check the quality of each of their early reports and guide them into standardization. If any reader was too witty or showy in their comments, they were instructed in no uncertain terms to tone it down — the script was always to be the hero.
Back then any exec, director, or leading actor could pick up coverage and not question its authenticity or quality — it was just about the script.
Fast forward to present day. The old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. Studios can no longer spend big on research and development.
Coverage has largely gone freelance, and freelance coverage has become more about the reader than the spec. Without regulation and consistency of the old model, it can now take as much time to analyze the merits of the reader as it does the content of their memo.
Is coverage useful?
Senior staff at studios and agencies are typically expected to become familiar with 15-20 new specs every weekend and keep up with the latest versions of all their existing projects. It’s much quicker to read a two-page memo than the script.
Coverage can also be useful to those who write it. Junior staffers at agencies and studios often take on extra work as readers. Many feel that their daily work in the office goes unnoticed by their bosses; if they “give good coverage” it will help them get noticed (and promoted).
And screenwriters, does coverage ever help us? Absolutely. Many argue that every new “discovery” made via the Black List site is because execs liked a piece of coverage and decided to dig a little deeper.
Coverage from an experienced and trustworthy reader is a chance to get your script vetted at a professional level, to learn what’s working and what needs to improve. Coverage is vastly more valuable than the opinion of your best friend or mom, just as long as the reader is someone with a solid reputation.
Should I submit coverage if it hasn’t been asked for?
Never. You don’t include the Cliff Notes when someone kindly agrees to read your novel.
Has anyone ever gotten their big break off of coverage?
The cumulative box office takings of films made from Black List finds is $24.9 billion, which can’t be ignored. Mind you, those are almost all (if not all) scripts that were circulated through the industry by agents and managers, not scripts posted by amateurs on the Black List.
It is theoretically possible to host your script on the Black List without buying coverage (“evaluations”). Realistically, you won’t get any clicks without an evaluation rating.
A colleague at LA Screenwriter, Gabe Storment, recently wrote about buying three Black List evaluations for the same draft of a spec. He got the Three Bears of responses; one was very high, one very hash, the third score was neither too sweet nor too bitter. Clearly the non-union readers at the Black List do not offer the level of professionalism and consistency provided by the studios of yore.
If you raise your standards and invest a little more in proven coverage services like Script Pipeline, the Tracking Board, or Industrial Scripts, it’s possible that the service will promote your script if they award you the coveted “recommend.” Tracking Board claims that twelve of the thirteen writers they have recommended over the course of their service have signed with reps and six have sold their specs.
I hasten to point out that coverage only ever gets you so far. The actual script does eventually have to be read and adored before anyone even thinks about going out and buying a green bulb.
I paid for an evaluation from Black List not too long ago. A newbie reader opened by declaring the budget of my (indie $3-5 mill) spec would come in at $30 million. The rest of the memo was based on this absurd assumption. Readers who lack fundamental industry knowledge and experience, such as an ability to tell a Sundance from a studio, are just another pitfall of the current system.
What about the case of Charlie Kaufman?
In the chapter he wrote for the UCLA Extensions screenwriting manual, Cut to the Chase, Laurence Rosenthal recalls his time as a development executive reading coverage for Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich back when Kaufman was a staff writer for SNL. It said something like, “This script would no doubt be hailed as a masterpiece on the planet on which it was written.” It served as a big flashing neon arrow to everyone in the industry: This is a quirky, unique new voice. Read his spec now.
Charlie Kaufman smartly balanced his kooky personal style with the fact he worked at TV institution SNL. Studio execs desperately crave the originality of a distinctive, well-formed voice, but an unknown is too much of a risk. Having the security of a brand like SNL already backing his writing chops lifted a huge weight, freeing the execs to truly consider his work. The coverage was part of an overall strategy.
Could you be next?
Of course. This is Hollywood, anything is possible! But always do your homework. If an agency has cut costs internally and is requiring you to pay for your own coverage, run in the opposite direction. Similarly, if a producer is demanding you pay for coverage, get out while you still can.
Look for coverage services or readers that you can trust, that have a solid reputation, connections, and an interest in your genre. When your script gets rejected by an agency or producer, ask if they had any notes. You won’t be able to resubmit that script, but you can learn and improve for the next submission or the next script.
Also, every newbie reader knows that statistically a male screenwriter is more likely to get a deal. So ladies, why risk a reader dismissing your spec because of one word on the title page? When you hand over your script (and credit card, perhaps), consider using just your initials instead of your first name. JK Rowling hasn’t done too badly.
Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.