Saturday, 1 September 2007

Script development on a budget

Most people abhor criticism and nobody likes to open their wallet. If you are either, don’t - whatever you do - write a feature film screenplay. I almost guarantee that nobody will read it without being paid.

More importantly never go into production on a script that hasn’t been very heavily criticised, rewritten, analysed, rewritten gain, ripped apart, gutted and finally ... rewritten. I'm sure you can name a thousand movies with huge plot holes or character problems. Problems which could have easily been patched up with just a few bucks investment.

Criticism is not the same as rejection.

While Mum will happily read your screenplay, getting constructive feedback from industry professionals costs money. Constructive criticism is the key to morphing an ailing screenplay into a great feature film. Nothing else will do this. Unfortunately, getting anyone who’s not your mother to read your screenplay (or read beyond your synopsis and director's notes) costs money. Even if you don't get feedback!

In Australia, state and federal government film bodies may give you money to develop your screenplay if they like the idea and you have a producer attached. Development money usually consists of a script editor’s (or script doctor) fee, some travel money, a producer's fee and a small pittance for the actual writer/s.

The traditional Aussie way

Here’s a run-down of how much development can cost (in Australia). I live in the West and this is roughly how an $18,000 script development budget might run:

  1. Script editor $6,000 (pretty standard in Oz).
  2. 3 x return airfares $2,000
  3. Per diems $2,000
  4. Producer fee $2,000 (coast to coast 2-3 times)
  5. Writer’s fee $5,000 (split two ways)
  6. Other expenses $1,000
This took us from a rough 2nd draft on one script to a 3rd draft, but I felt it needed another, so we paid David Caesar from ScriptCentral to give it another going over.

Keep in mind that in Australia - more than 60% of a film's budget is usually government financed and getting your hands on the few million that Australia has to invest in film is extraordinarily competitive (although not nearly as competitive as in the USA). About 1 in 100 , fully-developed screenplays will get a guernsey here in Oz - and you'd better have a good director or name actor on-board . . . OR . . . most preferably . . . a great script.

The American alternative

If you have no luck competing for Aussie state or federal development money, you can get good bang for your buck feedback by entering American Screenplay competitions. Don't even think about winning one of these comps - they have up to 3,000 entrants each year. And even though a script report can take many months to hit your inbox, the feedback is top notch.

Four of the more high profile competitions are:
  1. Bluecat Screenplay Competition
  2. Nicholls Fellowship (the Oscars)
  3. Austin Screenplay Competition
  4. Slamdance
Several comps do script coverage
  1. Slamdance sample script coverage
  2. Bluecat sample analysis
Australian film authorities no longer give written assessments because readers are expensive. The government bureaucracy can take 6 months to send through a pro-forma rejection letter!

In that light - the US comps are a great way to get feedback and develop your screenplay further. And for a little extra ( maybe as little as AUS$50) some will send additional notes from one of their many professional readers.

Entry fees are up to around AUS$100 - but the notes you get are absolutely excellent value for the money when compared to the Aussie way.

I usually go both ways and like the US take on writing. It's refreshingly different to ours.

What should one do with all this feedback?

It's taken 5-6 months and you've finally received feedback on a draft that was binned early in the year. How does one make sense of all these belated notes, feedbacks and analyses?

Once you have your script reports, you can carefully abide by these rules;

  1. Read it through once.
  2. If you are a beginner writer (not used to criticism) - wait 2 days before reading it again. You’ll be amazed by what you think they wrote.
  3. If one person tells you something about your script - take it on board, but treat it as subjective criticism and look for the constructive bits - things that you are willing to do / change.
  4. If two (non-colluding) professional writers/directors identify a problem - give it some serious consideration. You don’t have to kill your main character or change genre - she is probably just undeveloped.
  5. If three or more independent, professional analysts tell you that something particular is wrong with your script - believe it! . . . Something is wrong.
  6. Ignore words like “genius”, “well done” and “masterfully crafted” (unless you didn’t pay for the feedback). These people are going for repeat business.

You could go into production on your movie right now. But unless you work with constructive feedback and tightly hone your script - you are probably - like most filmmakers - wasting your time on a poorly written story.

Feedback will fine-tune your screenplay and eventually turn into a film with a big audience and a long shelf-life. Heck - you may even get to do it all over again.

2 comments:

krystal322 said...

As a beginning filmmaker, in college, it seems overwhelming to think that that much thought goes into a screenplay. I have a budget of at most a couple hundred dollars to spend on developing a good movie and I rely alot on people volunteering, but it's interesting to see how the real world works.

Anonymous said...

This SUCKS. How are supposed to make money as a screenwriter spending so much money? Jeezy Creezy, it's going to take 2 years to make one film!