Even Christopher Nolan Gets Distilled

Written by Scott Foster on August 19th, 2020

TIME. That's the iceberg facing every screenwriter steering a titanic dream. It confronts your intended reader, too, in the form of an insurmountable stack of scripts melting away the attention they can afford to pay your piece of their content glacier.

While I was managing UTA's Story Department, I can't count the number of times an aspiring writer friend held forth that some bigwig they'd met at a party would read their script and beknight it for its quirky charm, or taut craft, "especially when they get to the twist in act three!" The hopeless faith they had in that shark's devotion to literacy — that it would drive executive curiosity to stray to a random non-client, and focus long enough to get to act 3 — is a lovely concept... like the nostalgia for a readership with attention spans that haven't been axe-murdered by smart phones... a quaint, outdated concept.

Unfortunately, until your script has a stretch of the Walk of Fame cemented to it, or you, yourself, have an A-list name, you won't get read cover to cover by a true decisionmaker. In fact, our Advisory Board (which boasts legendary scribes produced by monoliths) will admit that their reps & influencers haven't read some of their scripts thoroughly. And though he's not on our board, even Christopher Nolan, Hollywood's putative Jesus, has worried about this. After all, it would take more than one read of Inception for the average exec to fully unravel it — a taboo amount of page turning for powerbrokers. Even as every one of them nodded, smiled, and high-fived Nolan all the way to production like he'd written them into existence (and in a way, he had), he wondered: But do they really "get it"? This question haunts the biggest yarn-spinners — whether a certain theme, or certain subtext, is resonating with that reader who can dim their potential greenlight. Also, did they get the twist in act three? Or did they skim through to such Doppler effect that the story was distorted?

How do you know the important notes of your narrative are being heard so they can resonate? The short answer is you don't. But read on. There's hope.

Between UTA's Story Department and other agencies and studios where I'd worked as an assistant, I read over 5,000 scripts for clients like Johnny Depp, the Coen Brothers, and Harrison Ford. I quickly learned what's inescapable for writers: 99% of execs and reps will have each script sent to a reader, or "Story Analyst," to have "Coverage" written about it, and most will choose to read that 3-6 page summarizing document instead of your script. Coverage is a written report that distills your script into a Logline (one-sentence synopsis), Character Descriptions, Synopsis, and Comments. Coverage is where, if you're lucky (or you're Nolan — he scores here), a professional reader writes up a summary of your screenplay and a critique about whether the agency, studio, or production company should pay it any attention. The lower you are on the food chain, the greater the chance you'll be read by an intern or assistant who will resent your project for the midnight oil they had to burn (usually covering part of your script on their own time at home). Hollywood relies on this underpaid, underqualified workforce to help mop up the story tsunami. There's just too much material for the pro readers to handle it all. Much like a thriller has a ticking time clock, so do you in terms of how much time your reader will devote to writing up a half-way decent Synopsis and Character Breakdown, and how much time they'll have left to defuse the trigger finger itching to blow you up in the Comments section. Many will ache to throw your baby and its muses out with bathwater so they can sleep enough to roll 200 calls for their boss or push a mail cart a mile or two the next day.

READERS GET TO PLAY EXECUTIONER.

YOU PROVIDE THE EXHIBITS FOR YOUR CASE.

By using The Packet to write the factual summaries of your script and laying them out in an exciting, interactive form, you make more of an impression than the typically bland listing of events that makes up the average distillation. You also give readers at agencies & studios more quality time to consider your fate, since they can transpose your summaries into their Coverage document. You will never have control over a reader's critique, nor should you — that's not a compact we, at ScriptHop, are trying to break. In fact, our goal is to not only make life better for writers, but also for analysts, so they can spend more of their time reviewing your script and less re-telling it. This, in turn, is better for agencies and studios since this makes the evaluation process more thoughtful. The recent college grads we had reading scripts didn't necessarily understand the nuances in a writer's dialogue simply because they had a degree in communications. But what contributed to their interpretive dysfunction was a lack of rigor due to a lack of time; they were spending too much of it distilling scripts and not enough analyzing them. This problematic paradigm exists at all agencies and studios.

I remember one incident where I asked an agent trainee what they thought of the script I'd assigned and hearing, "I didn't like it." "Why?, I asked, hoping to be shocked by a dissection of a lack of structure in the second act, or perhaps this was a kindred soul who saw the need to draw out an incipient theme. Instead, I got the reply, "Because it had space ships and stuff." My brain exploded over the reader's genre-impairment. I considered assigning books on screenwriting, books on the biz of box office (namely, the fact that sci-fi elements like "spaceships & stuff" sometimes participate in it), books on...

...that was when I had the epiphany that the reader was barely making minimum wage...and also -WHOA! ICEBERG!! Look at the time!!

Unfortunately, while managing in-house Story Department readers and freelancers — many who were admirably analytical readers of conscience — I didn't have time to help one of the multitudes of agent trainees or interns (the unwitting inspiration for Grammarly) gain an appreciation for an entire literary classification. I glanced at the threadbare Synopsis and Character Descriptions: they read like sabotaged Exhibits A&B in the script's trial; they certainly wouldn't compensate for the dismissive, anti-spacecraft prejudice in the Comments section. Slipping the script back in the "to be read" stack, I hoped I wasn't sending a good writer off to a Groundhog Day of reading incomprehension.

Getting a thumbs down simply because you made the error of choosing a certain genre shouldn't be your fate. But again, what contributes to the demise of so many scripts is that readers are well-intentioned but overworked. While they'd like to focus their energy on evaluating your script and writing their review of it, they lose too much of it re-telling your story when they write Synopses and Character Descriptions. Meaningful contemplation suffers. They sometimes even take it out on your script when they write overly reductive summaries. Even pro readers (who are all writers who haven't made it yet) are known to vent at a script by making its events sound small, perfunctorily describing what happens so that your story sounds like it's going through the motions. This is likely to occur when it happens on their desk during a bout with a cold or a junior agent's mini-stroke (over their failure to come up with a compelling backstory for "Pizza Delivery Man #5" for another coverage)...maladies that now all seem "fun" in a covid world.

On the flip side, if you're lucky enough to be assigned a pro reader like Peter Hanrahan (one of our esteemed advisory members and one of UTA's best), then you'll get a truly seasoned judge, capable of deep forensic analysis — sometimes leaving your script lying in a chalk outline, more often giving it a moderate "meh," and genuinely thrilled when he can champion something. But even Peter, with his Herculean powers of patient consideration and observation... even Peter doesn't thrill at writing a synopsis of your script. He'd much rather give your script its due and devote his time to reviewing it. He's more likely to raise his positive percentages if he has more time to appreciate them.

THE PACKET: TRADEMARK YOUR VISION

About 45 minutes...that's how much time we, in the 'wood's story departments, have to devote to your Synopsis...maybe another 20 minutes on your Character Descriptions. Readers are more than happy to cede this mantle to you. Craft your Synopsis and Character Descriptions with the Packet — carefully, over a more substantial period of time. Craft it with interactive Entry Points that transport an agent and their client actor into your actual script (perhaps to that brilliant character nuance you know they'll miss if they don't get to page 148 of your romcom...trust me, few will get to page 148...even Nolan's 148...now would be a good time to ask yourself why the hell you have a 148 page romcom even if your name is Nolan!). Once your packet is refined to its ideal form, you bundle it with your script as it travels to agencies and studios. In doing so, you create more of an illuminating footprint...a trans-media Rosetta Stone of your project and its vision.

THE PACKET MAKES YOU A BETTER SELF-ANALYST

There's a huge fringe benefit that comes from creating the Packet: it has the ability to make a better reader out of you — the writer — even revealing if some vital story anatomy is missing from your script. By using the techniques and Tips offered within the app's platform, and employing its helpful tech, you can look at your screenplay through a more objective lens and reverse engineer it. As you hone your project's marketing and messaging, and even baptize it with its first imagery, you can actually discover ways to make your script better. I recommend that you, the writer, read and re-read your script (you are, after all, its first reader), and use the Packet to learn, much like you would from an X-ray of a dream, what's missing from the orchestration of your vision.