Is Your Script Naked? (Do you really need a series bible or pitch deck?)

Written by Scott Foster on March 22nd, 2022

Scott Foster is a co-founder and Creative Director of ScriptHop. Prior to joining the company, he was the director of the Story Department for United Talent Agency (UTA). Scott has an MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University.

Debate seems to roil writers over what supplemental materials, if any, should be sent along with their scripts. Being both a writer and someone who has worked "on the other side" in the agency world, I've seen the issue from the trenches and through the lens of the middleman. For those short on time, let me cut to the chase and respond to the question: Should you have a pitch deck (a.k.a. "lookbook") or series bible ready to send with your script? The answer is: yes.

I don't have to look far for evidence of this necessity. Just a week ago, an employee at my company was signed at CAA and went out with one of her projects to a big production company. This company was excited about her project but immediately requested a series bible. (Disclaimer: She used ScriptHop to create her series bible and it resulted in a more impressive and interactive product in a fraction of the time it would have taken her otherwise. OK, the ad is out of the way.)

Regardless of whether you choose to use ScriptHop, here's why such supplemental materials are useful, if not essential. First, if you're lucky enough to directly pitch a series to an agent or exec — bypassing the reader — some of them won't want a pilot script at all. They'll actually request the bible alone. This is because a lot of execs want to be involved from the ground up. They don't want your voice to be so thoroughly imprinted on the project via the script itself that there's no salvaging what they see as a truly enticing pitch. If your execution sounds "off" to them, it might mitigate their enthusiasm about hiring a showrunner and team they believe could help you co-parent your conceptual baby. You want them to be excited about developing your project; a series bible presents your vision, while allowing others to join the incubation process. (This notion of others getting so involved might fly in the face of your dreams of being an auteur. Keep in mind there aren't a ton of auteurs in T.V., the equivalent being reserved for those with a successful show or two under their belts).

A series bible also speaks volumes about the future of your series, whereas a pilot speaks only to an episode. Execs want to know that your idea will have legs. Expounding not only on how your characters and plot will evolve, but the themes your project will touch on, makes the case that your show isn't a house of cards that will quickly collapse.

All this isn't to say you shouldn't write the pilot — far from it. All things considered, most writers will tell you to write it. Just be prepared to lead with a bible to maximize your opportunities.

What about writers who aren't lucky enough to go directly to a decision maker and bypass a story department? I can speak about presentation decks from the vantage point of this initial bottleneck as well.

During the decade I worked in UTA's story department, I read thousands of screenplays. (Note: A reader sometimes comes in the form of a full-time analyst like I was; sometimes in the form of an assistant; often it's a trainee or intern who might be christening your script as their maiden voyage — how exciting for that fresh-faced kid out of college! For the writer at the mercy of their sea legs, not so much.) I can attest that decision makers and "higher ups" rely on readers and "coverage"/analysis to be a check on whether a script is worth their time. Sometimes they rely on coverage to be a shortcut to formulating their own opinions. The portions of coverage that summarize your script are similar to the distillations you write in a pitch deck (including a logline, synopsis, and character descriptions), albeit written with little of the care that you, the writer, should take. I had approximately 40 minutes to do those summaries, so I didn't have time to "market" a summary. I focused on my critique, as that was the most creative part of my job, and the means by which an agent judged me.

At company-wide meetings, I would look around the room and see coverage sticking out of every other agent's folder or script. The thought that my coverage might have influenced certain projects getting greenlit was tantalizing. It was also a daydream for the most part. To be sure, some projects I raved about also happened to get made. But to have the gall to claim we readers effectuated production? Numerous conversations with agents motivated to dig in after reading our coverage notwithstanding, claiming that readers are powerbrokers, torchbearers of the greenlight, would be hyperbole (if not a criminally bad attempt at poetry). The likelihood that a non-pro-reader like an intern can elevate your project is even less likely.

Now here's the huge caveat: On the negative end of things, readers really are that powerful; the potency of their coverage is felt as quickly as you can say "pull" and shoot skeet. If you're an unknown writer, then one reader's negative opinion can actually be the bullet that takes your project out of circulation. All in a moment, even an intern reading their first script — your script — can become your project's potential assassin. So when I say I was a crucial part of the food chain, I confess that most often my value came from being a negative filter.

Let's face it: The largest driver of any project is who is associated with it. If you aren't SOMEBODY writ large in Hollywood, then you're just a Who down in Whoville. If you don't have any heavyweights attached to your script, then the chances of any decision maker being rallied to make a film based on the coverage of a reader — let alone an amateur reader — are waifishly thin, even if the coverage is positive. Instead, there's a dauntingly high probability of rejection in the simple, deadly form of negative coverage. That's all it takes to stop an unknown from having their script reach an agent's eyes.

So how do you elevate your chance of being greenlit? How do you evade the kill shot? And how can having a presentation deck help provide some Kevlar? If your project is assigned to a reader who dislikes your project — and if you don't already have a track record — the chance that you bypass that filter is certainly diminished. (This is why ScriptHop intends your summaries in The Packet to be the summaries an agency relies on - minus the reader's opinion - so at least your representation and marketing of your work is used (in lieu of that intern's). This also gives the reader more time to focus on that most important part of their job: deeply considering their critique rather than simply shooting skeet. My fellow pro readers and I hated doing summaries; we'd much rather you write them so we have more time to play critic.)

It's true that when I was a reader, I didn't want to be biased. That being said, when writers included supplements, I tended to read them. If they attached art, I looked at it. On some level, it did influence my read. I'm not suggesting that crappy scripts would have suddenly read better. A script that reeked of trend-chasing while coming off as a poor facsimile would still have gotten a bad review. But scripts that had some merit? If they had some interesting supporting material, such as compelling art, or something that revealed the scaffolding of world-building, then it buttressed my interest.

You can bet that any decision maker or investor, who is much less likely to read the entirety of your script, is much likelier to want to know what "the bells and whistles" of the project are — who's attached, what the premise is, and what the real (read: "financial") case is for making your project. These are things that can be emphasized in your presentation deck or bible. Art, even music, can compensate for the lack of an attached actor or director and help a decision maker see and hear your vision. This art and even your description of your aesthetic approach can become felt elements amplifying a script's potential in a town that's been dust-cropped with A.D.D. and snorts cynicism like Pacino in Scarface. It doesn't mean you're going to direct or compose for the project, but you should take every opportunity to give those who hold the fate of your project in their hands a chance to have their imagination captured — to catch the scent of your potential success.

How much multi-media is too much multi-media? Short of adding scratch 'n sniff stickers to your material, the more inspiration for a project you can exhibit, the better. If you can express the core resonance of your project with art or summary text that penetrates the biodome of bemusement and pessimism a reader or decision maker lives in, this can only help you. At the end of the day, your goal should be to have an amazing script and an equally inspired deck or bible. I know this not only because I witnessed it from the Hollywood's epicenter, but because the luminaries on our advisory board continue to tell us this is the case — because they've sold projects that way (with ScriptHop, to be more specific.) I know it also because we are constantly thanked by users for helping them get more traction than they've ever had with their projects, and as recently as last week by a writer who credited the sale of his project in part to the visual impact he was able to make.

One final note: The great thing you'll discover by creating the visual folio elements of a pitch deck, or putting together a well-presented pitch itself, is that it often illuminates your script for you as well. The ability a deck or bible has to help you re-evaluate and self-analyze your writing itself is invaluable. But that's a topic for another blog.