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Visual Mindscape: How to Choose a Script Consultant

I begin with a full disclosure that in addition to being a screenwriter I am also a script consultant. As such, I must admit to a certain bias toward the value of script consulting to writers.

I like to think of myself more as a script mentor than a consultant, and I will explain why in more detail later in this article.

I believe script consulting/mentoring can, if done properly, go a long way towards improving a writer’s skills and adding marketability to their screenplay.

script consultants

I can say without any reservation that if it were not for the support of my mentor, (W.O. Mitchell) in my early years as a writer, I very likely would have given up long before success came my way.

There is a plethora of script consultants to choose from. Some are excellent, most aren’t. How do you sort through the hype and weasel talk of hundreds of different websites to find those that are proficient and the one best for you?

What follows is a litmus test you can use in seeking an exceptional and well-qualified script consultant for you.

Do they have any actual screenwriting credits?

This industry if filled with under-qualified individuals who espouse that they have the one true answer to what makes a screenplay saleable.

If you have read other articles on this topic you will find that the name Craig Mazin invariably pops up. Craig is an established screenwriter who has been very vocal about his disdain for “script consultants.” His contempt is for the most part directed at the ‘gurus’ and script consultants that have no professional credits as writers.

I totally agree with him.

If you were to look at the credentials of many of the better known guru’s and consultants, you will be surprised to see just how little experience many of them have as screenwriters themselves.

Some consultants discount the need for produced screenwriting credits. Their argument is that they come from the other side of the business representing those who you would be submitting your script too, and that is what makes them qualified to assess your screenplay.

I believe this is wrong headed for four reasons.

First, if they have worked with specific companies, then their tastes tend to be limited to the kind of projects those companies were looking for. They certainly don’t represent the industry as a whole.

Secondly, if the consultant is also a multi-produced screenwriter, does it not make sense that they also have some understanding in what the ‘overall industry’ is looking for and the talent to deliver it?

Thirdly, consultants that come from the production side may know what changes they want you to make in your script, but I would argue that they may lack the ‘writing’ skills to assist the writer in achieving it.

Finally, and this is a big one, it is very easy to espouse in a blog or biography various credits and positions they have held in the industry that sound impressive to young writers; such terms as ‘Executive’ (of what?), ‘Co-ordinator’, etc.

Do your due diligence when it comes to these kinds of claims by always cross checking them with IMDb. It is much harder to bullshit IMDb, and even more so with IMDb Pro, because the data that is submitted goes through a series of consistency checks before going live.

Have they offered to submit your screenplay to the industry?

Let’s think about this for a moment, your script is still being developed and rewritten. If it wasn’t, then you wouldn’t be seeking a consultant. Bottom-line is that it is not as yet a completed work that is ready to be shown.

It is a bit like an art gallery agreeing to show the paintings of an unknown artist before seeing his/her work. It’s not going to happen, nor should it.

More often than not, this promise, or hint of potential industry access, is simply an enticement for you to hire them.

I have on occasion submitted final versions of screenplays to production companies and agencies when I felt it appropriate. But, I have never used it as bait to get a client, and I have never made the offer prior to the completion of our work together.

Are the consulting sessions with them in person, by phone, Skype, email or not at all? Accessibility is crucial in your relationship with your Consultant.

I believe there should always be a session either in person, by phone or Skype that accompanies each set of script notes. Often these can turn into a brainstorming sessions based on the notes and that is something that isn’t readily feasible with email.

The Terms of Your Agreement
Be clear about what your agreement with the Consultant includes. How many sessions? Does it include a review of your script after notes? What is the turnaround time between your submission and their response? Are they available to discuss the notes? Do they give notes that focus on what is wrong with the script or do they also offer concrete suggestions on how to improve it? Are they committed to your script until the draft is completed?

How Do they Approach their Critiquing?
There are three key approaches that should be explored by your Consultant.

Micro – The Specifics
This includes establishing a tight present moment narrative, exploring the visual expressions of your story, seeking the proper pacing and prose of your narrative with each scene and seeking out the natural pulse of your dialogue.

The Macro - The Overall
This includes the overall structure and layout of the story as well as the progressive development of the storyline and the characters.

How one tells their story is just as important as what the story is about. Storytelling goes beyond the specific and the overall and deals with how to reveal and withhold clues as well as establishing a firm atmosphere throughout the story.

Quit Claim
A Quit Claim is a legal document by which a person, in this case the Script Consultant who has contributed input into your script releases or “quits” any claim they may have on your screenplay. This tends to be a far greater problem with script consultants that come from a production background. It is to their advantage to attempt to attach themselves to the script.

Without a ‘quit claim’ they could claim that they have ownership rights to the work which can affect your ‘chain of title.’

A clean chain of title is crucial for the writer. Without it a producer will be unwilling to option your script.

If you would like an example of 'quit claim' you can either find one in my book, The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay, or leave a comment here and I will send one to you.

Does the Consultant allow you to maintain your own voice in the telling of your story?
Charlie Kaufman was on staff for a sitcom for a short time but his first screenplay was Being John Malkovich.

Orson Welles' first screenplay was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Welles ultimately abandoned the project to make Citizen Kane.

Shane Black’s 'Blackisms' were apparent from the very beginning with Lethal Weapon.

Christopher McQuarrie’s Public Access, Christopher Nolan’s Following and Quenton Tarintino’s Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit, are all a fundamentalists nightmare.

None of these writers began their screenwriting careers by playing by the rules and giving up the voice and style. Each had their own voice and it was expressed right from the beginning of their careers and was what made them excellent writers.

It is crucial that a Consultant be open to your voice and style if and when it has purpose and enhances the reading experience of the script. This is why I feel that a true script consultant does not enter into a teacher/student relationship paradigm with you, but rather a mentor/writer relationship.

General Negative Attitude
Does the consultant give off a ‘know it all’ negative attitude? Do they express a jaded perspective towards the industry, you and your script? If so, move on. This is their baggage and you shouldn’t need to deal with it.

Special Note: I will be conducting a lecture on the ‘Visual Mindscape’ at the Scriptwriters Network on Jan. 25th For details and location click here

Status on SCARS
The holidays slowed things down somewhat, but I got back the coverage reports. One came back as a ‘Recommend’ the other as a ‘Consider.’ There were several minor concerns that were voiced. I agree with a couple of them and have initiated those changes.

Along with my agent I have prepared a wishlist for a director. I am focusing on women directors due to the content of the script. It is important that the sexual overtones of the story be contained, and I feel a woman is probably more in sync with that.

The one sheet has also been completed. If you wish to see it, leave a comment here with your email.

I hope to get a commitment from my male lead by the end of the month. More about letters of intent next month as it pertains to attachments.

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