MEET THE READER: A Response

A few weeks back, Chad Gervich created quite a stir when he wrote an article for this website advising aspiring screenwriters not to use script coverage services. As a professional script analyst who—in addition to assessing scripts for producers, production companies, and screenplay contests—works for a coverage service, Ray Morton had some strong reactions to Chad’s piece. He offers a detailed and thoughtful response here.
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A few weeks back, Chad Gervich created quite a stir when he wrote an article for this website advising aspiring screenwriters not to use script coverage services. As I am a professional script analyst who—in addition to assessing scripts for producers, production companies, and screenplay contests—works for a coverage service (ScriptXpert, which is owned by Final Draft, Inc., the company that also owns this website), I had some strong reactions to Chad’s piece. I posted some of them in the article’s comment section, but wanted to offer a more detailed and thoughtful response here.

For those that don’t know, coverage is the name given to the 3-5 page reviews written by script analysts (also known as readers) of the screenplays submitted to their employers (producers, production companies, studios). These reviews assess a script’s strengths and weaknesses in a number of areas (premise, story, characters, dialogue, writing), as well as its suitability for production (a judgment arrived at by considering the quality of each script along with the needs/interest of the production entity—for example, if the producer wants to make a horror film, then a reader obviously wouldn’t recommend a romcom). Coverage is an internal document used by a production entity’s development staff and principals as a guide when deciding whether or not to proceed with a particular screenplay. It is usually confidential and not distributed to the writers of the script or anyone else outside of the production entity.

Readers come in all shapes and sizes, but most have some sort of screenwriting or production background (either through education, industry experience or a combination of both). Some studios have teams of analysts on staff, although it is usually a freelance position with individual readers often working for several companies simultaneously. An analyst is usually the first person in a production entity’s development chain to read a screenplay. If the reader recommends the script, then the development staff will give it further consideration and then, if they like it, it will be passed along to the company’s principals, who make the final decision as to whether or not to proceed with the screenplay (to develop it, produce it, use the writer for another project, etc.). So, while the analyst is by no means the most important person in the script-vetting process, he/she does serve a very important, gatekeeping function. This makes the reader a key person for a screenwriter, because if the analyst likes your work, it can set things in motion; if he doesn’t, then that can be the end of it (at that particular company, anyway).

A number of years back, somebody conceived the notion to hire professional analysts to cover the scripts of aspiring screenwriters looking to break into the business. The idea was to give aspirants a sense of how the readers at the production entities that they hoped to submit their scripts to might respond to their material so that they could identify and address and problem areas before they exposed their work to industry scrutiny.

I thought it was a good idea then and I still think so today. As we all know, screenwriting is a highly competitive field and most writers only get one shot to submit their material to a given outlet (it’s extremely rare that any producer, rep, or executive will give a script it has passed on a second look, even if that script has been completely revised and improved), so I think anything that can help a writer make the best first impression possible and stand out from the thousands of so-so scripts that are floating around out there vying for readers’ attention is a good thing. Obviously, a lot of other people did too, because that first coverage service was very successful and before long a number of others had popped up as well (the company that eventually became ScriptXpert was founded in 2000. I have been with them since the beginning).

Gervich, however, does not think that script coverage services are a good thing and he has a number of reasons why, which I would now like to address:

1. Chad dismisses coverage services because “they can almost never give you what you need to succeed,” but then goes on to admit that his experience is in television, whereas most coverage services tend to work with screenplays rather than teleplays. The script assessment, acquisition, and development process in television is very different that of the feature world, so one of my big problems with Gervich’s article is that he is making assumptions about the usefulness of coverage services in a world he knows little about.

2. Chad doesn’t like script coverage services because most do not disclose the names of their analysts. This is true and there are several reasons for this. One is that—because reading is mostly a freelance position——reader pools tend to ebb and flow. Not all analysts are available at all times, so most coverage companies prefer to emphasize their overall service rather than specific readers. However, the primary reason that most coverage services do not reveal the names of their analysts is that this allows the readers to be completely frank. As mentioned above, industry coverage is usually confidential, prepared by a reader solely for the perusal of her/his employers and not meant to be shared with the writers of the script under review. Knowing this gives the analyst the freedom to assess a script as candidly as possible, without having to temper his opinion in order to avoid hurting the feelings of the author (not that anyone is intentionally seeking to say mean things, but every script has its flaws and a reader is no good to his employers if he pulls his punches in identifying them).

Since the purpose of a script coverage service is to provide a writer with an assessment that is as close to the frank coverage of the real world as possible, most grant their analysts anonymity so that they will feel free to give their honest opinions without having to worry about blowback from writers upset at how their work has been received. In this Internet age, it’s relatively easy for an aggrieved writer to track down a reader if he knows that reader’s name. I myself have been contacted several times by unhappy authors who managed to discover my identity. A few just wanted me to explain some of my objections to their work in greater detail so that they could do a better job of addressing them, but some chose to harass me in ways that were extremely unpleasant experiences that I do not care to repeat.

Chad disagrees with the reader anonymity policy—he feels that if you are going to entrust your script to someone and pay them to critique it, then you should know that person’s name and credentials. While I am generally in favor of the anonymity policy for the reasons outlined above, I will concede that Chad’s point is not an unreasonable one (although, to be fair, most prominent coverage services do post their readers’ credentials—or are happy to provide them upon request—even if they don’t reveal their names, which seems sufficient to me) and I would be willing to allow ScriptXpert to display my name as long as sensible safeguards were taken to protect my privacy.

As far as credentials go: I graduated from NYU’s film school and was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute; I have written and co-written a number of produced teleplays and several screenplays (as yet unproduced, although several did get pretty far along in the development pipeline), as well as four film-related books; I served as a story consultant on the situation comedy Brothers, have read for Columbia, Castle Rock, Pandora, and many independent producers and production companies; I’ve also read for several screenwriting contests, including Open Door and Big Break™, and served on the final selection panel and jury for three of them; I have also worked as a script consultant for several independent producers and major screenwriters (whose names I cannot divulge due to confidentiality agreements), as well as for quite a few aspiring screenwriters.

One of the reasons that Chad feels that coverage service customers should know the identities of their readers is so that they can choose the person that will review their script (most coverage services assign readers on a random basis depending on who’s available). I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand—yeah, sure, it makes sense why people might want to handpick the person that’s going to assess their material. On the other hand, I think that there’s a very good argument to be made that a random assignment of readers more accurately mirrors conditions in the real world, where you have no control over who is chosen to read your script. From this perspective, it really shouldn’t matter who covers your piece, as long as it’s a professional industry analyst, because your work needs to be good enough to impress even someone that you wouldn’t personally choose to critique it.

One of Chad’s positions that I absolutely disagree with is his contention—which presumably stems from the belief that only someone with a deep love for or experience with a particular type of film can identify a good piece of the same ilk—that only readers who are fans of a particular genre should review scripts from that genre.

To be fair to Chad, he claimed in some of his follow-up comments that this isn’t exactly what he meant, but then went on to repeat the same basic argument enough times that it was obvious that it is exactly what he meant. A lot of other people share his opinion, so I wanted to address it.

Basically, I find this to be an absurd assumption. Sure, a person that is passionate about horror movies or has been involved in a lot of them might do an excellent job of assessing a horror spec, but it is just as likely that such a person might also overlook the rote conventions and clichés of the genre because he/she is so familiar with them, whereas an analyst not nearly as immersed in the genre might bring a much more objective set of eyes to the piece. Ultimately, it comes down to the quality of the reader—a good professional analyst can put his own preferences aside and effectively evaluate any screenplay from any genre. For example, I personally loathe the Tarantino-esque crime movie and am bored to tears by the overdone (in my opinion) vampire genre, and yet two of the best scripts I’ve read in the past few years were from these categories. I knew they were good when I read them and I said so (and both have since gone on to do well in the marketplace, which I like to think shows that I have pretty good instincts about these things).

3. Chad feels that coverage services do not provide quality creative feedback because the analysts that work for these services are essentially mercenaries. To quote Chad: “If you want notes, suggestions, guidance, or thoughts on your script’s quality, they should come from someone who understands you, your vision, your goals, etc. – not a random, nameless reader just taking their $100 to write a report…[readers don’t have a] genuine investment in…you, your story, your process.” All I can say to that is: “Speak for yourself, Chad.”

Are there mercenary analysts out there that do a half-assed job? I suppose—there are slackers in every field. But I think Chad is being unfair when he implies that they are in the majority. Most of the readers that I know are like me— a conscientious professional that works very hard to do the very best job and provide the very best creative feedback that I can on every single script that I read, no matter where it is from (production company, agency, or ScriptXpert) or what I am being paid.

To do this, I do not need to understand the writer or his goals or his vision because none of that is important—at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what is on the page. When I assess someone’s work, I react to the script that is in front of me–—to its story, its theme, its characters, and to how effectively it’s written. I spend a lot of time working to understand the script at hand—it’s narrative, it’s intentions, and its possibilities—and an equal amount of time crafting thoughtful suggestions to help make the piece the best it can be, but the writer is getting my response to what he/she has written, not what he/she intended to write or hoped to write or wishes they had written. I do this because producers, development execs, managers, and agents don’t care about a writer’s hopes or process—all they care about is if the screenplay in front of them is any good, which is all they should be caring about.

In his article, Chad recommended that writers use script consultants instead of coverage services, on the grounds that a consultant can give you more in-depth and personalized attention. He’s right—they can. By nature of the arrangement and working method, a consultant can take the time to really get to know you; to discern your intentions and how they may have been diverted on the way to your final production, and devise ways to implement recommendations that are harmonious with your specific process and technique. This is all well and good, but ultimately none of it matters unless it results in improved work on the page. Also, these services usually cost a lot more than coverage and can often be beyond the financial reach of beginning writers (to fill the gap, some coverage companies also offer consulting services—ScriptXpert has from its inception).

Don’t get me wrong—I think consultants are great (as I mentioned previously, I do a lot of consulting myself) and can be very helpful, but that doesn’t mean that the input you get from a script coverage service isn’t. I just wish Chad had been able to celebrate the former without trashing the latter.

4. Chad feels that reader’s opinions about a script are worthless in part because many of them have never developed a project. To me, this is a little like complaining that a doctor isn’t a good doctor because he’s never flown an airplane. If you define development as the process of reworking and refining a script after it has been acquired by a production entity to ready it for presentation to a studio and ultimately for production, then Chad’s is correct—most readers probably have not developed a script because they are readers and not development executives. Luckily, this doesn’t matter because coverage services are not offering to develop your screenplay, they are offering to give you a sense of how your script will be received when it is first submitted to a production entity (which, of course, has to happen before a script can be acquired for development in the first place). This is something that readers are well-qualified to do because it’s what they do every day.

5. Chad complains that coverage service readers aren’t qualified to tell you whether or not your script is “sell-able” because they do not have the inside knowledge that producers, agents, and managers have as to what sort of material the studios and networks are looking for right now at this very minute.

Leaving aside the fact that no one —no matter how inside—ever really knows for sure what studios and networks are looking for (because—as Gervich himself points out—it changes constantly), Chad is once again making a very broad assumption. Remember, most of the readers that work for the better coverage services also read for the same producers, managers, and agencies that Chad claims have the inside track as to what’s selling, so it’s safe to assume that a fair number of them are going to have at least a general sense of what’s “hot” out there. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t really make any difference, because, in the end, the only person that can really tell you if your script is “sell-able” is the producer or executive that decides to buy it. Anyone else’s opinion, no matter how inside, is only an educated guess.

Besides, most specs aren’t “sell-able” these days anyway. Why? Because we’re in an era when most of the major studios aren’t very interested in original material. Their primary concern these risk-averse days is developing projects based on pre-existing properties (hence the tidal wave of sequels, remakes, movies based on comic books, old TV shows, toys, and games), which is one of the reasons why spec sales have hit an all-time low in recent years. What studios are interested in is finding good writers that can transform these “branded properties” into exciting screenplays.

So the primary purpose of the modern spec script is not to serve as the basis for a potential film, but as a writing sample for its author to help him/her get hired on another project. In truth, this has always been the main function of an original screenplay. Even at the height of the spec boom, very few of the original scripts that sold for astronomical prices were ever actually made and, if they were, very few were shot as written. Instead, the original writers were usually discarded almost immediately and their scripts retained only as starting points for an endless series of rewrites by more established and better-known writers.

If you want to be one of those writers, then you need to write a dynamic original screenplay that will demonstrate your unique talents and perspective (every producer, executive, and rep in town will tell you that what attracts them most to a script is an “original voice”). That script needs to be the best that it can be and the feedback from a good consultant, from a good agent and/or manager, and yes, from a good analyst— whose entire professional purpose is to recognize quality work—can help you achieve this.

6. A number of coverage companies promise that if their readers recommend your script, they will then pass it on to industry contacts—producers, managers, agents, etc.—who have promised to give these submissions a look. In another of Chad’s broad assertions, he suggests that coverage services are pretty much lying when they make this promise.

He says that coverage services cannot get the ear of the industry because execs and producers and reps do not consider coverage services to be reliable sources of quality material. He’s right —– these folks don’t consider coverage services to be a steady font of solid scripts because they’re not. Coverage services work primarily with writers from outside the industry—scribes that are just starting out and have probably only written one or a few screenplays and so have not yet sufficiently developed their talents and abilities —so the odds of finding a fully-realized gem from these services are pretty low, but they do come along every once in a while.

And when they do? I can only speak for ScriptXpert, but I can assure you that if one of the service’s readers comes across a script that he/she thinks is worth recommending, then the company does indeed have a number of solid industry contacts that are willing to give it a look. ScriptXert does not promise that these contacts will buy the script or produce it or even like it——only that they will give it fair consideration, which they do.

Chad says that even if industry insiders agree to read a script submitted by a coverage service, they won’t make it a high priority. He might be right——all I know is that at ScriptXpert, almost all of the submissions the company has made have received a reasonably prompt and considerate response and that some of these responses have led to some very good results—representation; options; a few assignments—for the writers.

Are there coverage services out there that exaggerate their ability to get material read in the industry? I suppose there might be, but I have seen enough good things happen to feel that it’s not fair for Chad to issue such a sweeping denunciation.

In Conclusion:

So, should you utilize the services of a script coverage company? When it comes to creative endeavors, there’s nothing that you “should” do— as always, it’s a matter of individual need, process, and sensibility. But I do know that getting good feedback is essentially to crafting a solid screenplay. There are many ways to get such feedback–—you can give your work to friends and colleagues with professional experience or, as Chad suggests, you can join a writers group or employ a script consultant. And you can also give it to a good script coverage service.

Should you give it to just any service? No, of course not. As in any field, there are good companies and bad; honorable services and ones seeking to take advantage of those on the outside looking to get in. You should always be an informed consumer—research the people and companies that you are seeking to employ and get recommendations from fellow writers that have had satisfactory experiences with specific companies. The best coverage services will never claim—as Chad suggests that they do—to be a path around the system. Instead, they will provide you with solid feedback, some helpful advice, and possibly a few contacts.

That seems like a good deal to me.