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Reel Story: You Need the Truth

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” — John 8:32

“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”– Gloria Steinhem

When I was a student in film school, I joined a writing group where the members were committed to providing no-holds-barred, honest feedback to each other. I started bringing in portions of my script, and the response was mostly positive, with many of them predicting this was the kind of screenplay that would do well in the marketplace.

Emboldened by the group’s response, I used the script for one of my MFA classes, where we had to write a screenplay in ten weeks. The professor, after suggesting the deletion of a set-up scene and some minor edits, confided that he thought it was one of the best scripts he had ever read, and it would absolutely sell. He even offered to help me find an agent or manager if I wanted.

Since I was interning for a literary manager at the time, I decided to give him first crack at the script. After handing him a copy, I headed home wondering how much money it would sell for. Would there be competitive bidding or just a single buyer? Should I attach myself as a producer? Would the director let me play the clumsy guy in the bar who drops his drink in the third scene? I was naturally clumsy, so I could certainly pull that off.

A few days later the manager told me it wasn’t bad for a first rough pass, but the script needed substantial work.


Not exactly the unbridled enthusiasm I was expecting.

I found a way to work into the conversation all the highly complimentary things my professor and others had said about the script. The manager nodded, telling me he was holding it to a different standard than they were. He understood what it took to launch a career, and this script wasn’t strong enough. Not by a long shot.

I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t want to go out to the industry with something that wasn’t ready, but so many smart people had raved about the script. I had to at least wonder if this manager’s opinion might not be entirely reliable.

After some more discussion, he suggested something that I will be forever grateful for. He advised me to hire some studio readers to write the actual coverage report they would write if this script had been submitted to them. Since I was hiring them on the side, no one would see the coverage but me. So if the reports were bad, no one at the studios would know. This way, for a few hundred bucks, I could see how my script would be honestly evaluated by actual industry gatekeepers.

I hired two studio readers, hoping for the best. The first coverage report came back pretty harsh.

The second was incredibly harsh.

I shared the reports with the manager, who asked if I was ready to get to work. Now that I knew the truth, I happily complied. He spent six months helping me tear apart the script and rebuild it from near scratch. During that time I learned how to effectively rewrite (more on that in a subsequent article). I also learned all the rookie mistakes I was making in my writing without knowing, and more importantly, how to develop the skills and tools to stop making these blunders.

When that script finally did go out to the industry, it was optioned. The next spec I wrote got me into a room with Ridley Scott, who hired me to write Metropolis.

I hold no illusions. I was damn lucky. If that manager hadn’t pushed me to learn the cold, hard truth about my writing, I would have done what most writers do. I would have shot myself in the foot trying to get the industry to look at a script that wasn’t strong enough. And then I probably would have wasted years making the same mistakes over and over in my writing without any knowledge of doing so.

We need the truth. It’s imperative to our development.

So where do you find someone who can give you the truth?

Many writers hire a script consultant, but be careful. Several of these folks are running a high volume business, and since a happy customer is more likely to hire you again, many of these consultants provide more positive feedback than the scripts usually warrant. But there are certainly consultants who will give it to you straight. Just make sure to ask around before hiring someone.

But a paid consultant isn’t your best option. Much more valuable is a mentor, a manager, producer or experienced writer who believes in you enough to take you under her or his wing to help you develop your writing to the level required to break into the business. It’s obviously not easy to find such a person, but just about every successful writer I know did whatever it took to get one.

Because the moment you learn the truth about your writing is the moment you can start the journey to a career.

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