When I teach a screenwriting class, one of the first things I’ll do is go around the room and ask each aspiring writer for the name of their favorite movie of all time. It’s a rare occurrence for any two people to name the same film. And then I’ll ask them to name a “famous movie” that they really, really disliked. And sometimes, one person’s favorite is on another person’s “I can’t believe they made this movie” list.
The point of this? It’s impossible for any one film to appeal to everyone. And that may have nothing to do with the quality of the film. The cinematography may be stunning, the directing superb, the acting inspirational, the craft table yummy… and yet, it’s still possible for one film to be loved by one person and hated by another for no other reason than it just didn’t appeal to them. People are different. Their likes and dislikes are different. Their worldviews are different.
The same thing is true of books. Given two writers of equal competency, a well-written book may never make the best-seller list, while other author’s flies off the shelf simply because something in it appeals to the “inner reader”. Both may have had great editors, but only one “made it big”.
So, how does this relate to screenplays and contests?
Screenplays are meant to be read. They are not a movie. Yet. So, much of what happens in a read is determined by the mind, and mindset, of the reader. And no two readers are affected by what they read in the exact same way. Let’s take a look at some real life examples.
Although I don’t play the contest circuit much anymore, I decided to grab a couple of screenplays that were submitted to the same screenplay competition two years in a row. Let’s compare those results with two readers. The scoring standards are pretty similar in most contests. I’ve read for many, and even run a couple, so these were pretty much as expected.
The first pages submitted were for a sci-fi space opera. Their scores are as follows:
Now, these were THE SAME PAGES (OK, a caveat: I changed two lines, I think, in one paragraph between the submitted versions). Each reader read the same thing. But the pages elicited two very different reactions.
The first reader’s top comment was, “The writer establishes time and setting in clever ways in the action lines, and there’s a clear, specific tone to the show that showcases the writer’s voice and fits the sci-fi genre nicely.”
The second reader’s feedback pretty much was to recommend a screenplay analysis service. And, nicely, they did include a discount code for that service.
So, let’s go to another submission. This one is a straight-up Action/Adventure.
The first reader’s top comment was, “An extremely well-paced script with incredible visuals that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats”.
The second reader’s feedback: “The writer crafts detailed description, but this level of detail makes the action difficult to follow and slows the pace.” And, yes, that also included a very nice discount code for studio analysis.
Again, a caveat with these submitted pages: In the second submission, I eliminated a page of scene with a supporting character, since he suffers a dire and permanent fate in the first act. But it certainly wasn’t enough for pacing to go from a 10 to a 4.
So, what are the takeaways? Is one reader “right” and the other “wrong”?
Absolutely not. Each saw it through the lens of their own personal perspective. Reading is subjective, and a perfectly formatted, outlined, and beat-sheeted script will still never receive the same reaction and the same scores from a varied set of readers. There’s the old saying, “You can’t please everyone”. It’s a truism because it’s true.
Should I try to write to what I think the readers want?
Again, see above. What’s important is “What is the story you, yourself, are moved to tell?” Structure, pacing, dialog, can all be taught and learned. How the written word affects a person cannot. Remember when we started, nobody had the same favorite movie? In fact, some hated a movie that others loved? What moved those who loved it was something in those pages that spoke to something inside them. You can’t predetermine that, only know that your passion is going to speak to like-minded souls. You aren’t searching to write a script that everyone will love… That is impossible. You’re looking to write that script that maybe even just one person will love. Because you loved it.
How do I get around this problem of reader bias?
You don’t. You can’t. Producers and studios often will go through a number of coverage interns over time, looking for someone who understands and shares their tastes. Those are the ones who become gatekeepers, because they know what will appeal to their bosses. You can’t jimmy the system.
So, should I stop worrying about coverage and stop entering competitions?
Absolutely not. In fact, if I were planning on entering contests again in the coming year, I'd reenter this same one. Because I know I've got a shot. I’ve won thousands of dollars in cash and prizes over my early years through screenplay contests. But, remember, it’s not all about the money. It’s about connecting with the reader. And, at a certain level, you should be doing that with some consistency. If your scripts end up as semi-finalist or above on a regular basis, that’s a good measure that your writing is on the right track. You’re not going to win over every reader every time. Sometimes not even half, or even a quarter, of the time. BUT, if you’re never advancing in smaller competitions, there is a chance that your writing is just not quite there yet. It doesn’t mean it won’t ever be. Joining writing groups (I have one I regularly attend, The AFW’s 5150, to help keep me motivated and improving), seeking out mentors and writing coaches (you’ll find a number of great resources listed throughout the Script University website and Script contributor’s list), reading screenplays (produced and unproduced, good and bad), and most of all, writing – writing – writing, are all ways to continue to improve your craft.
And once you have that script that consistently does well, that becomes your “calling card” – the one you show to the gatekeeping readers of producers and studios – the one that can, and will, get your work.
Are there things I can do to help overcome “The Reader Factor”?
Yes, there are. First, get feedback from other writers (not your mom) on your script, and look for commonalities in their comments. Also, and this is a little controversial, but having read for competitions, I’ll throw it out there anyway… Enter early! The mindset of the reader can be a factor, like it or not. You want to encounter the reader when they are excited to be reading your script. Not when they are already a dozen behind with two dozen more that have to be read before the week is out – and all they want to do is just “get through the pile”.
So remember, if you connect with, emotionally move, excite, even one individual with your writing…
That’s a job well done.