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Monday 18 June 2012

How Do I Get My Script Read?

"Any advice for getting a script read by some influential people?" A question asked of me recently that's impossible to answer in just a few words. But here's the digest version. 

 My experience is that "influence" is mostly a public illusion of power, and it's no subsitute for the actual ability to get stuff made, whether it's for film or TV. Those who can get stuff made are an ever-changing crowd, its composition determined by the ebb and flow of personal or corporate fortune. 

 Some of the players are obvious. Ridley Scott can get stuff made. Most companies riding high on a hit can get stuff made. For more names - you need to study credits, read the trades. And even Ridley Scott moves in a world where he's juggling with what's possible for him to achieve at any given time. I'm sure there are plenty of projects he'd love to be working on. But the ones he can get off the ground are those that the market wants from him right then. He'll have more choices than most, but you can be sure he doesn't operate by personal whim. 

 So, the good news and bad news. The good news is that the players are always on the lookout for new material to keep them in the game. The bad news - I call it bad news, actually it's just a fact of life - is that they get offered so much that each has to employ a fairly ruthless filtering system to cope with it. 

But it's a filtering system, not an impervious wall. Bear in mind that it's designed to locate exactly the kind of thing the company's currently looking for - business research, not public service. Many companies. All different needs. 

The first stage of the filter is usually an 'agented or solicited submissions only' policy. That's basically saying, "No cold callers". The expectation is that an agent will only submit material that's appropriate and of professional quality. Some agents shake that faith on a daily basis, I'm told. 

A solicited submission is one for which the company has opened the door. A tiny percentage of these come through some privileged contact, giving mind-fuel to the paranoid. But once received, they'll go through the same Darwinian in-house procedure as all the rest, where nepotism or special access count for nothing. I've never seen a better insight into that process than the one given here by mega-producer Gavin Polone. He's writing about the industry in the US and you can scale it down a few notches for the UK, while bearing in mind that the number of outlets is proportionately smaller. (and if you scroll down the comments, it's fairly easy to distinguish the "Hollywood sucks" contributors from the professionally aware.) 

You can get a solicited read for your script even if you don't have an agent. It comes down to this: give them a reason to be interested in you. Then they may have a reason to open the door, and to stand the expense of giving you serious consideration. Make your first mark. A short film, a home-made audio podcast, a bare-stage fringe two-hander with a couple of mates, a few short stories with a respected small press, a YouTube channel with a creditable following. 

Something modest, achieved well, counts for more than something ambitious, achieved badly. 

Then - enquire. The classic query letter. But draw your promise to their attention (and have the wit to research the company so that your material is a match for their needs, and your enquiry goes to the right person). 

99% fail right there, which is a Good Thing because it thins the field for someone like you. More than three short paragraphs, and you've probably blown it. But if you come over as a sensible adult with a professional attitude, and your project is in their ballpark, you may be invited to submit. If not, don't attempt to turn it into a conversation. Move on. And meanwhile be planning your next short, your next fringe piece... maybe get on a Script Factory course, involve yourself in someone else's project. True creativity doesn't wait around for an outlet. Channel yours into growing that starter CV. 

Every produced screenwriter that I know has followed some form of this path. Every one of them. You may hear tales of non-pros getting Hollywood breaks - I recall one about a taxi driver pitching a screenplay to his passenger in the course of a ride - but these are invariably more complex stories that have been shaped by some journalist into fairytale form.