A question from Point Break:
I have a few questions. As rewriting is an art and not a science, when should an agent/manager/prod-co get involved in the process?
We all get scripts to a stage where we think it is ready for people to read them.
It’s difficult for unproduced writers to know when to submit, so a little insight into the development process of great scripts would be very helpful.
PB, I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting.” I suspect that is nowhere more true than with screenwriting. For example, in the recent Creative Screenwriting feature on Pixar’s process developing Toy Story 3, screenwriter Michael Arndt talks about multiple drafts he wrote (if memory serves, I believe the number was 60). And that’s with an animated movie where the script is locked up front so the actors can record the dialogue, then the animators create the characters, scenery, and all the rest. In a live-action film, rewriting can and often does go on throughout the entire production period. And then they can test the movie and determine they need to do reshoots or an alternate ending, which requires more rewriting. So if you include the original screenwriter typing FADE IN:, then INT., then deleting that to put in EXT., it’s possible to say that the revising of a screenplay never stops, not from the first instant of a story’s creation to the final cut is done in post.
Which is to say it’s a fallacy to believe that when you type FADE OUT / The End on the final draft of your spec script, it’s a finished product. In some respects, that’s only the beginning of it.
Let’s focus here on script development in terms of the writer-representative relationship. That varies from writer to writer and rep to rep. Some agents and managers are primarily involved at the front end and back end of a spec project. Per the former, that means they will sit with a writer and go through the writer’s list of original ideas to spec or develop as a pitch, giving advice about which one to focus on based upon current market conditions, goals for the writer’s career, and just generally their gut sense of which story concept works or not. Per the latter, once the writer has a draft of the script done, they’ll send it to their reps for their read and notes. Almost always, the rep will have the script covered to get the benefit of that feedback, then provide additional comments based upon their own take on the material. This process can go back and forth for several drafts.
Other reps take a much more hands-on approach, so that the writer works up drafts of a treatment, then an outline — all for review — before beginning to write a script. And then the writer may provide the rep 30 pages of the script at a time until there’s a finished draft. Then more notes and rewrites. I don’t think this is the nature of a majority of writer-rep relationships, but I do know several writers (early in their careers) who do work this way with their reps.
At some point, it’s common for a rep to ‘slip’ the script to someone to read, generally a producer or perhaps even a studio exec to get an ‘unofficial’ read. This is not only important to get a buyer’s opinion of the material; if the script is good, it can start the buzz-building process.
Now mind you, this is all writing and rewriting before the script officially goes out to buyers. Certainly there are scripts that come across an agent or manager’s desk which end up going to market with little or no rewriting, but you have to figure that’s rare. Most of the time, a writer will shape and reshape the script per their own internal editorial process and whatever approach they’ve worked out with their reps. As I say, that varies from writer to rep.
Here’s the rub: At what point and how do the writer and rep determine when the script is ready to go to market? In theory, the rep is in the employ of the writer (after all, the writer is paying the rep anywhere from 10-15% of their earnings). However script development is one of those tricky areas where that dynamic can get blurred and it can feel like the writer is working for the rep, i.e., the rep becomes the final arbiter of the script’s development.
While that may seem wrongheaded, bear in mind that in almost all cases, the rep knows the buying marketplace better than the writer. The rep is the one with the most active relationships with producers, talent, execs, etc. So basically their information is stronger. Moreover because the rep reads a lot more scripted material than a writer, especially current specs, drafts of scripts in development at studios, and so on, it’s generally safe to assume that the rep’s knowledge in this regard is broader.
On the other hand, nobody can know the particular story world of a script more intimately than the writer. And in a good writer-rep relationship, both parties have to be mindful of the writer’s passion for the project during the development process as it’s critical that the writer stay connected to and inspired by what they’re writing. In other words, a rep can not just insist on a writer slaving over rewrite after rewrite to the detriment of the writer’s emotional state.
And then there’s the bottom line: Do you think the script works as is or not? A writer may believe this last draft is pure gold. The rep may think it needs more work. Who’s to say who’s right? Maybe the writer’s correct and the rep is just nervous about going out with the script because they’re not sure they believe in it. Maybe the rep is right because the writer’s opinion is based more on the fact that they’re sick and tired of rewriting the script, not on the quality of what’s on the page.
At some point, it comes down to trust. Does the writer trust their rep’s creative judgment? Does the rep trust the writer’s creative judgment? In a perfect world, their sensibilities are in sync. Even if they’re not, my sense is that most reps will go out with a script, whether they have doubts about it or not. First, if what William Goldman says about Hollywood is true — “Nobody knows anything” — then what’s to stop an imperfect script from selling? [And by the way, are there any perfect scripts?] Second, a rep only makes money when a script sells… and it ain’t gonna sell if it ain’t out in the marketplace. And third, as one of my agents once said, “I don’t gotta smell it to sell it.”
Now again mind you, this is all before the script goes to market. So as important as it is to have an agent and/or manager, it’s even more important to have a good manager and/or agent. As a writer, you want to believe that they have your best interest in mind, that they understand story, they aren’t afraid to be honest with you, and they are willing to work with you to find some common ground approach to script development.
Then you get lucky and sell the script. Now you enter into another level of development. But that’s a whole other level of mishegas, better saved for another time.
[Originally posted July 23, 2010]