On Script Coverage

One of the strangest things about Hollywood is that the big decision makers in production, and agencies or management firms for that matter, will never be the first people to read your script. The first people you have to impress with your writing will almost always be a Development Intern. A college student (who probably wants to be a writer) who will read your script, write a synopsis and review of it, and pass that along to the Development Executive who will use that coverage, as its called, to decide if they should take the time to read the whole script on their own.

It makes sense to free up the executives time from reading scripts so they can worry about the other aspects of their job. What is frustrating is that some of these people reading your script are so new to the task that they are not adept at parsing out what is and is not good writing. I would know, I was one. I read both high level Hollywood scripts and low level For-TV scripts. I found most of them to be bad, but since then a couple have hit theaters and proven to be really good. It’s made me reassess how difficult reading a script an visualizing it in your head can be.

When you go to film school they teach you all about proper screenwriting format. But an odd truth is that there really aren’t any hard and fast rules to screenwriting format. As long as the reader can follow the action that’s perfect. They were teaching how to write a shooting script, which is not nearly the same as one built to be read. A shooting script is a meant to only convey movement and action, the rest is left up to the director and other crew members. The best scripts to read give you that movement and action, but also the tone of the piece and an idea of what everything looks like. They make sure you never get lost and can picture the movie in your head. It’s easy to get lost in a script.

I’ve read scripts where action is taking place in three different locations and, instead of using scene headings every time, they just use transition text. It saves space on the page and it creates less of a break for the reader. I’ve read scripts where a family has four children and, since they know you’ll forget which is which, the writer labels each with their age every time they show up on the page. It allows you to know these are the actions of a 9-year-old versus the actions of a 14-year-old. Sometimes a writer will even directly address the reader, break the fourth wall, even when they aren’t writing that kind of script because its the only way to convey what they want from that scene.

This is why its so nerve-wracking writing and submitting a script. You constantly wonder, did I present that scene well? It all makes sense in your head because you’ve been living in the script for so long that you cannot see it from an outsider’s perspective. Then you wonder, who’s reading the script? Is it an intern or someone a bit higher up? Will they understand what I’m trying to say here? Will they jive with the tone? Then, no matter who is reading your script, they’ll condense it into a one or two sentence logline, a quick summary, and their own opinion. Only then can your story potentially make its way to screen.

So throw out the rules and write a script they can’t stop reading. It can be easy to get bored, walk away, and come back having lost your place. Write a script that makes them laugh out loud. It’s easy to remember something that made you laugh since it so rarely happens on the page. Write a script that makes them want to see “that moment” on screen. It’s easy to recommend something you want to see done right.

Then keep on reading and writing, because the only way to get better at either is to continue doing both.

-JP

PS, Why does anyone choose to work in an industry this difficult? Why did I?

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