Hollywood Scriptwriter, June 2005
Telling it like it ‘tis!
Sundance Film Institute’s reading critic Jamie Stein has no beefs about telling it like it is when discussing top mistakes screenwriters make when reading a script.
By Angela M. Cranon
Hollywood Scriptwriter (HS) sits down with Jamie Stein, the top reader for the renowned Sundance Film Institute, to get his perspective on script critiquing and the reason why so many scripts are rejected and so few are accepted.
HS: Give us a brief background on your profession, particularly, your responsibilities as a script reader.
Jamie Stein: For the Sundance Film Institute, I am responsible for reading just about every single submission to the writer’s and director’s labs, and then for determining whether a screenplay should be seen by the committee for consideration or whether a writer should be tracked for future consideration. Also, my coverage is used as a “second opinion” in the deliberation process.
How does one become qualified to become a script reader?
I was hired at Sundance for my ability to detect uniqueness of voice and story – even within material that might be a lot less polished or refined than standard Hollywood screenplays. Also, a reader needs to be able to form quick, concise opinions and then clearly articulate those ideas into a critique that is both thoughtful and easy to understand. It helps to have an open-minded attitude that sees both the possible merits and potential flaws of every single story.
What does a script reader look for first?
I look for two things immediately – first of all, a lead character undergoing an engaging conflict that is truly human, identifiable and honest. Second, I look for specificity in storytelling. Does these characters feel like honest people leading honest individual lives on the page – or do they feel like the author simply struggling to move forward in his plot? I always look for true authorship – if a movie takes place in a coal mine at the turn of the century, I expect to learn about that universe as if an actual historical figure were telling the story. With each screenplay, I want to enter a specific time and place that only exists within the world of that particular story.
What is the last thing a script reader wants to see?
I probably dislike over-general writing styles more than anything else. I cannot tell you how many screenplays I read wherein someone like “the abusive father” stampedes into the room drunk as hell screaming things like, “No one around here appreciates me!” before beating people up at random. Human beings don’t act like this, human beings don’t wear their innermost thoughts and feelings on their sleeves. Human beings try to hide their pain and generally attempt to win. If you’re writing expositional dialogue to explain a plot point or communicate feelings, you better think twice about continuing forward with that script. Nothing is a bigger turn-off than expositional dialogue and over-obvious emotional beats that tell the reader exactly how to feel about each character.
What are the main ingredients that a script should have for a reader to continue reading page after page?
One primary ingredient would be progressive conflict. So many scripts present the same information over and over and force their heroes to undergo the same challenges over and over. Screenplays that succinctly establish the conflict and then take those obstacles to the furthest possible dimension truly engage me. Another ingredient would be finding new dimensions in characters we think we already know – the sudden humanity in a villain, the possible amorality of a hero.
How soon after reading a script does a reader know if a script has potentialiaty?
There are always exceptions to the rule but I generally know within two pages whether the screenplay will generally be worth reading or not; expositional dialogue is a big tip-off.
What are the elements a reader looks for in determining a winning script that will make it to the big screen?
The truth is that no reader knows this for sure, there are no surefire elements – if that were the case, every movie would be the same, there would be no flops and also no sleeper hits. Different genres demand different elements. At the end of the day, all elements should spring from a well-realized voice telling a specific story. Nothing gets more industry attention than a well-written, cohesive script with personality. There is no rhyme or reason as to why bad scripts get made while other good scripts get bypassed (and vice-versa).
What are some of the biggest mistakes up and coming screenwriters make when submitting a script for a contest?
Thinking from the outside-in rather from the inside-out, gearing their script towards what they think will do well in the competition rather than really looking inside themselves for the story they want to tell and allowing all the elements fall into place naturally. Writers need to have a clear dramatic idea in place, an opinion about the material and write from their heart rather than convoluting the script with what they think will help them win.
What are some of the three top mistakes up and coming screenwriters make when they begin writing a script?
- They fail to establish a clear point of transformation for the hero – the ending should be a complete answer to the conflict established at the beginning and the climax should be the most dramatic statement of the main character’s established fear/conflict.
- They repeat the same dramatic information over and over without raising the stakes or spinning the story in a new (but relevant) direction.
- Dialogue does not equal drama! Writers think mentioning a topic in dialogue means the movie “is about” that topic. No, a movie dramatizes an issue by forcing the characters to make active choices with regards to that topic.
What does a winning script have that a failed script doesn’t have?
Specificity, unexpected humor (even in comedies), deep sense of mood time and place and a sense of research.
How are you able to sift through the thousands of scripts submitted for a contest?
I work hard – for Sundance, I read 12 scripts a week and write 12 pieces of coverage a week. The entire committee works very hard to make sure every submission is give its due consideration.
What function does format play when deciding to accept or reject a script?
A well-written, properly-formatted script that is easy on the eyes will always stand a better chance of getting ahead. That said, an improperly-formatted script with personality and specificity will beat out the properly-formatted script with nothing new to say.
Is it difficult to reject scripts?
The good writers have clearly spent so much thought and consideration into designing their stories that it becomes pretty easy to say “no” to writers that have clearly failed to put as much energy into their craft.
How important is versatility?
Versatility is more of a question for the established author. When considering a particular script in front of me, I have no clue whether the author would be able to pen a project in another genre. It doesn’t really enter the equation on a script-by-script basis.
What is the significance of genres?
Genre is very important in that it can help guide writers in developing a proper structure. If you’re writing in a particular genre (or genre overlaps), you should go out and watch as many movies in that genre as possible – classics, contemporary titles, bad movies and good movies. Writers should immerse themselves in their genre to really get a handle on the messages, themes, plots and characters.
What advice can you give to scriptwriters in their writing in terms of pitching and presentation?
There’s really no excuse for unprofessional presentation – and, yes, improper formatting is a huge turn-off. With the excess of published screenplays in bookstores these days, any writer can lay his/her hands on a copy of properly-formatted scripts. Mastering the form is very easy and demonstrates a necessary level of professionalism. You’re only shooting yourself in the foot by submitting an ill-formatted script that becomes a chore to read.
What advice can you give on creating a synopsis?
Brevity, brevity, brevity – you may feel every detail of your story is of the utmost experience but to the reader (and excecutives) wading through tons of material, an overlong synopsis bogged down with tiny font and digressive asides receive an immediate groan. Present the main arc of your story – the hero, the conflict, the major turning points, the milieu – but do so in the most concise manner possible. Remember – actual plot details are never as important as the writer’s personality; think more about capturing your voice in the synopsis than all the machinations of your story.
Explain what a top-notch storyline should include.
You should be able to articulate a single-sentence premise or moral in ten words or less. Additionally, writers should be able to clearly state the hero’s transformation – the beginning conditions that need to undergo change and the ending conditions that have presented some sort of resolution. The climax should present the hero with a do-or-die choice that forces him to confront his worst fears (those fears established at the beginning of the story). So, if your hero fears heights, he better be forced to perform a high-wire act during the climax; if she fears intimacy, she better be forced to make herself completely vulnerable – or else risk losing everything she desires. Writers need to keep the stakes high, the goals clear and the conflict progressive.
Reprinted from the June 2005 issue of Hollywood Scriptwriter.