Copyright © 2014 by Michael Ray Brown. All rights reserved.

For more information: Recommended Links | Frequently Asked Questions

“First rate analysis at a cut-rate price.”

Creative Screenwriting

Script Analysis Story Sense® logo

In this fourth annual Special Agency/Consultant issue, Hollywood Scriptwriter magazine talks with agents, managers, and script consultants about marketing your script. Story Sense founder Michael Ray Brown discusses the most common mistakes made by screenwriters, the smartest investments to make, and how to break in.

This excerpt from the August of 2007 issue is reprinted here with the permission of Angela M. Cranon, Editor-in-Chief, Hollywood Scriptwriter magazine.

Hollywood Scriptwriter logo

What is your specialty?

Some consultants excel at teaching the basics of screenwriting. That’s reflected in their notes, which often contain boilerplate advice that reads as if it has been ripped from a textbook. My specialty is solving story problems. I consider myself a collaborator. I work with the writer to understand his or her intentions, and fix whatever flaws the script may have.

What is the best way to go about finding a consultant?

Word-of-mouth is probably the best way to find a trustworthy consultant. However, what works for one writer may not work for another. Publications such as Creative Screenwriting periodically review the top script consultants. Visit the consultant’s Web site to get a sense of their experience, personality, and how they approach their analyses. Look at their credits. Ask for samples. Talk with them to get a feel as to whether they’re right for you and your script.

How beneficial is it for a newcomer to work with a consultant?

Newcomers will find that they advance a lot faster in their craft. On average it may take a neophyte screenwriter many screenplays and many drafts before he or she hits their stride. Having the guidance of a consultant can accelerate this process. You get where you want to go faster. On the other hand, unless a new writer has a professional attitude, and is open to suggestions, it’s useless to hire a consultant.

If you’re a seasoned scriptwriter, is it still a good idea to hire a consultant?

Experienced screenwriters often rely on a group of friends or associates to give them feedback, particularly when writing on spec. A consultant can devote more time to the material, analyze it to greater depth, and provide a perspective that a peer might not have. When writing on assignment, a screenwriter is usually getting notes from a creative executive. If they’re fortunate, these notes will make sense to the writer, so there’s less need for a consultant. However, if the writer is on the fence about a plot beat or character development, it may be wise to get some outside advice.

How does a newcomer break into the industry?

Entire books have been written on this subject. You have to draw upon all your contacts, no matter how small. The Hollywood Creative Directory lists producer credits and contact information. Some producers will respond to a query letter or a synopsis. If the story sounds intriguing, they may agree to read your script if you sign a release or submit it through an attorney. However, it will get more attention if it’s represented by an agent.

Finding an agent who will read your script can be more difficult than finding a producer. Most agents won’t read anything that doesn’t come recommended by a client, producer, or studio executive. The Writers Guild of America publishes a list of agents, noting those who will read material from new writers. Whether or not you have an agent, posting your screenplay on InkTip is a way to get it seen by industry professionals.

Enter your script in as many contests as you can afford. Even an “Honorable Mention” in a prestigious screenwriting competition can set your telephone to ringing. It all starts with writing the most marketable script you can write, which is where consultant can be valuable.

How has the industry changed from last year in terms of the demand for creatively written scripts?

There’s always a market for a unique story, well-told. However, the studios are making fewer movies than ever. Disney’s development mandate, for example, shrank to less than half its former output. There’s an emphasis on big-budget, tent-pole movies. Producers are getting more selective, and taking fewer risks. Getting an independent film distributed is still very hard, but recently there seems to be more equity funding available for independent features. Just as anyone can declare themselves to be a consultant, all it takes to be a producer is a telephone and a script. It’s hard to tell what’s real from what’s just smoke and mirrors. In order to make it, a writer has to be inventive as a storyteller and savvy in the ways of business.

What are the top three mistakes scriptwriters make?

Different genres have their own pitfalls, so it’s hard to generalize. That being said, many scripts come to me with their theme ill-defined or their structure out of balance. If I had to identify three problem areas, they’d be:

  1. Failing to generate sufficient jeopardy for the protagonist. A story can be defined as how a character copes with danger. You’ve got to make things as difficult as possible for your hero, and keep the outcome in doubt.
  2. Writing dialogue that is “on the nose.” One mark of a mediocre script is that the characters openly express their thoughts and feelings. In real life (and in the movies) people rarely say what’s on their minds or in their hearts.
  3. Failing to write in a cinematic manner. A well-written script tries to create in the reader’s mind the experience of watching a movie. Write only what can be seen and/or heard. And make sure the script is formatted to industry standards.

What qualities should a marketable script have?

It’s hard to tell what’s marketable and what’s not. A well-written script has an undefinable quality; it just glows. However, other factors that have little to do with the quality of the material determine whether a script will sell. Above all, the lead role has to appeal to star, because getting a star attached will often decide whether a script gets made. I’ve seen wonderful scripts languish in development, and mediocre scripts placed on a fast track because of a star. Braveheart was a script I recommended during my tenure at MGM, but it might not have seen the light of a theater screen if not for Mel Gibson.

What kind of script gets your attention?

I’m drawn to scripts that show an original voice. However, I’m also impressed if it’s apparent the writer knows their craft.

We’ve been hearing from script competitions that there are few well-written scripts. Has that been your experience?

It does seem to be getting harder and harder to find a gem. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the sort of effects-driven fare coming from the studios, but so many scripts seem to show a disregard for the basics of storytelling. My overseas clients on average show a stronger command of the craft and a greater passion for their work, as well as more originality.

What’s missing from these scripts?

What’s missing is usually two-fold: 1) a clear vision of the story, and 2) the ability to convey that vision to the reader.

How do some really bad scripts still make it to the big screen?

Having served as a reader in the story departments of seven major studios, I’ve witnessed first-hand the torturous process whereby a script makes it to the big screen… or doesn’t. There are some very bright minds at the studios, but the economics of the business make it very risky. Executives like to hedge their bets with a bankable package or a property with built-in appeal. Witness the perennial slate of remakes and sequels, and movies spawned by comic books or toys or video games. In this climate, an original story has little chance of getting made, no matter how well-written, unless it has a star attached. And stars don’t always make the wisest choices, as evidenced by such movies as Battlefield Earth.

What are the top three investments a screenwriter should make before trying to get a consultant?

Before a screenwriter contacts a consultant, he or she should make every effort to write the best script they’re capable of writing. Consultants are expensive. You can get more from a consultant if you don’t rely on them to do what you should’ve already done.

  1. Invest in yourself as a writer, and learn the form. Think of it as a career, not as a lottery ticket.
  2. Invest in a library of screenplays. Retype a successful script just to feel what it’s like to write those words.
  3. Invest in Industry standard screenwriting software like Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft. It’ll make the formatting easier to handle when you rewrite your script. And screenwriting is all about rewriting.

Explain the financial benefit of hiring a script consultant.

Hiring a consultant can save the writer hours and hours of rewriting. It can also make the difference between the writer making a sale (and possibly a career) or floundering in obscurity.

What qualities should a script consultant have before hiring?

In most industries a person becomes a consultant only after years of proving themselves and establishing a reputation. That’s not true with script consultants. There’s no qualifications board, so you have to look closely at their credentials. In my view, they should have at least ten years’ practical experience in the industry, either working for an established producer or in creative affairs at a major studio. They should be excellent listeners as well as communicators because they’re supposed to serve you, not impose their own vision on your material. They should have lots of ideas, lots of enthusiasm, and the ability to inspire you to create your best work.

What final advice do you have for screenwriters wanting to break in?

As with any industry, it helps to find a mentor. These are treacherous waters, and it helps to have someone who’s been there to help you navigate them. Two of my clients are a writing team, and they address me as their mentor.

Realistically, how much should a consultant cost?

The short answer is whatever they’re worth. Some script analyses are worth their weight in gold. Others aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If a consultant can identify some critical flaws, and offer creative solutions to fix them, then their advice is invaluable.

How much you pay should also depend on the type of service. You’d obviously expect to pay more for a detailed analysis with specific, bullet-point suggestions than you would for simple coverage. A set of notes that offers you alternate scenarios to explore is worth more than mere critique.

That being said, I believe a writer shouldn’t pay more than $200 for coverage. When it comes to development notes, the fees various analysts charge range from $300 to more than $2,000.

I believe it’s important to keep my services affordable. Considering the amount of time I commit to a project and the depth of my analysis, my fees are a bargain. That’s why Creative Screenwriting magazine, in their latest review of 24 script analysts, rated me their “Best Buy.”

For that expense, what services should a consultant provide?

A writer who requests development notes from a consultant should come away armed with everything they need to take the script to the next level. That includes a set of bullet-point suggestions running a minimum of seven pages, notes written on the script itself, and an hour-long consultation that the writer receives on a CD. That’s what I provide to my clients… along with industry advice and encouragement to pursue their vision.

Script Consultants Issue #4

Michael Ray Brown, Story Sense