Evan was at the Savannah Film Festival last week, where he spoke to SCAD students and filmmakers about his time in Hollywood as an acquisition executive. It was an incredible experience!
The following article has been reposted from No Film School. You can find the original article here.
Top Five Screenwriting Tips From An Acquisitions Executive
As an acquisitions executive, story analyst, and script consultant, I’ve read thousands of scripts. Some are better than others, but over the years, certain trends begin to emerge.
I’ve worked in the independent presales market for years, representing foreign buyers looking to acquire theatrical films and film packages. They’re not just looking for something that’s commercially viable; they need to stand out from the crowd. Indie distributors are competing against each other, but they’re also competing against the likes of Disney and Universal. Even being above average isn’t good enough. When I read a script, I’m looking for something great and distinctive. Unfortunately, what crosses my desk is often neither. The same goes for the companies that I read scripts and write coverage for -- they need something unique that will appeal to these buyers.
Most experienced readers and executives can tell the difference between a professional script and an amateur script within three pages.
If you’ve been slaving away at the keyboard for years and you’re wondering how your script measures up, check out these script writing tips I’ve put together and see where you stand.
**These are general pieces of advice, not requirements. The only rule when it comes to screenwriting is “could this be a movie?”**
In other words, does this script inspire confidence that it could be the blueprint for a movie so compelling/interesting/popular, people are willing to leave their house and shell out 15 bucks to see it?
Script Writing Tip 1: Character Introductions
Great characters tend to have great introductions. Think about Quint in JAWS, or Willy Wonka from the original CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, or Captain Jack Sparrow from the first PIRATES movie.
These characters make an entrance that leaves an impression, but they do it in a way that’s entirely within their personality.
It’s an efficient way of telling the audience, “here’s who this person is.”
But it’s not just a matter of having a character walk into a room and do something cool, funny, or unique.
You can distinguish them on the page, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cracked open a script, and right there on page one when we meet the hero, it says “JOHN, 25, handsome.”
… that’s it?
First of all, it’s Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful. Second, I’ve known a lot of dudes named John, none of whom stand out. Third, this description tells me nothing about the actual person.
Although most screenwriting books/gurus/coaches/magic 8-balls/articles will tell you not to use “unfilmables,” your hero or heroine’s intro is a place where it’s ok to break the rules. You can write something like “JOHN, 25, the type of guy who always corrected his high school science teacher about some insignificant detail.” Great, now your reader at least has some sense of who JOHN is.
(This isn’t mandatory. Plenty of great scripts have minimalistic character descriptions and intros. But if you’re trying to stand out, doing something different never hurts.)
Script writing tip 2: Action Beats
Whether you’re writing a slick spy thriller or a gritty slasher, sooner or later your script is going to call for an action sequence (sometimes referred to as a set piece). How are you going to put it on the page?
What you want here is clarity and flow. No matter how long your fight scene or car chase is, the reader needs to be able to understand what’s going on at any given time, and it should feel like a movie on the page.
The Enter key is your friend. Break up your action sequences into beats, and give each beat its own line or lines. Just don’t go overboard.
I’ve seen scripts that describe, in painstaking detail, each punch, counterpunch, grapple, and flying kick its characters perform. Calm down Yuen Woo-ping, you’re the writer, not the fight choreographer.
Focus on the beats: Character A gets a few good punches in on Character B, until Character B pulls a knife.
On the flip side, I’ve also seen action sequences that are too vague. If a producer reads “they each jump into their cars, race five times around the block, and screech to a halt in front of a stretch limo,” she’s going to wonder if you know that the sentence you just wrote will cost millions to shoot.
Professional screenwriters know how to find the balance between too specific and not enough detail.
If you’re looking for a good role model, James Cameron’s action sequences are always structured effectively on the page. It also helps to watch movies by the set piece master himself, Steven Spielberg.
Script writing tip 3: Dialogue
One thing that stands out to any reader is how your characters talk. Do they sound like actual people? Writing good movie dialogue is one of the hardest things there is about screenwriting. It’s something that even the pros can struggle with, and there’s no immediate remedy for it.
You’ve probably read a lot of stuff about subtext, objectives, motivations, unique character voices, etc. And you should always read your dialogue out loud to catch errors or redundancies.
At the end of the day though, what separates an amateur script from a professional script is that the pros write how people actually talk... but better.
Go to a coffee shop or a bar and listen to the conversations around you. They’ll be boring, but you’ll pick up the rhythm. People often repeat themselves or their friends, stop-start their sentences, trail off, or change the subject halfway through.
Sometimes they’ll even make a face instead of using words to convey how they feel. You want to find that rhythm for your characters. Without it, you’ll end up with two stiffs having the blandest conversation of their lives. “How are you, John?” “I am well, Bill. And you?” “I am good. My dog is fine. The weather is nice.”
Or you can cut it. Although you’re not writing a silent film, you’d be surprised how little dialogue some movies have. If you find yourself struggling to convey the scene through dialogue, maybe there’s a way to show it visually.
After all, the movies are talking pictures, not illustrated radio. (I forget who said that, but it’s a great line). Professional scripts rarely have dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward in some way.
This is different from your voice, your characters’ voices, and any stylized elements you’re trying to insert into your film. JUNO still has great dialogue, even if nobody has ever said “honest to blog” in real life. THE LOBSTER is going for a specific deadpan sensibility, so Yorgos Lanthimos gets a pass. Those types of films are exceptions. Don’t @ me.
Script writing tip 4: Evocative, Visual Prose
Remember, you’re writing a movie. What is the audience looking at? Can you convey that to a reader in a sentence or two? Can you make it interesting, emotional, dramatic, and visual?
For example, let’s say you had a character who felt betrayed by the people around him. You might write something like “he glares furiously at his compatriots.” Nothing wrong with that. It gets the job done. But could we do better?
Let’s look at another James Cameron example, this time from THE ABYSS: “Coffey's eyes are straight razors. He slashes them from face to face.” That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? It’s cool, efficient, and cinematic. Cameron knows what he’s putting onscreen, but he also knows what he’s showing to the reader. Plus, I bet it was fun to write.
It’s important not to get too flowery. Scripts aren’t novels, and you don’t have the word count or space to dive into extended metaphors in your prose.
The next scene in THE ABYSS does NOT include “Coffey’s on edge, the sharpness in his gaze threatening to slice through any argument like a katana,” because I just made that up and it sounds cheesy AF. You get the idea: all things in moderation.
Script writing tip 5: In Good Hands
I’m going to cheat a little bit here, because it’s tough to describe this one. There’s a feeling you get when you’re reading a script and you know it’s going to be good because the writer is such a confident storyteller.
A writer friend of mine said it’s “like swimming in holy water.” I’d say it’s part pacing, part voice, part aesthetic pleasure.
At the top of this list, I wrote that the only real screenwriting rule that matters is, “could this be a movie?” This is the feeling I get when I’m on page two and the answer is already an emphatic YES.
It’s not just a matter of raw talent; in addition to being skilled, the writer is also experienced. He or she is well versed in filmic language and conventions, in a way that can only come from watching an absolute shit-ton of movies.
“Swimming in holy water” is rare, and there’s no magic bullet for it. I think it’s an instinct that has to be developed. The best way to do that is to watch movies, read scripts, and get real feedback on your work. But if you’re serious about going pro, you’re probably doing that anyway.
Wrapping up the 5 Script Writing Tips
I hope this sheds some light on what readers and executives see on a regular basis, and what your script is up against in the marketplace. It’s worth noting that everyone’s opinion is different. It’s your script, and at the end of the day you gotta love it.
Our own Evan Littman recently sat down for an interview with the popular film website No Film School, and we’re reposting his answers below. If you’d like to read the original article, you can find it here.
What Is a Script Consultant and Do I Need One?
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of screenplay contests, pitch fests, and different ways to break into the industry or hone your screenwriting craft. But recently, a new tool has popped up for screenwriters: script consultants.
What is a script consultant?
That's an excellent question. Glad you asked. Before we get into our interview with a script consultant, let's answer it!
Script consultants are usually people who work in the film and television industry, who you pay for notes and feedback. These are people who can help you get your script to the next level. Which tee's up the next big question...
Are script consultants worth it?
I’ve always been skeptical of script consultants on the whole. Recently, a friend of mine, Evan Littman, launched his script consulting service called GetMade.
I’ve known Evan for years, and I’ve asked him to read almost everything I’ve ever written so that I could get his feedback. So I invited him to answer a few questions about script consulting so that in turn everyone on the forum could interact with a script consultant and see if it’s right for them.
Before we dive into the details of script consulting, let’s learn more about Evan.
Evan Littman, script consultant
Evan is the VP of Film Acquisitions & Development at the Steel Company, where he works extensively in the international sales space for independent film. He has read, evaluated, and negotiated deals for thousands of scripts, projects, and packages with an eye toward theatrical exhibition. In a nutshell, he helps foreign buyers acquire indie movies.
Evan has acquired films for theatrical distributors in territories around the world, from China to Portugal to South Africa. His reading client list includes top companies such as Amazon Studios, Covert Media, Red Granite, Sumatra, and more. Evan opened his own script consulting service, GetMade, in part because he saw screenwriters getting so many unhelpful notes.
So... without any further delay, let's get some answers!
Interview With Evan Littman
No Film School: What do you love about Hollywood?
Littman: Everyone is always working on something. Even successful people know they can’t sit on their laurels. Maybe that’s a double-edged sword, but I love the hustle. We make movies and TV; why would you want to stop anyway?
NFS: What's the best screenplay you've ever read?
Littman: I keep a personal database of every script I read, with relevant details and a general rating. I have signed an NDA for most of the scripts, so I’m trying to think of one that it would be kosher to share. Graham Moore’s LAST DAYS OF NIGHT definitely stands out from the pack.
I really hope someone makes that movie.
NFS: Explain the idea of script consulting.
Littman: I can’t speak for others, but I think of it like an on-demand development service. If you’ve written a script and you want to know how Hollywood professionals will receive it, you send it to us and we’ll talk about strengths, weaknesses, and how to improve it. It’s more than just a blurb and a number rating. I want your script to get picked up, so I’m just going to put in the effort to tell you how to it can be more appealing to Hollywood.
NFS: Okay, what does your script consulting service provide?
Littman: We provide a comprehensive conversation about your script. We go over strengths, weaknesses, and then get into the nitty gritty of how to improve it.
The way it works is, you’ll send us your script, we’ll read it in about a week, and then we'll talk about it for an hour over video chat [via Zoom]. We also have faster turnaround available if you want to pay for the rush rate.
During our hour-long conversation, I’ll offer notes and explanations, and you can ask me questions.
The good thing about video chat is that you don't have to live in Los Angeles to work with us. We have clients from a ton of different places.
NFS: What can a good script consultant offer?
Littman: A good script consultant focuses on making your script better at whatever it is that your script is trying to do. For example, if you’re trying to write a kickass action script, a good script consultant will help you improve your set pieces (fight scenes, shootouts, car chases, etc.) so that they’re clear on the page, and they don’t feel like every other action script out there. A good script consultant will also make sure your emotional beats are tracking, and that you stick with the concept you’re setting up.
A good script consultant has the reading experience to know what other action scripts look like, and the development skills to help you take the right steps to get there.
NFS: How can you tell if a script consultant is bad?
Littman: How much time you got?
A lot of bad script consultants try to turn your script into the script they want to see, without any regard for what you’re trying to write. But the sketchiest thing I see script consultants doing is selling the idea that they can guarantee you representation, employment, placement in a contest, or a sale.
That person is lying to you.
No real Hollywood professional would ever sell access to their network like that. After a week of blasting the town with unsolicited amateur scripts, their reputation would be shot.
I also see script consultants charging thousands of dollars for development notes. I think I’m pretty good, but come on. That’s insane.
NFS: How do you approach giving notes?
Littman: My consultations usually consist of two parts. The first part is me asking questions to the writer about their script. Stuff like “what influenced you?” or “what’s the theme?” or my favorite, “if this movie was playing in your local theater and you wanted to convince a friend to come see it with you, how would you describe it in a sentence?”
That’s how people decide what movie to see…“hey, you wanna see the one where Keanu Reeves is a badass and kills a bunch of dudes because they killed his dog?”
Yes, I want to see that one.
Once we hone in on what the writer wants to do, I can explain to them which parts of their script are working, and which parts aren’t.
Sometimes scripts have good ideas that are hidden behind unusual formatting or confusing prose. Other times, writers are trying to do something too complex for the medium.
For example, I was once pitched a script that came with a five minute trailer that the writer had edited together…I mean with a specifically British voiceover.. explaining the backstory of his science fiction universe.
I reminded the writer that he was writing a script, not a novel, and he should focus on the absolute core of the story. Once we’d established a more digestible and compelling logline, it was easier for him to build out the rest of his story.
NFS: What does a good "script note" look like?
Littman: I might tell a writer something like “in this sequence, I like how the character does X Y and Z, but I want to make sure that it’s in line with your intended theme. Are you sure that’s how you want your character to approach this obstacle?”
NFS: A bad script note?
Littman: I have seen writers get notes that adhere to arbitrary rules over all else, which always infuriates me. Stuff like “the Act 1 break into Act 2 needs to happen on page 25 no matter what.”
It’s like, I get it, you read Save the Cat, but maybe we dive a little deeper? Moving a scene to page 25 isn’t suddenly going to turn this thing into CASABLANCA.
NFS: So why should people pick you over other consultant services?
Littman: The first thing I want to say here is, you don’t NEED a script consultant. I know that sounds counterproductive, but the truth is that lots of pros learned on their own. That said, I have plenty of friends who are working professional writers that wholeheartedly endorse my notes.
The production companies that I read for also recommend me to other companies because I’m fast, thorough, and insightful. And finally, I have a pretty good track record when it comes to evaluating scripts and packages for international presales.
So I’m vetted, I’m a working professional, and my prices are reasonable. I charge $149 to read your script and talk to you for an hour about how to improve it.
NFS: If you were trying to break in as a writer, where would you start?
Littman: I’d start by reading a lot of scripts. There are tons of free resources on the Internet. I’d also move to Los Angeles (if I could afford it).
There is no substitute for meeting people face to face. Finally, I would read the trades instead of the fan sites.
Although Deadline has kind of devolved into HuffPo West, it’s still a reliable source for entertainment news.
NFS: What's the best piece of advice you have for budding screenwriters?
Littman: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And getting an agent is the starting block, not the finish line. I would also get a day job, and possibly day career.
The numbers coming out of the WGA are daunting: there are more active players on NFL rosters than there are working screenwriters in Hollywood.
It’s not impossible, but you really have to love the work.
NFS: What do you think the Hollywood landscape / spec market looks like in five years?
Littman: It’s always a push and pull. Chinese financing was supposed to be the industry’s savior, but it’s practically dried up.
Meanwhile, the Middle East is one of the fastest growing theatrical markets in the world, and Saudi Arabia just announced a massive tax incentive program at Cannes. New US distributors like Neon are popping up, while Global Road collapses.
Bottom line is that people love movies. That’s not going to change.
In regards to the Spec Market, writing a dynamite spec is still the most reliable way to jumpstart your career.
Even if it doesn’t sell, you will always be known by that sample.
Having a calling card is never a bad thing.
Summing up our talk with script consultant Evan Littman
As I said, there is a growing number of script consultants on the market and hopefully, this gives you a window into what one does and a sense of if it's something you could make use of.
If you’re going to hire a script consultant, feel free to ask them some of the above questions.
Like Evan said, breaking in as a full time screenwriter in Hollywood is extremely difficult. It can be even harder if you’re throwing money away at bad contests and consultants that aren’t worth your time or money.
If you liked what you heard from Evan, check out his website and feel free to reach out to him if you have other questions. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"What is a script consultant, and do I need one?"
This two part question is most commonly asked by aspiring screenwriters around the world, and no two people will see the answer the same way. Here's our point of view:
Most people can learn how to write a screenplay just fine by themselves. If you have a writers' group and an internet connection, you pretty much have everything you need. In fact, almost every professional screenwriter is self-taught -- they got where they are through a combination of talent and hard work. So no, you don't necessarily need a script consultant.
Pro writer Geoff LaTulippe says here that we are all full of shit.
And be careful of the types of scams mentioned here.
Sounds weird, right? Almost counterproductive for a site that sells... checks notes... script consulting? Well, kinda. The truth is that sometimes you don't have access to a writers' group, or a contact in the entertainment industry, or even an internet connection. Sometimes you just feel like you're slaving away at your desk and then throwing your script into the unknown, hoping someone recognizes your talent. A little direction, guidance, and feedback might be what you need.
You might want to know what a real Hollywood executive thinks about your work. You might want to know how your script will be received by production companies & entertainment professionals, and what you're up against in the marketplace. Or you might want to know how close your script is to being pro-ready, and what you have to do to get it there.
If that's what you want, you're in the right place.
You can find those things for free if you live in LA. And if you're already a repped writer, your agent/manager has an army of interns and assistants ready to write coverage on every draft you turn in. If that's the case, you don't need us. Don't get me wrong, we'll gladly accept your money! But you should know what a good script consultant does and does not do.
A good script consultant:
Asks you questions about your work: what are you going for, what inspired you, etc.
Takes the time to answer your questions
Has real, professional, Hollywood experience (is not an assistant or intern)
Currently works in the entertainment industry
Offers thoughtful suggestions without trying to rewrite your project for you
A good script consultant does not:
Promise you a sale, employment, or representation
Charge you money to send your script to "industry insiders"
Attach themselves as a co-writer or producer to your script
Guarantee placement in a particular contest or fellowship
Cost an arm and a leg
If you want a script consultant who works in the entertainment industry, knows what they're talking about, and provides constructive, insightful notes, give us a try at the link below.