The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why People Don't Read Screenplays

"A script is a thing the audience never sees. While a film is a thing - not in the sense that they run up to the projection booth and view the celluloid - but it's certainly the thing the audience is seeing on the screen. The audience wonders Who made this celluloid thing I'm looking at? I need to know. But they never wonder, Who made the paper thing that the actors work from?"
- Steve Martin

I always thought it was funny when people would get excited about my winning a screenwriting award. They’d want me to tell them the story. So I’d tell them and they’d continue being enthusiastic. So I’d asked them, “Do you want to read the script?” And they’d always say, “No thanks.”

I like reading screenplays because I write them and can appreciate just how much effort goes into writing a good one. But I can see where most people wouldn’t naturally think of snuggling up with one before the fire or when in bed like they do with a novel. It’s because screenplays – no matter how well written – make the reader work to create the world. They are written for that very purpose.

Screenplays are written with a very specific audience in mind. Namely directors, producers and A-List actors. And even these folks don’t read them. They have them read by someone else who then tell them about the screenplay. About the only people who read screenplays are those who write them for a living, those who want to write them for a living, and those who read them to do coverage for a studio or producer. The last one is called a reader.

Readers have their own professional union in Hollywood and are retained to write coverage of scripts – usually 3-4 pages of coverage – and at the end recommend whether an original script is a “pass” or a “recommend.” I used to work as a reader in Hollywood. At the height of my reader career, I was making $40 a script. Out of the 200 to 300 scripts I covered, I think I “recommended” two. Why so little? For two simple reasons: (1) 99% of the scripts were really quite bad or (2) the story and characters were good but the formatting, spelling and grammar were atrocious. If I was going to recommend a script, it had to be not only be really really good but also “look” good. That means the screenplay format is not only perfect, but slug, action and dialogue lines are proportionate and leave a enough “white on the page.”

There’s a saying in Hollywood that no one ever lost their job by saying no. If I recommended a script that meant one of my studio executives would take that script home for “the weekend read,” and read it based on my subjective opinion. Most executives take home scripts from agents, but once in awhile they’ll take home a spec (short for “speculative” script). Said script was usually sent in cold by an unknown screenwriter, then covered and recommended by one of the executive’s in-house readers - someone like me.

Now, when Monday came around and you found yourself called in to sit opposite your executive you, it meant only one thing. The script you recommended was a piece of crap, and the one person most important to your Hollywood career could put you out of job. Not only did a script have to be the best thing since sliced bread for a reader to recommend it – it had to possess the meat, cheese and vine-ripened tomatoes that made up the best fucking formatted sandwich my hungry executive had ever seen.

Time is money for a studio executive. Writers, who usually have a whole lot of the former and none of the latter, need to know this about Hollywood before they even consider a career in screenwriting. I was taught that if you didn’t have the reader (remember, the professional one making $40 a script) by page 3, you where shit out of luck. Even people being paid, albeit a pittance to read your screenplay, will put it down by page 10 if it isn’t one of the best things they’ve ever read. And one of the basic requirements of readers is that the formatting be correct. Otherwise, your story, however brilliant, will never be read.

Now here’s the insidious part. Readers have to read so many scripts and write coverage just to make ends meet. These readers are most often screenwriters - and are already pissed off your script and not theirs are in the sludge pile. But wait, it gets worse. Readers don’t want to read scripts either. Reading scripts is tedious. All that white on the page must be filled in with their own imagination. Imagination is the most precious commodity to writers and they want to horde it to make their own scripts great – not yours.

Novels, on the other hand, don’t rely on the reader to do the heavy lifting. There is less left to the reader’s imagination, and that’s why novels are often more enjoyable to read. I covered a dozen or so books when I was reading for studios and remember them to this day. Each filled in the white on the page, so it was pleasurable work to read them.

Also studios paid more to cover novels with an already established audience. And novels have more complex plots, characters and settings, which require more effort to write comprehensive coverage. Novels lend themselves to a more fully-rendered experience - they are an artistic end, not a means-to-an artistic end as screenplays are.

That last remark may sound harsh, but it’s not meant to be. Screenplays by their very nature are intended to be translated and produced into films by a slew of artists before they are consumed by a mass audience. Novels are already the result of an artistic vision. They don’t rely on anyone interpreting them other than for whom they were written: the reader.

There’s simply no comparison between a 110 page script and a 400 page novel. The level of detail and time the novelist has to suck you into their world is so much more than a screenwriter. I’ve found even a bad book often had passages in it that worked. And novels don’t have to be perfect like an entire screenplay does – from format, to story, to page length – to get the same level of respect. And in a town where everyone is looking for any angle to getting their project in front of the pack that is a huge advantage. Just ask any reader.


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