Is That Magic I'm Stepping In?

The Single Screenwriter is taking a brief time-out from her regular rantings to pause and reflect on serious matters.

No, hell has not frozen over, but in light of the highly charged emotional responses spewed all over my previous blog post, I figured that it was one of those rare occasions where seriousness was called for.

A contest reader from one of the larger contests has come out and publicly stated that she not only does not read script entries past page ten, but also that she eliminates many without ever reading past the title page.

I am not putting words in her mouth or stretching the truth. This is fact that can be verified by simply reading the original post. This confession evoked strong outrage from writers and even stronger justifications from readers and contest directors all over the net, which indicates that this practice is much wider spread than the contest in question, and begs the question - is it time for a complete overhaul of the script contest industry?

Contests, take this as your wake up call. Be transparent about every step of the elimination process or suffer from pathetic submission rates, because if I can find out that your contest sucks and your readers brag about eliminating scripts with lightening speed with just a few simple clicks of the mouse, so can every other writer on the planet. Writers everywhere will now assume that you're just preying on their dreams for profit. They will no longer believe that your goal is to help them, not when readers have emerged in large numbers to defend the practice of giving each script less than 3 minutes of consideration.

Contests were supposed to be the unproduced writer's back door into Hollywood. A chance to get a serious read from someone on the inside, but that is utter B.S. Writers are on to you. It is beyond disgusting that writers get a fairer shake when getting a read from a hard-to-get-to producer than a contest reader. The naysayers will scream that I lie. But that's how Hollywood actually works. If you get a producer read, it's because he or she has requested your material and actually wants to read it. For free. They may read it themselves or have one of their staff read it. It will be read cover to cover, and not by someone who has 74 other scripts to get through before lunch. (Readers are unionized, people, and no reader gets 75 scripts dumped on them, and no good contest would put that kind of pressure on their 'professional' readers - not to mention no 'professional' reader worth anything would take on such a crappy job!).

If you want your contest to be taken seriously, man up and tell the writer exactly what they get for their money. If you may not read past the first 10, say so. If you're going to chuck out scripts based on title pages, say so. If you're going to make sure every script gets a full read say so. That way writers can make informed choices, 'cause right now, I suspect that your days of getting the benefit of the doubt are over.

And for those defenders of the 2 or even 10 page rule, let's get back to basics.

Do you remember that moment in a darkened theater where you suddenly realized that movies were magic? It may have happened in Lawrence of Arabia, or Star Wars or The Matrix or some not so familiar B flick you snuck into because it was damn hot and the local screen had A/C. I won't tell you mine because it would date me and my age is none of your damned business (unless of course you're cute, then I'm twenty-nine.)

Sorry. That just slipped out. I'm not used to wearing my serious face. And frankly, I don't want to wear my serious face. Magic isn't serious. Magic is... well, magical.

Everybody in this industry has that magic moment. The one moment that nailed you to the movie making cross and sealed your fate. I bet you can remember it down to every last detail - the smells, the euphoria, and if you're old enough, even the haze of smoke from the cigarettes in the back rows.

News flash: If you're in the industry, you've been chasing that moment ever since. It's what drives you and gives you a reason to live. It gets harder to find as we get older. We become more critical, our tastes evolve - we grow up. It sucks. But we still chase that moment. That's why we're here.

My position has been called extreme. Let's review my only position on this matter. I think that contests that eliminate based on title pages alone or writer location are crap. If a contest reader is participating in this behavior, they should be unceremoniously canned or the contest is crap. That is my position.

I'll go further to say that the better contests have their readers read the entire script. There is an argument to be made that you can tell good writing by reading only 10 pages, or just 2. I agree 100%. Hell, you can usually tell in the first few lines. And it sucks monkey balls reading a badly written script. And yes, a hell of a lot of contest entries must suck big hairy monkey balls.

What you can't tell from ten pages is story and heart. That's where the magic is. Is it there most of the time? Probably not. But when the hell did readers get so jaded that they stopped looking for it?! An amazing story with craft that's rough around the edges is still an amazing story. Craft can be developed. But craft without substance gets passed up the chain with the 2 or 10 page rule while magic gets stomped on.

You can tell me that this is the way the industry works, but you'd be full of shit.

I refuse to believe that everyone in Hollywood is a dick. That hasn't been my experience at all. The real pros don't need to be dicks. They're too busy looking for magic.

If I ever get so jaded as to think that I can go through 75 scripts in 3 hours and rate them fairly on the magic meter, somebody please just shoot me 'cause I will have become the Hollywood equivalent of the lousy waitress you refuse to tip because she has no people skills and can't be bothered to give a crap about her job.

I love movies. Even the bad ones. I'm a hopeless magic chaser. And I don't want to do business with anyone who isn't. And anyone even remotely connected to the industry that doesn't feel the same way should maybe consider a career change.

I'm closing this post with a few quotes from others:

Everybody has to start somewhere... and to the vast majority of readers who do go through and read every word of every script they are paid to read, I salute you. And to the person reading for Disney that year who got past my clear plastic report cover and other screw ups and actually read my very first script, I thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt. Your dedication to story helped me to become a better writer and storyteller. And isn't that what this should really be all about?

Robert Manley

Nicholl readers read the scripts. All of the scripts.

Max Adams

So what were the dealbreakers? I had a few things pop up last night that immediately made me pass on a script.

1. Incorrectly formatted title page.

Yes some people do interesting things with their title font, which I am not a total hardass about. But things like:

A GREAT BIG ADVENTURE: A screenplay by Anonymous Writer

Really? You put ": A Screenplay" next to the title? What did you think I thought I was reading?

Margaux Froley, on judging the Silver Screenwriting Comp

pic by h.koppdelaney


  1. Beautifully expressed. People deserve the truth (before they plunk down their money). And thank God we have some folks who actually want to help new voices develop. Most won't make it. Big deal. The ones that will can change the world.

  2. Well studios and the bigger agencies use union readers. Not all producers do, some producers are one man shows and they may request a script, decide the script isn't working, and set it aside after only partially reading it.

    Also, the reader you are talking about and the competition the reader is associated with are not indicative of all competitions. Some competitions do not make a profit on competitions, in fact often pay out of their own pocket to support the competition above and beyond what entry fees cover. Nicholl and Sundance would be two examples of programs that sponsor a competition and do not turn a profit on the competition, the competition costs them money to support.

    Distinguishing between entities that make a profit off competitions and entities that do not is pretty important here.

  3. Celluloidblonde,

    All very true, and important points. I don't want anyone to mistake my rant for a condemnation of all screenwriting contests and programs. On the contrary, I am a big believer in anything that supports emerging artists, and know that there are some excellent competitions that are well worth the entry fee.

    Then there are the others... *sigh*

  4. Beautifully said, and I completely agree. Not as a screenwriter, but as a writer in general. It disgusts me that there are people out there who will take your entry money and then not read what they're supposed to be judging. That, to me, is fraudulent. That, to me, is like paying a home inspector to go over your entire house and having him write up a report after only glancing at the front entrance.

    You don't judge a work of art by staring at one corner of the canvas. You don't judge a script on the first page alone. And to the anonymous poster on the previous post who compared reading contest scripts to browsing books in a store, I say this: The book's author is not paying me to read through his book before deciding if I like it or not. The screenwriter IS paying to have his or her script read in a contest. Apples and oranges.

  5. there's magic & heart in the first ten pages of all your examples of "movie magic" and that's what makes them so great. star wars, with the fighting star ships after the scrolling opening. the matrix, with trinity's supernatural fighting ability. lawrence of arabia, focusing on the patch of road where he ultimately dies. note how each grips the audience member immediately. that's craft.

    a story may have magic in it, but if star wars opened on "a day in luke's life" where he wakes up, makes star wars food, fixes robots, and farms vapor, the story wouldn't start with the same magic and immediately capture the imagination.

    the fact that you think a screenplay can have magic in a story without craft shows the ignorance of your position. craft is what gives a story its magic.

    here's an open challenge: have a contest for 100 scripts. you read all of them all the way. i'll read the first ten pages of each. we'll each choose a top five and compare. the argument here is that the two lists would be completely different. i bet they would be almost identical. let's put this to the test and see just how good bad writing can be

  6. goddamn you are a beautiful person. are u really single? as for this rant, as beautiful as it is, you are truly a magic seeking, magical creature. even those who read all the way will probably not see magic where there is magic. its a rare skillset.