Picture this: in a Twilight Zone-irony-seeped blast, you wake up tomorrow and find yourself wearing a pressed shirt and driving a leased BMW into a reserved parking spot, on your way to your job as Vice President of Creative Affairs for a major Hollywood studio.
You've got trades to read, cappuccino to drink, calls to answer, and a strategy meeting that starts at 10:00. And fires to put out -- your carefully orchestrated meeting between a big director and name actor didn't happen when the actor inexplicably didn't show (there goes $2000 in first class air fare). You've got a flickering-green-light-project, three actors taking baby steps toward it, but each only willing to commit if one of the others commits first.
Amid all this, you've got a pile of new script submissions to deal with.
Ah, but luckily, you've got a top-notch development staff working for you. Bright folk whose job it is to screen material, tracking down scripts and books and magazines and whatever else that could prove fodder for a feature film. They either personally write up coverages (a synopsis of the material with their comments) or hire trusted readers to do the job. Five newly-submitted feature screenplays have been handled this way, and the coverages are right now sitting on your desk.
You've got about 30 minutes to scan through these. They're all 'naked specs' (no elements attached) and are all written by first-time, unknown writers. And let's say you've only got the time, resources and inclination to pursue just one of them.
Which would you choose?
PROJECT A: "Structurally it is strong and inventive, writing style is concise yet vibrant, the characters are just complex enough to relate to, and the story itself leads the reader on a wonderful trip through laughter and compassion."
PROJECT B: "Competently-rendered but unoriginal comedy is unraveled by the mis-drawn arc of the lead character and an unmotivating love story... It leads one to wonder if this script was written out of a deeply felt desire to delight and instruct, or just another cynical yearning to wrench dollars from young movie-goers."
PROJECT C: "This frequently charming, glibly written, and humorously sophisticated fantasy comedy, with its likable characters, amusing and inventively executed premise, [and] crisp, funny dialogue, is well worth considering for feature development."
PROJECT D: "Well-written, original in spots, definitely something different for the marketplace."
PROJECT E: "The script is so likable that we'll allow the storytellers some creative license. The overall tone is warm, fun, and sentimental, and along the way we get to visit cockroaches, rats, cats and dogs, celebrate racing, altruism, and Elvis. This screenplay manages to lap the field."
All right, now we go for the big reveal -- which perhaps you saw coming a mile off. The above comments are in fact from actual, different coverages -- but all based on the same script.
To be clear -- the excerpts above are not part of some made-up example. No way -- where's the fun in that? They're all pulled from actual coverages, beg, borrowed or stolen from various studios, agencies and production companies around town, and all regarding a single screenplay.
One of the more popular features of this site is that we're willing to publish actual examples of stuff. Sure, most writers know that their work will undergo 'coverage.' But I think it's valuable for a writer just starting out to read a few real coverages, even from another script... to learn how coverage writers tend to think... sort of a 'know thy enemy' thing.
All identifying names in the coverages have been X'd out. (We got permission from some of the authors, but not all -- some we don't even know their names. It's a risk, but I'm hoping the coverage writers won't mind their work being printed here, anonymously, in the spirit of teaching and learning. If they do protest, of course, the offending coverage will be pulled right quick.).
But barring that, our plan is to provide you with five full length, relatively current, honest-to-God real world coverages.
But wait -- there's more! Along the way, we're going to tell you a story, too: the tale of one screenwriter's quest to break into the business, and our attempt to help him storm the hill. The project in question is called INSTANT KARMA, and the screenwriter, Paul Hernandez, has graciously agreed to play guinea pig for this column.
As we go through, we'll also take time out to discuss a few hot topics as they come up. And who knows? The story might even have a happy ending.
Lots to do. Let's go --
Once Upon a Time... for me the story begins with Shelly Carney, our beloved guardian of the gate, saying I should listen to a pitch from some crazy DreamWorks production assistant. This was back when we had an overall deal at the studio with offices at DreamWorks. Paul Hernandez worked in the building, an aspiring screenwriter; he came by and pitched Shelly a story, hoping we'd be interested in producing it.
Shelly is like most development folk; she won't bother her boss (that's me!) with anything unless she truly believes in it. So I figure if Shelly liked it enough to recommend it, it was worth a listen --
Whoops, already, the 'hot topic' bell is ringing. I know what you're thinking -- "Oh, so you have to live in LA and work at a studio in order to get your screenplay read and noticed."
This is both true and not true. Yes, when Paul was twenty-four, he moved from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles to pursue his film career. He worked in a bookstore, as a stand-up comedian, and a production assistant. When an opening came up at DreamWorks, he specifically chose to work in the animation building "because that's where the writers were" and writers were the people he wanted to meet.
On the other hand, if Paul had written a basic query letter, I'd like to think we'd have been equally adept at spotting the film idea as something we liked. You never know what strategy will pay off until it does. On the other other hand, if Paul had restricted himself to writing a letter, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to present his story in person, and that might have made the difference. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So Paul hits the office like the outrageous, crude, chubby, opinionated Mexican that he is (this is his own description) and pitches a couple stories. One is about a guy who has an out-of-body experience, goes to Heaven, reincarnates as a series of animals back on earth trying to get back to his body. It's called ESCAPE FROM HEAVEN.
So we say, "Thank you, we'll think about it."
Two days later, in the shower, I get it.
It's a story about karma, about how if you do bad things in this life, you'll come back as a bug in the next life. This is that universal idea that everyone knows about, but hasn't been done as a movie yet. And with the conceit of the body still being alive, it's a perfect opportunity to externalize the character's inward journey, a filmic way to see someone work through their flaws -- we watch him evolve up through the food chain, doing good deeds, until he's 'earned' his right to get back to his own body.
I decide this is one of the most brilliant movie set-ups of all time.
(Now, did I read all that into the story, or did I finally just clue into what Paul was pitching? You can guess his opinion.)
So we call Paul back in to a meeting and we offer him $30,000.00 to buy his idea from him, right there. (You can tell how much I liked this concept, and what value I put on a good filmic premise.) At the same time, we tell Paul that there is no way he should accept the offer. He's got a great idea, he should keep control of it, and use it to start his screenwriting career. He should attach Ted and I as producers, let us help him work on the script, and then use our contacts to submit it as a spec screenplay --
The first issue the attentive writer will note is that up to this point, we've not read anything from Paul as a writing sample. My controversial position: Paul's writing ability wasn't important at this point. What mattered were his story sensibilities, his instincts, his sense of humor, his willingness to collaborate -- all of which were evident in conversations during meetings. Writing style was something we could teach, if need be; if his writing was great, no problem; if it was rough, we could work with him, and between the three of us, we could edit our way to an excellent script.
The next thing the reader will notice is our advice amounted to the evil 'free option' or 'write on spec without pay' offer. And this is something anybody in their right mind would advise against, and any writer would avoid.
Paul had to decide whether our contacts, and our creative involvement in his script, was of enough value to attach us as producers... or whether -- secure in the knowledge that he had a marketable idea -- he would do just as well writing the script on his own. (The option of pitching the story around town to set up a development deal was not viable at this point, as Paul did not have a sample script that was finished and ready to show.)
Or, he could just take the money we offered, and run.
Paul chose to work with us on the script.
We got to be attached as producers, he got a couple of professional screenwriters to work with him one-on-one, and help in the writing of his first feature screenplay.
So we start structuring out the script; designing characters and themes and setpieces and all that.
This, perhaps, is a good place to pause, and throw in the first coverage*, to give you an idea of what Paul came up with. This is a typical sort of 'low end' coverage, commissioned for $50.00 by a production company, from a freelance college student-type reader...
SAMPLE COVERAGE #1: READER [see orig. column for link]
In developing the project, one of my first comments to Paul was that he should cut the visit to Heaven from the story. (This is a little hard, of course, in a script titled ESCAPE FROM HEAVEN.) My feeling was that there was no way you could actually show Heaven, and not leave people feeling somehow dissatisfied (this well before WHAT DREAMS MAY COME made its own valiant attempt). Most films that deal with Heaven cheat their way past the problem by offering a way-station, or just one character's version of Heaven, etc.
Paul was insistent -- the story had to include Heaven, it was central to his vision of the movie. He relished the challenge of writing Heaven. My feeling about first drafts is that it's absolutely the writer's draft, and they get to do it their way... there'll be enough people trying to change things down the road, the writer has to have at least one draft that is purely theirs. So the title stayed ESCAPE FROM HEAVEN, and Heaven remained as an important location of the film.
So a few weeks away from Paul's first draft being completed, Ted and I get invited to a big gang animation concept meeting at DreamWorks.
This was a gathering called by Jeffrey Katzenberg to discuss upcoming animated features, and present new ideas. Picture about fifty people in the main storyboard room, heavyweights in the animation field -- Jeffrey, the producers and directors of PRINCE OF EGYPT, ROAD TO EL DORADO, ANTZ; storyboard artists, animators; Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald, development folk in the animation field, and on the feature side of DreamWorks, etc.
So various ideas are tossed about. And then a movie outline from Chris and Paul Weitz (writers on ANTZ who went on to direct AMERICAN PIE) was presented. I want to be mindful of not giving away too much of their storyline here, so I'll just say that it was set in India, and starred a rat who was obsessed with his karma.
Listening to the story, I caught my breath. One is always concerned that someone else will beat you to market with your great project. And this was dangerously close. But luckily, one thing that the Weitz' story didn't have was the unique idea of following a character on their journey away from human, into various animals. I let out my breath.
And then Walter Parkes pipes up:
"You know the way to tell that story," he says, "Is tell it from the point of view of a human character, and then you follow him after he dies, into his reincarnated as a rat."
Dang! I cursed to myself. This time, the bell is ringing on the hot topic of 'parallel development.' I'll tell you this: parallel development is real. In this case, I saw it happen before my very eyes.
I sat there, my mind racing. What to do?
I stood up.
Here was the problem, as I saw it. The concept really was a great concept for a movie. I could see Walter falling in love with it, putting it quickly into development, hiring a writer, making an announcement, and thus 'claiming' the idea for DreamWorks. Even if we presented Paul's finished screenplay to him a few weeks later, it would feel like we got the idea from this meeting. And the other project would already be in place.
Perhaps it was just me being a bundle of unfounded fears, but my decision in the moment was to take action. No place for the timid. So even though it was a roomful of people and I'm no great pitch artist, I stand there, and start talking. I told Walter that we were about to submit a script to him that explored his exact premise, and then I described it -- a guy has an out-of-body experience, and works his way through various animals, fixing his karma, trying to get back to his body. It was a desperate attempt to claim the concept -- or at least point out that Paul was there first.
So Walter says it sounds good, and asks to read the script when it's done. Then, surprise -- Katzenberg asks to get a copy too, to see if the idea might be good for animation.
Later we tell Paul he has two of the top names at DreamWorks waiting to read his script -- so finish already. He redoubles his efforts and finally makes it to THE END. And it's pretty good. He even makes the Heaven stuff work -- creating a Guardian Angel who is a sweet little girl, and he writes a great scene where God turns out to be a bunch of kids playing with crayons. We make some editing suggestions, get the script in shape, and have a few people read it -- most notably our William Morris agent, Dodie Gold.
She loves it.
This is a big deal, because Dodie's a pretty good judge of material. She promised to recommend Paul to other agents at William Morris. Plus, the coverage done by William Morris was very complementary -- another independent validation that we had a good thing going.
Here we'll pause again. As an example of the kind of positive coverage the screenplay received at William Morris, here's a second coverage of the script, that is also from a big Hollywood literary agency...
SAMPLE COVERAGE #2: AGENCY [see orig. column for link]
So now we come to a decision point -- and that annoying bell is about to go off again, so I'm just going to smash the little sucker, and ask:
How does one market a screenplay to the industry? (This is a topic worthy of its own column -- for extensive discussion, check out the message board archives.) The short version: our advice was to go ahead and let DreamWorks have a first, exclusive, look. One could argue that this lessens the possibility of a 'bidding war' scenario, which is the hope of every spec script that hits the market, and that a better strategy would be to 'go wide.'
On the other hand --
-- we had a very good relationship with the studio, having worked with them on MEN IN BLACK, having just finished SMALL SOLDIERS, and with MASK OF ZORRO still in theaters.
-- some top folk (Katzenberg and Parkes) were already pre-sold on the idea... and there was evidence that Walter would be predisposed to liking the project, since he essentially had the exact same idea at that meeting. Better to pitch to the top, rather than try to work your way up.
-- and finally, it's up to the agent to get a good sell price on a script that doesn't go wide; that idea of the pre-emptive bid. Essentially, the studio pays to take the property off the table, and the agent makes 'em pay as much as possible for the privilege.
In the end, it was Paul's decision to make, and he decided to go to DreamWorks first. So we submitted the screenplay to DreamWorks through development exec Jason Hoffs.
Good news: Jason raves about it, and wants to immediately send it on to Walter. (This is nice to hear; so far, everyone who's read the script has been highly enthusiastic.)
More good news: the DreamWorks coverage is very positive as well. And so we'll pause here again, on this note of promise, for our example of 'big studio' coverage. This, similar to the DreamWorks coverage, is quite positive, yet it's from a studio that eventually passed on the script...
SAMPLE COVERAGE #3: STUDIO [see orig. column for link]
So what happens? Cue drum-roll. And then cue the letdown. Walter passes on the project, Jeffrey passes on the idea. Jason Hoffs offers a thought: "Maybe there's a version of this story where you don't go to Heaven, where the guy just wakes up and finds himself in the body of an animal, and has to spend a good part of the movie figuring things out."
A sensible comment, actually. We ignore it.
Armed with so much positive response, our next step is to 'go wide' as they say, and submit the script, through William Morris, to various buyers.
Copies are printed, and the big submission day comes. Calls are made, and we pitch over the phone to folk we know personally, development people and heads of studios; delivery vans race through traffic and the script hits the town.
It seems to be a can't miss deal. Great concept, great coverages from various places, and Ted and I are in the middle of the hottest summer as writers we're likely to have, with an unprecedented four movie credits. Everyone wants to be in business with us. The script is natural for special effects, but doesn't depend on them; it's a genuinely funny comedy.
And everybody passes.
Paramount's pass was the funniest... "This is, without a doubt, the strangest script we've seen this year. Too weird for us."
Since were at a low point here, we'll throw out yet another coverage. This is the only bad coverage we were able to find -- commissioned by a production company, and very well-written; the coverage writer is a former studio executive...
SAMPLE COVERAGE #4: EXECUTIVE [see orig. column for link]
So what next? Well, in the course of a week, the script has magically transformed from possible hot spec screenplay to likely writing sample. There are still places to go over the next few weeks; second choices, and they all pass as well. Still, the screenplay should be quite useful in landing Paul an agent. (Dodie, our agent, is soon to retire, so she's limited to recommending it to others.) So the screenplay gets sent out as a writing sample.
Every agent, everywhere, passes on representing Paul (lesson learned: it's really, really hard to get an agent.)
Paul does get some positive response, and goes on quite a few writing assignment pitches, but not much comes of that -- in any case, he's working on his next project, a film he hopes to direct. At this point, we do something we never thought we'd have to do (presuming the script would sell) -- which is pay Paul an option fee to continue be attached to the project as producers. This was part of our original deal, in the case of the script not selling (no writer should work for free).
Well, there were plenty of places interested in working with Ted and I, even as producers -- and we loved this concept. One possibility was to set up the project based on the concept alone, and re-develop it, rewrite it as an assignment. With this in mind, we pitch to Innerscope. Interest, but no sale. We go back, and with Jason Hoffs' support, pitch to DreamWorks. Interest, but no sale.
This is getting weird. What should be a no-brainer, obviously great idea for a film, is being overlooked by everyone. (Lesson learned: it's really hard to set up a deal. Corollary: Ted and I were not as powerful in this business as we thought we were.)
Then, a weird thing happens. A copy of the screenplay has somehow made its way to Germany, through William Morris's London office. Representatives from the German television company ProSieben call, and simply rave about the script.
This is the kind of call we had expected to get from somewhere, the kind of stuff every writer would love to hear. They love it. How can it be a first draft by a first time writer? It's charming, it's funny, it's affecting, it's unique. A gem from out of the slushpile, they can't believe it's so good, and they can't believe it's still available. ProSieben doesn't often fund feature films, but this is one that they believe in, they will find a way to do it. They show some real interest when they say 'We'll have business affairs get in touch."
Near the same time, Jason Hoffs, still the believer, talks the project up to the nice folk at Image Movers (a production company helmed by Robert Zemeckis and Jack Rapke). Image Movers has a distribution deal with DreamWorks, and the authority to green light a certain number of movies. We get a call.
It turns out that Image Movers has a once a month 'regret' meeting, where the question is asked -- is there anything we passed on recently that we regret not buying? And for many months running, the consensus choice was Paul's screenplay, ESCAPE FROM HEAVEN. Chalk one up for the power of the memorable, filmic idea. The screenplay wasn't just another murder mystery; I'm convinced that it was the compelling nature of the concept that helped keep it in their minds. So Jack Rapke finally agrees to pursue it.
We meet with them, and the first thing we say is, "We're willing to re-think the project, without Heaven."
Bingo. Heads nod. That's all they needed to hear. (Remember Jason Hoffs' first impression? The Image Mover folk had the same feeling -- they preferred a sort of existential version of the concept, following the lead straight into a reincarnation.)
This gave Paul a choice to make -- rewrite, redevelop the script with Image Movers involvement (under a development deal), or accept a possible offer from ProSieben on the existing script?
Paul picked Image Movers.
A deal was negotiated, a brand new story designed, pitched, outlined, and approved. (One of the reasons it should be all right for us to post these coverages is that they reveal very little, if any, of the new story developed with Image Movers.) So, Paul heads back to the typewriter, back to work -- only this time, he's a member of the WGA.
Now, strangely -- if you can believe it, and it's a little disheartening -- even after all this, Paul still doesn't have an agent willing to represent him. Even with a deal at Image Movers, even with producers and execs recommending his work, even with great coverages, he still got nothing but a bunch of passes. (Lesson learned: I guess it can be really, really, really hard to get an agent these days.)
At this point, we'll throw out our last coverage -- this is just your basic, average, production company-style coverage, quite positive in its own way...
SAMPLE COVERAGE #5: PRODCO [see orig. column for link]
So here we stand, with the revised screenplay (now titled INSTANT KARMA) just turned in to Image Movers, and we're waiting for their response. Paul did a fantastic job re-imagining the story. We think it's even better than the first version, a perfect gem of a movie.
Is there a happy ending in store? Future Reader, you will have to tell me. I'm finishing this column today, and don't plan on revising it. As the years go on, perhaps no film will arise from all this effort. (Or perhaps someone else will beat us to the high-concept punch. In the trades recently, there was a project announced called BOB THE WORM, where a guy who is a jerk to his girlfriend dies, and is reincarnated as a worm. And over at Warner Bros. there's something in development titled, of all things, INSTANT KARMA -- wonder what that one's about?)
When all is said and done, this could just be a case where some money changed hands, some good work was done, and nothing came of it. And that would be sad.
In a few years, a film just might hit the theaters with Paul's name on it, and it might be called something like INSTANT KARMA. It might even still be good, and the WGA might see fit to award him credit on it. If that happens, then you, sitting there reading this column, shall know better than I, whether we managed to navigate these dangerous waters, make our way home, and find that happy ending.
And heck, while we're fantasizing, who knows, Paul could even end up with an Academy Award nomination out of the whole thing. And then, after that, maybe -- just maybe, if he's lucky -- maybe then... he'll even get signed by an agent!
And live happily ever after, of course.
*Notes: The key to the project/coverages mentioned at the beginning of this column is -- A: Reader; B: Executive; C: Studio; D: Agency; E: Prodco. For more info about coverages, see Column #5: Death to Readers