Your script is a snitch. It’s telling readers all about you, and what it is saying might work against you.
Some questions that readers evaluating a script will ask themselves can help you prepare and deliver a script with a better chance of being taken seriously.
How did the script arrive at the reader’s desk?
The answer to this first question determines quite a lot about the script’s chances. If the script was handed to a reader by a friend or close colleague, it’s odds of developing into a bright young movie improved dramatically. If it arrived via an agency with a solid reputation and a roster of high-wattage stars, then the odds of the script being treated with care also improved. If a professional script coverage service with a record of identifying talented writers sent the script along, usually through that friend and former co-worker network, the reader might still treat your script with some respect.
If you enroll in classes with a good film schools (USC, UCLA, Pasadena, NYU), your script might be passed along by an instructor. In the best case, your instructor is a producer or director and falls in love with the script. Yes, school can be a great path to success, assuming it isn’t some “film school” with no famous alumni or faculty. For networking, nothing beats a degree from the right university, and you will learn what studios want.
If your script arrived via a pitch fest or contest, it isn’t going to get the same attention as a hand-delivered script from an insider. Still, if it is a winner it has some promise. Contests aren’t usually the best avenue for discovery, but winning a contest gets something on a new writer’s resume. And, yes, the top-tier contests (about a dozen of them exist) do work to move scripts into consideration. Understand, though, that you can spend a lot of money on contests, money you could spend on classes and books (see above).
If your script somehow manages to arrive via email or U.S. Post, it faces pretty long odds of being read. For one thing, don’t forget there are 40,000 scripts registered each year and 250,000 or more in circulation at any time. Desperate screenwriters are sending out screenplays to anyone they can locate, and that’s rarely effective. Again, it can be, but you might as well send a query letter with a good logline and wait for a development reader to contact you.
How professional does the script appear to be at a glance?
You wouldn’t go into a job interview wearing shorts and flip-flops; don’t send your script into the world looking like it isn’t a serious candidate. No sloppy script is going to be moved up from a reader to a producer, no matter how good the story might be. And in my experience, a sloppy appearance correlates with sloppy writing.
Don’t include anything you weren’t asked to submit. A script with extra buddies along tells the reader you have no clue what is expected: a script. By itself. Not a family of documents, from a cast list to a budget. I’ve seem posters sent along. Don’t do that. Your script doesn’t need a posse along for the ride.
– Situation 1: Physical Script
In the unlikely event you are asked to send a physical script to someone, or if you are asked to bring a copy to a meeting, get the physical printing and binding right. Don’t put your script in a three-ring binder, comb binding, or anything other than the traditional two-brad loose binding. Let’s review the basics:
A script is printed on one side of the page. It is three-hold punched. On the top and bottom, serving as the cover, place 110-pound light-blue cardstock. You can use other colors, but blue is the traditional color for some reason. There is nothing, not one letter or stain, on the cover. No artwork, no title, nothing.
The pages should be good, bright-white paper. The U.S. standard is 24-pound, 94 white. You can use better, but don’t use gray or off-white paper. Certainly do not use recycled paper. Don’t use thin paper, even to save some pennies. Spend extra and buy the best paper, such as Hammermill. (Trivia: The “pound” rating refers to the weight of four reams of letter-sized paper. A 20-pound stock weighs five pounds per ream, or 20 pounds for 2,000 sheets.)
Use two brass brads to bind the script. Not three. Not one. And select the right length, so the brads aren’t three inches too long or barely holding the pages together. Do not write the script title down the spine. Please. That’s not for you to do. Let an intern do that for the reader.
A cute or “creative” binding tells the reader you’re not a professional. The script scream out, “This writer is a hack trying a gimmick.” This isn’t a scene from Legally Blonde. Cute won’t impress anyone.
– Situation 2: Email or Uploaded
If asked to email or upload your script as a file, submit a standard PDF. The “Portable Document Format” is… portable. Unless told otherwise, don’t send a Final Draft, Screenwriter, Fountain, or Word document. If a reader wants a Final Draft or Screenwriter file, you’ll be asked for the desired format. Otherwise, send a PDF.
If the reader cannot highlight text in your PDF, that tells the reader you didn’t create the PDF via Adobe Acrobat or by using the special “Print to PDF” option. Never scan printed pages into a PDF. The PDF should come directly from a screenwriting application. Don’t let the script snitch that you have no clue how to create a PDF.
What does the fly sheet reveal?
The page that is most likely to snitch on you is the fly sheet, also known as the fly page. The rest of the world, even in Hollywood, calls it a title page. Consider what is (or is not) on that page and the information sends clear signals to the reader.
If you have an agent, the agent’s name and contact information appears on the fly sheet. And if you don’t have an agent? That information isn’t there. There are different views on where to place the agent information. Some templates place it below the writer’s name; other templates place the agent information in the right-hand lower corner of the page, below the WGA registration number. My advice: do what the template calls for and check The Screenwriter’s Bible for any formatting questions.
The WGA registration matters, too. Don’t send out scripts until they are registered. Not that your idea will be stolen (that’s actually rare), but it is good form to show that you have registered the script and respect intellectual property. There’s no need to copyright a work, since studios will buy the work and own the final copyright. Putting a copyright notice on the page is okay, but the WGA registration is essential.
Update 2015-Sep-08: The best experts I know on script formatting recommend NOT including a copyright notice. They also lean against including the WGAw registration number. If you are more comfortable staking a claim, use “Registered, WGAw” without a number. You should provide full contact information, with an address for your agent being the best possibility. If you include agent information, still include your phone and email, without a mailing address. Including a personal street address (at least a mail box) is still considered good form if you lack representation.
The fly sheet reveals where you call home. That matters, unfortunately. If you option or sell a script, the producers will want to meet. Technically, the second meeting constitutes buying your story if the producer works for a major studio. (That’s beyond the scope of this post, but that’s the WGA rule.) Nobody is going to pay to fly you to Los Angeles. The closer you are, the better. That’s just the reality of writing for Hollywood. Either you are in the area or you aren’t. Some people believe you can live anywhere and write, because successful writers do live on nice farms in Vermont. Yes, but those are successful writers who can fly back and forth and stay in Los Angeles or on a set for weeks at a time. Beginners need to be available.
The email address on your fly sheet should be professional. That seems obvious, yet plenty of writers use foolishly “funny” email addresses. Again, cute and creative packaging isn’t going to help sell the script. Use an email address that is your name.
If you wrote with a partner, know the difference between and and ampersand (&) in the credits. The ampersand is a for teams. The “and” means you were fired and someone else had to rewrite the script. Don’t make a rookie mistake.
Your script has already “snitched” on you by now. If you didn’t send it in the right electronic format or tried to be creative with the binding, the script has told the world you’re an amateur. If your fly sheet says you live in Ohio and don’t have an agent, sadly that can work against you. If the script reveals you don’t have an agent at a major agency, the reader knows that recommending the script is a lot riskier.
A serious fly sheet has the script title, your byline, contact information, and the WGA registration number. That’s it. The only exception is for episodic television, in which case the fly sheet features the series name with the episode title below that in quotation marks. Do not date the script, label it a “draft” (or “revision”), or add any other information. Adding information that should be included only during production tells the reader you haven’t learned the craft’s traditions and norms.
We’re on to page one and what more the script will tell the reader.
Part Two will cover the script formatting and what it reveals, without reading the words!