What Hollywood terminology do screenwriters need to know?
As screenwriters venture deeper and deeper into the waters of movie studio development offices, agencies, and management companies — after years of trying to break through and finally seeing some attention — it’s imperative that they are prepared for the meetings, the conversations, the emails, and more important, the terminology.
Development and acquisition talk can be another language to some. Below we will cover some of the most common terms that screenwriters may come across. Terms that are most commonly utilized in the development phases of Hollywood. While you’ve likely heard them before, it’s essential to understand the meaning, the usage, and what it means for your own script and writing in question.
Yes, we start this list with the symbol known as And. It relates primarily to screenwriting credits here. All too often when you see the screenwriting credits for a movie — especially with big studio movies — you’ll see credited screenwriters joined by & or And. What’s the difference?
& dictates that the joined writers have written the produced draft as a writing team, ala Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, while And dictates that the writers did not work together and wrote separate drafts.
Above the Line
These are individuals who often guide, influence, and take part in the creative direction of a film. They primarily consist of the screenwriter, producer, director, and actors. This is a term that will be used more so in regard to the budget of a film. The term was originally a reference to a film’s budget sheet, with these individuals mentioned at the top as those that earn the most from the budget while “Below the Line” (see below) mentioned next as those making less.
In contract talks (or while reading the trades), you’ll often hear or read figures like One Hundred Thousand against Two Hundred Thousand. This means that the initial contract will offer the first figure upfront and during the process of writing the script (broken down in payments per draft). Then if the script is eventually produced, the second figure comes into play, depending on the contract stipulations.
An agent represents the talent — in this case, the screenwriter — as they take their projects out and try to shop them to their industry contacts, or try to attach their client to an assignment. They often negotiate the eventual deals, along with an Entertainment Lawyer (see below). Agents usually take 10% of whatever the screenwriter makes. Legit agents never take money upfront.
Most screenwriters don’t sell their spec scripts (see below) at first. All too often, they utilize them as calling cards to attain writing assignments, which are pre-existing concepts in development by producers and development executives. Screenwriters are pitched the idea, and they are often asked to pitch their take on that concept. The screenwriter that best resonates with the powers that be will be assigned to the project and paid accordingly.
An attachment means that there is a major star or director attached to the project. These types of scripts have the best chance to get greenlit.
This is a term that many screenwriters will recognize immediately. They’ll likely go directly to a reference of the late Blake Snyder’s famous (infamous to some) beat sheet from his screenwriting book Save the Cat!, which alleges that nearly every successful film consists of a particular number of strategically placed story and character beats.
However, the term is broadly used in the film industry as a breakdown of any script’s major story/plot points in bullet point (or number) form. Beat sheets are often made after a draft of the script has been written, to break down those elements and possibly use them as a map for rewrites. You may be asked to write beat sheets as you, development executives, and representation work on the various rewrites.
Below the Line
If Above the Line are the top earners from the creative direction of a film, these individuals consist of pretty much everyone else, including the crew, wardrobe, specials effects, editor, cinematographer, etc.
A bidding war is a dream scenario for screenwriters and their representation. This happens after a screenplay has been “taken out wide,” meaning the representation has released it to all of the major players in Hollywood. A bidding war occurs when multiple parties are interested in the script and willing to make their own bid for it financially. This raises the purchase price of the script for the screenwriter and their representation and often leads to high six-figure to low seven-figure deals.
Coverage consists of notes, summaries, and various gradings of different elements of any screenplay that comes into development offices, representation offices, production companies, etc. Script readers (see below) are the first people to read incoming scripts. They write coverage to save the powers that be the task of having to read the dozens upon dozens of screenplays that come into the office each week. Coverage helps weed out those scripts that aren’t noteworthy for consideration. Each coverage gives each script a final grade of Pass, Consider, or Recommend.
Also known as Development Executives, these individuals are tasked by the studio to find potential scripts to consider and also to find source material worth adapting. Their sole job is to find and develop projects for the studio. They work with script readers, read studio coverage, read scripts that script readers forward to them, and they also have a hand in hiring screenwriters for assignments.
These are the people that will, in the end, decide on whether or not to give you the chance that you’ve always dreamed of.
The term Credit refers to an acknowledgment of those who contributed to a film, series episode, and other creative projects that are produced for the masses.
The reason why this term is included in this list is primarily because there are many times where screenwriters are not given an onscreen credit. Thus, it’s a relevant term to understand and seek out.
At least in features, for a screenwriter or screenwriting team to attain an onscreen credit, they must have contributed at least 33% of the finished and produced product. Thus, you’ll rarely ever see more than three screenwriters, three screenwriting team, or a combination of three of those, credited for any screenplay (see additional credit terms below), due to the mathematics — 33% times three is 99%.
Development is the active process in the studio system, as well as in production companies, when concepts are being actively conceived and nurtured with various drafts of scripts, notes from the powers that be, multiple writing assignments, etc. Pretty much everything before the film is actually greenlit.
These are screenplays and projects that have been stuck in constant development. They often get hot, then lose an actor, director, or screenwriter, then “sit on the shelf” until interest is renewed. Or they are rewritten over and over and over with different writers attached. And so on. Some screenplays never make it out of development hell.
These individuals often take 5% commissions from the screenwriter’s deal as they handle the legal aspects of any contract. They are independent of agents and managers in that respect and do not take part in the pitching or representation of the screenwriter beyond or before the contract stage.
A movie whose release itself is considered a significant event, such as an anticipated sequel or a big-budget movie with major stars generating considerable attention and state-of-the-art special effects.
Jaws is widely considered as the first event film. Star Wars and its sequels would soon follow. Hollywood studios thrive on event movies. They often, but not always, consist of sequels or comic book adaptations these days, or movies that are directed by or star major talent.
Elevator rides usually take anywhere from thirty seconds to two minutes. This term stemmed from sales and was later attributed to famed Ilene Rosenzweig and former Vanity Fair editor Michael Caruso. The elevator pitch for a screenplay is one that can be delivered in that short time. They usually start with the logline and then touch on some extended elements of the genre, theme, story, and characters.
This is a term that all screenwriters should study, embrace, and learn how to perform at any given moment because Hollywood moves fast. You may only have a moment at a chance meeting or call to make an impression.
Film Canon (or just “Canon”)
A limited group of movies that are thought to serve as representations of the highest quality in any given genre. The term could also apply to the most popular aspects of any given genre, franchise, etc. “This script has the canon of most action movies. Let’s try to offer something a little different whenever we can to make it stand apart.” It’s a term used in those two different ways a majority of the time.
Four Quadrant Movie
A movie that appeals to all four major demographic “quadrants” of the movie-going audience: both male and female, and both over and under-25s. Movies usually shoot for two quadrants to gain as much of an audience as possible. Most tent-pole (see below) and event movies are four-quadrant movies.
The Four Quadrant Movie is what studios thrive on and strive to find for every fiscal year. Read more about these types of movies with ScreenCraft’s What Makes a Four Quadrant Film? 10 Essential Elements.
“I had a general with Dreamworks.” This refers to a general meeting. When your script has garnered the attention of producers, development executives, agents, and managers, they’ll usually invite you in for a general meeting, just to get to know you and see what you’re about. They’ll talk less about the script that got you in there and more about what else you have.
Read ScreenCraft’s What to Expect with Your First Hollywood “General Meeting”!
Green Light (or variations like Greenlit, etc.)
When a movie receives the Green Light or is Greenlit, that means that it’s a go. It has been packaged (see below), the budget has been approved, the schedule is set, etc. It is going to be made.
This is a term that is used often but can have many different meanings. To sum it up, high concept is any concept or script that immediately engages the powers that be and audiences, making them instantly see the broad audience appeal and entertainment value. High concept projects are often easy to pitch in just a couple of sentences.
High above the city of L.A., a team of terrorists has seized a building, taken hostages, and declared war. One man has managed to escape… an off-duty police officer hiding somewhere inside. He’s alone, tired, and the only chance anyone has got.
A brief summary of a script often providing an emotional “hook” to engage whoever is reading it. They are usually twenty-five words or less — give or take — consisting of one to two sentences.
When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist, and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.
Loglines are required to pitch a screenplay, pitch, or project.
A manager usually takes 10-15% commission from any deal a screenwriter garners. They are like an agent but have a more prominent role as they manage the screenwriter’s career as far as what projects they write. They help develop concepts and often take on a producer credit if the film is made.
Industry insiders will offer notes on a script after reading it. The notes will include their subjective opinions on various elements of the script, their creative and objective opinions, and business-related directives. They are meant to help develop the screenplay into the best possible draft to attract talent and entice studio executives into giving it the green light.
Options aren’t as prevalent as they were a decade ago. However, you still see them come up from time to time. When the powers that be offer an option, they are saying that they will pay a certain fee — anywhere from $2,500-$10,000 — to take the script off of the open market and try to package and develop it themselves. Options last anywhere from six months to a year or more, which means that the screenwriter and their representation cannot shop the script elsewhere during that time. When the option period is complete, the powers that be have the option of renewing for an agreed-upon fee or releasing the script to shop elsewhere.
Package (or variations like Packaging, etc.)
In development, this is a crucial term that all screenwriters should know. Packaging a film consists of attaching a name actor, director, and possibly a particular producer, or even financing. This is what producers, development executives, agents, and managers are tasked to do to take the final package to the studio for consideration. The reason many screenplays linger in Development Hell is that they never get adequately packaged and waiting for a screenplay to be packaged can be a harrowing experience for screenwriters, but necessary.
A page-one rewrite is when the screenwriter takes the general concept of the original draft, as well as agreed upon characters and story elements, and rewrites it from page one. It’s basically a do-over, keeping very little of the original draft.
A pitch is used throughout different stages of development and production, such as casting and distribution, as well as to urge film producers to fund a project further. Everyone pitches in Hollywood. Screenwriters have to pitch to producers and development executives, as well as representation. They have to pitch to studios and talent.
A pitch consists of a presentation to the powers that be, usually starting with the logline and then going into more depth about characters, plot, tone, genre, etc.
There are different levels of pitching. As screenwriters achieve more success, the pitching process becomes much more prominent in their day-to-day, while novice screenwriters only have a certain number of chances to do so. Their pitches are usually shorter and more straight to the point where established screenwriters often have to pitch their take on a project offered by the powers that be and all too often in competition with other potential screenwriters.
This is a final draft of a script that touches up dialogue, description, and other minor elements.
A producer does just that, they produce. They take no money in the development process and aren’t paid until they get the green light for a film and attain a producing fee. If a director is the captain of the ship, the producer is the admiral of the fleet. They attach all of the talent and are the go-between of the director and the studio. They primarily raise the project from its conception to eventual production and release.
This is the company that is all too often owned and run by the producer(s). The employees within handle the development, they run the day-to-day operations from their production offices, etc.
Often referred to as script reader as well. These individuals are tasked with reading the many, many screenplays that come in through the production and development offices. They read scripts, novels, and other materials to search for the properties that the powers that be are looking for. They write studio coverage (see below) and are basically the weeding out system of Hollywood. They are also the most critical individual in the screenwriter’s eyes because if they don’t engage that reader with their scripts, they have no chance of getting their scripts into the hands of the powers that be.
Short for release form. This is a document that releases any liability from the powers that be when they read your script. Screenwriters are asked to sign these before the powers that be read the script. This ensures that there is no promise made by them by reading the script as far as money, consideration, etc.
A reboot is a movie that has discarded all continuity in an established series to recreate its characters, timeline, and backstory from the beginning. Sony rebooted its Spider-Man franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man movies and partnered with Marvel to do it again.
A remake is a movie that is based on a pre-existing movie’s script. You’ll often see these come from the studios since a remake already has a pre-determined audience and doesn’t need to be marketed as much — as far as concept, story, characters, etc. Or the previous movie underperformed, but the concept and/or source material is worth exploring once again.
The minimum amount a screenwriter can be paid for any type of project according to WGA contract stipulations. “We can only offer scale on this for you.”
These are scripts written under speculation that they will be sold and produced. Hence, the screenwriter hasn’t received any money to buy them are there are no guarantees as far as if they will be optioned, purchased, or produced.
While many don’t actively use this term, the actual definition of it is one of the most utilized practices in the film and television industry.
Story Canon theoretically combines two or three existing movies, which serve as a metaphor to describe the story, plot, or theme of a screenplay, teleplay or work yet to be produced. Typically the identified films are of such quality (film canon) or are so distinct that they serve as the measuring stick for the highest quality in the genre of film and are readily identifiable to the recipient.
The story canon for my own ScreenCraft Action & Thriller Script Contest winner, The Enemy Within (long before I became part of the ScreenCraft team mind you), is The Fugitive meets Homeland. By mentioning those two together, you’ll understand that it involves a fugitive protagonist on the run amidst political and possible Muslim extremist turmoil.
A movie that supports the financial performance of a movie studio. Look no further than movie franchises. The Fast and Furious movies are Universal’s tent pole movies. Disney has the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar movies, and now Star Wars. Fox had X-Men. Sony has Spider-Man. Etc. They are also movies that have substantial merchandising value as well. In the end, they are a reliable way to fund the studio.
Treatments are breakdowns of a screenplay, usually written and read like a short story, void of the actual format and dialogue of a screenplay. The number of pages varies from a few to just over a dozen or more. They are used by the powers that be to more easily understand the tone, pacing, and overall story and characters of the script in question.
Treatments are often included in the contracts that screenwriters sign, requiring them to write a treatment before the possible first draft is written.
This refers to material that has not been requested, and usually won’t be viewed for legal purposes. When a screenwriter sends a screenplay — or sometimes even a query letter with a logline or synopsis — to a major agency, production company, or studio, they will often receive a legal notice stating that they do not read or consider unsolicited material. They only accept material that has been pitched to them by agents, managers, producers, etc. Thus, the importance of attaining representation, as well as the importance of networking to avoid the Catch 22 scenario.
Water Bottle Tour
When your agent or manager takes your script out wide to all studios and producers, you’ll likely go on what the industry refers to as the water bottle tour. This will consist of multiple general meetings (see above term general) where you will discuss your script and your overall body of work. The name comes from the hilarious fact that with every meeting you walk into, you’re offered a bottle of water.
Refers to a screenplay or movie that has yet to lock a final and agreed upon title.
These terms, as well as many others, are important to study and understand so that you can use them on a whim and understand the context of what the powers that be are talking about. Definitions may vary from time to time. Some of these terms may be dated or simplistic to some, but these are generally the ones so often heard in meetings, emails, and conversations.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies