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Debunking the Myth of the Script Doctor

by Ken Miyamoto on September 10, 2018

Did you know that there is no such thing as a Script Doctor?

Don't feel bad if you find yourself shocked by that revelation. Most screenwriters are "brought up" with many misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations of the goings on of Hollywood and professional screenwriters.

One of the most common questions novice screenwriters have is "What is a Script Doctor?" You can even find articles online instructing you on how to become one.

The term is often paired with Script Consultants and Story Analysts, both of which are positions found outside of the actual screenwriting trade. No studio hires a Script Doctor, Script Consultant, or Story Analyst to write a script. You won't find any screenwriting contract with those terms present.

Screenwriters hire Script Consultants — and sometimes studios and production companies do as well — to offer in-depth notes on screenplays. They are usually hired through consulting service websites. The days of studios utilizing them are often thought to be long gone, replaced by development executives and collaboration between producers, directors, talent, and writers.

Story Analyst is the official term of the script reader, usually used within the studio system for payroll purposes. While they are highly utilized by studios, production companies, management companies, and agencies, they are not involved with the actual writing of the screenplay. Rather, they offer analysis of the script in the form of studio coverage, which entails writing loglines, synopsizes, and brief notes on the story, plot, structure, characters, and other elements. They also grade those elements on a Pass, Consider, and Recommend scale — all of which are averaged out to dictate whether the script should be passed on, considered, or recommended.

Read ScreenCraft's How to Become a Hollywood Script Reader!

"What does a Script Doctor do, then?"

Well, there's no such thing.

The term Script Doctor was created by the media when referring to an uncredited person hired by a studio to rewrite certain aspects of any given screenplay.

It's an incorrect term — not utilized within the film or television industry itself — attributed to a screenwriter that is hired to work on a rewrite of a screenplay. The Script Doctor allocation stems from the fact that not all writers that work on a studio script are given onscreen credit.

The late Carrie Fisher was one of Hollywood's go-to writers when a project needed a funny or female voice.

She worked on such scripts as Sister Act, The Wedding Singer, Lethal Weapon 3, and Hook — and many others. Yet she never received credit. And because she didn't receive credit, but spoke about working on such films as a writer, the media assigned the term to her.

In all actuality, most of today's greatest screenwriters have written under the mythical Script Doctor tag. Judd Apatow did uncredited work on Bruce Almighty. Before he directed Iron Man 3, Shane Black did some uncredited work on Iron Man. The Coen Brothers rewrote some of Fun with Dick and Jane. Charlie Kaufman had an uncredited part in the script for Kung Fu Panda 2. Jason Reitman did some uncredited touch-up of  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. M. Night Shyamalan worked anonymously on the She's All That script early on in his career. Aaron Sorkin touched up the dialogue in Schindler's List. Joss Whedon was uncredited in Speed, despite writing much of the filmed dialogue, according to the film's director.

Yet while the trades and other media outlets often referred to this type of work as script doctoring, it's never been an official, contracted job title in Hollywood.

Many novice screenwriters that dream of parlaying any script reading experience into a job as script doctor rewriting studio movies as ghostwriters will never realize that dream, because the position doesn't exist.

Instead, studios do what they've been doing for decades. They hire screenwriters for rewrites.

Whether it's because the action needs work, the dialogue is lacking, or the female voice isn't up to par, screenwriters are hired to either rewrite the whole script or touch up elements at the request of studio executives or producers.

The Writers Guild even dictates a specific minimum that Guild members should receive for a Rewrite or Polish.

"But why don't they receive a screenwriting credit, then?"

Guild stipulations state that for a writer or writing team to attain onscreen credit, their work must be represented through at least 33% of the final shooting script. Anything less means that credit won't be given.

Read ScreenCraft's How to Understand Confusing Screenwriter Onscreen Credits!

So if Carrie Fisher only worked on some jokes in Sister Act or touched up the female scenes in Lethal Weapon 3, she wouldn't be credited for that work onscreen — but she was still a hired screenwriter.

Most screenwriters, either early in their career or after they've become heralded and highly sought after, do some form of uncredited screenwriting. Some high profile screenwriters make most of their money doing just that.

It's part of the screenwriting trade.

In the last couple of decades since 2000, the polish work has not become as prevalent. Back in 2008, Fisher told Newsweek, "I haven't done it for a few years. I did it for many years, and then younger people came to do it, and I started to do new things. It was a long, very lucrative episode of my life. But it's complicated to do that. Now it's all changed, actually. Now in order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix the script. So they can get all the notes from all the different writers, keep the notes and not hire you. That's free work and that's what I always call life-wasting events."

In that respect, even story analysts — er, script readers — could be considered script doctors. Or the development executive in the office who comes up with a quick solution that she passes onto the writer. Or the director who suggests a tweaked line or adds to the action sequence. Or the actor that improvises a hilarious riff.

If you want to become a prominent money-making "script doctor" you have to do what all screenwriters do — find your big break, fail until you prevail, and write a few box office hits until Hollywood comes calling for you to work your magic on elements that your now famous scripts clearly have. But even then, you're just a good ole screenwriter.

There's no such thing as a Script Doctor — just a screenwriter doing what Hollywood asks of them and pays them for, credited or not according to Guild guidelines.

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

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