How Do Screenwriters Know When to Embrace or Reject Notes and Feedback?
How should screenwriters determine whether to discard or apply the notes and feedback they've received from peers, representation, development executives, and producers?
Before we answer this rather loaded question, we first have to differentiate the terms notes and feedback.
Notes are usually company-level, meaning that they come from established studios, production companies, agencies, and management companies.
They often originate from script coverage, where a designated reader applies the needs and wants of the company to the screenplay being considered and evaluated.
The next level of notes come from producers, development executives, directors, major actors, and sometimes from production staff like line producers.
Notes are usually objective. Your employers want or need to have certain scenes, sequences, story arcs, and character arcs within the story.
It may be for the purposes of having a more marketable script, being more accessible to a niche audience they are targeting, fitting better with a particular star that they are trying to attach to the project to draw in more distribution and box office numbers, or just to better realize the creative wants and needs of the producer or director.
Feedback is generally defined as information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.
The key word in that definition is reaction.
Feedback is the written reaction to the read of your script. It often comes from peers and mentors — and sometimes family and friends.
When to Embrace or Reject Notes
Well, the hard truth is that notes are usually non-negotiable. When you get to the point that you are receiving company or studio notes, you're either under contract for a writing assignment or your original spec script is undergoing your first contracted rewrite.
And when you're under contract, applying these notes are part of the job you're being paid for. They represent the wants and needs of the company, producer, director, lead actors, etc. You can and should defend your opinion as the hired screenwriter, but you must choose your battles wisely and be ready to concede.
If you fight too hard, swimming against the current of where your employers want to go with the script, you can be easily replaced due to creative differences.
Learn how to master the art of the rewrite with this free guide.
In some cases, notes come before any contract has been signed. Your agent or manager — or representation considering you as a client — may insist on some changes based on their knowledge of the industry's wants and needs. At least what they believe the industry wants.
And in other cases, development executives and producers that are considering your work may offer notes that they feel need to be addressed within a new draft of your script before they pull the trigger and make an offer.
This is where so many screenwriters these days are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they don't agree with the notes, they feel that they may scare away interested parties. They feel obligated to work for free, no matter what amount of work must go into the script to apply those notes.
Thus, the slippery slope of free-writes comes into play, where producers and development executives play off of the desperation of screenwriters and try to get as many rewrites (free-writes) out of them that they can.
Read ScreenCraft's 10 Steps Screenwriters Can Take to Avoid Writing for Free!
It's tempting for screenwriters to write for free. And sometimes they may need to. But there comes the point where screenwriters need to take a stand.
The Writers Guild of America stipulates that screenwriters should make at least $24,437 to $37,255 for a single rewrite and $12,227 to $18,628 for a single polish rewrite. There are variances for non-signatory and indie productions, yes. But the point is, screenwriters should be paid to write.
As a novice screenwriter, it's okay to do a free rewrite now and then if you think it's going to get you into major consideration, but if you're constantly applying "notes" for rewrite after rewrite, it's a pit that is difficult to get out of, and your screenplay may suffer from it — often with no guarantees of it being bought or produced.
Notes in that context (given while you're not under contract) should be treated more like feedback.
When to Embrace or Reject Feedback
The great thing about feedback is that you can take it or leave it. You're not under contract, and the feedback you're being given isn't doctrine.
If you're not being paid to rewrite, you have the freedom to choose whether or not you apply any "notes" or feedback you receive.
Feedback is an opinion. You can take it or leave it. If you're not under contract, you have the freedom to decide what's best for your vision.
But the important thing is to realize that whatever feedback you get, you have to remember that you asked for it. You either hired a script consultant, purchased script coverage, gave the script to your writing group, asked a mentor or industry insider to take a look, or had your friends or family read it to gauge their response.
You need to be open to any feedback that comes as a result of that request.
No feedback is doctrine. If somebody doesn't like a character, storyline, twist, turn, beginning, or end, that doesn't mean you need to rewrite the whole script and apply what they shared — even if that person knows what they're talking about.
It's when you see the same feedback over and over, pointing out the same issues, that you should consider making some changes. Or at the very least, explore why they are feeling that way to see if there's something you're missing.
If the feedback is constructive and makes sense, without killing the vision you have with your script, you should consider embracing it and applying it to any rewrites.
If the feedback goes against what you're trying to accomplish with the script, you can and should push it aside. But at least you were wise enough to consider it.
Know the difference between notes and feedback. Understand the context of the situation that they are given in.
Notes should be handled as requests. And once you've addressed any concerns with those notes, and your employers stand their ground, they become doctrine. You have no choice. But that's part of being a paid writer.
Feedback should be handled as third-party reactions. And you should use that as information that you can analyze to determine whether or not it will better your script. Don't toss it aside because it challenges your work. Consider all feedback with an open mind and then decide whether or not it's right for you or your script.
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