Hollywood development and representation have a common saying when it comes to screenplays — "The cream will rise." While that might sound vague, the screenplay filtering process in Hollywood is actually really specific. You probably just know it as "script coverage." And the hard truth is, writing a "good" script isn't good enough anymore. If you want managers, agents, development executives, and producers to seriously consider your screenplay you need to satisfy their wants, needs, and doubts with a script that gives them a tangible reason to take a chance on you.
Your script needs to be outstanding — literally. It has to stand out from the thousands of other screenplays circulating in the market at any given time. Most screenwriters can write a screenplay that has a solid plot, worthy characters that work within that plot, and coherent story and character arcs that drive the plot. You need to do more. You need to impress script coverage readers into describing your script with one of these seven powerful adjectives. Because these are the words decision-makers are looking for when searching for new and original screenplays to represent and purchase.
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What is script coverage?
Script coverage is the analysis and summary of a screenplay's story, characters, and quality of writing. It's used by studios, production companies, management companies, and agencies to track incoming spec screenplays (screenplays written under speculation that they will be acquired by studios, production companies, and financiers) for potential film and television projects. Script coverage is also a big part of screenplay competitions where professional readers recommend scripts to jurors and judges.
Script coverage is the driving force of Hollywood development and acquisition deals, so while it's essential to write a great plot, interesting characters, and solid delivery of those elements, you have to make sure you clear the reader bar with excellent script coverage scores. If the script coverage for your screenplay is packed with the powerful adjectives that draw the attention of Hollywood insiders, you're on your way.
7 adjectives to aim for in your next script coverage
When a script reader labels your screenplay as "cinematic" that coverage describes a couple of very crucial things that Hollywood insiders like to see. The first is that the screenplay evokes the visuals of a motion picture very well. Don't forget that your screenplay is written — for the screen. If you can make a reader feel like they're watching a movie play in their mind's eye as they read your script, that's a powerful thing.
Script coverage that includes the word "cinematic" signals to producers and development execs that the scenes are arranged in a cinematic way — as if already produced and edited like a professional film or television episode. And that's always worth considering.
Read ScreenCraft's Why Screenwriters Should Think Like Film Editors!
"Cinematic" coverage also signals that your screenplay doesn't read like a novel. You don't want lots of backstory, exposition, and inner character thoughts to slow down the pacing of your script. Film and television are visual mediums where stories are told primarily through visuals, with dialogue as accompanying storytelling and character development tools. Always keep that front of mind and you'll receive better script coverage.
Questions to consider: Cinematic
- Is your screenplay cinematic?
- Is it written in a way that feels like it's already edited to hit those cinematic beats we see in movies and television today?
When the word clever is attributed to your screenplay, it means that the concept, story, and characters are handled in a witty and inventive way. Hollywood insiders read hundreds of screenplays per year. And script readers, in particular, have read the same types of stories a dozen times over.
- A cop looking to crack an unsolved case
- Characters trying to survive a force of nature, a beast, or a monster
- An adventurer on a quest or voyage
- A troubled protagonist trying to find themself
- People dealing with tragic or comedic situations
A majority of screenwriters trying to break into the industry by giving Hollywood what they've already made a hundred times over. But a small percentage of screenwriters are smart and inventive enough to offer a witty or inventive take on what we've already seen before. There's nothing wrong with giving execs what they want, but a clever script is a great way to stand out from the crowd and generate interest in not just your script, but your writing career.
Questions to consider: Cleverness
- Is your story clever?
- Does it take something audiences have seen and turn it on its head or approach it from a completely different perspective?
As we've discussed, being clever usually refers to handling an otherwise familiar concept, story, or character in a different and exciting way. But when you're being original, you're creating something that we either haven't experienced — or rarely do. Perfect examples of truly original screenplays are Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.
Being John Malkovich tells the story of a puppeteer that discovers a portal literally leading into the head of movie star, John Malkovich. It doesn't sound as weird now, because it's a classic, but at the time this was an incredibly original screenplay concept.
Adaptation tells the story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as he becomes desperate while trying and failing to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean for the screen — leading him to the crazy solution of writing himself into the story.
- Are they clever screenplays? Yes.
- Are they a clever take on an already established genre or concept? No — far from it. They are wholly original.
Not all spec scripts need to be original. Clever is more than good enough to get noticed most of the time. But unique and original screenplays enthrall Hollywood insiders because they are often a breath of fresh air (when written well). And that's an essential part of the equation. You have to write an original idea well for it to be taken seriously. A poorly executed original concept that isn't cinematic or compelling (see below) isn't going to garner you any attention.
A few years ago, the top script on the spec market (and Hollywood's coveted Black List) told the story of Michael Jackson — through the eyes of his pet chimp Bubbles. That's original.
Compelling screenplays are scripts that instigate strong and forceful reactions in the reader. They cause readers to feel like they have to keep reading to see what happens next. Talk about powerful!
Sadly, there's no secret formula to creating a compelling concept and screenplay except time, hard-work, and inspiration. You just do your best to engage readers as quickly as possible, offer multiple paths the stories and characters can take, and choose paths that are unexpected or unexplored within the usual film and television fare.
Cast Away was compelling because we wanted to see how an average character would react to being a castaway on an island.
The Matrix was compelling because it drew us into the mystery of the Matrix and how Neo would respond to the truth.
The Pursuit of Happyness was compelling because we empathized (see below) with the protagonist's situation and wanted to know if they were going to get what they've been striving for.
Ask yourself, does your script offer story and character situations, twists, turns, and revelations that compel the reader to continue on?
Pacing is seriously underrated, especially when it comes to script coverage. Well-paced scripts have great rhythm. They don't linger too long on moments. They don't go on tangents with scenes that have little or nothing to do with the plot or story. Well-paced scripts don't waste any time, word, page, or sequence — everything on each page serves the single purpose of moving the story and characterizations forward.
When a reader says that your script is well-paced, it's one of the highest compliments you could get in script coverage because it tells the next person up that it's a quick and easy read. Your script isn't going to be a long and drawn-out chore, like so many spec screenplays are from amateur screenwriters.
Questions to consider: Pacing
- Does your script comply with the "less is more" mantra?
- Is your script covered in long dense paragraphs of text and scene description?
- Does it waste no time with unnecessary storylines, tangents, and third-rate characters?
- Does your script read quickly and easily?
Read ScreenCraft's Why Every Screenwriter Should Embrace “Less Is More”?
Empathy is often defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. It's a really good thing for a reader to feel when they read your script. Screenplays that inspire or embody empathy indicate that audiences will connect with the characters and stories on the screen.
Here are seven of the best ways you can create empathetic characters in your screenplay:
- Mourn the loss of a loved one
- Make them the underdog
- Make the, an animal lover or protector of innocence
- Have them deal with disease, addiction, or mental and physical struggles
- Showcase their loyalty
- Overcome a common fear
- Show them being treated unfairly
Read ScreenCraft's 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Create Better Character Empathy!
Character empathy is vital to your screenplay. If the audience doesn’t feel some form of empathy towards them — especially your protagonists — there’s going to be less of an impact made upon them. You want and need to make that cathartic (see below) mark on whoever reads your script and whoever watches your movie or pilot.
Questions to consider: Empathy
- Are your characters empathetic?
- Do people identify with or understand your characters' motives (even anti-heroes)?
- Will the audience identify or sympathize with their plights?
Have you ever watched a movie or read a screenplay that stayed with you afterward? I hope so. Because walking out of the theater or closing a script and feel truly changed or affected somehow is what great movies are all about.
Catharsis — that satisfaction we feel after the resolution of a story or a protagonist's journey — is arguably the best way to connect with Hollywood decision-makers. If you can make a reader or a development exec walk away satisfied with the story you told, the rest is semantics.
What's interesting is that the catharsis you feel when you read a great screenplay often has little or nothing to do with you personally. Because if the script was so well written that you somehow felt placed within the shoes of the protagonist and felt their own catharsis by the end of the film as they either achieved what they had been striving for against all odds or felt some relief from their struggles amidst tragedy.
You don't have to love baseball to feel a wave of emotions when Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad in Field of Dreams. It's just such a human moment that it transcends the specific scene, leaving many viewers with a profound sense of closure.
The same goes when a father finally meets his goal of giving his son the life they both deserve together in The Pursuit of Happyness.
Or what about when a wrongfully terminated teacher is shown the love, support, and appreciation of his students in Dead Poets Society? You don't have to love Keats to appreciate that moment.
That’s the magic of an amazing screenplay and movie. It leaves the reader or the audience truly touched, affected, and (if you're lucky or very, very good) changed. Catharsis should always be the goal of your screenplay.
How to make your screenplay stand out
Any script or film can tell a good story with an interesting plot and some compelling characters. Not every script or film can leave a lasting mark on a reader or audience. And that's what you want to accomplish with your script. You want to leave a lasting impression.
If you want to impress the managers, agents, development executives, and producers that read your script give them cleverness, craft, and catharsis. And before you submit your screenplay to anyone, look for ways in which each of these seven powerful adjectives can define your script.
Sure, specific adjectives like hilarious (comedies), thrilling (thrillers), horrifying (horrors), and dramatic (dramas) are essential, but these seven adjectives above are universal. And they should be part of any genre that you tackle.
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