You've Got Screenplay Notes from a Producer, Now What?
Congratulations, you’re in the game. Here are 10 tips to help you navigate this often difficult stage of screenplay development.
You have spent weeks, sometimes months … sometimes even years perfecting your script. You have made sure your structure was impeccable and your grammar sublime. Your page count? Well within guidelines. And your story? Meticulously crafted.
All that hard work and … your effort paid off.
You sold or optioned the script.
I remember my first notes well, from a television episode I sold way back in 1996. The less said about it the better (let’s just say for now it was on Cinemax, and very late at night). A friend of mine was writing for the same show, and he recommended me. He gave me guidelines, and I wrote a spec.
The production company thought the work was quality, and accepted the script.
I was 32 years old and I felt like I conquered the world. This was my first professional television sale.
And then, the notes, which I’ve kept:
Joel, we’re asking for a Page One revision. We like the episode title and the concept a great deal, but what we need is a closer approximation of our typical 30-minute show. Call the office tomorrow.
I could not reach the office, but I did speak to my friend who was in the loop. I had no idea as to the nature of the rewrite, as I had never heard the expression as noted. He told me a Page One revision was an entire rewrite beginning on page 1. “Watch a couple of episodes,” he said. “Follow the format and you’ll be fine.”
“Do I get paid extra?”
“You’re not in the Guild,” he said. “You get your flat rate and that’s it.”
I wasn’t happy; regardless, I submitted my new draft. It went over less well than the last one. My friend was angry.
“They’re giving you one more chance. You didn’t watch any of the episodes, did you?”
“I tried one and I couldn’t get through it,” I replied. “I read your scripts instead.”
He glared at me, instructed me again to watch the show, and get back.
Finally, the company greenlit my third-draft, and I got paid. By the time the show aired, other than the title and the concept, everything was changed. Including the characters.
I did not write for them again. They felt that they wasted time with me, according to my friend, which made sense as they never returned any of my followup phone calls.
And they were right.
I learned a big lesson from that experience: Never second-guess your production company, network or studio. If you receive notes, do not be defiant. Follow those notes to the nth degree. You may believe you know better, but to them you don’t. And they're the ones paying for it.
The game is about commerce to those who hire you, not ego. There is more than enough of both to go around in this business, but if you are striving to cultivate a lasting career, put the latter to bed and return to work.
Many years later, my team and I received notes from an executive at Ovation Network, who had optioned my fantasy book series, “The Chronicles of Ara,” as an eight-episode miniseries. See link to the announcement in Variety here.
Now, myself and my partner in the project, Steve Hillard, had created a story that would encompass a million words over eight-volumes by its conclusion. The story was scrupulously structured and centered around a corrupted muse who, until her curse, had inspired the entirety of man’s art and creation. Ovation had hired two brilliant writers for the pilot script (I had elected to step away from the adaptation).
The first executive note? “I want two muses, one good and one evil.”
I fought it, but knew right then not only would my entire story change, but so would the characters and themes. I lost the battle, but worked closely with the writers from there forward.
The project has since gone into turnaround.
My greatest lesson this time?
Don’t take anything personally, and treat your work — and its response — like a business.
The following are 10 tips on how to handle script notes (even if you disagree with them).
- Never take any notes personally. Your work will be criticized and praised, and likely not in equal measure … until the company deems your work to be where they figure it needs to be.
- Don’t ever give up. This is the stage of the game where a production company, network, or studio tends to exert their decision-making powers and replace writers who are not meeting their expectations. Keep going, do your best … Your career may be at stake. Yes, the pressure is on.
- Develop rhino skin. You need a hell of a thick hide to deal in this business. Develop one by whatever it takes and earn the respect of your peers in the process.
- Follow their notes to a T, but realize you will sometimes (okay, frequently) receive conflicting notes and not always from different people. Ask questions; mention it and don’t be shy. And realize that sometimes you can get to the "note behind the note" by asking the right questions.
- Speaking of, you have a voice. Don’t just be a dictation machine. If you do not agree with a particular request, speak up. Be passionate, but be respectful. Some battles you will win if you can succinctly sell your point.
- Conflicting notes will come from either the same individual, or different producers, or even members of the creative team. Recognize your decision-maker quickly. You will not please everyone. Develop a relationship with them, to the point where you can speak directly to them in the event of a conflict.
- Notes will come from all over. The director will give you notes. Actors will frequently give you notes, especially those who are closer to the A-list and worried about their image as much as their paycheck. Learn to deal with egos and demands as you check yours at the door.
- Let your project go. If you are fortunate to be retained as a writer of your project, accept that scripts are often revised throughout production. It’s part of the process.
- Be appreciative of your place. You are a cog in the wheel ... but we all know, as screenwriters, that there would be no project without the script.
- Through it all, keep practicing your craft. Try not to look at notes as an inconvenience. Try to develop an attitude that you are working towards further opportunity. That small shift in mindset can make a substantial difference.
I hope, as ever, that these words may help you. Thank you for reading, and please keep me informed as to your progress.
Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.
Related blog post: 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Impress a Producer