By Erik Bork
A few years ago, screenwriter Craig Mazin wrote a blog post voicing his skepticism about “script consultants” — titled “Screenwriting is Free“. Craig (Identity Thief, The Hangover Part II) was advocating for aspiring writers, who he felt could be ripped off by script consultants, especially those who charge the highest rates, and/or don’t have respectable professional credits as writers themselves.
This post still comes up right away when you Google “script consultants”, because it was re-posted on John August’s (Frankenweenie, Charlie’s Angels) very popular and useful blog. Though John disagreed with Craig about whether writers can learn from someone who hasn’t “done it” (but who perhaps professionally analyzed scripts or developed them, at some point), the post is titled “Don’t waste money on script consultants“.
My own professional arc from aspiring writer seeking guidance, to professional writer, to writer who also offers some teaching and script consulting myself, have led me to my own conclusions about the question of writers needing professional-level feedback and advice — and the costs of same.
Of course, it is totally self-serving for me to defend something that I myself do, but I also think this issue raises larger questions with relevance to everyone who writes. And like the esteemed Messrs. Mazin and August (and the many others who commented on these posts), it turns out that I also have an opinion to offer!
When I started out, I don’t know that I had any innate “talent” (if such a thing exists) — but I had the three qualities that I think are most important — passion, openness to feedback, and persistence. I believe if one applies those continuously, they have the best chance of arriving at a point where people will later say they have “talent”.
Now, it’s true that some writers seem to “get it” more quickly, and possess a seemingly innate ability to entertain and move readers without going through years and years of development. But I think for most of us, it’s a lengthy process of getting better at this.
I like what Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend, A Beautiful Mind) said at a rally during the WGA strike, about how people all his life told him he wasn’t a very good writer, and for most of the time, he wasn’t. But eventually, because he just kept going despite that, he became “good.”
I personally think this is how it works for most of us. And so the question is, how does one do what he did? What are the resources needed to go from “not very good writer” with “little seeming talent” (which was definitely me when I started out) to a “professional” who obviously “has got it”?
I agree with Craig that there is no substitute for studying screenplays and movies, and doing one’s own internal self-learning through that. But I also believe there is usually something of value to be found in most books, classes, and software like Dramatica — which are the product of people seriously studying what makes good scripts “good”.
I myself was always hungry for any information I could get (and still am) about how to do this well — because I find that it’s hard and rare to really succeed with something in this business. It can be a lonely, cloudy path through the wilderness, and tough to quantify how far one’s work is from being marketable. So I always appreciate when others have charted some course through the craft that can be useful to me, whether they themselves were successful writers or not.
But no matter how many workshops, classes, writers’ groups, books, software, etc. I paid for, starting out (and there weren’t that many, for budgetary reasons), at the end of the day, I desperately needed one-on-one feedback from professionals who could apply real knowledge about the craft to my individual work. I think all writers need some form of this, including those who are already pros.
Of course, we all turn to friends and family for feedback, as well as other writers at our level of experience and success with whom we can barter free feedback — where both parties get something of value in the exchange. Maybe we also have a writing teacher or mentor of some sort who is willing to do some free reading and notes-giving, up to a point.
If we’re really fortunate, like I was when my career was first getting under way, we might have a manager or producer who is invested in our success — and partnered with us in such a way that giving ongoing feedback is part of their job.
But aside from those options, what are writers left with, if they want guidance from a professional who has a lot of experience and knowledge, but for whom the writer doesn’t have some kind of value exchange to offer? If you want an experienced professional screenwriter, producer, executive, manager/agent, etc. to give you ongoing mentoring, how do you arrange that?
Obviously one option is to pay for it — if you can find someone offering such services who fits your criteria for a good “coach.”
The prices for this vary wildly. At the low end, one can pay a “coverage service” to give a quick rating of how close your script comes to something that could move forward in the marketplace. This will usually be from a junior-level reader/assistant who can afford to charge such a rate.
I think this can definitely be valuable, for that function — because part of what writers are hungry for is someone to tell them how well their script seems to stack up against others. Some newer sites, like my friend Jason’ Scoggins’ “Spec Scout” or the newly revised “Black List” will “cover” your script, and also offer a chance for it to possibly be viewed by industry professionals who subscribe to their sites.
“Script consultants” tend to give deeper more extensive feedback to help the writer understand more about the craft, and improve their particular work. The rates for this tend to be higher — with the highest being from people who have published multiple books on screenwriting. (One of these particularly drew Craig Mazin’s ire, because of her lack of produced credits as a screenwriter herself).
Certainly it’s true that many writers who succeed never hired “script consultants”. But I would say virtually all of those writers had access to their equivalents at some point, as I did — to augment their ardent self-study.
I do agree that it is possible to “get there” on the cheap, with only a minimal amount spent on classes, books, etc. — and nothing at all for writers groups, bartering of feedback, and one’s own immersion in understanding the craft from produced scripts. I agree that screenwriting is, ultimately, free. And that success in it, in theory, can also be free. (And no “script consultant” should even hint at promising financial success, a sale, or a writing career. If they do, I agree that you should run away from them.)
But in my experience, for most aspiring writers who are really serious about moving forward, the really cheap or free resources don’t seem to be enough. And they don’t have access to free professional-level feedback on their work. But they seem to benefit the most from that — where someone who has done it (professionally written, produced, etc.) applies all they’ve learned to a writer’s work in a detailed, ongoing, one-on-one way.
If a writer can afford to purchase such a service, I believe it can be the most helpful and efficient thing they can do to move forward.
That doesn’t mean all the “script consultants” out there are equally valuable, or equally worth whatever they charge. Obviously there’s a “shopping around” component to this, and the buyer should “beware,” to some extent.
But I do think that most well-known script consultants do have something to offer. And if the writer is really open, they can probably benefit from many of them — even if they haven’t succeeded as writers themselves, but have seriously studied the craft. I find that most professional-level readers will have similar reactions to a piece of material from a writer, and similar reasons as to why they think it doesn’t work, or what it needs. And if a writer is open to that, and willing and able to learn and develop, such a person can be an essential guide.
I may be biased (and of course, self-serving), but I do think other writers are probably in the best position — if they are also good teachers — to help a writer actually do this. Because I have some well-known produced credits and a long-ish ongoing career doing it professionally, perhaps I’d fall into the small category of “script consultants” Craig Mazin would recommend, if pressed to recommend one.
But my larger point is that it can be a worthwhile exchange for serious aspiring writers to pay for objective feedback on their work from someone with a real background in the creative side of the business. Of course, there are no guarantees. And depending on what a writer does with that information, it might end up being a “waste,” in terms of dollars and cents. Especially given that so few writers, proportionally, ever do end up selling their work, or being employed in the industry.
But for those that do finally break through, “script consultants” can be a tool that helped them get there.