Reading for all rounds of one of the top 3 screenplay competitions is always tough but for some reason this year I agreed to take on a parallel comp, also highly regarded, and now that I’ve come up for air, I have been decompressing, reading a month worth of email digests, nurturing my own work and thinking on how to sum it all up.
I usually give a bullet point of the biggest issues with why a screenplay may not have advanced, but frankly everyone else has been doing that lately so I’ve decided to break things down differently – except for one unbelievable faux pas that occurred more than once…
PAGE COUNT: 99% of competitions state in their rules that a script must be between 90-120 pages. Out of 145 scripts, I had 4 that had to be disqualified because the writer didn’t adhere to the rules for page count. I don’t feel like doing math, but that’s like 3%! And those writers don’t get their entry fees back. (Not to mention the multitude of scripts that only had a single space between scenes – which means way more pages than what they think.) More on page count later when I look at THE DARK KNIGHT RISES script.
Aside from these competitions, I do my fair share of writer and production coverage as well reading for smaller competitions. Everyone has different criteria and systems, but all — particularly the highly respected — use some form of these five categories to evaluate material:
CONCEPT (SOMETIMES CALL MARKETABILITY, THEME OR APPEAL)
This is where the story is analyzed for originality, or if it’s a familiar premise say like a rom-com or vampires, does the script have a unique take. If it is a straight up character drama, is it really cinematic? Also here it is weighed if the script can be produced for a budget that would make sense if it is something that is not high-concept.
Does the script tell a complete story at a pace that is logical and engaging? Are the set ups paid off or vice-versa? Are there holes that need addressing to fully realize the promise of the premise? If so, are they easily fixed?
(Usually within here is also formatting and readability) Does the script follow a traditional 3 act structure and if not, does it still work because the writer has a unique voice? Is it a fast read, or do you need to really digest it or worse struggle to follow? Are there typos or formatting issues? Are the action blocks engaging or just details?
CHARACTERS (sometimes Dialogue is combined here, but not often)
Are the characters engaging and fully developed? Are we focusing on the right point of view (POV). Does their story wrap up in a satisfying way? Are there more details that we should be shown? (notice how I wrote shown?) Less? Are the supporting characters just as compelling as the leads (protagonist and antagonist)? Do the secondary characters help move the plot forward or are they just a stereotypical convenience?
Is it unique to EACH character? Is it too expositional? Is VO really needed? Are there any memorable lines that would appeal to audiences and talent? Do they only speak as needed and if they are revealing information is there something happening on screen that the audience can watch?
Most competitions have a cut-off to what the reader has to go past to make a judgement (this can be anywhere from 10 pages to a complete script or just whenever it falls apart). So even if you have mastered the crucial 1st 10 pages, PLEASE don’t blow you wad here and have the following 90 lose focus.
These categories if all perfect 10s would add up to a score of 50. The closer to 50 is normally how a competition will analyze whether it goes to the finalist rounds. (Although all comps have scripts read by more than one person, – the 2nd and onward usually use the notes/scores as a basis moving forward). It is very possible that someone just doesn’t get it – while another loves it – and some scores/recommendations are overturned.
Out of the two competitions I just wrapped (145 scripts total):
4 – disqualified
25 were recommended to move forward (the average is 10%, so there were a lot of good ones. However 5 of those were for pilots, not features).
6 of the 25 were average but worth a 2nd look.
8 were above average, most likely Semi-finalists
6 were above, above average, most likely quarter-finalists
5 were 47 or above score-wise.
This is not the norm. I consider myself very fortunate to have read some of these and I cannot wait to see who wins. There was no genre that did better, of the top 5 it was a mixed bag of drama, comedy and horror. What was special was they were high in all of the 5 categories; one category did not outweigh another. ALL were unique takes on the genre that took me out of my head and into the film. Some disturbingly so, and one was the funniest thing I’ve ever read – and it’s hard to make me laugh on paper.
So now, let’s consider if The Nolans were to have submitted THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Well, if there ever was proof that a script is a page a minute this is it. 2 hours and 45 minutes equal 165 pages. And that’s what these boys have here. I would normally breakdown the 1st 10 pages but given the length here’s the 1st act for you, and only you!
TDKR 1st act