The Art of SubmissionWritten by: Philippa Burgess, literary manager at Mason/Burgess/Lifschultz
Published: Feb 11, 2009
Your script is requested. So far your date with destiny is going well. You've gotten the okay and now you are moving in for the kiss. But just as bad breath or lousy technique can kill that magical moment – bad submissions and weak writing can ruin your future prospects as well. You'll want to read this before you put your scripts in the mail. Here are some pointers so you don't unknowingly commit the most common submission crimes. You want to do your best to make sure that your submission is as professional as possible from first glance to a full read. If you do this part right, you'll leave them wanting more – or at least get a solid read and real consideration.
Typical of most representatives, our mailman delivers five to fifteen scripts everyday. We process a large volume of material, only looking for the best and the brightest to compete at the studio level. From the moment we open a package, we size up the contents, and prioritize it. We decide in that moment what is going directly into our weekend reading pile; into our general pile, which we'll get to eventually; or what is an automatic pass. The distinctions we make are based on what we perceive to be the level of professionalism of the writer. Here is where packaging etiquette enhances the professional appearance of a script. Granted this may seem elementary to the aspiring writer or seasoned professional alike, however, these are all too common mistakes that can be easily avoided and guarantee better success with your submissions.
A feature length script is a page-a-minute in screen-time, with a minimum requirement of 87 pages/minutes and it should not be much more than 120 pages/2 hours. A movie for children is usually less than 100 pages, a comedy is about 110, and dramatic pieces typically run longer. If these basic parameters are not met it starts to lose credibility. The most common violation is the heavy script, coming in anywhere from 135 to 189. Yes, longer movies get made, but that's not how to get attention when you are new in town. Be sure to go through your script and really check for punctuation, spelling, and grammatical errors. Use standard formatting including regular margins, courier font, and proper use of caps. Screenwriting software programs, such as Movie Magic Screenwriter, can make a big difference in the overall appearance of a script. If a script looks amateur it is an immediate pass.
Another important consideration is the binding. I feel silly even including this as it is so basic, but it blows my mind that I've gotten scripts that didn't have brads or were not three-hole punched and either binder-clipped or in one case put together in sections with paper-clips. I will not read a script that is not properly bound. I recommend the real brass fasteners, commonly known as “brads,” made by Acco. If you cannot get these, your next best choice is the screw-in fasteners. If you have to use flimsy brads be sure to use the brass backs to secure them. Personally, I hate scripts that fall apart on me as I am reading them. Unless it is truly exceptional, I usually don't consider this material any longer than it holds together.
Plain card stock covers are optional. Some writers choose to put the title on the card stock cover, others don't. My preference is for blank covers with all the title information on the front page of the script. What is important is that the title and contact information are all on the title page of the script, even if it seems redundant. This is because covers fall off and get separated, as do cover letters, so we will always go back to the script as the source. Contact information goes on the bottom left or right hand corner of the title page. Be sure to include your email address because that's the easiest way for us to contact you.
There is also some information that is not necessary to be included on the title page. We don't want to know that this is more than a first draft or only a first draft. We have no use for WGA registration information. It is also not in your best interest to include the draft date of the script because everything takes time and eventually even though your script may still be moving along, it will look “dated”. Additionally, if you have a writing partner, know that you are joined with an “&” not an “and”, the latter referring to the second writer rewriting the first. Under your title, you can say “by” or “written by” if you are responsible for both the story and the script. If those credits are different, then it is “story by” for those responsible for the story, followed by “screenplay by” for whomever wrote the script.
Your cover letter is an opportunity to re-introduce yourself. We do not remember your initial query, so please remind us about it. Either include a copy of the actual email correspondence of the query and subsequent request; or recap your query with your referral source and the genre and logline of the script you are sending. This is a better way to get us excited about your script, rather than just the typical, “Thank you for requesting my script. Enclosed please find MY GREAT SCRIPT. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Best regards, Writer.” Also be sure to include the date on the letter, as a lot of people forget this. Make sure that your cover letter also has all of your contact information, including email.
I don't understand why most writers don't use paper clips when including their cover letter with the script. Paper clips do the job of attaching your cover letter to the script. I also want to state for the record, don't send any SASE envelopes. If we are going to respond, we will either call you or send you an email. With the advent of email we don't write hard copy pass letters anymore. Nor should you include a large pre-paid envelope with the expectation that we will return your script. If we pass on a script, we pull it apart and save the cover page, cover letter, and the back page with our notes. If we liked the script, then we want to keep it so we can discuss it with you. Either way, save your money on postage, or use that money to make another copy of your script.
Speaking of postage, there is no need to send your script overnight. At best, it will be read in the first few weekends; at worst, a couple of months. If you need to take that extra time to do a rewrite or just clean up your script, let the person who requested it know, and take that time to do it right. Don't rush anything out the door that is not ready.
Again, we are all reading hundreds of scripts, so please take the time to make sure that yours will really stand out. Now you know how to package it properly, let's consider what goes on the inside. The truth is education in the form of classes, reading scripts, studying screenwriting books, utilizing industry web-sites, and employing professional guidance are invaluable to develop a novice into a professional.
How we evaluate material is from my personal experience, but is reflective of the industry as a whole. When we sit down to read scripts, we have a large pile in front of us. The fastest way for us to get through it is find what we can pass on first. If I flip through a script I can almost get a sense of how it will read. I sometimes hold the ones out that look like they'll be really good until later, knowing I'm going have to take the time to really get into it. We are looking for the happy medium between exposition and dialogue. The most common problems are that the writing is too dense, with lots of detailed exposition, almost novel like; or too thin, with barely any exposition and too much dialogue. In reading, I will pass in the first 10 pages if I feel that the writing is weak.
When we read scripts we evaluate them on the strength of the writer and on the commercial potential of the idea. We are looking first and foremost for great writing as we only represent those we believe are exceptionally talented screenwriters. The writing must be compelling, move at a rapid pace, and keep me turning pages at two in the morning because I want to know what happens. We can always develop a better idea with a writer, but we can't make the writing style any better. I can tell by page 40 if it is something that can sell as a spec. If it is something that I want to sell or develop further then I will read to the end. Only if I'm really impressed, will I want to share the script with my colleagues. If they share my enthusiasm, then we will want to connect with that writer and see what can develop from there.
Representatives are always looking for the gems among the rubble. It is a volume business and we spread our net wide to search out the most talented and committed writers. Yet it is a very boutique business on the inside where we take great care of the small list of clients we do choose to represent. Even with the right representation you will find that it is still a very difficult and extremely competitive business. This is why you need every advantage that you can get. These common mail crimes are a huge detriment to showing off a writer's potential and their scripts become casualties in the slush pile. Conversely, when a submission looks professional and reads well, it gets a real shot and opens the door for professional relationships. You now have that edge. Ah, the magical moment went well – it was a great first kiss. Now when a script comes from you, it will be well received and it will be closer to the top of the reading stack this weekend – hoping to find true love.