Monday, September 5, 2011

Judging Script Contests - New Criteria

If you won't believe me in this matter, read Christopher Lockhart's post Screenwriting Contests.


I rarely submit to script contests or (minor) film festivals because I think the contest and festival sub-industry needs a new set of rules.

Too often the evaluation criteria focuses on visual format and appearance and not on what's important to the audience—story structure.

The obsession with format and appearance rules (margins, fonts, capitalization, etc -- things which the audience never sees or hears), reminds me of nun running around with a ruler pretending that skirt lengths are an objective measure of spiritual integrity. Then there's the lady in the graduate office with her ruler measuring margins on thesis and dissertation submissions, as if correct margins were a measure of critical thinking. While there COULD be a correlation, there is a better way to evaluate the guts of a good story. And I intend to share that with you below.

I will admit that submitting a script with gross format violations does show a level of disrespect for the industry. But too often it appears that contests are being run by nuns with rulers rather than by judges who understand the rules of story structure.  Let's start with the end in mind: the audience. It's easy to hire a script doctor to correct format issues. It's much more difficult to find a good story.

Recently one of our rare submissions was rejected for the oddest reasons. The rejection rationale, claimed that our script had signs of ameraturism, and a few specifics were mentioned. (We work hard to follow formatting bibles, e.g. Riley's The Hollywood Standard.) But the accusation prompted me to go further and open up a number of scripts I have been sent by A-listers in L.A. for review. I get paid now and then to do such things. Every one of the claimed "amateurisms" in our submitted script could be found in the the scripts of produced films or films in development from major studios on my shelf. Hmmm?

Recently one of my produced writer-director clients in L.A. has been trying to please the head producer of another firm with a story and script to the producer's liking. It seems the producer, like some contest judges, are enamored with a set of easy to understand "rules" or "adages" that (if you put equivocation aside) are clear signs of a good or bad script. It can be frustrating for the writer to convince some folks that what they're asking for are distractions and not essentials. Although this is a subjective industry perhaps there's a way to make it a tad more objective and constructive. 


Issac Asimov, it is said about his early days as an author, was an illiterate grammarian, and his editors labored over his work to make them publishable.  Why? Because they were great stories. Had his work been judged under the auspices that grammar and comma placement were sure signs of a good story, the world would have missed the most prolific author the 20th century.

Another case in point is Elmore "Dutch" Leonard. Although I've never read any of his raw manuscripts, this line from GET SHORTY is attributed to his attitude:
You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong...I've seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. So I don't think it's too important.
And it's not unimportant to point out that many of Asimov's and Leonard's stories were successfully made into movies. The question becomes, were their stories accepted because the margins and the commas were in the right place?  Obviously not, because Asimov never was a screenwriter and of Leonard's 31 films  based on his stories, he is credited with screenwriting only nine. So, obviously, a good story for making into a movie is based on something other than the format, grammar, and comma placement.


Why then all the rules about judging screenplays based on format, and easy visual cues? Because it's easy. There are too many crappy stories out there, in the form of screenplays, and so readers take the easy way out.

But even taking a little longer and reading the first ten pages can not tell you if there's a good story present or not.  Ten pages does not even get to the first turning point of a classic beat sheet, which for a 110-140 page script would be between page 13-18.

I once cornered Mickey Rooney in a Canadian Golf Course's Pro Shop. Really. I handed him a script...saying there was a part in it for him. He took it and said, "Okay, I'll give you three pages. That's all I'll need." How could he possibly do that? Of course he couldn't.

So, here are the rules that I wish such festivals and contests of scripts, (and stars et al) would follow. They make more sense than looking at commas, margins and capitalization. Using these rules might just result in some better stories coming out of Hollywood that would better connect with audiences. The industry needs it.


Let's strive for stories (and scripts) of value, not success. In that spirit I offer the contribution below.

All script submissions should include:

A. Title (plus, if based on another IP who owns it)
B. Genre and estimated MPAA rating
C. Target Audience (demo or psycho-graphics)
D. Estimated budget
E. Hook
F. Log Line
G. Inner (psychological) Conflict of Values 
H. Moral Premise Statement
I. One page synopsis (450 words) or Beat Sheet Outline
J. Script/Screenplay

Note: Items A through D cannot be judged, but do help evaluate later criteria. The evaluation begins with E through J, and the generic question for each is, "Is it good? "

That is, am I intrigued by:
E. The hook?
F. The log line?
G. The values in conflict? (the core conflict)
H. The Moral Premise? (what the movie is really about)
I. The One Page Synopsis or beat outline?

Notice, we haven't cracked the script yet.

If the answer to any two of those questions (of items E-I) is a firm "no," then judges should reject the submission for the reasons noted.  If they get all "yeses" for E through I and get to J, then they might want to crack the script.

Opinion and taste are always present, and a judge should readily admit it. But to confuse "opinion" with "amateur" is disingenuous. I have a shelf full of scripts that have been produced by A-listers that contain so called  "amateurisms".

Here's my evaluation recommendations:

Item E: HOOK
Question: Does the hook suggest an impossibility or improbability that is viscerally engaging?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: Hook is not viscerally engaging to reader. "A convincing impossibility is better than a unconvincing possibility." (Aristotle)

Question: Does the log line describe or imply the following elements:
  • F1: The protagonist
  • F2: The type of "struggle"
  • F3: The antagonist
  • F4: The protagonist's physical goal
  • F5: The stakes of the goal is not reached?
  • F6: (optional) Is it visceral?
  • Not Evaluated: Cleverness of words.
Answer: Yes - May - No.
Rejection Reason: The log line is missing an element. The story's essence requires clear physical conflict and goals.

[This item may only be clear to those who have read my book, The Moral Premise. The Conflict of Values is something that is at the motivational core of every successful story, whether or not a writer understands it or can articulate it. If the protagonist's and the antagonist's motivational values are not naturally opposing, there is not going to be a cogent story. But a story may be cogent and reflect organic conflict even if the writer is clueless about the conflict of values. ]

Question: Are the stated conflict of values natural opposite and generally accepted as universal values by the target audience?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: The conflict of values are not naturally opposing and would not organically cause a conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist elements.
 (or) The values in conflict are not universally (or subliminally) understood or held to by the target audience.

[I have also referred to this (perhaps more accurately) as the Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS). Again, without reading The Moral Premise or having knowledge about this through another source such as my blog or essays, this may need some explaining that I will not do here. I will, however, explain this much: The MPPS ties together the moral motivation of both sides of the story's characters and their resulting physical consequences in a way that is understood by the audience to be natural, organic, and universally true.]
Question: Will the moral premise statement SUBLIMINALLY be understood by the target audience to be natural, organic, and universally true?
Answer: Yes - Maybe - No
Rejection Reason: The MPPS will not be subliminally understood by the target audience to be naturally, organic and universally true.

Question: Does the synopsis (or beat sheet outline) clearly describe the main turning points of a story in the chosen genre? For instance: Does the protagonist have a clear psychological need and a physical goal that at first are rejected? Is there an inciting incident? Is there a mid-point (a Moment of Grace) where the protagonist either rejects or accepts the underlying psychological truth about which the movie is really about? Is there a near death (or faux ending) as a result of the protagonist's efforts to achieve his or her goal? Is there a final incident where the antagonist attacks, threatens the stakes and ends the movie early? And is there a resolved ending, redemptive or tragic?  (Yes, a European movie would have a different structure?)
Answer: Yes - Some - No
Rejection Reason: There is no cogent structure that the reader can understand. (or) One or more critical story structural elements are missing.

[My bias here is that successful stories are not dependent on strict rules of format, but on the structural elements above. So, while the following are important, a script doctor can fix most of them if the story is otherwise sound.]
Question: To what degree are the following elements engaging, understood, and easily read:
a. Action descriptions
b. Interior motivations
b. Dialogue
c. Characterization
d. Scene structure (timing, beginning, middle, end, conflict)
e. Page format (is it close? does it cheat and lie about the film's length)
f. Page count (80-140).  I have received scripts that were over 300 pages in length. I did not read them.
g. Spelling and Typos. (Allow 1 per page but don't count them if you can understand easily what's being said.)
i. Dramatic execution of the turning points.
j. Other....
Answers: For each: Yes - Maybe - No.
Rejection Reason: List and comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Could it be that Hollywood is getting younger and with younger people, they're missing the "forest for the trees", aka dismissing stories of value that originate from folks with life experience, the same folks in the workplace who are experiencing age discrimination -- could Hollywood be exhibiting age discriminated storylines??? That is, insightful, depth of thought disappearing being replaced with superficial subjects or repetitive story lines?
Wondering, Mary