Who is Writing Your Coverage Notes?
By Jacob Krueger
The text below was taken verbatim from the website of a prominent coverage company, one of thousands of such services offering coverage as a form of “development notes” for young writers. What’s interesting (and horrifying) about this text is that this doesn’t come from the sales side of the website-it comes from a FAQ on the recruitment side, hiring readers to provide these coverage services to writers.
Q: Can I really be successful as a script consultant if I’m not a screenwriter – or not a very good one?
A: Absolutely. Most of the top consultants are not writers. [The person], considered the ‘mother of script consulting’ has never written a script-but has consulted on over 2,000 screenplays and commands several thousand dollars per script. Even if you don’t have a unique background… all certified script consultants, who have fulfilled an internship, are eligible to become part of our paid staff…
Okay, pick your jaw up off the floor. This is important to understand.
What this company is doing is finding inexperienced, non-writers looking to make an easy buck. Selling them 24 hours of “certification” training. Getting them to work for free as interns. And then hiring them to give notes to writers like you. So how exactly is someone who has never even written a screenplay supposed to help you fix yours? How is someone with no industry experience supposed to master an art that even the greatest writers and most experienced producers in Hollywood struggle with?
Quite frankly, they’re not.
It would be nice to think that this company was an exception to the rule. But they’re not. Anyone who has worked in the industry knows that “coverage reader” has often been just another way of saying “intern.” Now don’t get me wrong, there are great coverage readers out there. And many of them are real professionals who provide an important service to the industry. These are people with years of experience, and often extensive writing backgrounds, who have read hundreds, if not thousands of scripts. But these readers are few and far between, and most of them work exclusively for the biggest agencies and producers in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, many of the “professional” coverage readers touted to young screenwriters– and even those employed by many production companies– do not come with these kinds of credentials. To understand why, you just have to do some simple math. The average coverage reader makes about 50 bucks a script. Now that doesn’t mean they’re charging you 50 bucks. But by the time the company takes its cut, that’s about what’s left for the reader. If you do a the math, you can understand what that means.
Nobody can survive on $1.75 an hour.
Start by thinking about how long it would take you to do this job right: Carefully reading a full length screenplay, distilling its essence into a compelling logline, an accurate synopsis that fully captures the essence of the story, and a helpful commentary, that not only analyzes what is working and not working in the script, but also makes all the right suggestions in just the right way, without confusing the writer, undermining his or her voice, or turning the script into a paint-by-numbers formula.
Do the math, and you’ll see that if it took the average coverage reader as long as it takes you, they’d end up making about $1.75 an hour for their work. Nobody can survive on that kind of money. Which means, simply to survive, even the best coverage readers in the world have no choice but to skim through your script, and race through their summaries and commentaries… and that’s assuming they even have the knowledge, experience, or insight to do it properly in the first place.
Coverage Was Never Meant To Serve As Development Notes
Coverage came about for a very simple reason. Producers simply couldn’t read all the scripts that landed on their desks. So rather than leaving them in a pile collecting dust, they started passing them on to coverage readers. They didn’t need these notes to be brilliant. After all, most of the scripts they were reading weren’t going to be very good anyway (99% of everything producers read is terrible). When a rare script came along that a coverage reader loved, the producer could skim the logline, summary and commentary, see if it sounded like a match for their company, and then take it home to read for themselves.
No producer worth his salt would ever dream of using a coverage reader’s notes to develop a screenplay they were actually interested in.
Rather, coverage is used to quickly weed out the scripts that producers have no interest in reading. The coverage summary allows the producer to feign enough familiarity with the script to make it seem like they read it. And the commentary, whether it’s right or wrong, allows them to cite “real” problems that make it clear they are passing for a reason, so they can focus their attention on the scripts that really matter to them, without alienating their industry contacts. Professionals know how incredibly hard it is to develop a movie properly, and how many months, or even years of continuous effort it can take to do it right. In fact there’s even a famous term, “development hell,” describing the process by which well-meaning professional producers “develop” a script they once liked into a limbo where absolutely nobody wants to make it… all through perfectly well-intentioned notes.
How Should You Know What Notes To Listen To?
First of all, if you’re receiving written notes, even if they come from the site of a famous script guru, you should assume that they were probably written by an intern. Not all gurus do this. But most have no choice. The sheer volume of work, and the time it takes to analyze a whole screenplay and convert your thoughts into written form, means that very few real professionals could ever provide written notes at a price that students could afford. (I recently interviewed the former intern of one of the big name screenwriting gurus here in New York, who asked me if she’d be able to write notes for my students while working as my assistant. When I told her I felt that was totally immoral, she explained to me that her last boss let her do it all the time, and just put their name on the notes when she was finished.)
That said, even if your notes came from Martin Scorcese himself, and you personally watched him type them, if they’re in written form, they’re probably not going to help you.
Notes Should Be A Dialogue With The Writer
Anybody can tell you the formulaic rules of screenwriting. Hell, you can read a single book on screenwriting, and generate most of the notes a coverage reader is going to give you verbatim, just by going through the ‘common wisdom’ topic by topic. Write the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and an inexperienced coverage reader is going to tell you that you used too much dialogue. Write the opening scene of There Will Be Blood and they’re going to tell you that you didn’t use enough. Write Bridesmaids and they’re going to tell you your jokes are too bawdy. Write Juno and they’re going to complain that your characters all talk alike. It’s not your conformity that’s going to make your script stand out. It’s your voice as a writer-and that’s all about breaking the rules in ways that work for your screenplay.
The best notes never come in written form, because notes don’t happen in a vacuum.
Now I’m not saying that a good coverage reader isn’t going to recognize great material when they see it. Of course they are. But looking at a rough draft of a movie, when everything is still a mess, and identifying the elements that can be built around to make it great, is a rare skill that requires a tremendous amount of experience. Every change you make to your script affects everything else in it… and no one can predict what those effects will be as you work your way through your rewrite, until you give it a try and see what comes out. That means notes must be fluid: evolving over time, responding to a writer’s intentions, and changing as the script changes, to reflect the hundreds of little choices the writer makes in each page. Whether you’re receiving notes from a teacher, a fellow writer, a friend, or your mother-in-law, or even a coverage reader, make sure to ignore any note that tells you how to fix your screenplay. These notes are almost always wrong.
Instead, focus on the notes that communicate that person’s experience of your screenplay. (ie “I really thought she loved him”, “this line made me laugh”, “I thought this image was scary” “this section felt boring for me”). These notes are always right, because they reflect the genuine experience of the reader. Focus on the things that are working in your script… and ask yourself how can you build on those things. Ignore notes that are generally critical (“your main character is too unlikeable”) and focus on the ones that are specific (“when he killed that cat, I just stopped caring for him.”) Don’t try to fix the problems, instead ask yourself-how close was the reader’s experience to what you were trying to communicate? And what could you do to bring them along with you… without undercutting your voice as a writer, your intentions for the story, or the overall integrity of the piece.
In the meantime, resist that urge to buy the cheapo coverage. Instead, take a screenwriting class with someone you trust, find a community of writers who can communicate their experience of your script, or sign up for our ongoing one-on-one Personal Training program, and get weekly feedback on your script from a professional writer-who will help you bring the story inside you onto the page.