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Why Do Screenplay Coverage Services Suck?

Screenplay coverage services will, for around $300, provide feedback on your script. About one in four coverage services provides useful feedback.

Of the more than thirty coverage notes I’ve gotten,

  • Six readers helped me make significant improvements.
  • A dozen readers improved a line or two.
  • Half gave me no actionable comments.

Whom not to ask to read your screenplay

Don’t ask your friends/family to read your screenplay. Your screenplay sucks. Parts are embarrassingly bad.

Don’t rely on free feedback from people on Reddit or in Meetup groups. Analyzing a screenplay takes training and skill.

Don’t rely on a writing partner for feedback. Different people will see different ways to improve your screenplay. You need multiple readers to find every way to improve your screenplay.

Don’t ask someone you know “in the industry” to read your screenplay. They won’t read it.

Don’t pay for feedback from competitions

You’ll receive your feedback three to six months after you submit your screenplay, by which time you’ve written ten new drafts. The reader will likely be a volunteer with little or no training in screenwriting.

And don’t enter your screenplay into competitions until you have at least two 8's on the Black List.

What about screenplay exchange websites?

Giving feedback can teach you as much as getting feedback. I tried Coverfly X, I’ll tell you what happened below.

Screenwriting books

Read a stack of screenwriting books before you pay for coverage. I recommend:

  • For screenplay formatting, either The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier (2019), or The Coverage Ink Spec Format & Style Guide, by Jim Cirile (2020).
  • Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder (2005). An introduction to screenplay structure.
  • The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler (2020 edition). Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey for screenwriters.
  • Into the Woods, by John Yorke (2015). Advanced screenplay structure.

No screenwriting books I’ve read talk about coverage services or the Black List. Coverage Ink has been around since 2002. The Black List was started in 2005. “How to write a screenplay” books may be timeless but “how to sell a screenplay” books are decades out of date.

Spell check before coverage

There are writers and there are storytellers. Dan Brown, for example, is a terrific storyteller but he’s not a great writer. If spelling, grammar, and formatting are not your strong suit, many coverage services offer copy editing services.

Or use Final Draft’s spell checker, under “Tools.”

Final Draft spelling checker.

Final Draft’s “Format Assistant” will catch many formatting errors.

Final Draft formatting checker.

Coverage services

Coverage services read your screenplay and deliver two to six pages of notes. Response times are around a week.

What coverage is, isn’t, and whom it’s intended for

There are two kinds of notes. Good notes: I understand what you’re going for and here are notes based on that. Bad notes: Here’s how I’D write it. Huge difference.—Bob Saenz

Development executives hire assistants (paid) or interns (unpaid) to read stacks of scripts, write a page or two of notes and rate each screenplay pass, consider, or recommend. That coverage isn’t intended for the writer.

A script doctor is a writer or playwright hired by a film, television, or theatre production company to rewrite an existing script or improve specific aspects of it, including structure, characterization, dialogue, pacing, themes, and other elements. (Wikipedia)

Coverage services provide a page or two on a script’s strengths and weaknesses plus give a numerical rating. Rewriting (script doctoring) is never done.

With my screenplay Young Adolf, one coverage reader suggested that I rewrite the script to start not when Hitler is 30 but when Hitler was a child, with a traumatic experience that shaped him into the monster we all know about. This is an example of the now-popular trauma plot. But Hitler had a pleasant childhood in the Austrian countryside with a loving mother. His father was distant but that was normal for the time. Hitler was mild-mannered and disliked violence until he was 30, when his life changed. That’s what my screenplay is about (how he changed in his 30s and 40s). Rewriting the script as a trauma plot is not just ahistorical, it’s a different story.

Now for my Coverfly X story. I downloaded a script and read it. It was a talking animals story, set in a typical American town. I wrote extensive notes with lots of ideas for improvements. Wouldn’t it be fun if the location were a backwoods bayou where the isolated, inbred locals thought of animals as food and/or transportation and didn’t listen to their animals (or each other)? Lost Sierra Club birdwatchers wash ashore and have to team up with the talking animals to avoid getting beaten up by the locals? I moved a scene on page 50 to the opening. I changed the names of one or two characters and wrote a page or two of dialogue.

The writer sent me two hate-filled emails, calling me every name in the book. The Coverfly X admin told me

feedback should be based on the story the writer is trying to tell, not the story you want to read.

I learned something when I tried to write coverage for someone else’s screenplay!

There may be a reason why script doctors are highly paid, uncredited, and are hired by studios after the screenwriter finishes the script. Perhaps professional screenwriters are as sensitive about their darlings as us amateurs. When you write coverage, stick to the strengths+weaknesses model, but if you have an idea for a different story that the writer might want to pursue, say “on your request” you’ll share the idea.

Screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint

The average produced screenplay undergoes no less than 30 rounds of notes, or more from various creative stakeholders. — Coverfly

Coverage Ink’s Jim Cirile preaches the “30 drafts” mantra:

Jordan Peele says it wasn’t until draft 14 or so that they even figured out what the big reveal for Get Out would be. Many writers HATE this and do not want to hear it. Everyone wants instant gratification. They want to do one round of notes (if that) and then pull the trigger and send it out. It’s the number one mistake writers make. The script for our new animated horror movie To Your Last Death took 27 drafts over a year and a half, and we did not get a consider until the very last draft. Now it’s the #2 award-winning horror movie of 2020 — not bad for a cartoon. Had we shot draft 23 or god forbid, draft 11? Yeah, no.

Logline and synopsis

Notes usually begin with a logline and synopsis. These tell you where the reader missed plot points.

I saw The Sixth Sense with two friends. I stumbled out of the theater, shocked by the final reveal. They were talking about getting ice cream. I didn’t want ice cream, after the chill of the last scene. As they ate their ice cream I said something about how incredible the movie had been. They hadn’t been impressed. I asked when they’d figured out that Bruce Willis was dead. They looked at me blankly.

If the reader misses plot points you won’t get a fair critique of your screenplay. Highlight every mistake the reader makes in the synopsis and then rewrite these scenes to be clearer.

Numerical ratings

The Black List scores your screenplay on five categories, plus an overall score. The five categories are Premise, Plot, Character, Dialogue, and Setting.

A Black List evaluation for my comedy Young Adolf.

The reader wrote a paragraph of notes about the plot (7), or lack thereof.

The reader didn’t say anything about dialogue (6). Giving you a low score on something and then not writing notes about it is lazy.

Is my idea worth working on?

A 9 for “Concept” means that I have a good idea and should keep working on my screenplay.

The Script Lab offers “First Draft” coverage for $79 to tell you if you have a good idea and should continue working on it. Blake Snyder should have hired them for his screenplay about Santa Claus doing online dating.

Thirty categories: fail

Industrial Scripts evaluates on thirty categories:

Premise, Market Potential, Originality, Clarity of Genre Positioning, Marketing Capability, Structure, Scene Flow, Sequence Flow, Originality of Structure, Cliché avoidance, Pace, Character, Character Distinctiveness, Originality, Empathy generated, Casting Potential, Setting/Milieu, Visual Ambition/Flair, Originality of Setting, Cinematic Moments, Match for the Genre, Dialogue, Authenticity/Credibility, Succinct, says a lot with a little?, Dialogue Distinctiveness, Themes, Originality of themes, Sophistication of Theme, Clarity of Theme Exploration, Relevance/Topicality of Themes.

“Originality” is listed twice. Young Adolf got an 80 and a 70 on originality. This shows that the reader was filling in numbers without paying attention.

What’s the difference between “Market Potential” and “Marketing Capability”?

Between “Clarity of Genre Positioning” and “Match for the Genre”?

Thirty categories is a fail. But there are some Industrial Scripts categories that I like. For example,

ORIGINALITY OF THEMES — Does the script’s core message/theme feel like something that hasn’t been fully explored before? Or are we reiterating that ‘if you believe in yourself you can accomplish anything’?

Structural analysis

A mediocre reader sees your screenplay’s strengths and tells you to do more of the same. E.g., if your screenplay is a comedy they tell you make to it funnier.

In contrast, a skilled reader sees what’s missing. Great notes feel like the reader time traveled five years into the future and saw the Academy Award Best Picture-winning movie you wrote, then came back to tell you the differences between your screenplay and the finished movie.

Structural analysis shows what’s missing. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is one method (Writer’s Journey). Act structure (three-act, five-act) is another method (Into the Woods). I’ve never seen either used by a screenplay reader. Coverage services tend to be superficial reads.

No comment

Your screenplay has typos and formatting errors…

…and the reader didn’t tell you where these spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors are. Coverage readers don’t know how to click to add a comment to a PDF. If they were good with technology they’d be in production, not on the creative side.

Same goes with “I hated your female lead.” Which scene made you dislike her? Which line of the scene? Bad coverage makes general statements when you need specific pointers to what needs rewriting.

On-the-page feedback is crucial not just for catching typos and formatting gaffes but for improving voice and knowing immediately, right there on the page, when you’re losing the reader.—Jim Cirile, Coverage Ink.

Coverage Ink’s reader attached 532 comments to my script—more than four comments per page. I cut eight pages from the script.

PDF comments from Coverage Ink.

These coverage services will attach comments to your PDF:

  • Screenplay Gurus. “Our Readers pore over every word and red mark the entire script for typos, formatting, and story issues.” $150.
  • Scriptapalooza. “Script returned to writer by email with the readers notes on the actual script.” $250. Comment: “readers” needs an apostrophe.
  • Script Reader Pro. “Get notes from a pro screenwriter directly on each page of your script.” $499.
  • WeScreenplay. “Inline PDF notes throughout the script.” $199.99.
  • StoryPros. “Analysis and Development Notes written directly on your script pages and returned to you!” $100 (add $75 for notes, $175 total).
  • Coverage Ink. Add PDF comments for $69 with their $139 standard coverage ($208 total).

Generic notes; or, I hate your screenplay

All of your characters sound the same. Cover their names and see if you can tell who is talking.

Some coverage readers sound like they’re sophomore interns who took Screenwriting 101 at UCLA. Or they sound like they got a “boilerplate” set of notes and are copying and pasting generic critiques.

When you don’t like a screenplay your brain’s critical functions shut down and you can’t think of anything useful to say. If a reader hates your screenplay after ten pages they should stop reading, while their brain is still functional, and write useful notes.

It’s traditional that assistants and interns have to read the entire screenplay before writing coverage. This appears to be part of the Hollywood caste system in which executives make peons’ lives miserable. Everyone knows that coverage readers can tell the bad ones in the first ten pages. Everyone knows that reading the rest of horrible screenplays is hell.

These coverage services offer notes on the first ten or twenty pages:

Ask them for the first ten/twenty pages notes if the reader hates your screenplay, and the full screenplay notes if the reader likes your screenplay.

Different people like different movies.

If you write a novel and thousands of people buy it, you’re a successful novelist. A movie, on the other hand, has to be seen by millions of people.

We each live in a bubble and we each like different things. Most people aren’t going to like your screenplay. Your job as a screenwriter is to make a story that appeals to millions of people. This is hard but structure is what does this.

A good coverage service will assign a script to a reader who likes that genre. Coverage Ink assigned Young Adolf to a reader who is a “history buff” who’d read a biography of Adolf Hitler. Not all coverage services do this, you might get a reader who hates your genre.

If it ain’t “woke” don’t fax it.

When Young Adolf gets a 3, 4, or 5 the readers have the same response:

This script’s greatest weakness is the premise because no movie that humanizes Hitler to this extent from his POV as the protagonist will ever get made in today’s current Hollywood climate.

Let’s look at the comps. Downfall (2004) was praised by critics, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and did well at the box office. But, according to Wikipedia,

Downfall was the subject of dispute by critics and audiences in Germany before and after its release, with many concerned regarding Hitler’s portrayal in the film as a human being with emotions in spite of his actions and ideologies.

Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall, responded:

They just got it wrong. Bad people do not walk around with claws like vicious monsters, even though it might be comforting to think so. Everyone intelligent knows that evil comes along with a smiling face.

One reader flagged every mention of Jews in Young Adolf, even lines that weren’t anti-Semitic, and told me to remove them all.

Borat 2?

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), in which Sacha Baron Cohen played a misogynist anti-Semite who joins a right-wing populist movement aiming to overthrow the government, was one of the top movies discussed on social media and was nominated for Best Screenplay.

My blog post comparing Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler has 50K reads (tl;dr: similar times, different personalities). Audiences want to know whether the 2020s are repeating 1920s Germany.

These comps suggest that audiences would likely be interested in Young Adolf.

It could be worse. If the movie industry were based in San Francisco you wouldn’t be allowed to write about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The rest of the country laughs at what offends “woke” Californians. Los Angeles isn’t as far left as San Francisco but coverage service and Blacklist readers won’t give a “recommend” if your screenplay isn’t “woke.”

While I’m on this rant, coverage readers can’t read historical dialog. In Young Adolf much of the dialog is direct quotes from historical sources. I get notes back saying that dialog is “wooden” or unnatural. One coverage reader helpfully rewrote Hitler’s speech to sound like a 2020s Los Angeles millennial. Shakespeare is performed more often in foreign languages than in English because modern audiences can’t understand Elizabethan English. My girlfriend and I went to see Twelfth Night at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. We left at the intermission because we couldn’t understand what the actors were saying. Also the play was four hours long. I have no doubt that if I submitted Hamlet to the Blacklist it’d get a 3 with notes saying that the dialog needs work.

Where can I find reviews of coverage services?

Only three coverage services are set up for writers to review their services:

  • Industrial Scripts (Reviews.io, 4.70 average rating, 573 reviews)
  • Screenplay Readers (Google Reviews, 4.8 average rating, 159 reviews)
  • Script Reader Pro (Google Reviews, 5.0 average rating, 224 reviews)

If you can’t find these businesses on Google Reviews, go to Google Maps and type in the name of the business and “California.”

Most coverage services ask you to rate your individual readers. None make these ratings available to you, the writer.

Reviewing the coverage service and the reader are different. You could get five-star notes and one-star notes from the same coverage service (with different readers), while the coverage service has great or poor customer service.

Who are the people who read screenplays at coverage services?

Screenplay Readers and Script Reader Pro provides names, pictures, and bios of their readers. Other coverage services hide their readers’ identities.

…plenty of readers apply to work at [Coverage Ink] who have no practical industry experience — maybe they’ve had a 3-month internship, if that. We got one applicant last week who has a Master’s in screenwriting but no real-world industry experience, yet that person has been reading for one of our big competitors for 8 months. To read for CI, you must have a degree in screenwriting or filmmaking plus a minimum of one year experience working for a well-known agency, management or production company in a development capacity. This is an important distinction IMO. Very often we turn away applicants who read for our competitors. Personally I do not think anyone should be charging money to a writer to have their script covered by someone whose only qualification is that they’ve… done coverage.—Jim Cirile

Coverage Ink sent me this picture of one of their typical coverage readers.

Can you recommend a good coverage reader?

The coverage readers who gave me awesome notes:

My reader is a genius! Should I ask for notes from the same reader on my next draft?

After you do a major rewrite, usually a few months later, get a second reading from the same reader. In my experience a third reading isn’t useful as after two readings you’ve fixed all the problems you and the reader agree about, and you haven’t fixed problems that you don’t agree about. The reader is just going to tell you to fix those problems.

I had a brainstorm after I uploaded my screenplay!

I never fail to have a brainstorm after I send in a screenplay to a coverage service. The Black List and Coverfly allow writers to upload new drafts before a reader downloads your screenplay. Industrial Scripts charges $15 for sending in an updated PDF. Coverage Ink will try to accommodate an update for free. Most other coverage services don’t allow updates.

If you ask someone to read you screenplay don’t send a PDF. Instead send a Dropbox or Google Drive link to the PDF. Then you can update your screenplay and the recipient will always download your latest draft.

Another advantage of using Google Drive is that the reader can attach comments to the PDF free. If you send a PDF then the reader has to pay for Adobe Acrobat Pro to attach comments.

Or maybe they just hire idiots

A reader objected to the stormtroopers in my script. Why did I put Star Wars characters into an Adolf Hitler biopic?

“Stormtroopers are from star wars.”

Assume that the first person who’ll make a decision on your screenplay is a 20-year-old underpaid intern who knows nothing about anything. Rather than explaining what a Nazi stormtrooper was, I broke the “no pictures in screenplays” rule and put in a picture:

That’s what an armored truck mounted with a machine gun looked like in 1920.

The Black List

The Black List is not a coverage service. The Black List is an evaluation and discovery service. Your screenplay is read and given a numerical rating. Producers look through the top-ranked screenplays and select the ones they want to read.

Planet Money did a podcast about Franklin Leonard and the Black List.

To quote Wikipedia:

Of the approximately 1,000 screenplays The Black List has [recommended] since 2005, nearly a third have been later produced as theatrical films, including successful and award-winning examples such as Argo, American Hustle, Juno, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight, The Revenant, The Descendants, and Hell or High Water. The produced films…have been nominated for 241 Academy Awards and 205 Golden Globe Awards, winning 48 and 40, respectively….three of the last 10 best picture Oscars went to scripts [recommended] on a previous Black List, as well as nine of the last 20 screenwriting Oscars [for]Original and Adapted Screenplays.

The Black List costs $30/month plus $75 per evaluation.

Black List readers write a page or so of notes. This isn’t a coverage service; don’t expect deep analysis.

The goal on the Black List is to get ratings of 8, 9, or 10; and to have an average rating above the average (6.15) for all screenplays. If you get two 8’s your screenplay goes into the monthly Black List recommendations; if you get five 8’s you get onto the annual Black List.

Are there alternatives to the Black List?

Coverfly has a Red List. This combines scores from selected competitions and selected coverage services.

Is there a Black List in Europe?

As far as I know, European producers don’t use the Black List and don’t have a European Black List.

Is there a Black List for stage plays or the publishing industry?

The Black List recently added stage plays. Scripted podcasts, not yet. The publishing industry? Ha!

All this is getting expensive! How can I spend less?

Expect to spend $2500 to $5000 on coverage services (30 sets of notes at $100–200 each), plus $1000 to $2000 on the Black List (ten evaluations at $75 each plus six months at $30/month), plus a thousand dollars on competitions. $10,000 seems like a reasonable budget.

Every dollar you spend on books will save you ten dollars in coverage services. Every dollar you spend on coverage services will save you ten dollars on the Black List and competitions.

How can coverage services do a better job?

  1. Assign scripts to readers who like that genre.
  2. Upload new drafts until a reader downloads the script.
  3. Attach comments to PDFs.
  4. Let readers do a “first ten pages” critique if they hate a screenplay.
  5. The category that the reader scores lowest should have notes.
  6. Structural analysis such as the Hero’s Journey and act structure.
  7. Provide script doctoring if a writer wants this.
  8. Reviews of the coverage service and separate reviews of their individual readers.

Your screenplay Young Adolf sounds awesome! Where can I read it?

Logline: Are 2020s right-wing movements repeating the rise of the Nazis in 1920s Germany?

Download Young Adolf from this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ENsZLVIINggXu7C5YgPCYMw92Mn9LXBk/view?usp=sharing

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Thomas David Kehoe

Thomas David Kehoe

I make technology for speech clinics to treat stuttering and other disorders. I like backpacking with my dog, competitive running, and Russian jokes.