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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ken Miyamoto: How To Give Notes on A Screenplay

Anyone who is serious about working in the entertainment industry - as a writer, director, producer, actor, agent or executive - needs to develop the skill of giving "notes" on a screenplay.


Recently, my friend Ken Miyamoto, wrote an answer to the question, How can I become better at critiquing screenplays? on the question and answer site Quora.com. I'm reprinting his answer in full here.  Ken takes a very no-nonsense approach to giving notes which comes from years of experience reading scripts with an eye to what could actually get made by a traditional studio.

 Ken Miyamoto writes:

To give effective notes, you have to do what most studio and production company readers (I'm a former studio reader myself) do: Look at a script from a somewhat objective perspective.

I say somewhat because a reader is told what the powers that be are looking for as far as genre, tone, concept, etc. So there is a slight subjective angle in that respect because there is a predetermined set of immediate likes and dislikes. If a script comes through that takes a more comical tone, when the powers that be are looking for straight on horror, thriller, or action, there's an issue and the script will likely be tossed aside.

Regardless, readers have to learn to push aside their own likes and dislikes as much as they can and look at the scripts coming through with a more objective perspective.

  • Will this sell?
  • Is my boss going to want to pump millions of dollars into this?
  • Is the concept original enough or is it just another knockoff of Taken?
  • Does it have strong leads that are going to draw in major talent?
  • What's the demographic for this script?
  • Is it contemporary and does it jive with the current industry?

These questions and SO MANY more have to be taken into account.

So, that said, if you're looking to critique screenplays better, either from a peer to peer situation (Writing groups), a mentor position (Teaching classes), or even from a professional position (Script reader, assistant, etc.), you need to take the above approach and run with it.

The key thing is, you need to disassociate your own work, your own visual styles, your own habits, and your own likes and dislikes, with this script you're reading. You need to look at it from a purely objective standpoint first and foremost.

So if you hate romantic comedies and you're reviewing a romantic comedy script, you have to look beyond your subjective viewpoint of the genre and ask yourself questions like:

  • Would this be a popular rom com for those that love them? 
  • Hey, my wife loves these types of movies. Would she love it?
  • Is this a concept within that genre that I haven't seen before?
  • Are the characters in this rom com original and new, or at the very least, do they offer a different approach or different angle on what we have seen before in these types of movies?

Then you can move into...

  • Is the script well written?
  • Is it easy to follow the story and character arcs?
  • Is the dialogue strong?
  • Is there a true beginning, middle, and end or do they introduce a concept and seem to not know where to go with it?

Those are all objective questions for the most part.

Secondly...

The biggest mistake people make while critiquing scripts is when they just look for what is wrong with the script.


This especially happens in writing groups and with peer to peer or friend to friend exchanges. "Well, you do this wrong here, that wrong there, this character was written terribly, this didn't make sense, etc."
The best way to critique a script is by finding not only what doesn't work, but especially what DOES work.

 "You know, you're struggling with format a bit. You need to tighten up the dialogue and scene descriptions big time. This character doesn't have a great arc. BUT, this concept is AMAZING. This other character is written perfectly and brilliantly. I like this, I like that, I LOVE the surprise in the second act, etc."

You see the difference? Instead of focusing on the negative and what they did wrong, you equalize by FINDING the strengths of the script as well. That's what real script readers have to do because if maybe the script is written horribly, but the concept and/or some character and/or the dialogue is great, then you can give it a Consider rating based on those elements. Then the powers that be can take a look and say, "Wow, love that concept, love the dialogue, love this characters, etc." That may lead to an assignment for the writer, a possible option to develop the concept further, etc.

Now, let's keep it real here folks. A vast majority of screenplays out there outside of the film industry are terrible. Some people just aren't ready or just don't understand how to concoct a compelling story with compelling characters. So that said, what you REALLY don't want to do is blow smoke up someone's ass. You don't want to sit there and tell them everything is great. Which brings up another angle to your approach...

Conversely, don't make your notes a long glowing accolade, saying how you love it all.

That doesn't help people. If anything, it destroys their chances of realizing their dreams because you didn't care for them enough to offer the truth, at least what you think that truth may be.
So find the good AND the bad. I've read thousands of scripts from novice to working writers. And even the many bad ones had some elements I could point out that worked or at least were on the right track to working. Some were batshit crazy, I'll admit, but a majority of the time you can find both the good and the bad elements.

Now, here's where the subjective part does have to squeak in a little bit...

You have to bring your passion of film into play when critiquing scripts. The majority needs to be objective, but the subjective reaction needs to be present as well. Why? Because it'll help them in the long run. It'll enhance your notes, saying things like:

"Dude, I LOVE prison movies. Love them! It's been so long since I've seen a good one, and man, you nailed it."

Or on the flip side...

"Dude, I HATE romantic comedies. Hate them! And there's a reason for it. It's always the same formula. Guys meets girl. Guy gets girl. Guy loses girl. Guy gets girl back. That's what you wrote. Frickin' shake it up, man! You know what romantic comedy I DID like? 500 Days of Summer. Why? The guy doesn't get the girl!"

If you inject that passion of film within your objective notes that point out what works and what doesn't work, you'll be like a saint to them, whether they realize it or not.

Lastly...

Know what you're talking about. If you haven't read a lot of scripts, don't watch a lot of movies, and don't know at least a little about the current film industry, just say, "Hey, I'd love to help but I just don't know enough to help you." You can do more harm than good.

And if you do know what you're talking about, at least somewhat, go into it void of any ego. Another common thing in writers groups or some similar dynamic, is that writers are writers. We're insecure, whether we want to admit it or not. So when many writers are given a script with the writer saying "I need your feedback", well, they feel it's their time to step up on that pedestal with a little power and grandeur, and they'll exploit it.

In short, don't be an ass. Reread any notes you're giving before they are given. If they aren't offered in a positive light (With both the good and the bad), are one-sided as far as just naming the wrongs, and are full of dictations as far as what direction you think the script should go and if they don't go that way, it'll fail? You're being an ass.

If you start quoting Robert McKee, William Goldman, Syd Field, and whoever else, basically trying to talk smart and position yourself on a higher plain of knowledge, well, you're being an ass.

So in short, point out what works and what doesn't work, make sure you know what you're talking about in the first place (You have to love movies, you have to know a little bit about the current film industry, and you have to be either writing scripts or have read a lot of them, preferably both), keep an objective perspective while still allowing your subjective passion for film in at times, and don't bring in any ego with you, which translates to again... don't be an ass.

P.S. Studio coverage forms are a great broad stroke approach for giving people feedback. They also allot for notes to be a little more specific on. For the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum, I created a hybrid studio coverage form for our WSF Screenplay Feedback Program. Think of it as studio coverage on steroids, offering writers the essential guidelines and expectations that most studios and development companies are looking for.

It's a copyrighted form, so don't go charging people and using this if you like it. But it might just make your critiquing experience a little easier because it puts everything into a context and certain perspective. It's not the end-all-be-all, but it'll get writers thinking when they read the reactions to these questions.

FEEDBACK FORM 

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for a number of years, most notably as an intern for director Randal Kleiser, as a Sony Pictures studio liaison working directly with major Film/TV productions, and then in development as a script reader/story analyst for Sony Pictures. He is currently a represented and working screenwriter with many studio meetings under his belt (Sony, Disney, WB, Universal, Dreamworks, etc.), a previous development deal with Lions Gate in 2007, and recent studio writing assignments, one of which is currently in post-production. Ken, his wife Amy and two sons, relocated back to Wisconsin in ‘06 to raise his boys close to family.

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