One July 4th weekend I was invited to join a small collection of William Morris lit agents who were planning to get independent down Texas way. Advertised was a big family lake house near Waxaramalamahachie where I was promised a front-row seat to an authentic, Lone Star blowout. I fully expected a sweaty, four-day mix of longneck beers and long-legged girls. I wasn’t disappointed.

But on my first night under a starry Texas sky the conversation turned curious to this writer. And I’ve never forgotten it.

I don’t recall how the discussion began. Though I’m certain it had something to do with me being both the token client and the only writer on the adventure. Just six agents who’d left their designer suits in L.A. and Mr. Yours Truly. And it went something like this:

“Hey Mike, what’s your best way to know it’s a shitty script before you even read it?” queried Rick.

“Oh, easy,” said Mike. “Cover page.”

“Cover page?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Rick. “Anything other than the basic font. Then I know the script sucks.”

“What a bunch of hooey,” I said.

“Seriously,” chimed Carey. “And it’s gotta be in Courier or some kinda standard typeface. Any special kinda printing is a sure sign of screenplay suckage.”

“Can’t believe I’m hearing this,” I said. “You guys are that lazy?”

“Not about lazy,” said Carol. “Do you know how many scripts I’ve read? Thousands upon thousands. And most of them stink. Some more than others.”

“So you look for shortcuts?” I asked.

“You do what you gotta do to cut through the chaff,” said Mike.

“Okay,” I said. “So let’s say it’s me. A so-called ‘valued’ client handed you—”

“Who said you’re a valued client?” joked Mike.

They all laughed at my expense. A deserved poke leveled at the defender of all writers.

“Only reason we brought you,” said Rick, “is so we could expense the trip.”

“That’s the only smart thing you’ve said since we left L.A.,” I jousted.

Score one for writers.

“But seriously,” I pressed on. “Let’s say I handed you a script with some fancy font on the cover page.”

“And we don’t know you?” asked Carol.

“Right.”

“Shit outta luck,” said Carey.

“Okay,” I said. “Forget me. It’s a script by (Academy Award Winner) Alvin Sargent.”

“Moot point. Great writers don’t make those kind of mistakes,” said Rick. “It would never happen.”

“Also. Artwork on the cover page or jacket,” said Carey. “Kiss of death.

“I got one,” said Carol. “Weight.”

“Weight?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Good scripts are light. Easy to read. You can hold ’em like a cocktail tray and tell if they’re too heavy.”

“Or you can just turn to the back page,” said Mike.

This is where they all chimed in with nods and beer bottles in a toast to their own collective, script-reading genius.

“How many pages?” I asked.

“My limit?” finished Carol. “One-twenty-five.”

“Oh, you are way too easy,” said Rick. “Mine’s one-fifteen.”

“One-fifteen max,” chimed Mike.

“I’ll go up to one-twenty,” said Carey. “Otherwise it’s in the circular file.”

“You’re all are cruel,” I said, feeling the need to defend all the unrepped and unproduced writers toiling between day jobs and doomed relationships. “What if it takes more than a hundred twenty pages to tell the story?”

“Make it shorter,” said Mike, big grin, but not altogether joking. “New writers can’t afford to appear boring or unprofessional. Especially when I have fifteen scripts to read over a weekend.”

“But you don’t read all of ’em,” said Carol.

“I try to,” said Mike.

“If I get past the cover page,” said Carey, “but get bored by page fifteen, I skip to the end, skim backwards. Done in thirty minutes. Next.”

“Unless there’s coverage,” said Rick. “Then you can just skim that.”

They all saw my disapproval. I was sick that they were willing to appear so callous in front of a writer. Maybe it was the beer or that they outnumbered me.

“I see you shaking your head,” said Mike. “But believe me. If you had my job? You’d find ways to thin the herd.”

“My biggest tell a script is crap before I read it?” continued Carey. “The binding.”

“Definitely the binding,” said Rick.

“Like what kind of binding?” I asked.

“Anything that’s not three brass brads in three-hole punch paper,” said Carey.

“So the spiral kind?” I asked.

“The worst!” said Carey.

“Total amateur move,” said Rick.

Whoah. Wait. Stop the bus.

Not too long ago, before scripts were emailed as .pdfs and downloaded (legally and otherwise) to executives’ iPads and Kindles, writers were responsible for making copies and distributing the result of all their hard efforts. Ergo, the script. Thus, the evolution of some many copy stores tucked into SoCal strip malls between the nearby 7-Eleven and Vietnamese nail salon. Each copy shop had a variety of services—including binding. The cheapest, of course, was three-brass brads poked through pre-punched holes in the margin. More deluxe options—not to mention pricier—were spiral or plastic coil binding, tape binding, or velo binding. Each was neater and, in my opinion, looked very pro. But for a broke-ass scribbler like myself, the cheapest choice meant that I might be able to dine out on a Whopper that week.

“So what you’re saying,” I said, incredulous as hell, “Is that if I hadn’t been broke as a joke back when I was starting out, you wouldn’t have even read my stuff?”

“Probably not,” said Rick. “Truth hurts. But it’s real.”

I found myself crushed for all the poor word jockeys with dreams of a movie career who weren’t getting their scripts read because of this ridiculous profiling by agents and their ilk. It was my opinion that if a writer had slaved over a script for days, weeks, even years, it deserved to get read by somebody with a enough sway or good sense to give it a thumbs up or down.

Then I did the math. Tens of thousands of screenplays are logged every year into the WGA database. And that’s just the ones that are registered. There are even more sprouting up like opium poppies in Afghanistan. And with the proliferation of the world wide web, easily accessible writing software, how-to-books, and stories of one-script wonders who squirt a hundred plus pages of yuks through their word processors, attach Jonah Hill and find themselves having penned a go movie, more and more and more writers and wannabes are flooding into a market that is short on quality readers and longer on odds.

To get through all those scripts—most of which they know WILL be God awful—an agent or buyer or producer must construct some sort of threshold for a screenplay to clear in order to warrant a pair of bleeding eyeballs. Arbitrary though these red flags may appear, they are not entirely without merit considering the numbers game in which they are engaged.

So all you showbiz wannabes, listen up and pay attention. Ask questions. Check out what sells and why in order to avoid amateur pitfalls. And do what you can to understand the gatekeepers and their potential prejudices against your work. I’m not suggesting you morph yourself into the artist they want to hire. I’m only suggesting you make sure to wrap yourself in a professional bow before catapulting over the over the wall.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Jack Gorman

    Have written a couple myself and am starting a third. Always suspected the standard cover page and three brass tack thing, but kind of shocking to hear that people actually discuss it in blunt terms. How would you suggest submitting scripts in the day and age of digital? Thanks Doug!

    • If they want paper, then you already have it. Digital? Title page in a simple font. Then FADE IN.

  • James

    Great read. I can understand why an agent would want something so plain wrapped. But haven’t they gotten past that? I understand the story is the thing, and it’s the writer’s job to convey it. Is that why there is so much crap scripts being made, because they were formatted well?! I know. It’s not that simple, but to narrow the field because the uniform isn’t clean and pressed is rather irrational in this business.

    • James. If you’re looking for rational, run away. Run far away. It’s an irrational business populated by type A irrational people who’d rather be sitting poolside with Mila Kunis than reading your script. That said, they will always profile. So the lesson is to keep is simple. Let the writing speak.

  • Sounds fair enough to me; maybe not ten years ago, but nowadays all that formatting/presentation information is readily available online. It’s kind of hard not to learn it if you spend any time at all researching the craft.

    So if a script isn’t in the expected format with the expected presentation, it means the writer has made no effort to find out what the preferred style is. Or they’re brand new to the game and this is their first script.

    If it’s the former – it’s a lazy person who’s gone for a job interview without diligent research. Is this type of person likely to be motivated enough to generate their own leads/network? Certainly in the UK, agents are more interested in long term relationships with writers than selling one script. If a writer can’t be bothered to learn the simple basics, are they likely to put the work in elsewhere?

    If it’s the latter – it’s probably awful anyway. Sure, we’ve all heard of writers who are geniuses right out of the gate – but there are thousands more who suck until they’ve written around 10 scripts.

    Either way, there are certain expectations on the way a script looks and refusing to adhere to them is like going for a Wall Street job interview in jeans and sneakers – yes, they hire the person/writing, but why create a bad first impression?

    Sorry Doug, long rambling reply there.

  • groovylady1999

    I would agree on the discussion and criteria the WM agents talked about. As harsh as it is, it is true you HAVE to weed out. Even at my humble indie producer level, it’s a four to six stack sitting for me. And I don’t have the luxury of having someone else cover it for me.

    For me it’s your introduction to me, why not make it good? Polite, kind (brass brads, 3 hole punch, page numbers, courier font, 115 pgs, no cover art, proper cover sheet) is a nice impression of you as the writer, and I will take the time to read it, even if it’s not my genre that I am looking for.

  • Unk

    So you’re sayin’ I gotta add another brad?

    I’ve been doin’ it wrong all along… I wish I’d been on that trip though. LOL.

    Good post.

    Unk

    • Thanks Unk. Wish you would’ve been there two. Lotsa leg.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Article says July 4th but not how long ago.

    110 pages may be the new limit.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Article says July 4 but not how long ago.

    110 pages may be the new limit.

  • Guineapiggypiggy

    Two things:

    1: I was told it was three holes and two brass brads with the hole in the middle left empty. Should all three holes have brads?

    2: If readers want a lot of “white space” on the page and blocks of description only a couple of lines long, then the script will probably have more pages. That said, I keep all my scripts under the 120 page count. It’s just good manners.

    • Good move, Lydia. As for the two versus three brass brads controversy, I’ve always used three and have done okay. Now I’m thinking of all the money I could’ve saved on brads.

  • Where I’m from I found–literally, if you’ll pardon the pun–the last box of the correct size and style of brads in town. And I’m not sure if they’ll order any more in without a sizable, expensive order. So my printed scripts will only have two brads.

    It was my understanding that the whole ‘no binding’ policy was to make photocopying easier since a promising screenplay was shown to several people before getting a go.

    Even though the common advice is to read a lot of screenplays, I try not to. Most of the spec scripts I’ve encountered are so far below ‘good’ that I don’t get far. Call me egotistical but this gives me hope.

    • Phyllis. You make too much sense. Stop it. This is showbiz.

      • I’m tempted to say wait until you read the script–but it makes a lot of sense too. Sorry.

  • For what it’s worth re the brads, I don’t think anyone prints scripts out anymore, it’s all via pdf on kindles and ipads. So the brad thing may be moot.

    And to add, there’s been a trend toward cover art (a tiny trend, but a trend nonetheless), sometimes not just on the cover, either … just what I’ve heard from some of the pros I know.

    That’s the interesting thing about screenwriting, the format is fluid and ever changing … it used to be a script couldn’t be less than 90 pages, but now scripts less than that have sold (Buried, for one, Autobahn, for another) … it’s like CUT TOs which used to be everywhere and now aren’t used very often …

    life evolves, I guess.

    • You’re right Joshua. Industry customs are evolving. But not changing. Volume is a bigger problem than ever. The writer needs to figure how to stand out while not turning off the overloaded reader.

  • Spec

    Am I the only one who thinks that these guys sound stupid?

    I’m not trying to be offensive, I’m using the word in its strictest definition.

    If Alien was 116 pages long, it would have still been an amazing script. And not reading it because it was 116 pages long would make the reader… stupid.

    If Star Trek had a different font in the title, it would still have been a kick ass script. And not reading it because the font was a different font would make the reader… stupid.

    It’s almost unforgivable.

    • They may sound stupid. Or shortsighted. Or plain lazy. But they are still gatekeepers between you and your success. Once you reach the A-List, you brush them aside with the flick of your wrist. But until that day, they are part of the world which artists must navigate. You can be real or be a failure.

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    • Sad but true. Everyone has a shorthand to cut through the chaff.