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The Sport of Spec

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Here's a funny thing. Next week, my agent and I are going out with a spec script to the studios, so we had some producer friends get "coverage" on it for us. Now, if you know what a spec script and coverage are already, just go ahead and skip down a few  paragraphs. If you don't, read on, MacDuff, and damned be him that first cries!

Okay so a spec script is what we screenwriters love and hate. We love to write them because they're our own ideas, written in our own sweet time, answering to no one - and their purpose is ultimately to go to the studios and make us some money. We hate to write them because no one's paying us to do it. Think of the writer as a farmer and the script is his crop. He's meticulously plowed, planted, cultivated and harvested. And when it's done, he takes it to market in hopes of selling it. That's what a spec script is. Speculative. You're speculating that it will sell.

I've done okay in the spec script market. Of the five I've written in the past ten years, I've been fortunate enough to sell three of them. Of the three that sold, two got made. Of the two that got made, I got to direct one. And the one I directed was for Quentin Tarrantino's company, A Band Apart. So you can see it's like Vegas. Only instead of just picking up dice and rolling, you spend 4 months to a year meticulously MAKING a pair of dice that get ONE roll.

No pressure.

So, now, on to coverage. Coverage is just a Hollywood studio term for a glorified book report, only the book report is done on your script. If you're a big name A-list writer, which I'm not, you get to skip this, and your script is read by exactly the people you want to read it, producers and studio executives. If you're a mere mortal (like yours truly), you can get it to the producers and studio execs that you have relationships with, but with people you don't know yet, you usually get relegated to the bottom of the pyramid.

The thing of it is, there's so many scripts that producers and executives just don't have time to read it all, and just in case it's horse shit, they pay $50 - $100 for a reader to write up coverage in a 2-3 page synopsis and analysis. Then they read the coverage and if it's good, it moves up to the creative executives, then the heads of development, then the bosses.

So anyway, what I like to do is have a couple producer friends have their coverage person write up some coverage to sort of take the town's temperature. Luckily in the case of my new ghost story script, the coverage came back fine, except for one. I'll get to the details of that in a second.  But first a little bit about coverage writers.

Admittedly, coverage is a tricky beast because it's so unbelievably subjective (like everything else in Hollywood). And every reader is different. Back when I was reading scripts I told the producers, "I hate sports movies. Please have someone else read those when they come in." The producer was a big jock and wanted to make a sports movie so a lot of them were coming his way. They were also looking for supernatural thrillers and I asked if I could please get those since it's more my area of expertise. Well, no one listened and for the next 6 months I read enough poorly written Cinderella sports scripts to choke a whore on Saturday night.  The first few I actually tried to enjoy, the next batch I tried a little less, and by the time I was in full swing on the non-stop sports fest, I was like the angriest troll on the internet writing up coverage so full of venom and resentment that it'd curl the hair on your toes (which would also be curling). Were some of those scripts that I eviscerated any good? Not really. They never got made. They never moved up any other ladders at any other studios either. But the fact remained that I loathed frat boy humor and movies about men tackling each other, snapping towels at each other's naked asses in the showers, and talking about how Jesus was on their side in every game. Simply put, I was the wrong person to be covering those scripts.

Now back to the coverage writer that tore me a new asshole. Admittedly, here, the reader made some notes on my story that were valid and I'm now fixing some of the holes he poked his finger in. That's the good part about coverage and getting solid notes on your writing in general. You gotta listen to people, and if enough people give you the same note, fix it.  But in this particular piece of coverage, we were clearly dealing with someone who hates horror, doesn't understand fear and the nature of dread, and who only knows about horror from the Hollywood Reporter weekend box office results.

My story is a haunted house film. It's got character and plot and it's a narrative about redemption and regret and blah blah blah... but at its roots, it's a whodunit. I've written a character whose dead niece's soul is trapped in the house, and if our living protagonist doesn't figure out why some force is holding her there, she'll be trapped forever. But first he has to figure out WHO or WHAT this force is. And the bulk of the second act is that investigation into the house, its history, and discovery of who this supernatural villain is. It may not be the greatest story ever told, but it's a damn fine night at the movies. And if I do my job, the audience will leave having FELT something.

Wanna know what this coverage writer's main problem was? He said I needed a villain throughout the film like Freddy, Michael, Jigsaw or Chucky... and I needed more deaths. He then went on to write that without a villain I can't market the film or have action figures and Halloween costumes.

Granted there are movies (good ones) that have those things, but I don't have to tell you guys that not every  horror film is about a maniac. The last time I checked, I wasn't an action figure designer or a Halloween mask store. And this coverage writer clearly doesn't know horror because he was trying to judge a haunted house film based on slasher film merits.

Do I blame this writer for telling me my cow wasn't a very good horse? No, not really. Because it's likely that he had asked the producers 6 months ago, "Please, no horror films. I like sports movies."

Gaudium Per Atrox.

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