This is one of the toughest questions screenwriters face. You spend 6-12 months writing a screenplay. You send it out to a few close friends, maybe a couple of industry contacts, and the initial feedback isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. One thing is clear though. Your script isn’t the runaway hit you thought it was. No worries. You take that feedback, do some rewriting, address the major concerns, come back, send it out to those people again (if they agree to read it that is) and the response is… still a bit tepid. “Yeaaahhhh. This is a littttlllle better. But I don’t know. There’s something missing.”
All of a sudden, a terrifying prospect hits you. You may have just wasted an entire year of your life on a screenplay that nobody wants a part of. Do you ditch the script and move on to the next one? Or do you put in yet another rewrite in the hopes that you can elevate the script to the potential you know it has?
Before I help you answer that question, I want to say that making this choice is an imperfect process. A lot of it is based on feel. And I’ll give you a prime example of that. There was a script I reviewed a couple of weeks ago called “Final Journey.” You may remember it as the “Eskimo Hand Job” script.
I would later learn that the writer had written that script a decade ago. It placed well in some contests but nothing came of it so he moved on, writing a dozen other scripts over the years. Then he decided to dust the script off and enter it into a few contests. At Page, the script tapped out in the third round, but one of the judges was a respected manager who absolutely loved it. That love led to a signing, the manager blasting the script around town, and the script subsequently making the Black List.
The point is, all script success stories funnel back to an early champion, someone with notoriety who can bring attention to the script. And you never know who that person is going to be. However, there are ways if to gauge if your script is good enough to find a champion. The last person you want to be is the guy parading the same script around town year after year, insisting that its genius hasn’t been recognized yet.
So, here are some tips you can use to gauge whether you should keep pushing your script out there or move on to the next one.
Is this one of your first three scripts? – I’m not going to say it’s impossible to write a great script in your first three tries. But it’s hard. Those first three scripts are somewhat of an education period for screenwriters that help them become familiar with screenwriting’s unique format. This is not the determining factor in whether to move on or not. But it is a factor. If there’s little interest in your script despite a lot of reads and it happens to be one of your first three scripts? Consider moving on.
Have you done everything in your power to get your script out there? – I’ll never forget this one newbie writer who spent three years writing a fantasy script, then afterwards, sent it to the five industry contacts he’d accumulated in that time (all of them friends-of-friends-of-friends), and when all five of them came back with, “No thank you,” he packed up, said that Hollywood was a town run strictly by nepotism, and moved back home. I mean, come on! You have to understand that this is a town addicted to the word, “No.” Steven Spielberg gets told no. JJ Abrams gets told no. As a nobody, you’re going to get a lot of nos. The only way to combat this is to explore every avenue – contests, online services, Scriptshadow, friends of friends in the industry. If you haven’t gotten your script out to at least 10 people (and preferably a lot more), you have no idea if your script is worth continuing to pursue.
Identify honest feedback – Part of figuring out whether to stay in a script relationship or cut ties is gauging feedback. If the feedback’s good, stay. If it isn’t, go. Here’s the problem though. Not all feedback is honest. In fact, most feedback is given with kid’s gloves, so as not to hurt the writer’s feelings. For this reason, whatever a reader’s evaluation is, assume it’s worse. I’ll never forget one of my friends giving me nice polite feedback on a script once and thinking, “Wow! This script isn’t that far off!” Five years later I was out drunk with that same friend, and the script came up. He launched into this randomly angry monologue about how my script was nearly impossible to get through because of how bad it was. He ended with, “I’m so glad you moved on from that thing.” Yikes. I had no idea he hated the script that much. It was a reminder that people don’t want to hurt your feelings. With that in mind, there are a few things to look for during feedback. If feedback (written or oral) is polite, repressed, or apathetic, you’re in trouble. If there’s genuine excitement, an eagerness to recall favorite moments, or the reader wants to know what you’re going to do with the script next, that’s an indication it’s a script worth fighting for. (side note: always consider the source. If you send your comedy spec about a man who sleeps with 100 women in one weekend to a woman who identifies herself as “The Internet’s #1 SJW,” she’s probably going to hate your script no matter what)
How big are the script’s problems? – In trying to figure out if you should rewrite your script yet again, you need to identify how much work is involved. The more work, the more time. The more time, the more you should consider the script a sunken cost and move on. If you’re hearing feedback like, “The entire second act drags,” or, “I don’t understand your main character,” that’s major rewrite territory there. If it’s stuff like, “You need an extra scene to beef up the love story” or “I would combine 5th Most Important Character with 7th Most Important Character,” those changes can be made fairly quickly.
Be honest with yourself – Every script is a like a baby to a screenwriter. It doesn’t matter if he’s the ugliest baby in the city. He’s still YOUR baby. But the difference between an ugly baby and an ugly screenplay is that you don’t have to raise an ugly screenplay. So do me a favor. Step outside of your subjective reality – the 500 hours you’ve spent on the screenplay, the trailer you can’t wait to see in the theater for the first time, that brilliant devastating scene at the end that’s going to have the audience in tears – and look at the objective reality. Are the people reading your script feeling even a fraction of what you’re feeling? One of the biggest reasons writers stick with scripts that don’t deserve to be stuck with is that they’re not honest with themselves. Stop looking at your script through rose-colored glasses.
If this article has helped you realize it’s time to move on from your current screenplay, I have a couple of happy thoughts to leave you with. Every time you write a new screenplay, you become a better writer. So you should be excited about writing something new. Also, no screenplay is ever truly dead, as the Eskimo Handjob script reminds us. Once you sell a script, tons of people are going to want to read whatever else you’ve got. That’s when you bust out your old stash of screenplay gems.