John Adams, CEO, Evolutionary Films:
You must receive thousands of submissions for screenplays every year – how long does it take you to realise that a proposal just isn’t up to scratch? With experience, is it pretty easy to spot something that’s just not going to work for you?
“When I first took an office in a film studio, writers would forever be leaving me hard copy screenplays in my pigeon hole at the front security desk. I used to be amazed at the lengths and expense they would go to in order to deliver their manuscripts to somebody they hadn’t even met. Nowadays of course, it’s much easier to send files digitally and I get approached via email every day by writers and filmmakers wanting to break into the industry.
“I used to always try to read and respond personally to people who sent me scripts but we’re so busy at Evolutionary Films, and receive so many approaches, that I simply don’t have the time to answer everyone anymore. This is why it’s vital not to send material on an unsolicited email but to try to make contact with the person first and ask whether they will read something. Occasionally my contact details will be published in a writers’ forum or similar and I receive a whole swathe of pitches or screenplays in an afternoon which can frankly be quite annoying.
“Most companies have interns or script readers who will be the first to read and assess submissions, but it’s important to check what criteria any specific company is looking for. For example, at Evolutionary Films, we tend not to even look at a project unless it has some funding attached or bankable elements like named cast or a director with a strong track record. Once a script arrives on my desk to read, I can usually tell within a few pages whether or not it’s something that’s going to work for us. A good screenplay engages with a reader just as quickly as a good film hooks the audience and if after ten pages I’m not drawn in by the story and characters, the chances are I’ll put it down (or skip to the end and see what happened!) Please bear in mind that for film industry professionals, this is our career and we have to generate returns. Only a fraction of the scripts we read, even the ones we like, will ever get produced so this type of development and acquisitions activity is rarely the prime focus of our companies.”
The world is full of people that think they have a screenplay in them, but then everyone also thinks they can sing and, as X-Factorhas shown, that’s not necessarily true – some people are, with the best will in the world, just tone deaf. Do you ever feel like being Simon Cowell and being brutal?
“I wouldn’t ever tell a prospective writer to give up, but I think it’s important to get feedback on a script before sending it to a professional company. Writers should take the time to ensure that screenplays are correctly formatted along industry standard lines or they won’t be taken seriously. And ideally get a friend or family member to read first to correct mistakes and give impartial advice and criticism.
“Having said all that, one of the things that makes this industry so great is that creativity is subjective and what one reader enjoys won’t necessarily be the same as others. Tastes vary and often generational and cultural differences impact on what types of films we watch and therefore what scripts we enjoy. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s ever fair to tell somebody to give up, only that what they’ve presented isn’t for me.
“In fact, often screenplays that I would never expect to work end up as massive hit movies – take The King’s Speech for example – before the cast were attached and the production value known, who would have though that a relatively slow drama about the King’s relationship with his speech therapist would’ve become a $200m+ international box-office smash? Simon Cowell probably has a much easier time of it than a script reader.”
Do you think that anyone can learn and practice over time to become good enough to write a good screenplay, or do you think that having that special ability to make it as a writer is something that you’re born with?
“I think there are undoubtedly writers who possess natural talent and ability. However, script writing is also a skill that can be learned and honed with practice. There are numerous courses, books and seminars that will teach potential writers about narrative structure, characterisation, pace and storytelling, and some have empowered their students to go on to amazing things. Screenwriting is a craft that improves the more a person practices so in theory, anybody can write a good script. For many people though, it would take years of study, practice and hard graft to get there.”
The world of entertainment is often seen as a young man (or woman)’s game. Do you think there is an age at which you should just give up trying to ‘make it’ and write for pleasure? Or do you think the door is never closed?
“I think for most creative disciplines in the entertainment industry, it’s very important to start young. Although there are exceptions, actors and directors are rarely discovered later in life. However, writing is the one craft that can be picked up at any age and is often more accessible to older entrants. In the modern film and television industries, writers are rarely in the public domain and remain out of sight behind closed doors so there is rarely an image required to be a writer. Just skill and good storytelling. It’s therefore never too late!”
Taking on someone younger and unproven might be seen as a gamble, even if they might have a great idea – what are your thoughts on that?
“We’re more likely to take a script from an established writer than a first-timer mostly because the track record is useful when justifying investment into a project. Having said that, if we had two first-time writers side by side and they were equally talented, age would never be a consideration in which one we go with – more likely freshness of ideas and originality but that doesn’t necessarily come with youth! And of course who we feel would fit best with the team if we are going to be working together for the duration of a project in a highly stressed environment – this industry is not an easy place to eke out a living!”
READING BETWEEN THE LINES, WHEN SHOULD YOU GIVE UP YOUR DREAM OF BECOMING A SCRIPTWRITER: You’re still very much in with a shot here – but you’re going to need to put in ‘years of study, practice and hard graft’.