Ask a Straight-talkin’ Script Consultant!

Jim Cirile - Coverage Ink

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Jim Cirile of Coverage Ink.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

After binge-watching “Sons of Anarchy” season 6, you really have to marvel at the craftsmanship. The upheaval and complications are so constant as to be ludicrous, yet it’s so devilishly well-written that you just strap in and hold on tight. And blowing our own horn a bit, the last script I read which was truly special was Brandon Barker’s “Nottingham and Hood,” which we found as part of our last Get Repped Now! promotion this summer. We got him into Benderspink, where he’s now working with their head of lit Jake Wagner. So, win-win. A real talented guy with a bitingly funny comic voice.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Kind of fell into it, really. I originally founded Coverage Ink to offer my small handful of analysts, whom I’d assembled to help develop my own material, to other writers at low cost. Getting feedback from smart readers is a major part of my process and always has been. In fact, the very first person I met when I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago was a union studio reader, and that fellow was enormously gracious in giving me feedback and teaching me how the biz really works. Over time, as a writer myself, I gave feedback to plenty of other writers and realized I had a lot to say in that regard. Our approach is based around writer empowerment – giving constructive feedback as opposed to humiliation. This is in part a reaction to some of the astonishingly humiliating and unhelpful coverage I’ve received on my own scripts and have seen others receive over the years. I figured there had to be a way to give helpful guidance without belittling the writer. So all of that combined to get the CI ball rolling in 2002.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes, but to a point. Obviously anyone can read a bunch of books, take classes on writing and so forth, and get down your Save the Cat!, Syd Field, McKee, etc. However, some folks have a hard time putting aside their egos — the frustrated writers out there who fancy themselves story analysts. These folks project their personal tastes and frustrations onto material as opposed to appreciating it for what it is and trying to help it become the best possible version of itself. I’ve had to let go of several very smart people who fancied themselves as story consultants because they actually could not recognize good writing or material with potential.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Great, multidimensional characters. Solid structure. Avoiding clichés and surprising the reader. Snappy, tight pacing. And of course, good storytelling. That said, a lot of it is about hitting your marks and doing it in creative ways – nailing those structural beats that Hollywood uses to judge whether you’ve got game or not, such as the inciting incident by page 15, Act II beginning by page 25, etc. Even things like whether you know how to write down the page or use sluglines and white space properly all contribute to the first impression as well as perceived ease of the read. A good screenplay is simply a fascinating story well-told. If you’re facile with words, that’s a start – but that’s all it is. You still have to study the form.

5-6. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

By far the biggest one, and I’m just as guilty of this, is sending a script out before it’s fully cooked. We finish a script and we’re so excited that we immediately contact our industry friends and before long, you’re dead in the water. It took a long time to learn to never send out first or even tenth drafts (if I can help it.) Taking the time to develop a screenplay until it’s bulletproof is crucial. My current spec is on its 11th draft and we only just got our first consider. It will probably be three more drafts until we nail it and get consistent considers, which will indicate we’re finally ready to go, and even then we’ll still have to do at least another draft or two for our manager.

The second one is: is your concept really multiplex-worthy? You have to really think about whether your idea is one that makes sense in the current filmmaking climate – be it studio film, indie or festival darling. There are certain stories that just work better as a book, stage play, web series, or whatever, than a feature. Or maybe it just isn’t an exciting idea at all, or is just too played out or derivative – how many spy or vampire movies can they make? Unless you can find a way to bring something really fresh and innovative to those genres, you’d best keep looking for the killer concept.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Be a student of the business. There’s no point in trying to be a screenwriter if you don’t learn what that actually means and how the game is played.

2. Learn your craft. Just because you wrote a great thesis in college or even a novel doesn’t mean you have any idea how to write a screenplay. Take classes at your local community college or online, get into a writer’s group, read scripts and how-to books and study. Can you get hired as a doctor or lawyer without years of study? So why would you expect another lucrative job like screenwriting to be any easier to learn or break in to?

3. Don’t expect to find representation until you are really, really ready – and by that I mean they come to you because you’re winning contests, or producers and industry types are championing your material. We all want to get representation, but usually an agent won’t even read you unless you’ve already got some heat.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

The aforementioned “Nottingham and Hood.” The Sheriff of Nottingham captures and attempts to transport his prisoner, Robin Hood, to trial. Complications, as they say, ensue. “Midnight Run” in Sherwood Forest. Boom.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Our contest Writers on the Storm has gotten several of our winners into agencies like UTA, and last year’s “Cake” was produced and stars Jennifer Aniston. (WOTS is on hiatus this year.) So the answer is – damn right they’re worth it, but it depends on the contest. There are really a few worth the money – Tracking B, Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft Big Break, Script Pipeline, maybe one or two others. But the rest – no juice. Save your money. Sadly, no one cares that you made the top ten of the Terre Haute Screenwriting Showdown 2003.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Email me at info@coverageink.com, or check out our website – www.coverageink.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Here in Culver City, there is an amazing 2-piece band, a guy and a gal, who play often at the Culver Hotel, my favorite watering hole. They’re called Pie. I’d have to go with them, since they go quite well indeed with an Absolut martini with lime. Other than that, Boston Cream, baby!

Stepping into the arena

That's one way to eliminate the competition (no pun intended)
That’s one way to eliminate the competition (insert rimshot here)

If your inbox is anything like mine, chances are you’ve been getting a lot of emails lately touting the pending deadline of more than a few contests.

For the most part, I usually ignore them. Maybe the Nicholl if I have a script ready, but rarely any others, if any at all.

But a little more confidence in my abilities and encouragement from other writers is making me gradually change my mind.

I’m seriously considering biting the bullet and submitting a script, warts and all, to a few competitions over the next few months.

It’s one of those things every screenwriter should do at least once or twice.

But which ones? There are a lot to choose from, ranging from the obscure to the high-profile.  While there’s nothing wrong with the Brand X Screenwriting Competition, you have to admit it doesn’t carry the same cachet as being a finalist in Austin, PAGE or TrackingB.

Everybody has different criteria for what they’re looking to get out of a particular contest. While a cash prize is nice, most are seen as stepping stones to making industry connections and getting representation.

Some offer script notes – a handful do it for free, but almost all charge extra for it. It’s not something I’d do, but that’s me.

If you’ve decided this is the year you take the plunge, then do your homework and research the ones you’re interested in to find out they have to offer. What kind of reputation do they have? How was the experience for previous entrants and winners? Do the prizes justify the amount of the fee?

No matter which ones you decide on, keep in mind you are going up against a lot of other writers just as eager and ambitious as you. Do you think your script is ready to take them on? Like, REALLY ready?

Even if you have a tiny amount of uncertainty, how much time is there between now and the deadline? Use this to your advantage and give your script an extremely thorough read-through (or two) and fix what needs to be fixed. Nobody likes finding a typo after the fact.

Do whatever you can to make your script ready to go, cross your fingers when you hit ‘submit’ and hope for the best.  How long you wait until getting back to your current project is up to you.

Good luck.

Diverting your attention in a forward manner

Look closely and you'll see a lot of potential out there
Can you see all the potential out there?

I’ve been in contact with a few writers over the past couple of days, and several have mentioned their anticipation/nervousness over the pending announcement of the quarterfinalists in this year’s Nicholl competition.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve been occasionally thinking about it as well.

And it doesn’t help that the folks at the contest have been posting positive anonymous reader comments on Facebook over the past few months. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably read them and thought, “Whoa, that HAS to be my script!” or at least “This could be interpreted in such a way that it vaguely applies to my script.”

I think the number of entries this year was somewhere in the 7200 range, or probably higher. So maybe it is about your script, or maybe not.

The point is: There’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s out of your hands, and obsessing about it won’t do you any good.

Apart from just stepping away (or even actually going outside, where the fresh air will do you good), the best way you can counteract all this hand-wringing is to redirect your focus. Channel all that nervous energy into something more constructive, writing-wise.

How about getting your script ready for upcoming competitions? (Just Effing‘s absolutely final deadline is August 15th, TrackingB‘s late entry deadline is September 28th, and PAGE International will start accepting entries for 2014 in December.)

Or maybe take a closer look at those notes on your recent draft and see what you can do with them, or dig up that killer story concept you came up with a few months ago and fleshing it out a little.

It really doesn’t matter what you do, but it’s important you do something. Your work will be further along than it is now, which always works in your favor.

No matter what your plan is, set yourself up in your ideal writing conditions and have at it.