The Subjectivity of Judging Screenplays


The Subjectivity of Judging Screenplays

By Arik Cohen

"Hey judge, what do you look for in a winning script?"

So here's the inside scoop: There's a secret checklist.  It's ten points, and we go through your script and see if it has the ten elements.  Elements such as "A character named Jake" and "The word 'gregarious' on page 63."  If you have all ten, you make it to the next round!

I wish.  I totally wish.

How easy it would be if it was mathematical.  How simple it would be if this was not subjective at all.  I could go through ten scripts in an hour and then spend the rest of the day laid out on Venice Beach sipping a Pina Colada.  But it is very subjective.  And that's what's great about it and why I do it.  I love movies, I love screenplays, and I love subjectivity.

So "What do you look for in a winning script?" might not be the right way to phrase the question.  "What qualities do winning scripts tend to have?" might be better. And although there aren't specific elements that I require every script to have, there are a few things I -- and most readers -- tend to gravitate towards:

Character Connection

Not every screenplay requires heavy character depth.  Not every movie has to be Ordinary People or The Squid and the Whale.  That being said, it is very difficult to get drawn into a screenplay if there's no connection with any character.  Nobody is going to confuse Michael Bay's Transformers for a character study, but writers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman spent a good chunk of the first act setting up Shia LaBeouf's goals, needs, wants, and personality.  Not everyone likes Shia's performance, but the screenwriters certainly wanted the audience to feel sympathy for the character.  If even a mindless blockbuster about fighting alien robots does it, your script should do it too.  You need a character with whom the audience will connect with, feel for, and understand.

Clear Conveyance of Story

If I'm on page 30 and I still have no idea what the story is, there's usually a problem.  Now there are a few scripts I loved that didn't really kick into gear until page 40 or so, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule.  Nothing is more frustrating that having read a script for a half an hour, have this great protagonist and fun atmosphere... but having no idea what story it's trying to tell.  There are exceptions:  For example, if you're writing a James Bond style story with a big action opener that takes up 15 pages, I understand if you'll need to use another 20 pages to set up the supporting characters and story.  But I've read too many comedies or dramas where I literally have no idea what the plot of the script is by page 30.  You need to hook the reader/ audience with tension and conflict as soon as possible, and this will stem from story.

Grammatically Clean

I think some people go into screenwriting because they think of it as the most forgiving form of writing.  You can't have grammatical mistakes in a novel, but in a screenplay grammar isn't as important, right?  Wrong.  A screenwriter is a screenwriter, and I'm going to judge you as a writer.  This doesn't mean if you have a few typos I'm going to dismiss your screenplay entirely, but if you have awkward sentence construction or don't seem to know the difference between "its" and "it's" or "you're" and "your" I'm going to assume you're not a serious writer and it very well can keep you from getting to the next round. Moreover, each little typo or error is a distraction from where I want to be… deeply immersed in your story and characters.

Originality

You don't have to have the next Memento or Being John Malkovich, but every winning screenplay will have some element that sets it apart from other films of its kind.  The "Big Party at the End of High School" movie has been done over and over again, yet Superbad was a hit by injecting it with a bromance, something quite new for the sub-genre.  There have been plenty of thrillers about ghosts that interact with the living, but The Sixth Sense certainly did something new with its use of a potent twist ending.

Satisfying Genre Requirements

This is the wild card.  If your comedy script is so gut-bustingly funny that I can't drink anything while reading it, I'd probably be willing to overlook some grammatical and spelling mistakes.  If your action script is incredibly thrilling with action set-pieces that are original and fun as hell, I might be able to gloss over your flat characters.  Certain genres demand certain elements.  Comedies must be funny.  Horror must be scary.  Thrillers must be thrilling and Action must be kinetic.  Satisfy these requirements and you'll be in good shape.

In Conclusion

These are just a few of the elements I look out for, but nothing is set in stone.  If I enjoyed reading a script, even if it somehow failed on all five of these fronts, I probably will still recommend it.  (Though I haven't read that script yet.) Crushing it in one of these categories can help me overlook failing in another.  For example, Neo in The Matrix isn't exactly a deep character and doesn't really have much of a connection with the audience outside of being a surrogate.  Also, the story he's in isn't entirely clear for the first half hour, but the action set pieces are so incredibly well done and the story is so original that we overlook that, and love the movie anyway.

And that's what we all want, right?  To love something.  And when a screenplay is placed in front of me I look forward to loving it.  I want to love it. 

Please, help me love it.


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