Questions production companies & studios, publishers and agencies will ask of your script, novel, play, article or short-story: (Taken from the confidential studio instruction manual given to executives and readers).
The “comment” is that portion of the coverage in which the reader gives a critical appraisal of the material. Comments usually run from a half page to a full page, though length is certainly not all that matters. It’s what you have to say. The comment is unavoidably a subjective response by the reader but needs to be organized around some basic criteria that are fairly standard no matter what you’re reading. While every company has particular needs for a particular kind of product, almost any company will expect you to address the following subjects.
QUALITY OF WRITING OR CRAFT
Almost anyone you read for is looking for good writing and it pays to remember that good writing means different things to different people. Pulling off a good genre script, a horror film or teen comedy, for instance, can be important to one company while being able to write like Faulkner can be important to another. There are many kinds of good craftsmen and craftswomen in the business. Even if the story doesn’t work or the script fails in certain ways, executives are still interested in meeting and knowing good writers. So always mention the quality of writing even though you may qualify it with certain negative feelings about the script.
What is it about? Mention the premise and comment on it. Is it a new twist on an old idea or a tired version of something you’ve seen a hundred times before? Does it have a long history of appeal? Is it highly original as a concept, a “high concept,” or is it derivative? Is it overly familiar, particularly contemporary, fresh, traditional, clichéd, overdone, fascinating, intriguing, depressing, a downer, potentially interesting, unfocused? Sometimes the premise will immediately fit into a genre. If it does, mention this and consider whether or not the script fulfills the conventions of the genre in a fresh or interesting way.
THE SETTING / MILIEU
Oftentimes the setting or milieu in which a story takes place lends a kind of focus and of itself provides an important element which can contribute to a movie’s appeal. Think of movies like THE PERFECT STORM, STAR WARS, CAST AWAY, and SPARTACUS, and many others like those where the setting is almost like a significant character in the script. It defines the parameters of the story and sometimes its very uniqueness is a plus in itself. CHARACTER(S) Look for solidly written and developed leading characters that go through something important in the course of the story. Is the main character someone an audience can identify with and care about? Becoming involved with the struggles of your main character is where the tension comes from and what makes you want to read through to the end. Are the main characters interesting, complex or clichéd? Likable or unappealing? Is this something with strong appeal for stars? Who will want to do it is finally what it’s all about. How about the subsidiary characters? Is there a good antagonist?
CONFLICT / STRUCTURE
Story structure is built on conflict. The story and the main character better contain conflict or you’ll probably fall asleep while reading. If conflict is well developed and interesting, you’ll have tension and a sense of suspense and, most importantly, the story will MOVE. However if the conflict remains simple, does not build structurally, is missing, revealed too late, doesn’t grow, or is unresolved, these are important things to discuss. You’ll be concerned here with plot movement and the shape of the story. Does the story build and progress? Or does it feel like nothing much has happened?
Dialogue can put you to sleep (when there’s too much exposition, for instance) or it can make you laugh or cry. How you feel about it should be mentioned. Overall, does the dialogue strike you as mundane or something special? Is it particularly clever, funny, awkward, stilted, false, full, inauthentic, preachy, pedantic, moving? The most common mistake novice writers make is to overwrite their dialogue. Watch out for long speeches because they rarely work. Paddy Chayefsky was the exception to the rule. Still, if there’s something living and breathing in those long speeches, don’t dismiss it either.
When you read something and are told that a certain director or star is attached to the project, you are free to take this into consideration in your evaluation of the material. Use what you know to inform what you read, but if you are not familiar with the people attached, don’t try and fake it.
This is the old “who cares?” question. Is there an audience for this story and, if so, who is that potential audience? Is it likely to be TV or features, kids, adults, families, upscale intellectuals, teens, or is there potentially NO AUDIENCE for this script? Try to support why you feel this way. Sometimes using precedents established by other similar and successful films helps you speak to the issues of appeal.
This is where you sum up in a couple of sentences what conclusions you can draw from the plusses and minuses enumerated in your comment section. Taking everything into consideration, what subjective stance are you left with? Don’t avoid taking a position even if it’s an ambivalent one. There is room for being on the fence. Some companies require that you end your comment section with a “yes,” “no” or “maybe.” While others request that you just sum up your feelings at the end in one sentence.  Paddy Chayefsky was the screenwriter of Network, The Hospital and Marty.
(c) Dr. Alex Ross (2021)