A screenwriter is hired for a negotiated fee to write or rewrite a script within a certain timeframe. The writer is guaranteed of payment if he/she fulfills the terms of the contract (and the employer honors the contract).
A work-for-hire generally consists of steps in which the writer receives a payment for each portion of the script that is delivered on schedule. Steps might include the beat sheet, treatment, first draft, producer’s draft, polish draft, etc.
Unfortunately, it is becoming more commonplace for studios to use “one step deals” in which the writer gets only one payment for one pass then is often asked to do extra drafts for free (usually to incorporate notes from the studio, the producer or talent). (also see Packaging a script) The WGA is trying to crack down on these abuses.
Work-for-Hire is generally only for experienced writers. A newcomer must be known for at least one quality spec script before being considered for work-for-hire jobs (see Spec Script).
A Work-for-Hire is also known as a writing assignment. The screenwriter is writing “on assignment” (with employer) as opposed to “on spec” (on their own).
An Unsolicited Submission is a screenplay submission that is not coming from a professional source (an agent, lawyer, or manager). Many production companies and studios refuse to read unsolicited submissions, but they all keep a Submission Release Form on hand for when they get tempted by a new writer with a fantastic logline.
Keep in mind that many agencies and management companies also employ a “No Unsolicited Submissions” rule, so you need an agent to get an agent! The way around this is to network and meet repped writers so they will give you a referral to their agent or manager.
The common wisdom is that managers are more likely to read material from new writers than agents but it is my experience that they can be just as tough to get to. The first step is to win over their assistant and get them to accept your submission.
The plot of a screenplay written out in prose form, generally in one to two pages. The story, specifically the action of the story; beginning, middle, and end; very clearly written and meticulously proofread.
The treatment should be very spare and straightforward — it should not contain extraneous emotional or cerebral content nor long excerpts of dialogue. I feel that it is crucial for a screenwriter to write a treatment of their story before they begin writing the actual script to see how it works on the page and how it is balanced to the four act structure, and then also after they’re finished to help market it. Many companies will require a one page treatment sent ahead of time for review before they accept the screenplay.
Also called a synopsis or pitch; not to be confused with a long-form 25 page treatment, or even longer scriptment (a phrase popularized by James Cameron) which includes blocked excerpts of dialogue and can be written moreso in a hybrid screenplay format.
It should also be noted that it is extremely difficult for unestablished writers to sell just a treatment without the accompanying screenplay. Employers want to see your unique concept executed on the screenplay page in your voice before they’ll buy just the idea and general structure in treatment form.
Three Act Structure (a.k.a standard structure) is the classical, proven form of storytelling in film. Form, not formula. It does not dictate your story choices, only where you might place the major plot points.
This structure is based on Aristotle’s three act dramatic structure: beginning, middle, and end. Also known as Three Act Restorative Structure, as the story begins with an order that is thrown into chaos, and by the end a new restoration of order is reached.
My estimate is that 95% of modern movies fit into a three-act structure, including most foreign films and seemingly more experimental cinema such as Paranormal Activity, Borat, Being John Malkovich or The Blair Witch Project.
Personally, I break the three acts into four, separating act two into 2A and 2B.
A waiver provided by a production company and signed by an un-repped writer who is making an unsolicited submission (see Unsolicited Submission). Protects the production company in the event they produce a film featuring a similar story as the writer’s screenplay and it produces a paper trail for the writer as a record of the submission.
The Submission Release Form is the way around the “no unsolicited submissions” rule if a production company really wants to read your script.
Also known as a “Reader.” The person who reads a written submission (usually a screenplay or a novel) for a producer or executive and writes up an evaluation report called coverage. Since producers and executives can’t possibly read every submission that comes through the door, they employ story analysts to sift through most of it, and the exec only reads what gets screened and/or what is dubbed high-priority.
A spec script is a screenplay written to be sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company (see Work-for-Hire). No guarantee of payment. The greater risk of a spec script can pay off in a bigger sale.
The only way for a new screenwriter to break in is to have a strong spec screenplay that will establish them by being an impressive writing sample or their first sale.
The final draft of a screenplay before going into production. Has been given the final okay by the Director, the Producers and Executives and contains scene numbers and possibly camera cues and other visual references.
As a spec screenwriter, you should not be concerned with shooting scripts or formatting your script to look like one. Keep in mind that many of the produced screenplays you see posted online are shooting scripts, not submission drafts (see Reader’s Script) so you should not necessarily emulate the style and format of these drafts. Many shooting scripts also tend to be much longer than your average spec screenplay, which should be around 110 pages.
All screenplays and written material should be registered with the Writer’s Guild of America West or East before submitting to anyone or any professional entity. Your work (anything written may be registered) will be sealed in an envelope (or digitally archived) and date stamped. For non-members, this service currently costs $20 in L.A. (five years registration) and $22 in NY (10 years registration). It may be done online, via mail or in person at the offices in New York or Los Angeles. You should also copyright your work (see Copyright). Titles cannot be protected.
The submission draft. A screenplay written to be submitted to a production company. Should read well and flow; should not contain scene numbers or visual directions. A Reader’s script should feature a dynamic opening, short scenes, fast pacing and never exceed 120 pages in length (see Shooting Script). I suggest you keep it under 110 pages. HERE is more about what I like to see in a great script.
A short letter to a professional company, via email, mail or fax, making them aware of you and your screenplay and “pitching” the story to them in the hopes they’ll request it. Three to five short paragraphs and one page maximum — must be very clear and meticulously proofread. Must include your logline: one sentence, 20-30 words.
HERE is an article with more detail about my approach to query letters.
Attaching talent to your screenplay. I.e., getting an actor and/or a director to officially declare interest in the script to raise the chances of a sale and production. This is very difficult to do without representation (see Unsolicited Submission), and even more so to attach a “star” as their agents will refuse to look at a script not already funded for production. This is also referred to as attaching “elements.”
A major agency (like CAA or William Morris-Endeavor) can put together a package that includes their clients in the key roles (director, writers, leading actors) with partial financing and approach a studio for finishing funds and/or a distribution commitment.
A new writer wants to generate “buzz” on their script in some way that might get name talent to consider it. A contest/festival win, a referral from a friend or existing client or even a well-known true-life inspiration can help to build buzz on a script and get it read.
An Option is when a producer pays for the right to purchase a screenplay in a set period of time, essentially taking it off the market. In that period (e.g., 6 months, 1 year) they have the exclusive right to shop the script around, hoping to get it sold, financed, or produced. Most options to new screenwriters are for small sums of money; in most cases, a new writer should consider the track record of the producer (thus the likelihood of their script being sold and produced) as being more important than the price.
A sale is an outright purchase of a screenplay, but many sales listed in the trades contain the “guarantee/upfront” amount and the production bonus (e.g. $100,000 against $300,000). One sum is paid up front (usually in steps) and the remainder of the money is paid if and when the film either goes into active development or begins production. This is to insure the studio against overpaying for scripts that will just sit on their shelves, since they buy more material than they can actually make into films.
A script or screenplay Logline states the story in one active sentence, focusing on the concept, main story engine, unique Protagonist and main conflict. Ideally in 25 words or less…
A female FBI trainee must enlist the aid of a brilliant, imprisoned serial killer to catch another serial killer-at-large.
A logline is NOT a tagline. A logline is your story. A tagline is a marketing pitch that sells the movie, not the screenplay, e.g. “Truth has a soldier” or “This summer your mind will be blown.” Do not submit a tagline with your screenplay because you are in essence telling them how to market your movie, which is their job, not yours.
A unique premise easily understood in a single sentence. A high-concept screenplay often contains a “hook” that puts a twist on a classic situation or even another successful film. A concept that immediately sounds commercial that would attract big names and big box-office. E.g. “A superhero family” (The Incredibles), “A lawyer who can’t lie” (Liar, Liar), “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed), “Emma at an L.A. high school” (Clueless) or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Breakfast Club” (The Faculty). Very helpful with marketing because any one can quickly understand the idea (and hopefully get a sense of genre, tone, and theme) and will be inspired to read the script. But your concept, logline and pitch must be CLEAR. (See also cross-genre and The Big Idea)
Script Development is the process by which a written submission is developed into a final shooting script.
The department in a studio that handles all written material: finding the material, evaluating it and recommending to buy it.
Combining two easily understood genres in a fresh mix. E.g., Science Fiction-Western, Horror-Comedy. The more unique your take the better, but you must be able to capture this mix CLEARLY in a logline so the reader understands your intended style, tone and the story. Just saying “Star Wars meets The Dark Knight” gives no specifics about the protagonist and the throughline and it doesn’t explain the story logic that links those two concepts together.
You can copyright your screenplay or novel with the U.S. Copyrights office in Washington, D.C. Download the proper forms at their website.
Script Coverage/Screenplay Coverage is a 3-5 page report evaluating the quality and potential of a written submission to be a successful film for that particular production company. Final judgment is a Recommend, Consider, or Pass. Most scripts are given a Pass (at least 85% of all submissions). This can be for story or commercial reasons. Recommends are very rarely given; this is an extremely high grade and basically means the script is ready to shoot. Thus, a Consider is considered to be positive, and should make a writer very happy! There are many factors involved in passing this test. A script must not only be well-written but must also appeal to the company’s commercial and thematic sensibilities. For example, it could be a wonderful fresh romantic comedy, but if that producer or executive is not looking to make a romantic comedy, then they will Pass.