Two pieces of encouragement from the universe last week: A script I’m writing with partner Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, called Lovers in Their Right Mind, advanced to the second round for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. From the time we were notified until ten minutes to the deadline, we made a marathon push to give the selection committee at Sundance a newer and stronger version of the script.
And one evening as I was sitting and typing at Janice’s kitchen table, I got word that My Zombie Parents, written with my husband, Paul Seetachitt, had advanced to the quarterfinals in the ScreenCraft Comedy competition.
I wanted to answer a question a reader (Hi Jenny!) posted in a comment on one of my Blacklist.com posts. She asked, if, in the face of an unpromising response thus far, I would continue to host a script there. My answer is, “not right now–but that doesn’t mean not ever.” To do it right for just one script I now think means buying maybe four or five sets of coverage, and at present that seems a lot of monetary investment for not a lot of return. Along with it being difficult for any one script to get noticed among the hundreds or thousands on a display platform, it’s very difficult for the display platforms themselves to rise above the white noise of the marketplace. I haven’t yet heard any anecdotes or data that suggest blacklist.com (after the initial splash of landing in the pool) has been able to make any ripples that can be discerned in the already wavy waters for its writers. For the moment it seems more attractive to take the same time and money I would spend on this one platform and spread it more widely–for contest entry fees and entrance fees to pitch fests and other networking opportunities. There is no guarantee that this will work better, but it feels at least, like creating a more diverse portfolio of investments.
Which brings us back to a recurring question for artists–are these “investments” just illusory lottery tickets? And today’s response to that is a little more optimistic than usual. It is this article by a writer who made a spreadsheet of all the responses she received from workshops, publications and contests in a several-year period (the article actually links to an excel spreadsheet ). She calculates the rate of positive news at about 3%. This means that she was rejected 97% percent of the time, which 97 days out of a hundred can start to feel pretty grim, but 3% is still much better than lottery odds.
If you’re just getting to the party, this is the last of a three-part series about the The Blcklst.com site. Part 2 contained two examples of evaluations for scripts that I posted on The Blacklist site. Part 1 provided an overview of the site, and posed some questions I wanted to address: “Have you tried it?” “How were your evaluations?” and “Is it worth it?”
Herein I will discuss of that final question: Is it worthwhile to host (and/or buy evaluations) on the Blacklist.com?
First, to define terms: To me “worthwhile” would mean connecting with an advocate in almost any sense of the word. Being contacted by someone wanting to push a project forward would be a pinnacle, but a lunch, a meeting, an email from a manager who doesn’t like the project but likes the style, or an offer from someone in the industry to read a next draft or next script. For the purposes of this discussion, basically anything even vaguely career-forwarding or even self-esteem buoying garners the title of “worthwhile.”
Was hosting scripts on The Blacklist.com for two months and purchasing a single evaluation worthwhile for me? Using the above definition as a rubric, the obvious answer seems to be “no.”
But if you are reading this, your real question is probably whether doing the same thing would be worthwhile for you.
There are three circumstances that come to mind where the answer might be “yes.”
1) You already have advocates. 2) You are lucky with your readers. 3) You have an undeniable script.
1) Advocates: I think we already hit on this–if you know some folks in the industry who have access to the Blacklist site and are willing to give you some high ratings, that could generate buzz and be helpful. I’m just stating that again to get it out of the way.
2) Lucky with your readers: Industry folks at panels and in interviews will often talk about the right script finding the right readers: The one or two people out there who just happen to love what you do. If you pay for evaluations AND happen to land two perfect readers for you who give you high ratings, that might be worthwhile.
3) Having a great / undeniable script.
My guess is that when you read the evaluations I posted for my scripts in Part 2, you probably thought, “Well, my script sounds better than that.” I get you. I’ve considered this too–what if my script were just better? If I rewrote? If I submitted a different script with a better concept? What if it were, as my husband says, “an undeniable script?”
Well, about that. People do love to talk about “the undeniable script.” This is a hypothetical script that has such quality and is simultaneously so accessible that its excellence is apparent to anyone –from exec, to unpaid intern script reader to guy on the street. No one can deny its greatness.
My feeling is that the undeniable script is a myth. You hear things like that Memento was passed up by like 30 distribution companies, Desperate Housewives was rejected by everyone who read it for like four years,* and that scenes written by David Mamet (turned in by Paul Thomas Anderson as his own in film school) received a “C.” Van Gogh paintings and Confederacy of Dunces were widely rejected and no one noticed they were awesome until after their creators were dead. The work didn’t change–people’s perceptions did.I’m pretty sure there are Blacklist readers who would give Citizen Kane an unenthusiastic “5.” This is because tastes vary, and even though a script is a blueprint for a movie, you can’t actually see the movie. And because the idea of an undeniable anything is bullshit.
But let’s say that there is a spectrum, with the “undeniable” script as the Platonic ideal being one endpoint. The closer a script gets to that endpoint, the more readers — and these are individual readers, reading in a vacuum, uninfluenced by others — would reach the conclusion that a script was “great.” If your script is very close to this endpoint, then the Blacklist… plus some paid reads and the high scores the amazing script would elicit…would help you.
ADDITIONAL DISCUSSION ABOUT SCORING If no script is “undeniable,” but your script is “great,” then, really, you still fall under circumstance number two–Blacklist.com has the potential to be helpful to you only if you get lucky and find the right readers who give you high scores, and will be disappointing if you do not.
Here is a POSITIVE post from the Bitter Script Reader, describing a success story from The Blacklist. He also lists some excerpts from the evaluation here. From reading the post it seems that just one high rating garnered attention from multiple parties. Note that this is from the site’s earlier days in the spring of 2013. It’s possible that the site was shinier and newer at this point to the extend that just one high score made enough noise to be heard.
Here is what I’d have to term a NEGATIVE post and super-long resulting discussion on Done Deal Pro (this is a version of a former post on the Screenwriting Goldmine forum which is now defunct) which is pretty detailed and informative. This reviewer purchased three evaluations, which ranged from a 4 to a 7 on the same script, and notes that his friends have had similar experiences.
And finally, here’s a recent “featured script” that was sent to my inbox by The Blacklist.com.
I have no idea what the non-uploaded scripts and uploaded scripts lines are supposed to be telling me. But when I click on the little gray boxes for “this script,” I can see percentages, and calculate that with nine totals ratings, this script has received two 8s, one 7, one 6, four 5s and one 4. This guy has four other scripts on the site. He’s clearly no slouch–but there is still quite a range of opinions regarding the script. Just for interest, here are his public script reviews:
I’m not sure who controls choosing which reviews are public–the writer of the script, or also the writer of the review? Could the writer have chosen to show us all of the reviews, or is there a limit?
It’s also pertinent to note, this guy has NINE ratings? Since it seems to be an anomaly for an industry person to randomly read a script that doesn’t already have evaluations, we have to assume these nine are either paid reader ratings (in which case he has spent $450 on top of the monthly posting fee), or industry ratings from people this person knew. Or perhaps some combination. Regardless, he’s managed to gather a number of readers, and the result is a RANGE of scores, from 4 to 8. The majority are 5s, which aren’t super enthusiastic (enthusiasm being defined as an 8), But, those two 8s were enough to result in an email being sent to some in-boxes, which I’m guessing the writer probably considers worthwhile for his time and/or money.
This is where pay-to-play “opportunities” like The Blacklist become a slippery slope. Maybe the guy in our example started off with low scores, but he just kept paying until he found those two enthusiastic readers? What if, with only one or two paid evals, my scripts just haven’t found those ideal readers yet? What if I decide to host for additional months and pay for two more evaluations? What if I pay for six more? When you’re searching for luck in a haystack, it seems like you have to keep throwing hay –and money — until you find it.
*These are wrong, half-remembered ballpark numbers, but you can probably find the right ones by internet searching or reading Desperate Networks.
Have I ever tried the blklst.com site? Why yes, I have. Toward the end of May, I uploaded three scripts on the Black List and within a few days I ordered one evaluation for each. Some people suggest that if you order one evaluation, you should go ahead and order two, but my budget for such things only stretches so far.
Who Has Read My Script? Blklst.com doesn’t actually tell you who has read your script, but they do give you a head count. It looks like this: As I write this at the beginning of July, one person has downloaded The Invisibles, and that is the paid reader. Two “pros” or industry people, have looked at the description page for the script and chosen not to download it, and one peer–presumably another writer–has also looked at the description. Something I just learned is that you can set your script to be available to other writers. I had not realized this. The default setting is “unavailable” and not that obvious, so my one peer who looked at my description page did not have the option of downloading at that time, whereas now he or she could. To summarize: There has been one download, which was the one I paid for.
My other two scripts are similar. Ribbit! garnered 4 peer views of the cover page, 0 pro views and one download by the paid reader. My Zombie Parents: 5 peer views, 0 pro views and one download by the paid reader. Who has looked at my cover page? Other writers. Who has read my script? In each case, the paid reader.
Full Disclosure: Although I have a kinda handshake deal with an agent at a recognizable agency, I did not list that on the questionnaire. These scripts have made it to later rounds of the Austin and Page competitions, one got to the interview stage for a fellowship. I also didn’t list any of these things on the questionnaire. I didn’t figure any of it was that impressive, or that someone would say, like “OMG, Quarter Finals of Page, I’ve gotta read that one!” But we can acknowledge the possibility that maybe knowing that “someone else liked it,” or that I can list an agent might have subconsciously influenced the reader and raised the evaluation up a notch? Doubtful, but possible, so I’m noting it.
And now, speaking of Evaluations: Did You Get Good Evaluations?
If, by “good” we mean ranking closer to the “10” than the “1”, the answer would be “not so much.” Here is the numerical breakdown and feedback for My Zombie Parents:
Genre: Dark Comedy, Family Comedy, Horror Comedy, Monsters
After her mother and father are killed in a plane crash, ZOE finds a way to magically bring them back from beyond the grave. Zoe finds unexpected consequences when her zombie parents start to act like zombies.
Zombies are a very familiar trope, but the script brings several amusing and original touches. The best is Alabaster, Zoe’s stuffed rabbit, which she manages to bring to life with surprising result. Though they mostly play as a non-sequitur, the “LARPERS” are also a funny addition. We don’t get much emotional insight into her character, but Zoe is an solid and endearing protagonist. There is something amusing, even touching about a kid going this far to bring back her parents. Bully may be the ostensible antagonist, but he actually comes off as one of the most sympathetic characters in the script. He is understandably frightened by the zombies- to comedic effect, and does what he can to try and stop them, despite only being a school boy.
“My Zombie Parents” has an amusing premise, but does not quite live up to its potential. The plot is thin and feels dragged out. After Zoe brings her parents back from the dead, the script doesn’t do much with them for the longest time. The pacing is off, lagging and going into a repetitive, episodic feel. Though the concern that the zombie parents may start to partake of human flesh is present, it doesn’t feel like a driving force of the plot, a serious conflict for most of the script. The plot thread of Lou in the Netherworld is confusing and distracts from the main plot. Tonally, this is a dark comedy, so the issues of life and death are not to be taken too seriously, but for Zoe’s case some emotional response may still be warranted. What should be the most powerful moment of the script is ruined by Bruce’s garbled zombie talk. It’s unclear how to take this scene, as it is neither funny nor dramatic.
Zombies have been in so many movies that to get attention, a spec has to have a very strong high concept. “My Zombie Parents” has a funny premise, but the execution is too flat and underwhelming to stand out.
(Sidenote: In the interest of science, you can compare these to the Austin Film Fest reader comments on this same script here.)
These are the numbers with feed for The Invisibles:
A group of high school students are physically invisible because of their inability to stand out, but one invisible girl attempts to gain visibility by seducing the most popular boy in school.
The story’s representation of physical invisibility as a metaphor for feeling invisible is unique and particularly appropriate for high school students who are particularly sensitive, socially aware, and self-conscious. The musical subplot and original songs add depth and invention to the characters, and have a lot of potential to be emotionally resonant with a teenage audience. There is a lot of subtext with Brad’s character and his insecurities and vulnerabilities. There’s a lot of opportunity to have a very unique subplot by developing his emotional dilemma and layered identity instead of focusing on his stereotypical jock qualities and minuscule attention span.
The script spends too much time explaining the principles of invisibility, and it would be more effective if the rules were portrayed concisely and cinematically through interesting action instead of discussion (ex. “He has to see you for others to see you. And that requires a strong emotional attachment, which obviously you wouldn’t–” … “-You’re saying if he fell in love with me. If Brad Hodges was in love with me, I’d be visible.”). The climax could be more dramatically compelling by increasing the tension and suspense of who Laura will choose to perform with at the variety show. If Laura has a genuine moral dilemma about what to do, it will make her decision and the betrayal more emotionally powerful and tragic. It is potentially offensive to assert the idea that Laura’s existence is essentially determined by if her popular boyfriend remembers her and cares about her emotionally. The ending would be more empowering to show that visibility is achievable through self-acceptance instead of just social approval.
The story is relatable and interesting, but the premise is derivative of many teen movies that revolve around an outcast trying to seduce a popular student in order to gain social acceptance. In order to be marketable, the script would benefit from a rewrite that would ground the story in authentic teen culture and add some element that would make this high school story boldly stand out (like the memorable comedy of Mean Girls or the quirky realism of The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
Is it worth it to pay for a listing and evaluation on the Blacklist.com? My conclusions coming soon in Part 3.