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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

FEEDBACK FEEDBACK: thoughts on giving notes and feedback on screenplays, Part I

There have been some discussions of late on various boards I’ve been frequenting about how to handle feedback one receives on a screenplay, as well as what is good feedback and what is bad feedback. I found these discussions to be very interesting and, being someone who has never been able to keep his big mouth shut, I joined in, of course,.

One area that was a popular topic of discussion was what sort of feedback is unhelpful, what is bad feedback. And after thinking about it, I’ve come up with four types of feedback that I’ve come across over god knows how many number of years that I’ve been doing this that I could certainly have done without.

The first are those who give feedback based on books they’ve read and courses they’ve taken. They come to the table with a set of rules and instead of determining whether a screenplay works on its own terms, they just list the areas where the script breaks the rules. You can often tell who these people are because they have a certain set of catch phrases that they use, lines you know they didn’t come up with on their own, but heard in a class or read in a book. There’s often very little you can do or say to this set of people. Even if you listed movies that do the same thing you do and that “break the rules” you are breaking, they often haven’t seen these films, much less even heard of them (by the way, I hate the term “break the rules” because it suggests that these rules were correct in the first place, when in reality, it’s questionable whether some of these should have ever been considered rules at all).

For example, I wrote a screenplay a few years ago that has a reactive lead character (what used to be called a passive character until the trend changed). There are those who automatically said I couldn’t do that, that it’s against the rule that says that all central characters must be active. No matter that numerous films like Adventureland, An Education, Garden State, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh all have reactive characters. It doesn’t matter. It’s against the rules they’ve been taught and therefore the screenplay doesn’t work.

A second group are those who don’t try to figure out what you are trying to do, giving feedback and constructive criticism based on that, but instead tell you how the script should be written, usually meaning how they would have written the script. The problem here is that people often don’t know that this is what they are doing and it’s a very hard habit to break. Probably it’s a habit impossible to ever completely break.

A third are those who are easily offended or have problems with certain kinds of screenplays. These people are usually very uninformed as to what is going on in movies these days and often don’t venture further than the multiplex that shows studio tent pole films and rarely see a film rated R for sex and never see any NC-17 films. I was in a writing group once where someone wrote a screenplay with gay characters with some sexual scenes and someone said he didn’t know where the person could possibly sell something like this. Even after the rest of us listed a dozen places that are open to screenplays of this style, he still couldn’t deal with the sexual frankness in it or the general subject matter. I’ve had this problem myself since my screenplays are often dark, edgy and sexually frank and people simply can’t get past that.

This sort of leads to a fourth kind, the one who gives feedback based on their perceived commerciality of a screenplay. If they don’t think it will sell, then it isn’t good and should be rewritten so it can sell. The problem here is that this person usually has no idea as to what sells and what doesn’t or what movies make money and which ones don’t. And that often a script rewritten with commerciality in mind usually comes out worse in the long run. I was in a group that once was giving feedback on making a script more saleable and I suggested that that’s not a good way to go because no one knows what is really saleable. They then said that they wanted to write scripts that the studio would buy and I had to be the one to tell them that no studio is going to read a screenplay by someone in this group, that that’s not how it works, that that’s usually not how studio movies are written.

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