Scripts are the lifeblood of the film and television industry.
Even if you have a million dollar idea, it’s nothing without a great script to serve as the guide. As Hitchcock said, “To make a great film you need three things—the script, the script, and the script.”
Aside from telling a good story, a compelling script can:
- A) Persuade a producer that it’s worth making (and investing in).
- B) Inspire the director to envision the story and their vision for it.
- C) Help actors breathe life into the characters.
But here’s the rub.
Everyone in the biz is trying to chase down the next Breaking Bad. And for every Breaking Bad, there are a million god-awful, cringe-inducing, overly-long scripts.
Truth be told, finding a great hit series or blockbuster is hard. You have to pan through a metric ton of shit to find that gold nugget. Reading a script takes time, too much of it. No big shot or higher up in the business has time to read one 90-page script, let alone several. At least not from a blind query.
But can you guess who does have the time?
You guessed it right... you do! You, the assistants, interns, or lower-level execs; basically, anyone who is pursuing a job in the development side of the industry.
That's one of the big reasons why assistants and interns exist—to roleplay as Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption. But, in this case, instead of wading through sewers, they get to review the countless shitty scripts and then write informal “book reports” on them.
In other words, they’re tasked with script coverage.
What is Script Coverage?
Script coverage is like the Sparknotes version of a script.
It’s a tool that an executive, producer, agent, or manager can use to get the gist of the story without being forced to review the whole thing. A proper coverage fits the summary, characters, and analysis into a single page or two, touching lightly upon the shortcomings and strengths. Often, a higher-up won’t even read the first five pages of a script unless the person covering it made the recommendation.
Because an executive’s time is valuable, good script coverage matters. It takes a fine eye to see a script that is a winner or even recognize one with good bones that just needs some tweaks. And from there, you have to succinctly convey all of that information in a page or two.
It’s worth noting that there are two slightly different types of script coverage:
- The development-side coverage – The reader acts as the gatekeeper, filtering the good content from the bad, helping prioritize projects that should move into production.
- The writer-side coverage – Conducted by professional coverage services like the “Black List,” the reader provides a fresh eye on the material. They can offer advice to the writer on how to better shape and improve their content before sending it in to production companies, agencies, or contests.
Although they serve different purposes and approach it from a different angle, the structure used for either type of coverage will remain largely unchanged.
What Is NOT Script Coverage?
Despite the snarkiness of this post, it’s important to note that there’s a common mistake that many young script coverage readers make when first starting—they turn their script coverage piece into “10 Things I Hate About You[r Screenplay].”
Instead of asking questions like, “Is this right for our slate? Why or why not? What did this do well? Where was it weak?” they might turn the coverage “I didn’t personally like the story, here’s why.”
When a story isn’t good, it’s all too easy to enter the “angry movie reviewer” territory—a mentality of, you wasted 90 minutes of my time, so I’m going to demolish your story.
That’s not the right approach. That’s not script coverage. It’s a roast.
Regardless of whether or not the writer will ever read the coverage, there’s a better way to handle it. Even if you are reading a bad script (which you most assuredly will at some point) you don’t need to punch down, especially if you’ve been tasked with providing coverage which the writer will see.
Proper script coverage can undoubtedly contain criticism, but it should be constructive. There are ways to point out flaws without ripping someone’s heart out and crushing their hopes and dreams into nothing but dust and ashes. Remember, someone sunk countless hours of their life into that story; they’re putting themselves in a very vulnerable position.
So, how do you treat the material and the writer with respect?
- Use calm, professional, and neutral language
- Avoid hyperbole and absolutes
- Don’t use value judgments, especially on characters (they may do or say things you don’t agree with, that doesn’t matter, what matters is whether it made sense for that character)
- Although it’s a subjective work, do your best to omit what you feel or your personal opinion on genre, subject matter, or content
The Script Coverage Template
These days, there are dozens of free script templates and script coverage examples available to you. They may vary slightly, but most everyone will include the following:
The Cover Page
This conveys all of the scripts important information in a snapshot. Including:
- Title of the script
The logline is a one sentence summary that states the central conflict of the story and the emotional hook. Breaking Bad's log line would be something like, “A terminal cancer diagnosis leads a broke chemistry teacher to start cooking meth in order to provide for his family.”
As for page counts, one page roughly translates to a minute of film time. The ideal script length is less than 90 pages for a comedy/horror, and less than 120 pages for a drama.
Depending on the template, it may also include the evaluation, which is a checklist that rates the material (on a scale of excellent, good, fair, or poor) based on various aspects, such as:
- Production value
- Casting Potential
A synopsis recounts the main elements of the story (including main characters and plot) from beginning to end in approximately 200 words.
Some readers prefer to write out the summary as they go, others like to read the script all the way through and then summarize. How you go about it is up to you, but we at least recommend that you take notes of key plot points as the story progresses. That way you have the inciting incident, the act turn, and other key moments marked.
The more you read, the more you’ll notice which “beats” have to be hit. It will become easier to see which scripts do it right and which ones don’t.” It’s also helpful to read professional scripts by established screenwriters to get a sense of what a top-notch story looks like.
In regards to writing the synopsis, some advice to consider includes:
- Even if the script is confusing, the synopsis shouldn’t be
- Leave your opinion and commentary out of this section
- Don’t fill in holes if there are problems with the plot
- Don’t include every subplot or detail, just the major characters and beat.
It’s vital that a script not only have a solid plot, but that it blends elements of storytelling together such as structure, pacing, characters, and dialogue. Although each one is important on its own, they’re often interconnected—weak characters can hurt dialogue, poor pacing is often the result of bad structure, etcetera, etcetera.
This is your chance to say what worked and what didn’t and whether or not it’s a good fit for your company. As you go about this, there are dozens of questions you’ll need to ask, including:
- Does this fit our slate?
- Will it sell? Is it marketable?
- How much would it cost to make?
- Would it be an enticing project for a director? What about actors?
- Is it a new idea?
Although your space is limited, avoid using generic works like good or bad. Instead, point out exactly what the strengths were and where it faltered. Depending on your company or the type of coverage you’re doing, commentary may be broken down into further elements such as plot, characters, structure, etc.
If that’s the case, you’ll have more room to work with. If not, you’ll have to be succinct and focus on what matters most.
After you’ve made your commentary, your last task is to give the script your final verdict. Typically, it will be one of the following:
- Recommend – The highest praise a script can get—and it’s rarely given. This is basically saying that the script is ideally suited for your company and should be pursued. It doesn’t mean that the script is perfect, but that it’s something that higher ups should, at the very least, take a long look at.
- Consider – The screenplay has some problems or may be a so-so fit, but it has serious potential. Like “recommends,” this is an infrequent verdict that only goes to select scripts. At the very least, it means that another reader should give it a look over before passing it off to your superiors.
- Pass but consider writer – There are times where the writing in the script is quite good, but the fit is wrong. In that case, you may pass on that script but ask the writer if they have other scripts they’d like to submit or that might fit into that certain category you’re looking for.
- Pass – The truth of the matter is that at least 9 out of 10 scripts will be given a pass. This means that it wasn’t strong enough (for whatever reason) to merit a second read.
If you're starting as a script reader, be sparing with considers and recommendations until you have a better idea of what makes for a script. Be very sure that your boss will not only be willing to sacrifice precious minutes of their time to reading a script, but be happy that they did so.
Copycat Copywriters: Screenwriters From The Start
Although it may seem like a small thing, script coverage plays a critical role in making the industry spin. It’s the filtration system that ensures good content is brought to the attention of the decision makers.
So, whether you’re on the production side or the writing side of things, the team at Copycat has extensive experience within the movie industry, particularly on the writing side of things. Having worked at production companies, major studios, and agencies, we’ve read and covered countless scripts from both the production side and the writing critique side.
Need help finding that next gold nugget? Want an unbiased opinion on your script?
We’re not only writers, we’re also readers with a fine eye for what makes quality screenwriting. We can handle any of the script coverage jobs you have.