There are many reasons why a reader passes on a script. Some might be idiosyncratic or even capricious. But the vast majority fall into six buckets.
1) Poor idea and bad writing (aka crap) 35%
These scripts read like they were slapped together. The writers have fallen into one or more of the following traps:
“Look at all the bad movies out there. Mine’s not as bad as that.”
“If they like the idea, they can hire another writer to fix it.”
“I’m a great talent, so my script must be great art.”
Their mindset dooms them to always getting “Pass”—until the industry stops returning their phone calls.
The antidote: Give a damn. Come to grips with the fact that screenwriting is an extremely competitive business where there is no trophy for second place. Work your ass off. Take a class, if you can. Get to know screenwriters who are better than you and be grateful for every bit of info you get from them.
2) Seen before done better 35%
These scripts aren’t bad, they’re just a pale imitation of other movies. You need to bring a fresh angle and strong writing to stand out from the crowd.
The antidote: Don’t confuse quality and quantity. Take your time finding a great premise and write your guts out. If you can put in about 20 hours a week, it should take at least 6 months to finish a script. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin. And you’re not Aaron Sorkin, or you wouldn’t be here reading this.
3) Not a movie or TV show 15%
There are two major reasons many scripts based on novels or plays get a "Pass." First, the very things that make them a great novel (the author’s voice) or play (the immediacy of live actors on stage) may not translate to film.
The second reason; the source material is too derivative or not popular enough. A good second-tier author might move 100,000 copies of a book and make a living. A movie with an audience of 100,000 people is a disaster.
Having IP attached to your project shows you’re thinking like a pro and helps you get meetings. But unless it’s a huge seller, it’s unlikely to get a Recommend.
The antidote: On IMDbPro, research the track record of the author or playwright or similar work done by others. Develop the mental toughness to admit that your favorite book might be destined to remain just that.
4) Good idea, tough sell 5%
I read a script by a successful novelist about a modern-day Indian tribe who rallies their dying community by going back to the ways of their ancestors. Here's part of the coverage:
Story line and structure are both very strong… Terrific characters that leap off the page and stay with you… a pleasure to read.
But their ancestors hunted grey whales. So they hunt a grey whale. Here's more coverage:
...the whale dies. He doesn’t just die, his carcass gets hauled up on the beach and carved up....
There’s no way the movie would draw a large enough audience. So I had to pass, and move on. I still think about that script.
The antidote: It's tough to strike the right balance between pushing the boundaries of the stories we tell and a script that would have an audience that's simply too small. My best advice is to always remember that it’s "show business" not "show show.”
5) Too similar to something we’re doing 5%
Another heart-breaker. You have a great idea and pour yourself into the script. You take it to the perfect ProdCo or director. And they pass, because someone else got there first.
The antidote: Use IMDbPro to stay up on what’s being developed or produced and where. If a similar project appears, you have two choices:
Put yours in a drawer.
Beat them to the punch. You can't slap something together and rush it out. You’ll just end up in category #1 or #2. Fire up the coffee maker. Cancel every social event. Use all your vacation and sick days. Come to grips with the fact that your life partner may go in search of someone who’s not crazy. And remember: Sleep is for sissies.
6) Not for us 5%
The script is great, but it's not what they are looking for. Congratulations! You just took a major leap forward in your career. Why? Because that person will read the next thing you write, and the next. And you’ve got a good, perhaps even great script to take around town. But beware. People use "not for us" to avoid having to say "your script sucks." How do you tell the real from the fake? Read the coverage.
The antidote: Use IMDbPro to, etc, etc.... Look, take a minute to enjoy your success. Fleeting and ephemeral for sure, but still success.
Our next posting is You can tell a script by its cover.
Until then, it’s back to work.
Geof Miller is a writer, producer, development consultant, and teacher of screenwriting. His classes at the University of Washington and Seattle University were described by students as “inspiring,” “enlightening,” and “f*cking awesome!”