Screenwriting 101: Script Criteria Checklist
As you probably know, finishing (or finding) a script is only the beginning of any moviemaker’s odyssey from page to screen.
With so many different funding paths and workflows once you are in production, every moviemaker’s odyssey is different. But it all starts with the script, and there are things that many financiers look for in a script when they consider investing in a film. Things that, if present on the page, can bode well for a film’s commercial prospects and, if they are missing, can foreshadow doom. Things that separate a professionally written script from an amateur one. Our script criteria checklist lists six important things to consider that make all the difference between a greenlight and the exit door.
1. Know Your Genre, Nail Your Genre
Investors aren’t looking to give you money—they’re looking to make it. So they want to know that you’ve got something marketable, something audiences want to see. Different genres have clearly defined fan bases and proven track records. Investors know what to expect with specific genres, both in terms of the story and audience appeal.
Some genres that are attractive to buyers (and audiences) include horror (The Ring), sci-fi (Minority Report), family (Shrek), thriller (Rear Window) and action-adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
2. Three Memorable Water Cooler Scenes
This one is a no-brainer. What are the three scenes people will be talking about at the water cooler at work? Why do you think they are memorable? What would you say to your friends, the next day, about your film? These are the moments that would have you on the edge of your seat in a thriller or action movie, covering your eyes in a horror film, laughing out loud in a comedy or saying “Ahhhh… Love is possible” in a romantic comedy.
Yes, this made-up word is way too “Hollywood,” but the fact remains that having a project that actors want to be in is a good thing. In fact, to many investors, marquee value is the one quintessential thing. “Name” or “A-List” actors attract investors because they attract moviegoers.
What gives a script “castability?” It can be one or many things—a compelling story, rich and multi-dimensional characters, fabulous dialogue or even just one amazing scene packed with emotion and intensity. Different things will appeal to different actors, but the better developed each character is, the better the chance an actor will want to play it. One thing to do is to think about a specific actor you admire and what kinds of roles he or she might be itching to play.
Having talent attached before you approach investors is, of course, the dream scenario. But getting even the most castable script into the hands of a well-known actor isn’t always easy. It takes good old-fashioned entrepreneurial ingenuity. Knowing who you want to cast is very important. Make A picks and B picks and keep track of agents and any other contact info you find (you may even want to consider hiring a casting director to help you get the script to certain talent).
Of course, a smaller budget can often limit casting choices, so many low-budget productions will cast name actors in smaller parts as a way to keep production costs down but still have marquee value.
4. Clarity of Theme: The Big Question
This is the underyling idea that is explored in your story. “The big question” being asked—the point you are trying to illustrate. Themes should never be preachy or feel like a message, but a clear theme serves as a rudder for your plot, provides an arc for your protagonist and gives your story a soul. It sells movie tickets because it creates a connection with your audience above and beyond the premise or a unique character. That is what makes a screenplay rock.
5. Tone, Town & Time
From the get-go, the reader/financier is going to want to know the tone of the script. The first descriptions on the first page should give a sense of when and where a story takes place. Establish your world and describe it vividly. The genre should also be clear, not necessarily from what occurs in those first moments, but from the tone of the writing—the author’s voice. A strong and genre-appropriate voice is a must: A comedy that isn’t funny, a thriller that isn’t suspenseful or a horror script that isn’t scary to read will rarely appeal to investors. They need to experience on the page what audiences will experience on the screen.
6. Character, Challenge & Change (The Three Cs)
This is huge: An audience must know with whom they are going to spend the next two hours—whose mind they are going to enter. Therefore it is necessary to set up who the protagonist is, what he or she must overcome and in the end show how the challenge has changed the character. All too often a writer will play the plot and not the characters. But it is the characters that audiences relate to, root for and connect with; it is the characters that serve as our surrogates and our guides into the world we enter.
Even if you’re financing the film yourself or are fortunate enough to have the financing lined up without shopping the script around, the above criteria should still be heeded. The things that make a script appealing to investors are also what make it appealing to actors, directors, producers, distributors and—ultimately—an audience. A good script must do many things well.
How does your script measure up against this checklist?
Try to be as objective as possible when answering that question. The script is the solid rock upon which your moviemaking dollars are going to be stacked one on top of the other, until you have the financing structure to make your movie.
Don’t be afraid to go the distance. Make sure you’ve covered all your bases by cross-checking the criteria with experienced readers before going out into the marketplace. Remember: Writing is rewriting. So don’t rush to the market until you know you are ready.
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