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What is Script Coverage? What is the goal for the reader and what skills do you need to become a Story Analyst?

Auteur filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once said “To make a great film you need three things–the script, the script and the script.”  When a production company or an independent filmmaker is looking to make that great film, they want confidence that the screenplay is production ready. Before the script development executives invest time reading themselves, they turn to  script readers  to cull the herd and write script coverage.  

So, what does the job of reading scripts involve and can script reading be a full-time opportunity to offer your script coverage services?  If you are someone who has critical writing skills, a love and knowledge of film and a keen understanding of plot and character, then joining the ranks of script consultancies might be for you.

To serve as a guide for all things script coverage, we turned to a trio of industry professionals:

Andrea McCall, Amblin Partners Head of Story and Exec VP, Creative Affairs

Mark Chandley, Union Story Analyst at Sony and former Development Exec at Storied Media Group

Holly Sklar, long time Warner Bros. Pictures, Story Analyst and current member-at-large of the board of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE Local 700.

What is Screenplay Coverage?

Script coverage or script notes in a nutshell is synopsis and feedback. The studio executives will read the coverage to see the screenplay’s logline (one or two lines that state the central conflict of the screenplay), summary of plot and characters and the script coverage comments on the quality of the writing. In the comments section, the reader will give their impressions in a variety of ways. 

Mark Chandley helped us break down many forms coverage can take:

Submission coverage – Consists of a logline, a 2-3 page summary of the story, 1 page of comments, and a recommendation. Usually the recommendation scale is PASS, CONSIDER, and RECOMMEND, but each studio, production company, and agency may have their own variation of this.

Writing Sample (W/S) coverage – Formatted the same as standard submission coverage but the evaluation is targeted toward identifying the writer’s ability and viability to be placed on a writing assignment for an existing film or TV project, rather than considering for production the script being evaluated .

Chapter Break-Down – Summary of each chapter, for manuscripts, books, any material that has chapters. For this, there is no comment/analysis, it is simply informational.

Character breakdowns – Oftentimes included with agency/management company coverage. Can range from short blurbs of characters, like you might see in casting, to more detailed summaries about the character, their personality and arc through the story.

What exactly are studios looking for in professional script coverage?  

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The Goal of Screenplay Coverage

Coverage is a one to three page report written by an experienced Story Analyst that communicates to film executives whether or not a script, book, article, or other piece of intellectual property should be considered for acquisition.  

The analyst will determine if the creative property should be a “pass”, a “consider” or a “recommend” for acquiring the material.  According to Andrea McCall, at a minimum, her coverage needs to identify the following elements:

  • Genre
  • Central idea – what is at the core of this story?
  • Premise – what drives the plot?
  • Theme – what is it ultimately about? (i.e. hope, forgiveness, coming of age)
  • Character discussion – who they are and what they want
  • Plot discussion – major important events and why they matter
  • Tone – the mood or attitude such as playful or serious
  • Entertainment value / Marketability / Target audience
  • Commercial & mainstream? Or Art film?
  • A concise synopsis
  • A concise logline
  • Clear comments

However, no two companies will have the same format to follow when evaluating a screenplay or creative property.. There is no universal script coverage template, but they are all in pursuit of identifying wonderful, marketable, fresh stories.  Story Analyst Holly Sklar had these thoughts on the process:

“Yes, everyone is looking for a logline, synopsis, plus genre, time period during which something takes place, and everything that goes into telling a story well onscreen — a writer’s distinctive voice, a clear and resonant-with-audiences theme, obviously good story structure, characters that we can relate to/identify with/root for, or if anti-heroes, are compelling, strong character arcs and relationships/dynamics between characters, and other things that are genre-dependent.  

For instance, if it’s fantasy or sci-fi, is the world believable and consistent within itself, so we’ll understand the rules of how it operates?  If it’s a thriller, does it sufficiently build tension and suspense, and have a satisfying pay-off?  If it’s got a mystery element, is the mystery surprising but not confusing?  If it’s a comedy, is it consistently funny, and will it connect with the audience to which it’s aimed?  The latter consideration — who is this movie for, and will it provide a satisfying experience for that audience — is key for all genres.  We’re also looking for freshness, novelty, distinctiveness in the writing and/or a new take on a genre or combo of genres.”

And since so many more screenplays are read than get produced, Sklar offered this important insight into the process:  

“We read not just to find material but to find writers who are skilled and have compelling and new voices.”

Coverage Samples

Now you know what script coverage is and the goal of screenplay analysis , but what does it actually look like on the page? 

Script Analysts at studios and production companies, who have current script reading jobs are often not at liberty to share examples of coverage due to confidentiality. However we were able to provide an example of coverage for the 2017 draft of Bill and Ted Face the Music.

The above is one agency approach to coverage. Today, many independent Story Analysts are taking advantage of new technology. For example,  Zoom meetings where you can screen share in real time, make it a more holistic approach to discussing story issues and opportunities.

A lot of script work is in the rewrite. Insightful coverage can help the process as you hone the central idea, plot/structure, dialogue and descriptive action lines.

Becoming a Story Analyst

At Amblin, Andrea McCall oversees a bustling story department.  “I hire readers who love movies, and who are well educated cinephiles, preferably with an English lit degree and possess a remarkable understanding of story, who have terrific writing skills to articulate the strength and weaknesses of any genre of material.”

There is often an urgency towards deadlines and although it would seem like a relatively straightforward job, McCall sees the complexity.

 “Among a million other things. I could lecture for hours on this subject, as writing (good) coverage is harder than you think.   Readers have 4-5 hours to turn around a 120 page script with full coverage.  And it has to be perfect and correct in all ways.”

The role of the Story Analyst has a long and storied history.  Holly Sklar wrote an excellent article on the profession that shows its importance to the creative process.  In today’s world of coverage, most of the legacy studios use union Story Analysts (Warner Bros., Paramount, Sony, Universal, Disney, 20th Century Studios, MGM) and a few other big places — e.g., Amblin Partners/Dreamworks, Focus, CBS-TV Studios (the production arm that makes TV shows).  Sklar explains further:

“The union we are part of is Local 700 of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, and at present there are fewer than 100 people making a regular full-time union-job living doing this — closer to 65-70.  The bulk of opportunity for newcomers is in freelance work, at the many, many production companies around town.  But it’s hard to make a freelance full-time  living at it — you have to juggle multiple clients and get paid in some cases by the piece (script or novel, say) rather than by the hour.  There are a few places that have moved to an hourly rate, which is what the union positions have, but union positions come with benefits:  companies signatory to our agreement make pension and health plan contributions such that we get union health coverage, and we get paid holidays, we earn vacation and sick time, etc.  Freelance work comes with none of these benefits.” 

Besides the financial stability and benefits, a Story Analyst that works in a union usually has more responsibility than simply evaluating material.  Sklar explains:

“Union story analysts do extensive creative development notes for studio executives, comparison coverages tracking and documenting changes from draft to draft as a project goes through development, plus intellectual property comparisons and good faith writing credit determinations for studio legal departments.”

However, becoming union is a bit of a catch-22.  The only way to get into the union is to get a job with a union signatory company and work for them a qualifying number of days/hours (around a month’s work).  Sklar expressed that the union is actively working to expand union jobs in this field, and get more companies to become signatory.  But it is an uphill battle.  Her advice?

“Freelance work is far more plentiful and the best way to get experience and network.  That way, when a position opens up at a union signatory company, freelancers may get a shot at it — though people already in the union do get priority. That said, newcomers do get into the union — it’s been around 17 in the past 10-15 years or so.  

The difficulty isn’t the union readers getting priority, it’s that not enough jobs exist, and not enough companies are signatory and willing to hire full-timers to do this work.  It’s not a big growth industry, but if more companies become signatory to the union’s Story Analyst Agreement, more full-time jobs will open up for newcomers. A bunch of us in the union are working to try to make this happen, and recently a major streamer became signatory and is in the process of converting a number of its freelancers to full-time employees who will also be given entree to join the union as soon as they’ve earned enough qualifying days to do so.”

Independent Story Analyst Mark Chandler offered this sage advice:

“Most of these jobs are word of mouth and networking-based, meaning you won’t see a job posting for them. The most effective thing an aspiring story analyst can and should do is build up a portfolio of good script coverage examples. 

There are tons of scripts on the internet, find one, and write up a coverage. Have samples of a pass, consider and recommend. Network with story analysts that way, when they hear of a gig, they have a name to put forward.  Reach out to people who run story departments at production companies (as a note studios can’t hire freelancers per the Local 700 contract) and development executives. There’s never a shortage of material to cover and people always need help trying to find the diamond in the rough.”

Useful Resources

Here are some helpful links as you begin the journey of creating script coverage examples or finding someone to cover your script:

https://www.assemble.tv/blog/the-best-free-screenwriting-software – roundup of free screenwriting software.

https://onthepage.libsyn.com/596-the-gate-keepers Holly Sklar, Mark Chandley, and Daniel Livnat share their experiences working as story analysts for production companies, studios, and networks, and what they look for in material. 

https://www.amazon.com/Writers-Journey-Mythic-Structure-3rd/dp/193290736X Former Story Analyst Christopher Vogler’s book (expanded from a memo he wrote while a story analyst at Disney).

https://www.uclaextension.edu/entertainment/film-tv/course/story-analysis-film-and-television-film-tv-x-47622 – UCLA Extension class on story analysis for film and television.

https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Screenplays-Evaluate-Creative-Essentials/dp/1842435108 Book by Lucy Scher. This user-friendly guide lays bare the process of analyzing film scripts, and is invaluable to anyone looking to work as a script reader,

https://www.amazon.com/Liked-Didnt-Love-Screenplay-Development/dp/0692596682 Book by Rona Edwards & Monica Skerbelis on screenplay development. The book sheds light on the inner workings of the feature film and TV development process, who all the players are, and how they fit together as content creators at film studios, TV networks, agencies, and production companies.

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