Loads of news since my last blog, including a quarter final placement in The Nicholl Fellowship, the single biggest boost to my self-belief since I entered this crazy world. However, this post is about my summer spent in what’s been dubbed The Hope Machine… That world of consultants and coverage services in L.A that provide feedback on your scripts in return for money. Across three months I received six reports on four scripts from industry top dogs The Blacklist and Shore Scripts. Here’s how it unfolded…
It’s June 22nd 2022. 0400 hrs.
I wake feeling like a kid at Christmas. I’ve been waiting for my first ever script review from actual America. I mean, America! At this moment, I have a deferential view of distant, glittering Los Angeles from my tiny Welsh town of Pontypridd, (home of the world famous Prince’s Cafe) and so the feedback I am about to receive might just change my life.
So here I was at dawn, checking my phone to find an email had arrived in the dead of night containing The Blacklist review of my supernatural thriller LIMBO. I still enjoy the fact these witching hour emails are sent two seconds previous by some tanned consultant in a sun-scorched city five thousand miles away, who is now definitely off for a Frapp with Leonardo DiCaprio and Craig Mazin on Sunset Boulevard.
The Blacklist – Limbo – 100 dollars.
The Blacklist give it to you straight away. Boom, top of the report.
Overall 7 Premise 7 Plot 6 Character 7 Dialogue 7 Setting 8
I was happy with these numbers. The idea that a story about a haunted school in these very South Wales Valleys surrounding me could resonate with someone in Los Angeles to the degree of 7/10 was amusingly enjoyable. The village I partly based LIMBO on is just a few miles walk up the valley from my house, and it is the most humble, polite, devastated, stoic village you will ever see.
Onto the bones of the report. I was ok with the size of it. It’s not about word count as such, but for your buck you do want some stuff to chew on. This was a fairly meaty 660 words. Be honest. We only want to read the things they like. We gloss over the things they dislike until weeks later when we can bear to read it a second time. For this blog, I will focus on the advice they gave me which ultimately helped me improve the story, or to improve as a writer.
They noticed the claustrophobic nature of the community, its ‘managed’ decline between the two timelines of 1968 and 1987, and the misogyny and pettiness of the local male councillors. These are real issues in these places, just as real as the warmth, humour and love. There’s a great piece of advice in moving a scene from page 44 and turning it into a first act turn around page 25. Awesome insight. Also, the moment my protagonist really comes face to face with the ghost ‘…this is a perfect midpoint so move it back 10 pages.’ Yes! Great advice.
More good insight… In Act 2/2 the protagonists stop actively investigating the spirit. Stuff starts happening to them rather than them making it happen. There’s very little of the failed murder investigation in 1968. The story would benefit from more. Helpful stuff.
Overall, this was 660 words of insightful, well written feedback that I have since acted upon and which has improved the piece. It was positive about the scripts prospects, but identified concrete areas for improvement. Thing is, that 7/10… That’s just 1 short of the magic 8 that will put it on a list. An actual list that goes out to execs… Shall I punt $100 into another review just in case I get the magic 8? Ah shucks, go on then!
Blacklist – Limbo – 100 dollars
Same script, different reviewer. I spent several days imagining the moment where I open the report and get that blizzard of numbers. While I was fervently hoping for an 8, I decided I would absolutely settle for another 7, and would not be devastated with a 6. However, I would be horrified with a 5.
Overall 4 Premise 3 Plot 2 Character 5 Dialogue 4 Setting 5
Once helped back to my feet, one thing leapt out. This report was tiny! For my $100 I received a mere 360 words. I mean, it’s not about word count, so thinking ‘I’ve had 3.6 words per dollar’ is silly. But 360 words?
This reviewer seems to be at a different stage of their career to the previous reviewer. There is some broad, mildly helpful advice… ‘The pacing needs to be more propulsive. Character moments are overdone and do not move the plot forwards. I.E it’s ok to have Michael being bullied to show his initial timidity, but link it to the ghost, or at least to the horror thriller genre.’ Hmm, yep. Ok.
In fact the bullying, only a tiny aspect of Michael’s story and mainly confined to moments in Act One, seemed to be at the forefront of the reviewers mind.
By the time we reach the Prospects section, it’s clear Joaquin Phoenix was standing at the reviewers office door, tapping his watch and waving his Starbucks card.
Obviously I was gutted by the scores. But mainly I was gutted because I’d forked out ANOTHER $100 for just 360 words of mildly insightful advice. Was the meaty first review a blip, and 360 words is industry standard? At this point, I was happy to leave The Blacklist behind. I would act on the helpful notes from reviewer 1, improve the script, then find a coverage service with some consistency of quality, or at least consistency of wordcount. But the Hope Machine had other ideas. Within hours of this second report, I received another email…
‘We noticed that you received two recent paid evaluations that diverged significantly in their overall ratings. As a way for everyone (you, us, and our members) to get a better sense of where your script stands, we wanted to offer you an additional read for $60.’
NO CHANCE! YOU’VE ALREADY TAKEN TWO HUNDRED BUCKS OFF ME!
And so I sent the sixty bucks with a stern look on my face. Just so they knew. Oh they knew.
Blacklist – Limbo – 60 dollars
I had read about the Hope Machine, and scoffed at the poor souls who were totting up their finances to discover they had spent $4,781 on script coverage and competitions in 12 months. But now I’d spent $260 in three days. I can’t afford this. I’ve just bought a house and the evil Conservative government is crushing me in a financial vice.
The Hope Machine understands our desire for validation. Our yearning to get a foot in the industry. They also understand that after spending two hundred bucks in three days, a penniless screenwriter will reluctantly walk away in order to pay the rent and buy food.
But the penniless screenwriter will secretly be desperate for one more report. So if they are nudged with an offer for a discounted ‘decider’ they are 99% sure to accept the offer, even if it places them in financial jeopardy. Penniless screenwriters are not normal consumers. They are desperate consumers. And The Hope Machine knows this.
Before I even received the third report, I knew the outcome. The script had problems. It really was too slow in Act One, and the protagonists fade away in Act Three. The relatively glowing first report had been mistaken, or at least optimistic.
Overall 5 Premise 5 Plot 5 Character 6 Dialogue 5 Setting 8
Again, the reviewer picked out character and location as real strengths. The double timeline was another device that resonated. Good. ‘The three main relationships contain a great deal of heart.’ Yep, I poured my soul into that. ‘There’s a lack of narrative momentum in the first half, the reveals are too predictable, the identity of the ghost and of the murderer is too easily telegraphed.’ This was all good advice, and I have since used it to improve the script.
This report was just 380 words. I started to think about the pattern of the three reports I had just received from The Blacklist.
Report 1: 660 words, score 7.
Report 2: 360 words, score 4.
Report 3: 380 words, score 5.
I was left with the uneasy feeling that a tactic is playing out here. For NFL fans, a play. Do they hook you in with a lengthy, high quality, optimistic report and a near miss of 7/10… Then hit you with the truth, as written by a rushed-off-their-feet novice… Then use this score discrepancy to lure you in for one more payday? I like to think not.
Bruised and skint, I walked away from coverage and spent the rest of the summer developing three other feature scripts. I could no longer afford the local, personal, one-to-one coverage reports I used prior to buying a house, so I again cast my eyes over the Atlantic and settled on Shore Scripts. First up was my sci-fi wormhole alien love story DISTANT PLANET.
Shore Scripts – Distant Planet – 95 dollars
A little cheaper than Blacklist. I awaited the report with genuine curiosity as to the quality of their service. The usual ‘kid-on-Christmas morning’ feeling as I woke to check if an email had whizzed in from Santa Monica Boulevard overnight. Yes! First up, a score chart. I do like these things…
Ok, bad news for the current draft. But can they help me improve it? As I scrolled down, I was awestruck by the sheer length of the report. 1280 words! And it quickly became clear the quality was at another level too.
Character and setting again stands out for the reviewer. Americans seem to like the Valleys. Or at least the Valleys I am presenting. The reviewers advice was concise, articulate and prolific. ‘There are two separate movies here, a sci-fi and a drama, cut the drama one out or at least reduce it to the role of B story and create more crossover. Admirable as they are, there are too many themes and you should remove some. Helen’s need is not strong enough, and the stakes are not dangerous enough.’ There were more pieces of broad story advice than you could shake a leek at.
Lot’s of specific advice too. ‘Helen wouldn’t leave her kids to go and live on another planet… Her relationship with her ex is too nice… You’ve overplayed the towns racism and bigotry, less is often more.’ This reader has set aside a longer chunk of day to write this report than the previous two I received.
The things I love about the script were also picked up, and after the 1280 words I was left with a sense that DISTANT PLANET has genuine potential. That the route forward involves removing lots of things, rather than adding lots of things. Which is always nice.
Current Predicted Industry Outcome: PASS
The reviewer was encouraging in a genuine way. This is a PASS because there are two movies of different genre crammed into it. If you excise one of them delicately enough, this could improve predicted outcome.
The hot Welsh summer continued. I found myself utilising all this glamorous Stateside advice as I developed my scripts. Next up for review was my drug fuelled coming-of-age sports drama SIDE STEP.
Shore Scripts – Side Step – 95 dollars
This script was soon to achieve placement in the Nicholl Fellowship, but as I pinged it off to Shore Scripts I had not yet received this happy news…
…so I was thrilled to see a score chart much improved from that of DISTANT PLANET. Again, the review was comprehensive at 920 words and that unmistakable feeling that the reviewer had REALLY given their time for me, and my script, oozed off the page.
A good mix of actionable advice, both broad… ‘The stakes are a little tame, act one is too slow, the page count should be sub-100 for this type of film’, and specific… ‘Why does Aled stay with the gang? What is the want that drives this? How does that stand in the way of his need? The first scene can be cut’. Again, effusive praise for the characters (despite only ticking proficient) and setting. We must always take reviewers plaudits with a pinch of salt because we know they shoehorn positive comments in to offset the negative, but all five L.A reports have now singled out character and setting. This could be because the Welsh Valleys do not often turn up on their desks.
Current Predicted Industry Outcome: CONSIDER
Happy with this outcome and with the denseness of the report. The themes developing for me as a writer are pedestrian first acts, stakes that are not deadly enough and dialogue which could be tightened. I took all the advice that Shore Scrips had given me so far and spent weeks working it into my haunting sci-fi about a future-seeing old trawlerman in a Scottish fishing village – ENTANGLED.
Shore Scripts – Entangled – 95 dollars
After weeks of furious splicing, tweaking and polishing, ENTANGLED was ready to go. I had spent more hours ‘through the screen’ in the fictional fishing village of Porthaven than in any of my other worlds, and so had become utterly snow blind as to this scripts merit.
Current Predicted Industry Outcome: RECOMMEND
Even though I loved Entangled, and creating it had given me many months of happiness, laughter and tears, I did not for a moment suspect that an industry reader halfway across the world would like it too. So reading this report was a happy experience.
Despite the very positive outcome, the reviewer, clearly knowledgeable in Physics, made sure to include lots of constructive advice. The interaction between block universe and quantum entanglement could be tighter, determinism could be explored more thoroughly, one line of dialogue at midpoint is misleading… There was also a great deal of praise, and numerous observations that made my heart swell.
The report, all 1200 words of it, carried on. For every word of praise there was a piece of advice. This reviewer had sat down, poured themselves coffee, and set about creating a piece of work that would provide real value to its recipient. They seemed to care. Oh, and I’m just gonna post the marketability bit cos I like this…
The sci-fi element to this script involves block universe theory and quantum entanglement. These are not laugh-a-minute subjects, and they are unlikely to render you a sobbing wreck. And so I worked very hard to create characters and relationships that could pull the reader in and hopefully provide emotion (suck ‘em in with the tears, gut punch them with the quantum entanglement). However, I made sure that each character and relationship served and enhanced the central narrative. I drew pencil diagrams with lots of arrows, and went through reams of notepaper trying to blend a warm love story and a cold space-time examination across two timelines spanning ninety years.
Oddly, my satisfaction was mainly for my characters. I had grown to love Reggie, Annie and Jake and all the colourful characters of this tiny fishing village. To think that an industry exec may also have enjoyed spending time with them made me happy. And here, perhaps, is the reason we are all doing this. I took huge enjoyment from the knowledge that one person had fun in my story world. Can you imagine how it must feel to have a film produced and then to have played a small part in helping thousands or even millions of people have some fun for two hours? This reality will not play out for many of us. There is a good chance it won’t play out for me. But it’s not impossible. And so I will sit in my little house in Pontypridd and I will continue to write.
If you look at the three score charts I received from Shore Scripts, you see an almost linear line of improvement, even though they are three entirely separate scripts. I believe this is because each time we receive a thousand words of careful feedback from a conscientious script consultant, we become slightly better writers.
When I fork out a one hundred dollars but am given 380 words, including lazy, spiky sentences like ‘…the story is beyond predictable’ (written by the third Blacklist reviewer), I switch off. I mean, we don’t need platitudes. In fact, we NEED criticism. We just want a sense that the reviewer has truly given us their time and cares about their own work.
So, here ends my review of the reviewers. I think I have been fair. And if anyone should understand the concept of fair, constructive criticism it would be the good people at these script coverage services.
Until the next time we meet, au reviour!
2 thoughts on “A Summer in the Hope Machine”
Thank u for sharing this! I got coverage from shore scripts and was really curious how it compares to the blcklist since I’m really trying to get in their email list! Have u done anything since with your script that got a recommend?
Hi Jenny, nope I haven’t done a thing with it since then as I’ve had to pause on competitions for financial reasons. And the ‘Recommend’ itself hasn’t led to any contacts. But the script they gave a ‘Consider’ to won best screenplay in a festival last Saturday which gives me confidence in their judgement!