Impressing the Right People: A Conversation With Analyst Rob Ripley
Despite the fact that writing is a solitary craft, filmmaking is a highly collaborative process. The sooner writers begin exposing their work and getting notes from people in the know, the better their screenplay – and their understanding of collaboration – will be. While professional writers often have strong resources for notes and feedback in place (other working writers, writing groups, or producers they’ve worked with in the past), writers on the verge often find themselves at a loss with regards to where they should turn. Enter the industry analyst – a person who is trained at analyzing and exploring a screenplay with the purpose of bringing it to its full potential. Not only can the industry reader provide invaluable insight to the writers he works with; he is also the gatekeeper for producers, production companies, agencies, management companies and studios considering new material to develop.
I recently sat down with my old friend, Rob Ripley, who is, by far, one of the best analysts working with new and emerging writers today. Rob’s resume is glowing, to say the least: On the professional side, he’s covered amazing scripts, including everything from Mission: Impossible to Crazy, Stupid Love, and has, in recent years, begun working directly with writers through his website, http://thirdactscreenplays.wordpress.com/. Having introduced a number of my coaching clients to him, I remain consistently impressed with the depth of his analysis, and the extent of the constructive, thoughtful notes he provided the working with him.
In order to shed some light on the coverage process, the importance of notes and the depth of his experience, I asked Rob some pertinent questions tackling everything from industry perspective to his professional history. The interview below is what emerged.
Tell me about your professional history.
I was thrilled to discover that my shameless childhood television and movie addiction was actually excellent preparation for a writing career. Since earning my MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon, I’ve worked for studios and production companies that made commercial movies for theatrical release both in the U.S. and around the world. My employers have included Walt Disney, Paramount, Script Shark and Cruise/Wagner Productions (production company of Tom Cruise and his former producing partner Paula Wagner prior to their acquisition of United Artists). During the past ten years I have:
▪ Been a paid screenwriter.
▪ Helped over 200 private clients develop their scripts
▪ Evaluated submissions for those who developed and/or executive produced the films War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible, We Bought a Zoo, The Last Samurai, and many others.
▪ Written over 2,000 coverage reports on the job as an A-list studio reader.
▪ Taught writing and story analysis at three educational institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.
You can read more about me and how I work at my website.
What do you look for when you read a script?
There are three key things I’ve found successful scripts tend to have in common that my subconscious is always seeking when I start reading:
- First and foremost, a sense of safety. By safety I’m not referring to subject matter or themes “designed to appeal to a broad, studio audience.” By safety, I mean the immediate and innate sense the writer is in clear command of storytelling; that every element, character, event, and piece of description are intentional and necessary.
- Second, I’m looking for an emotional connection to the leading characters and for them to have an emotional arc. All too often the “plot” is overly complicated at the expense of some time spent clarifying a character’s flaw and ensuring how they respond to situations is governed by their inability to understand their own shortsightedness. Reading a screenplay without a clearly construction emotional arc is like riding a roller coaster without any hills – what’s the point?
- Finally, I look to be engaged. This means leaving something for my brain to work on, connect some dots and fill in some gaps.
What is the best way for the writer to draw you in?
Focus. 99% of what I read has at least a moderate focus issue. If a writer can trust themselves to include on the page only what’s salient to this specific story and – as the old saying goes – leave out the boring parts, I always lean in. I may not dig the subject matter or the leading character, but that kind of focus makes a script impossible to ignore.
Why should writers seek out getting coverage?
Generally speaking, successful writers want a second perspective on the script. If they don’t really want that, they’re wasting their time and the analyst’s. More specifically, good coverage for a writer will be a barometer to measure how clear they are with their intentions. For example, I get lots of scripts whose writers have categorized as romantic comedies but are actually romantic dramas. That’s a valuable perspective. Lots of scripts also have protagonists who are made up of a series of peculiar characteristics the writer believes paints them as “quirky” but in truth, makes them simply appear to be insane and without any sense of logic. Again, perspective is valuable.
What, in your opinion, makes for a strong reader?
My experience tells me is that if a reader can’t express to a writer why something is wrong without being an ass, then likely their perspective is skewed and they aren’t too terribly interested in helping writers. (They’re also likely not someone I’d want to have a beer with and the value of that characteristic can’t be underestimated). In short, for me, a strong reader:
- Strives to understand the writer’s intent
- Places thoughts and ideas into a larger context
- Is truthful and professional
Can you tell me a bit about the different types of coverages you provide?
The services I offer are straightforward and designed to help stories that are in what I loosely define as the three major stages of a script’s lifecycle:
1. The core idea’s there but we’re all over the map in terms of forward momentum
2. Main events unspool in a logical manner and lead to a surprising but inevitable conclusion
3. It’s about fine-tuning
Basic Coverage is a brief, high-level look at the story Includes a logline and brief plot summary, an overall rating of major elements, 2 pages of comments on the major elements (character, plot, dialogue); and a final rating / recommendation.
Development Notes offer a more in-depth look at your script and includes the services in the coverage package plus 4 to 6 pages of analysis and notes (instead of 2) and a 30-minute follow-up conference call to answer your questions and get a bit more clarity.
Development Consultation is my most popular and comprehensive package. It includes detailed page notes written on the physical draft showing my reactions and questions as I read it and highlighting out issues with all major elements especially in regards to structure, pacing, cutting and trimming, clarity, emotion, and writer intent; 6-8 pages of notes and analysis of major critical issues and offering my overall commercial assessment; Basic line editing (fixes to spelling and grammar errors, format issues, paragraph breaks and red-lining what I suggest you cut and trim); Story Grid worksheet; 2 rounds of email follow-up questions and 1, one-hour phone conference
What should a good coverage provide for the writer receiving it?
First and foremost, good coverage provides the truth. As a writer myself, I know how excruciating it is to have to the flaws in my work pointed out. It never gets easier, but I’ve come to realize the value of being open to hearing it.
Good coverage also provides a clear idea of what is working well and why. And the ‘why’ is really important because understand why something works well is how we learn to replicate it and not just rely on good luck, hoping it shows up in our next script.
Finally, good coverage reveals lots of clues as to what made an impression (good, bad or otherwise). These impressions are important because collectively, they’re what’s memorable about the script. A good writer will list all of those impressions, then take the time to see if they’re worth keeping and developing or need to be removed.
You’ve read a lot of scripts. What separates great scripts from average ones?
That’s a tough question because there are so many ways to look at it and a big piece of “great” is subjective. But for me, great scripts all have two ridiculously strong elements in common – character and craft.
When I mention character, I get a lot of writers who protest, “But Rob, what about the plot? Isn’t that really what a movie is?” While I appreciate a good plot as much as the next writer, I believe that for virtually any stand-alone story – film, novel, play, you name it – the real story is simply how the character changes as they try to achieve some external objective. The plot is ultimately the best choice of obstacles (characters and events) that let us watch that change happen.
The second element that separates great scripts from average ones is craft. By craft, I don’t mean formatting. That’s 101 stuff no pro will ever need pointed out (would you show up to a swim meet wearing football equipment?). By craft, I mean having a clear point of view, understanding what characters are trying to accomplish in each scene, getting in late and leaving early, using conflict rather than argument as an engine, understanding that how words lay on the page can affect the reader, and on and on.
Are there common screenwriting mistakes writers should avoid?
Here’s my (current) top 10 list:
- Directing from the page. It’s a story – not a movie (yet).
- Overwriting (dialog, description, the number of characters, everything.)
- “Writing exposition” instead of using conflict to show us the given circumstances.
- Argument is not conflict.
- Not being willing to cut.
- Writing in monotone. Smart writers understand tone in action / description helps tell the story.
- Unclear intent. If a writer isn’t crystal clear about intent, the story never will be.
- Plotting the easy path (a.k.a. what people want). Great stories take the road less traveled so characters (and the reader) get what they need.
- If the scene has two women, they don’t need to talk about the men in their lives.
- The entire cast being the same age (usually in their 20’s or early 30’s). Always try to write at least one character over 50 and if possible, female. They’re the most interesting people on the planet.
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to screenplays?
For those of us who read a lot of scripts, it’s impossible to not have a laundry list of things that drive us a little batty. Virtually any book about screenwriting has a chapter dedicated to this.
When reading, I work hard to understand the writer’s intent and this helps put seemingly hackneyed or annoying choices into a larger context. That said, here are a few practices I see quite regularly that are pretty much universal deal-breakers:
Directing From the Page
Can the story be told without that camera direction? In all likelihood, it can. And should be. The director’s job will be to figure out the most compelling way to shoot it. As the writer, our job is to tell an amazing story. That’s it. Nothing gets in the way of telling a great story like having to read, “CLOSE UP”, “ANGLE FROM ABOVE” or “TRACK IN ON”.
This is the term I use for about 90% of the scripts I read, and these are wildly overwritten – dialog, characters, events, action, you name it – it’s all too much. Yes we want to evoke the moment, but all to often the moment suffocates. And then another moment, then another and soon, the script is a trail of overblown moments that mean nothing to anyone outside the writers brain. Be ruthless about keeping the barest minimum the reader needs to fill in the gaps, make the right assumptions and leap along with the story. As writer’s if we can’t learn to cut what we love, we are doomed and should just keep a journal.
By no means do I subscribe to a specific length for spec scripts, but I will tell you that if your script is more than 120 pages, you’ve pretty much guaranteed it won’t be read at a studio.
Sad, but true.
But, when an overworked studio exec or reader takes home a dozen scripts over the weekend and you’re 120-pager is next to the 96-pager, guess which one she’ll read? And yours will continue to get pushed until there’s no time left. And then they will give it a pass after glancing at the first five pages while rushing to their Monday morning read meeting. (Yes, there are (mercifully) exceptions to this – but they prove the rule.)
Advice? Just tell a rollicking great story in a hundred pages and make them want to call you in and talk about it. If they like it and like you (and the stars align) they’ll hire you to expand on those sections that might be a little thin. However, the converse is never true. I’ve never heard a studio reader or exec say, “Didn’t you just love that 130-page spec script? We should buy it and have the writer come in and trim it a bit.” Never. Once.
R.B. Ripley is a writer and development specialist with over a decade of experience in studio and independent film. Writing and working with writers is his passion and full-time job, not just a side venture. He holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner of 13 years and their two rescued pups.