Decode This: “I Didn’t Connect With Your Screenplay”

Writers have been through this a million times: Waiting for an executive to read their script over weeks or maybe even months, only to finally get a pass. Potential reps who had a chance to peruse the material but didn’t decide to take the writer or the project on. Their own reps, reading their latest material, and responding in a way that can best be described as Meh. And, more often than not, the same excuse for not signing the writer, for not taking the material out to market, for not setting a meeting: “I didn’t connect with the material.”

We hear it all the time. It’s even an option on the pull down for executives reading pitches for a popular online query sending service. But what does it mean?

The truth about screenwriters and the industry is that the longer you try to break into it, the more you become grateful for any response, any acknowledgment of your writing, regardless of whether the final outcome is positive (i.e. you get signed, you go into development, you start developing a working relationship with the producer, executive, manager, etc.) or negative (you are told that the material ultimately was not right for the executive or his company and best of luck with your writing). So in time you come to appreciate any response or indication that the material was, indeed, read and given some semblance of consideration. After all, that is the job of a new writer: Get your material read by as many people as possible, in order to find it a champion and an advocate, and move your screenwriting career forward. And anyone who reads you and at least responds is someone you want to keep the conversation going with.

So why is it so important that the reader not only read your screenplay or pilot, but that he or she connect with it?

For the record, “I didn’t connect with the material,” or some version of it, is something I’ve said myself on more than one occasion. I’ve pulled out that old, trusty reasoning as an explanation for my own lack of enthusiasm for the work when reading a script where the writing was (more-or-less) sound, where the architecture was solid, but where I myself could not get excited about the material, could not get invested in the characters and their journey, could not fall in love with the writing, no matter how competent the execution was.

A few months ago, I read exactly such a script that tracked the story of the political machinations behind the election of a powerful organization’s head figure. The script was executed just fine, the protagonist had just enough flaws, there were some interesting maneuvers, there were some stakes presented but… Unfortunately, I just did not care. I didn’t care which of the candidates would end up stepping into the helm of this fictional organization or what backhanded schemes it would take to get him there. I didn’t care about the organization itself. I didn’t care about its perks. No matter how much I wanted to, I just couldn’t get invested. And in this industry, for a script or a writer to move forward, to get signed, to have that general set, to have their script go into development, the person reading the script, be they an executive, an agent or a manager, must get inspired and invested, so much so that he or she can’t wait to tell others about it.

Remember, this is an industry that works on spec. Agents and managers work on spec without making a penny until they are able to sell their writers’ projects or pitches, land them a writing assignment, or get them staffed. Producers and directors delve into developing a project without pay (unless they are the fortunate few who work for a company that has a studio deal in place) until they are able to secure financing for the project – also very much on spec. All of which is to say: none of these individuals get paid until they are able to get the project or the writer the attention it needs to garner success. And in lieu of a paycheck powering them into their jobs, it’s going go be their passion and enthusiasm that will get them to pick up the phone, to speak to buyers, to financiers, to the industry executives who can help them build their writers’ careers or push a project forward, time and time again.

Even those who work for a company with a studio deal, or the network or the studio itself, have only so much bandwidth, and will have to fight the good fight for whichever project they select to bring onto their slate. They will have to sell it to their superiors, to other departments, to potential partners while competing with other projects from other executives. They will have to make a case for it again and again. If they are successful, it will help them keep their job; if they fail, there is someone in the wings already waiting to take their place. So they better have the passion to fight for this project or this writer they’ve taken on every day they go to work.

Connecting – or not connecting – with the material can happen on many different levels: The reader may not really connect with the subject matter. He may, however, love the writer’s voice, in which case he will likely ask for another sample. The reader may be really interested in the subject matter that the script is exploring, but not connect with the story the writer has chosen, in which case he might suggest a different take. He could connect with themes, but not subject matter. And if none of that happens? I DID NOT CONNECT WITH THE MATERIAL means, in the simplest terms, that the reader was just not that into the work. That it didn’t inspire him into action. It was not interesting, effective or exciting enough for him to pursue further, be it for production, development or representation.

If the person reading your script doesn’t fall in love with it, doesn’t get inspired by it, they are not going to take cation on its or your behalf. And it’s their desire to take action that will help you move things forward. You want someone advocating for your work who will speak about it passionately, who will be excited to tell anyone and everyone they know about it. After all, passion is contagious. It’s exciting. You talk to someone who is gushing about a writer or a project, you want in on whatever it is they’re reading. And not connecting with the material will keep the agent, manager, executive or producer from advocating for you or your script effectively. Therefore it is your job to find the person who will not only connect with the story and the writing, but will get downright passionate. That is how you begin to build meaningful relationships in the professional space.