Secrets of a Screenplay Mechanic
Back in my ScriptShark days, I was always on the lookout for savvy script readers. So when Andrew Hilton became available, I jumped on the opportunity to bring him into my stable. Having read for Universal, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, Andrew is the rarest of finds: A seasoned industry analyst who, 7,000 screenplays later, still loves and takes great pride in what he does. His coverage is RIGHT ON. He makes no apologies sharing the hard truths about your story, structure and characters, and provides interesting and constructive suggestions aimed at elevating the work. In recent years, Andrew started offering his services to writers under his own banner, screenplay mechanic. His keen sense of story and ability to provide constructive criticism put him head and shoulders above most any other reader working with the screenwriting public today. We recently re-connected at a Culver City brasserie over our mutual love of Pearl Jam, parenting adventures and recent industry experiences. Below is the quick interview, riddled with invaluable reader insights, that emerged.
You have a loyal and strong following, that has made you a very popular reader. How did you become a reader?
I actually attended film school with the goal of becoming a DP. I had a photography background and wanted to shoot movies. But my first job in the industry was working for a producer at Universal and he introduced me to the world of development. I read every script I could get my hands on and was soon teaching myself how to write coverage, mimicking the studio’s style and standards. I left Universal to work for Joel Silver, then jumped to a new production company at Paramount. There, as the company’s Story Editor, I hired readers and taught interns how to write coverage. When that company went under, I opted not take another development job so I could focus on my own screenwriting and paid the bills by reading material for 20th Century Fox. A few years ago, I decided to build my own website. I love cars and fixing up old VWs, hence the whole Mechanic theme. Almost overnight, positive word-of-mouth began to spread and now I read exclusively through my “company.”
What, in your opinion, makes for a strong reader?
Someone who has read a ton of material, has a good feel for how the industry works, and possesses excellent, objective story instincts.
Can you tell me a bit about the different types of coverages you provide?
I offer three services.
- “Notes-Only” service is the most popular. It includes the standard cover page (logline, elements, box score, etc.) and 2 pages of constructive analysis.
- “Studio-Style Coverage” is exactly the same, plus a 2-page synopsis.
- “Development Notes” includes a cover page, 4+ pages of detailed synopsis, 4+ pages of notes, and a list of typos/grammatical errors.
What should a good coverage provide for the writer receiving it?
In my coverage, I strive to do two things. One: evaluate the marketplace potential of the screenplay. Two: give the writer useful feedback which helps them improve their material and become better writers.
Why should writers seek out getting coverage?
Filmmaking is a collaborative project so feedback from someone with extensive screenwriting experience for a fair price can be a useful tool. First, find a skilled reader you trust, then for the price of a nice meal-for-two (okay, wine included) you can receive candid, objective feedback on your work. A fresh set of eyes to help you identify your story’s strengths and weaknesses. Fellow writers can offer the same for free, but how experienced and objective are they? Does their own style cloud their judgment? Can they read your script in the timeframe you need? Of course, family and friends can read your work too. But they’ll tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.
Are there common screenwriting mistakes writers should avoid?
The most common pitfall I see is overwriting. Movies are supposed to move, so ideally our eyes will whiz across each page. A poorly-kept secret is that nobody in this business actually enjoys reading. For most producers, it’s work. So if you’re crafting sentences using fifty words when ten will suffice, you’re overwriting your movie and doing yourself a disservice. Be clean, concise, and efficient. Don’t try and impress the reader/producer with your grasp of the English language – just tell a damn good story and make us want to turn the page.
Another common mistake is a hero the audience won’t find appealing or interesting.
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to screenplays?
Don’t fudge the margins. You’re not fooling anybody.
How often do you give a screenplay the much-coveted Consider?
Very rarely. This past calendar year, I read just over 300 screenplays. I can count on one hand how many I gave a full “Consider.” Admittedly I’m tougher than some readers, but that’s how I’ve garnered the respect of so many producers. They know if I give something a “Consider” it’s at least worth reading, perhaps worth making. To earn a full “Consider” from me, your script has to be a genuinely good movie. It also has to be a movie that can get made.
What is the difference between a Recommend/Consider and a Consider w/ Reservations?
If I award a full “Consider,” it means I would make this movie as-is, or with very few changes. A “Consider w/ reservations” indicates it has serious potential but needs a rewrite, or it could be a financial/commercial risk.
What makes for a strong screenplay that warrants a Consider or a Consider w/ Reservations?
It’s simple. Your “Consider” screenplay has to be a story that will make complete strangers get off their couch and buy a movie ticket.
Andrew Hilton grew up in the United Kingdom and studied film in England and New York. Having read more than 7000 scripts, he is one of the most highly-regarded independent screenplay analysts in Hollywood. Andrew has worked in motion picture development for every major studio and some of the most successful filmmakers in the industry, including Steven Spielberg, Joel Silver and Arnon Milchan. In 2008, he founded his own company, The Screenplay Mechanic, which provides screenplay analysis and development notes for professional and amateur writers all over the world.
Andrew is also a produced screenwriter and currently has two major motion pictures scheduled for production in 2013.
Is writing a script like Inception or directing a movie like Brazil in the cards?
And say hi to Script Gal for me.
All the best,