Getting the most out of script review services

by Jimmy on May 15, 2018

Los Poncheros graphic novel page 2 pencilMy story, Los Poncheros, went from feature script to TV pilot to graphic novel

First, here is some background on my story, Los Poncheros: 
Logline:
 The racially diverse members of an outlawed, poncho-wearing gang find themselves on opposing sides of a conflict in a turbulent Western territory. The former friends must choose between their old ideals of cooperation and diversity and the current ideals of individualism, greed, and segregation.

After completing the feature script of Los Poncheros, I was able to get my wife and my best friends to read it.  I even had a women-only book club read it and was invited to their meeting to discuss it with them.  Although, only two of the six members actually read it.  I learned something from everyone that provided feedback.  I learned which characters and scenes they liked and didn’t like.  Most importantly, I found out about which parts were confusing.  As a writer, you will think your story is super clear as well as super brilliant, but oftentimes the reader will get lost in your script.  You could just say, “Well, it will make sense on the big screen,” but it should really make sense in the script first.

After exhausting my network of free readers, I realized I had to get some professional feedback.  I needed people that read scripts for a living to dive deeper into my structure, plot, tone, arcs, and themes.  I needed notes on the script written out as opposed to coming in casual conversation.  There are many script review services that you can find online or in the Reddit community, but these are the three that I used: The Black List, ScriptGal, and The Screenplay Mechanic.  My primary goal for using all of these services was to improve the story.  Of course, I secretly hoped that they would all love the story and boost my ego, but really, one’s friends and family should serve that role.

Here’s what I learned from the three services.  I have also attached their full evaluations.

The Black List (Cost: $75 for evaluation + $25 to host the script on their service), date of review: May 23, 2017

Snippet from review: “LOS PONCHEROS has an ethnically diverse cast with lively characters and colorful dialogue. But the story and character goals/arcs are somewhat lost amid the protracted dialogue and action description, and the few females in the script are objectified and marginalized.”

How I fixed the script:  My initial reaction to this review was disappointment and anger.  I thought the reader was overly sensitive.  This was a violent Western after all.  But after thinking about what the reader said about the script marginalizing women, I realized I was wrong.  Although the overwhelming majority of people out West in the 1860s were men, there were also brave women out there, who were not prostitutes or there simply to take care of the children, while the men went off on adventures.  Women had a large role in shaping and taming the Wild West.  I made a concerted effort to strengthen the Navajo female characters and even the prostitute in my story.

I knew I needed to shorten my dialogue, but having a paid reader call it out helped drive the point home.  I love writing dialogue, but sometimes it can become too long, especially with a complex story like mine.  I cut back the dialogue a lot, but was still aware of the fact that dialogue doesn’t have to be quick and snappy just because it’s easier to read and just because a great writer like George R. R. Martin said so.  Quentin Tarantino’s scripts feature large chunks of dialogue that translated well to the big screen.  It worked for Tarantino because he is a good director and the dialogue is in his stories is interesting, not expository.

Read The Black List’s full review of Los Poncheros

ScriptGal (Cost: $125), date of review: June 26, 2017

Snippets from review “It’s really hard to distill this very complex, ensemble story down to a single logline that conveys any of the excitement, humor, and intricacies of this script. The writer has done nothing short of a heroic job weaving these different yet connecting storylines together, while incorporating flashbacks to show what the former gang were like in their heyday.”

“So overall…. I really enjoyed this script! It felt, at times, like the Quentin Tarantino version of SILVERADO! In a good way. As mentioned, the characters and dialogue are really very strong. And we are invested in the story of these four former brothers-in-arms.”

How I fixed the script: “Heroic job.” “Quentin Tarantino version of SILVERADO!”  Obviously, I liked this reader and her comments.  I was feeling myself after reading her review.  But after calming down, I noticed that she too was confused with many points in the script.  There are just so many characters and storylines to juggle.  She offered a very simple solution: add text in the form of supers to introduce new chapters or acts.  I followed her advice and went back through to make sure everything made sense to the reader.

Read ScriptGal’s full review of Los Poncheros 

The Screenplay Mechanic (Cost: $129), date of review: July 28, 2017

Snippets from review: “We want to underscore the positives in this material. There are technical issues to fix and plenty of criticism below, but some of the elements at work in these pages are genuinely a great deal of fun.  Above all else, the characters are great, the tone is a blast, and the “world” of the story and the themes swirling within are compelling. From there, it’s a matter of taking a chainsaw to these pages to both fix some technical glitches and to reshape the plot into something with more clarity and commercialism.”

“Westerns are tough business. There’s no way around that cold, hard reality in the current landscape. A decade or so ago, the domestic box-office ruled the world and whatever a movie grossed in the U.S., producers only expected 50% of that amount at the international box-office. Consequently, the pictures which fared well with American audiences ruled the day. Now, in recent years, this formula has flipped. International box-office is now worth double or triple domestic. As a result, producers, studio execs,and financiers want project which will work globally. Unfortunately, there are several genres which are very culture-specific. Comedy and drama are in that category. What’s funny in, say, Kansas may not get laughs in Romania. Here, where LOS PANCHEROS is concerned, our worry is that the western genre has very limited international appeal.”

How I fixed the script: After the high of the ScriptGal review, I was brought back down to Earth from this review.  Although he had good things to say about the script, I was more focused on his thoughts on the prospects or lack thereof in making a Western.  He also said I needed to take a chainsaw to the script.  Yikes.  After the ScriptGal review, I had decided to add a fake Ken Burns-like documentary as the opening to help with explaining the story quickly to the audience.  Intersteller had an actual Ken Burns documentary in its story, so why not me?  I thought it was clever, but The Screenplay Mechanic tore it apart.  He was right.

Another comment he made was that he wanted to see the members of Los Poncheros together earlier.  I had deliberately written the script to have their storylines separate until the middle when they reunited.  However, in doing so, the audience may not have had a real strong connection to them as a group.  They may have asked, who are “Los Poncheros” and why should I care?  So I added an exciting opening that showed Los Poncheros together as young men exploring the Upper Missouri River and I took out the faux-Kens Burn opening.

Still, the opinion he gave on the viability of Westerns was hard to let go of.  Then I thought of something that ScripGal had told me in our telephone conversation (more on that later).  She said that my story would have a better chance as a TV series or graphic novel.  I ran this idea by The Screenplay Mechanic and he said, “TV isn’t a bad idea. Features are plot, TV is character. Your script leans towards character big time.”  Then in November 2017, Netflix premiered Godless, a Western mini-series.  My dreams of getting Los Poncheros out into the world was reinvigorated.

Read The Screenplay Mechanic’s full review of Los Poncheros

Conclusion:  $354 is a lot of money to spend on reviews for one script.  I probably will not do it again.  It was my first feature script and I was overly excited.  Until I build up a network of writer/movie-making friends, I will probably stick with ScriptGal for future scripts if I need professional feedback.  It’s not just because she flattered me with her positive review, but she offered good and simple suggestions to fix my script.  She also offered me a free telephone conversation to talk about the script and from this, I built up a nice rapport with her.  She is a nice person and it’s always good to have another writer and reader as a friend on the lonely journey of writing.

The only other service I would consider is The Finish Line Script Competition.  For $100, you get 5-6 pages of development notes and entry into their screenplay competition.  The beauty of their service is that you can resubmit a revised script after digesting their development notes free of charge up until the last competition deadline.

After all these reviews and notes, where am I now?  First, I turned the feature script of Los Poncheros into a TV pilot.  Then I used the TV pilot script and turned it into a comic script following Dark Horse Comics’ script template.  Then I used Upwork, the online contracting service, to find a talented graphic novel illustrator to draw 10-20 pages of Los Poncheros using my comic script as a guideline.  The beauty of Upwork is that I got over 20 different artists who replied to my proposal.  Some of them even offered to do free sample pages for me, which I accepted.  When I asked some of the other artists that I thought would be a good fit for my project if they could do some free sample pages, they readily agreed.  I think the key to getting free samples was the strength of my proposal.  I was very clear in what I wanted and was expecting.  After receiving free samples from five different artists, I chose the best candidate and we are now currently working on Los Poncheros, the graphic novel.  From these first pages that we complete, I will then shop it around to different publishers to see if they will pick up the series.

My hope is that people will love the graphic novel series so much that it will gain a large following.  Then maybe it will get picked up as a TV show or turned into a movie.  Just trying to keep the dream alive as best as I can.  More updates to come.

Turbin Corbett El Colorado PoncheroPage one from Los Poncheros, the graphic novel

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