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Secrets from a Script Reader: Film Market Screenplays

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Sundance. Cannes. TIFF. Everyone wants to get their film selected for these festivals, to attend, be seen, be heard, mingle with the pros at these events, but why is everyone at these specific festivals in the first place? It’s because these are the major film markets in the world, and the pros that attend aren’t there for play. They’re there for business.

There are film markets and there are film festivals. Not all festivals are film markets. I’ve run into many beginning filmmakers and screenwriters that don’t yet understand what a film market is and why the who’s-who in the industry attend these festivals.

Stars, big name directors, producers, and others attached to films screening at these major film markets attend to help sell and market the projects they’re attached to, to network, and other business-related reasons. I’m not going to get into that side of it, but what I want to help you understand is the part of it that readers are involved in, the acquisitions aspect of the business deals that occur there, which you probably don’t know about.

As a professional script reader, I don’t just work in development, but I also work in acquisitions. Acquisitions is sales and distribution. Acquisitions is one of the business deals that takes place at major film markets. Script readers like me are utilized to help sales agents understand the properties, aka the films, they’re repping that need funding or distribution secured.

If you read my column about what script readers do, then you know that readers in development read the scripts submitted to a production company or studio to weed out the good from the bad so that the cream of the crop reaches the decision makers.

Similar to how producers don’t have time to read all the scripts submitted to them, which is why readers like me are needed, sales agents don’t have time to read all the scripts, aka properties, they’re bringing to a film market. Their job is to sell. My job as a reader is to help them understand what they’re selling by providing coverage on the screenplays they’re trying to get funding or distribution for at a film market.

It doesn’t mean that sales agents don’t take the time to read these properties, but that readers have a unique skillset that’s different from a sales agent in understanding screenplays from a story analyst perspective, which aids the agents in what they do.

I love reading screenplays going to film markets. It’s a joy! By the time a screenplay is headed to a major film market, there are already stars and major players attached to the project, and sometimes shooting has already begun. This means that these scripts have been polished and aren’t just production ready, they are works of art from pro screenwriters.

Film market screenplays are a different caliber, which is why it’s an absolute treat as a reader to provide coverage for them. Below are a few of the significant differences with film market scripts, the screenplays that are getting made by studios that stars want to sign on to, and the properties that the industry is excited about.

APPEARANCE

In the beginning of a film market script, it doesn’t always start with page one. There’s sometimes an informational page or two on the property that will have who’s already attached (actors, director, producers, production companies etc), a synopsis, and maybe a director’s statement. The cover page might have some kind of design to it so that you start to get a feel for the story and director’s vision.

Sometimes film market scripts come to me with pitch materials. This might be the director’s reel, storyboards, mood boards, poster art, etc. As a reader, this is helpful as I write acquisitions coverage, because I get to understand how the production is shaping up to convey that to the sales agent. It helps us get on the same page for understanding the property.

LOGIC

Bulletproof logic is a key reason why it’s such a treat to read film market scripts, and a big factor as to why these screenplays are of a higher caliber. By logic, I mean there are no plot holes, the rules of the world in the narrative are clear without inconsistencies, and there are no unanswered questions.

The screenwriter has been thorough in the research and development of the world and characters. It’s just like reading a good book. This allows the reader to be fully engulfed in the story, because the writer has done his or her due diligence. There is detail and specificity in every single aspect of the narrative, which creates that bulletproof logic.

CHARACTER & DIALOGUE

Characters are thoroughly developed in film market scripts. Like logic, characters are detailed and specific. The writer has then integrated that development in the way characters speak.

If a protagonist is an amusement ride engineer, then every piece of that character’s career as an engineer has been developed to where it’s completely believable that this character is in that profession. The way he or she speaks will include vernacular relevant to his or her expertise, background, and culture. Social, mental, and physical development have all been addressed.

TRUST IN THE AUDIENCE

There is a trust in the audience in film market scripts. Subtext and visuals are utilized, and the writer understands when it’s unnecessary to say or show something about the character or plot. This skill usually comes with experienced writers or those that comprehend the craft of visual storytelling at a higher level.

For example, if a character is a good father, we might see a him playing a board game with his daughter, versus having several characters say aloud how great of a father he is. The writer shows this side of the character rather than having it appear only in dialogue, and the writer trusts the audience will get it from what’s shown.

STRUCTURE

Film market scripts have a seamless structure. It’s undetectable. This is difficult to explain, but the experience of it is that I’m so wrapped up and engulfed by the story, I’m not even thinking about, “Where was the midpoint? Was that the beginning of the third act?”

I’m a sword fighter, so a way I can describe it is that the structure of a script is like the choreography of a sword fight. When I’m learning the choreography of a fight, I know what beats go where, if a stab is coming next, what my next move will be, and who dies at the end. As I’m rehearsing, on the outside, you can tell I know what’s coming next and no one is in danger. It looks mechanical and clunky. It’s not exciting to watch. When a sword fight is at performance level, it’s thrilling, engaging and flowing. The choreography, the structure, has just become a part of the fullness of the performance rather than the main focus.

The same goes for structure in a film market screenplay. It’s a vital part of the narrative, and it has been seamlessly integrated into the fullness of the entirety of the script.

All of this should give you a better understanding of how readers are involved in acquisitions, as well as an idea of what screenplays that head to film markets are like. If you’d like to know more about this topic and hear me answer questions on it, check out this episode of Tea with Ke, my weekly Facebook Live, which focuses on film market screenplays.

Joanna Ke

About Joanna Ke

If grace married silliness, their child would be Joanna Ke. Joanna is an award-winning filmmaker that thrives in the industry as an actor, writer, professional script reader, and producer. She champions diverse stories led by women both behind and in front of the camera. Joanna has been creating stories ever since she was a child, performing skits for her sisters and scribbling in journals before she even know how to write. She studied the craft of screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field. As a professional script reader, she is known for her ability to masterfully analyze screenplays. Joanna runs the twitter account @femcharacters, highlighting the unfortunate way women are often portrayed on screen. She also isn’t too shabby as a stunt performer and sword fighter. Wielding her broadsword is a favorite both on camera and off.