Improving Indie Scripts

It may be cliché but only because it's true. It's impossible to make a good narrative film out of a bad script. It doesn't matter how stunning the performances or how dynamic the editing, the flaws of a bad script are generally structural and cannot be overcome.

You've probably seen Hollywood films where there are a dozen writers and the story seems to have been overdeveloped to the point of blandness. In the independent film world, the problem is just the opposite. Scripts are underdeveloped because the filmmaker has a vision, wrote a script, raised the money his or herself, and plowed ahead in a devil-may-care "if you don't get it you're probably stupid" sort of way. The filmmaker doesn't receive or doesn't trust the opinions of others, and pushes blindly ahead into production.

It's a mistake.

The best thing any emerging filmmakers can do is get feedback on their scripts. Often it will be encouraging and enthusiastic, depending on who is reading it, which is good. Once the script feels like it's the best it's going to be, that's when it needs to be thrown to the wolves in the form of a screenplay reading. Essentially, that's a "table read" in front of an audience, where a group of actors sit with the scripts in front of them and read their parts, and another person is there to read the stage directions to help the audience visualize the story.

I just attended a screenplay reading for an indie film called The Sidewalk Never Ends, which is about homeless youth on the streets of Seattle. The filmmakers have been doing everything right, from taking time to develop a production strategy to revising the script based on reader feedback. They thought they were finished, and hosted a screenplay reading to launch the project into the world.

After the reading, writer/director Travis Senger and co-writer Shawn Telford went up onto the stage to hear the audience's response and take questions. As usually happens in this sort of event, the congratulations quickly turned to criticism as people started making suggestions for bettering the script. Some of the criticism could be ignored and tossed aside, but a consensus slowly grew that the lead characters were too passive and needed better story arcs.

I'm confident that Senger and Telford will go back and write a new draft of the screenplay, and I'm equally confident that it will be better. Heck, their next draft may even be good enough for their projected production start date later this summer.

If you live in an area with a floundering independent film scene, where indie features are made but never seem to take off, the likely culprit is usually an undercooked script. You should encourage your local filmmakers to share their stories before they go before the cameras because every script can be improved, and only the good ones will break out of the local orbit.

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Andy Spletzer once had a screenplay reading for his adaptation of Crime and Punishment set in Junior High, and decided it was not yet ready to go before the cameras.