Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Black List: Evaluating the Evaluators


I am a big fan of InkTip, a website where screenwriters can post their scripts to be read by industry professionals.  I have received offers of commissioned work as a direct result of posting some of my older scripts on the website.  A producer, and budding screenwriter, at the Discovery Channel recently asked me what I thought about The Black List.  The Black List is a similar but more expensive site that allows industry professionals access to your script.  However, this website gives users the opportunity to rate the scripts they read.  You are also required to purchase at least one professional evaluation when you list your script.  They charge $50 per evaluation.  A bargain.  I decided to get two of them.  It seemed only fair.  At the time, I was judging scripts for the Baltimore Film Office's Screenplay Competition.  I could dish out the criticism, but could I take it?

I offered up my newest script entitled "Life-Like," a coming of age romp loaded -- in my opinion -- with laughs and heart.  I normally wouldn't post a fresh, new script which hadn't been extensively marketed to agents and production companies yet.  However, I thought, who knows....  Perhaps I will gain some insight that will help me improve the script.  So I submitted it.

Here's the first evaluation:  (I apologize if the evaluations are hard to understand without reading the script.)

Era:
Modern; Near Future
Locations:
Various; Cemetery; Apartment; Office
Budgets:
Medium
Genre:
Comedy, Dramatic Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Logline:
Upon taking a job at a cemetery where one can interact with the deceased through artificially-intelligent holographic recreations, a post-grad finds himself entangled in a murder plot when one of the newly installed holograms admits she was killed by her elderly husband.
Strengths:
What the script has going for it most is its genuinely unique, high-concept premise – as opposed to most other comedies, the material does not seem the least bit derivative. Also, the material should be applauded for its quality characterization, as both the protagonist and the holographic characters (most notably, Billy Idol) prove appealing for a number of reasons: Andy for his innocence and relatability, Carlotta for her sympathetic nature, and Billy Idol for his humor. Though it seems some added description is needed to better setup the holographic technology at story’s beginning (or, at least, to better establish the more high-tech nature of the Hall of Wisdom), once the story gets underway the setting makes for truly imaginative visual. All said, the script checks many of the boxes required of quality sci-fi comedies, but some additional consideration should be given to keeping the protagonist proactive in the latter portion of the screenplay, as currently his time in prison hinders his involvement in the unfolding murder plot (more on this below).
Weaknesses:
The biggest issue with the script is that, once the protagonist makes it his mission to go about solving the murder plot, the forward-moving narrative suffers when he is eventually carted off to jail, as such takes away from his active involvement in the unfolding case. Rather than having him locked away for a portion of the screenplay, the writer should figure out a way to keep him engaged in the events that are playing out – by this point in the screenplay, he needs to remain a proactive protagonist (as opposed to a reactive one). Also, the script suffers from not really having an Act Two low point. Though the material teases that Holly is going to leave Andy, which WOULD make for the lowest point of the screenplay, Holly never really commits to the breakup. As a result, this leaves the narrative in an awkward state of flux. Instead, it seems Holly should decide to leave Andy, only to see the error of her ways by story’s end. Of course, by this point, it would be entirely left up to Andy whether or not he wants to get back together with her, which makes his decision to grab coffee with Melody an even more interesting ending.
Prospects:
At the end of the day, the script has a lot working in its favor: most notably; a genuinely unique hook and characters that prove engaging for a variety of reasons. Should some of the narrative wrinkles get ironed out, there is no reason to think the high-concept premise won’t appeal to at least a few studio financiers. If anything, the material should serve to help the writer generate some interest amongst industry reps.
Pages:

119
Overall, a pretty good evaluation.  I have to admit I liked it -- despite the fact that it uses the words "elderly husband" in the logline.  In reality, the husband is essentially the same age as his murdered wife.  However, that is a small point.  Perhaps the reader was confused by the fact that the murderous husband Gabriel always carried a cane as an affectation (and weapon.)

Obviously, I have to agree with all of the strengths.  Needless to say, I was less happy but not entirely surprised with the listed weaknesses.  The film is first and foremost a character study.  To me, what goes on inside the main character Andy Watson is much more important than the external "action." Throughout the story, Andy evolves from a likable but ineffectual slacker into a man capable of risking everything, including his life, in pursuit of justice.  His journey follows the beats of the "Rites of Passage" genre, as defined by the late Blake Snyder, who, despite his death, currently remains the most popular screenwriting guru in Hollywood.

That said, the evaluator makes one excellent point.  The emotional action of the story plays out against the relationship between Andy and his college sweetheart Holly.  The two of them have been drifting apart since graduation.  Andy's main motivation is his desire to earn back her respect.   In this original draft, however, the two never actually break up.  That was definitely a mistake on my part.  Having Holly leave Andy when he finds himself in jail at the end of Act Two would make the obligatory Big Gloom even blacker and more hopeless.  I immediately made the change and improved the script.  That was a fifty dollars well spent!

Here's the second evaluation:

Era:
Present
Locations:
Los Angeles
Budgets:
Low
Genre:
Dark Comedy, Dramatic Comedy, Coming-of-Age, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Logline:
A slacker finds himself working at a unique mausoleum which combines embalming techniques with artificial intelligence, and finds a renewed sense of purpose when he's convinced a woman was murdered by her husband.
Strengths:
The relationship which develops between Andy and Carlotta is a sincere and heartfelt bond which emotionally grounds the story and offers Andy a chance to grow as a person. The whole concept of a mausoleum which uses AI and residual emotions is a creative idea that allows for a lot of sincerity. Finally, the breakdown of Andy and Holly’s relationship feels very organic and true to life, and it’s easy to see from his old video why Andy wants to salvage this doomed relationship.
Weaknesses:
While a suspension of disbelief is required and necessary for the story to work, there are elements of Andy’s character that contradict themselves, and some of these issues undermine the story’s logic. For instance, if Andy’s a relatively bright philosophy major, shouldn’t he realize that breaking into someone’s personal email (dead or alive) is both illegal and immoral? You don’t need to be a law student to realize that this will get Andy in trouble, so it weakens him as a character and this feeling of inevitability saps some of the rising tension. Instead, he should realize that the only way that Gabriel will get caught is via a confession, and there’s many comedic ways to approach this. Additionally, it’s not clear why Gabriel would put Carlotta in this mausoleum; after her death, he’s gotten what she wants, their new relationship is frosty and there’s nothing indicating that she’s there because of her will. Is there something she’s hiding that he needs? Does he still love her deep down? There’s a chance to make him a deeper antagonist if there’s a distinct reason why she’s in this unorthodox mausoleum.
Prospects:
This project’s prospects are rather bright. Conceptually, it has traces of HER and more often than not, the comedy works (save for a rather derivative and homophobic scene about prison rape). Some of the logic issues need to be ironed out and the characters could be more layered, but thanks to the quirky tone and the rather restrained budget, this has the feel of an indie film that could work either as a theatrical release or via VOD. Some audiences might be repelled by some of the darker elements, but this is a pretty funny and surprisingly emotional story about closure.
Pages:

117
Once again, overall, a pretty good evaluation.  Loved his/her logline.  Very concise.  Better than the one I was using in my initial query letters.  If only for the logline, I have to say this was another fifty dollars well spent!

The second reader compliments the relationship between Andy and Holly.  That's good.  It means that my revisions concerning that relationship after the first review worked.  That said, I disagree with some of the second reader's later conclusions.

For example, I don't see someone like Andy would be morally bothered by hacking into Carlotta's email account.  The woman was murdered, and Andy will do anything to bring her killer to justice.  He initially tries to do the right thing.  He brings his information directly to the police only to be shot down.  Now Andy and his friends know they have to act outside the law.  Legal technicalities don't concern them as they seek justice.  And, sure, there were other ways some clever guys could trick a paranoid killer into confessing his crime, but I didn't want to go that route.  I did try.  Originally, I wrote a long, complicated sequence where Andy and his friends try to convince the extremely paranoid Gabriel that he was being haunted by his wife.  However, I didn't want Andy to beat Gabriel with his head.  I wanted him to beat him with his heart.  To make that more believable, I actually went back through the script and dumbed down Andy and his friends.  (Maybe I didn't make them dumb enough!)

Thematically, Andy's desire to bring justice to Carlotta has to resolve his internal problem that manifests itself in his failing relationship with his college girlfriend Holly.  Andy loves Holly and he made a sincere commitment to her.  Still, she continues to drift away from him.  While wrestling with that dilemma, he falls in love, albeit platonically, with the late Carlotta.  He makes a commitment to her as well -- to bring her husband to justice -- and soon ends up facing a very long prison sentence.  A plea bargain will win him his freedom, but compel him to abandon his commitment to Carlotta.  Now he is forced to do something he never really did with Holly:  Make a true sacrifice for love.  His decision to reject the deal and remain in prison does briefly sideline him from the "action," but Andy is never a passive protagonist since the real struggle is internal.  Plus, he's out soon enough to face down the villain.

I also reject the notion that the script is homophobic simply because Andy has a fear of prison rape.  Would it be fair to label a woman who expresses a fear of rape in certain situations as being afraid of men? Nor do I think that scene would ruin the commercial prospects of the script since Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart just did a comedy almost entirely about the fear of prison rape.  However, since the reader found it derivative, I will probably remove it....

Bottom line.  Was it worth the money to place my script on The Black List?  

My answer:  Yes.   No one bought my script off the website, but the evaluations definitely helped me hone the material.


Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.  

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