Friday, September 3, 2010

Industry Slang for the Professional Screenwriter

Today I thought I’d cover some common industry slang that professional screenwriters often encounter but that you most likely won’t hear outside the business. You’ve probably already heard some of these, but if you’re just breaking in you might want to at least skim through. Knowing the terminology will help you not appear like too much of a newbie. In no particular order:
Spec – a screenplay written on speculation with the goal of selling it when it’s complete. Can also be used as a verb, as in, “are you going to spec that idea or pitch it?”

Pitch – a verbal telling of a movie idea. With an original idea, the goal is usually to get someone to pay you to write the script so you don’t have to spec it. You also pitch to get assignments.

Assignment – a job that involves doing a draft on a project the studio already owns, such as a rewrite or adaptation.

Open Assignment – an assignment for which the studio is actively looking for a writer.

Take – Your unique perspective on an idea. Example: “That writer pitched a great take on the book adaptation.” Crucially important to get an assignment.

Sample Script – A script sent out as a writing sample to show what the writer is capable of. Usually not intended to sell (it may even have already been made). Ought to be in the same genre as the job the writer is trying to get.

Pitch Book – A book with photos and art – often culled from outside sources, sometimes original – that is used to show the tone and look of a movie during a pitch. Common for director pitches, rare for writer pitches.

Sizzle Reel – A short film, usually no more than three minutes, of footage usually culled from outside sources that gives a sense of the tone and style of a project. Common for director pitches, rare for writer pitches.

Generals (Meetings) – Get-to-know-you meetings without a specific purpose. Usually you get these because someone read a script of yours that they liked but didn’t want to buy. You should always have a casual pitch for your next idea ready. Example: “I spent all week doing generals.”

High Concept – a movie idea that can be easily summarized in a compelling sentence. Execs like this because it means the movie will be easy to sell. If they get it in one sentence, so will the public.

Low Concept – a movie idea that requires lots of explanation to make its appeal apparent.

Execution Dependent – an idea that depends on quality execution to be successful. Hard to sell as a pitch, probably must be spec-ed. Most low concept ideas are execution dependent.

Logline – A one-sentence description of the movie concept that captures what it is. A lot easier to create for a high concept movie. Often used on Tracking Boards and Coverage.

Tracking Boards – Private online message boards frequented by a group of development execs and/or their assistants which track all scripts and pitches coming onto the market (often by logline). Many writers fear that someone will bad mouth their script on the tracking boards and others will then reject it without reading it. Sometimes just referred to as “the boards” in the development community.

Coverage - Producers and development exec have readers read scripts and do coverage so the producer or exec doesn't have to read the whole script. Coverage usually includes a logline, summary, and evaluation.

Readers - Fairly low paid people or unpaid interns that read so producers and development execs don't have to.

Trailer Moment – A really cool moment or line of dialogue that you can easily imagine in the movie’s trailer. You want at least a couple of these in your pitches and you better have several in your screenplay.

Franchise – A concept or property that is big enough in scope to spawn sequels, merchandising, comic books, video games, etc. Studios like these.

Baby Writer – A new writer. Usually in TV.

Set Piece – A big spectacular scene, usually comedy or action. Example: “The script is full of huge set pieces but has no character development.”

Hero Car/Prop/etc. – The representative item that will stand out in a group of items is often referred to as the “hero” version of the items. As opposed to the hero of the movie.

Producers Polish/Courtesy Polish – Polite term for a free revision done without pay based on producers’ notes before turning a draft in to the studio. Used to be customary to do a single pass that involved a day or two of work. Lately has been abused to mean multiple major rewrites from writers who won’t stand up for themselves.

Difficult – What producers and development execs call writers who stand up for themselves.

Packaging – When an agency puts together multiple elements of a movie – script, director, stars and sometimes even financing – before taking the project to the studio. Agencies get a fee from the studio for doing this. Usually only the biggest agencies can package a movie.

Boutique Agency – Smaller agency often specializing in only a few areas (For example: TV writers and directors or comedy).

The Trades – Trade papers – Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

Territories – Agent-speak for studios or buyers. I have no idea why. Example: “We’ll pick one producer to take the spec into each territory.”

Introducing you to the town – What an agent does with a new writer when they send a spec out to everyone who will read it.


The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review


Jana Williams - said...

Hey Doug
Good for you.... I hadn't ever thought to coach my students at on the 'slang' used so commonly in the biz! Of course every sub-culture (sailing, golfing - even knitting) has it's own language but thanks for reminding me how strange it can be for beginners!

Cheers - Jana /

PoetCSW said...

I love Difficult -- something I have been called more than once in life.

Unknown said...

Dalton Trumbo was probably the most professional screenwriter of all time. He had a 'satisfaction guaranteed'policy...that is, he'd rewrite to the producer's heart was content. Even if that meant pages on set while shooting.