Before you become a working professional screenwriter, you are the master of your screenplay. You can – and should – solicit feedback, but you are not obligated to take any suggestions. Once you become a professional, however, that is no longer true. Professionals have to do notes sessions.
A notes session happens after a screenwriter turns in a draft of their screenplay.* After the various producers and executives involved in the project have read the screenplay – which will take much longer than it really should – you will either be asked to come to a meeting or participate in a conference call to get notes. All of the producers, executives, and in some cases possibly a director or even a movie star will then bombard you with ways you ought to change the screenplay.
These sessions can be brutal, and not just because a whole bunch of people are ripping apart your work. The truth is, many of the notes will be very smart and help your screenplay. However you will inevitably also get notes that do not fit your vision of the movie. Worse, you will frequently get ridiculous or contradictory notes. Also, producers and executives may have different visions of the movie from each other, and you’ll be stuck in the middle. Here are some tips for surviving a note session:
Accept the process. Film is a collaborative art form. Get used to it. If you won’t make the changes, they will replace you with someone who will. Do not expect your screenplay to be used exactly as you wrote it in the first draft. Commit yourself mentally to collaboration.
Be prepared. Bring a pencil and notepad or notebook to take notes on the feedback. Not taking notes can appear unprofessional. Taking notes will also make people hesitant to improvise new feedback, which is often what leads to the most bizarre suggestions. Also bring a copy of the script so you can refer to specific scenes or lines.
Remember the goal. Everyone wants two things: A good movie and a successful movie. But if a studio or producer is forced to choose between good and successful, they’ll pick success. That means you have to consider the business requirements and fit your art into those.
Don’t defend. It’s best not to respond to a note in the moment. Simply record the suggestions. This will give you time to process the feedback objectively. Something that seems stupid at first glance may actually be brilliant once you wrap your head around it. Or if not, there may be an underlying thought that is really valuable. The exception to keeping your mouth shut is if you don’t understand something – you should then definitely ask for clarification.
Never embarrass anyone. Most meetings are political for the people in the room. If someone makes a bonehead mistake – suggesting something that’s actually already in the script for example (it happens surprisingly often) – don’t call them out on it. You will make an instant enemy. If you challenge a bad idea, you force the person who said it to defend it. There are often ways to skip a bad note, but if you start a public ego contest with the person who gave it, you will end up forced to make the change. Which brings me to…
You don’t actually have to take every note. If you do most of the notes, you can reject a few. Say you tried it and it didn’t work and explain why. This shows that you did seriously consider it (and you should actually have considered it). Most producers and executives don’t expect you to follow every note literally, they actually expect you to take the notes and improve upon them! You ultimately may still have to do a specific note that you disagree with if the executive really believes it’s right.
If you get a note that doesn't work, try spinning it into something better. Remove what they objected to, but replace it with your idea instead of theirs. Then you’ve addressed the note, but not weakened the script. Always credit the note-giver for the inspiration. Again, most producers and execs will be happier if you find a better way to address a note than just taking their suggestion verbatim – that’s why they’re hiring you! (If you are particularly skilled, you might be able to pull off this redirection in the room.)
Take baby steps to get to your position. If you have a radical difference with a producer or executive on a story element, it may take time for them to come around to your point of view. Rather than fight to get your way right now – a fight you will probably lose – try moving them gradually to your idea. Give them time to get comfortable with it.
Remember, this is a business of personality. You have to figure out how the people you’re working for like to work. Some are happy to debate, some want you to do every note exactly as they say.
In the film business, the writer is the employee. That’s why you get paid! Like any job, you are under some obligation to tailor your work to what your employer wants. If you don’t, they can fire you and hire someone who will. But if you are a team player, they will come to trust you. And when they trust you, you will have more ability to shape the material the way you see it.
And not for nothing, you will also be happier if you embrace the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process.
*Note, even though it is not contractually required, screenwriters are generally expected to turn the script in to the producer first, get his or her notes, and then do an unpaid revision (a “producer’s pass”) before officially turning in the draft. This is good in the sense that you get some valuable feedback that can help you succeed with the draft. It is bad in that many producers have started abusing this process to get multiple free rewrites out of poor writers.