For this week’s Let’s Schmooze blog post, I am running (with permission) an excerpt from an essay by producer Ken Aguado, my co-author on The Hollywood Pitching Bible. The essay is entitled “Principles of Hollywood Development” and covers a lot of territory, including the various flavors of development, how development goes wrong, and how to navigate the politics of development. It includes advice for all parties to the development process – writers, producers, executives, etc. I’m going to excerpt Ken’s section on how to take notes. But first, let me give you his definition of development:
“Development is the process by which film and television scripts are acquired or created, and then improved… Development doesn’t happen unless there is a minimum of two parties involved — one of which is typically a non-writer. If there’s just a writer involved, we call that 'writing.' Development starts when other people get involved in the process.”
Now here are Ken’s thoughts on getting notes:
Here are some tips if you are getting notes:
Be gracious. You may or may not love the notes to get, but there’s a good chance someone spent a lot of time and effort reading your project and drafting them. Thank them for their work and for trying to help you out with the project. Also, it is likely the person giving you notes is a fan of yours, and we can all use more of those, right?
Don’t respond right away. There’s always a good chance there will be something in the notes that pisses you off. My advice: take a beat, sleep on it, and respond the following day. As I will discuss below, sometimes the notes are not as bad as they seem.
Get clarity. If you disagree with a note, don’t get in a fight. It almost never helps and it can sometimes get you fired or marginalized. Instead, I recommend you ask the person who gave you the note to kindly explain further. Do this verbally. Many times you will find they are not as committed as they seem or they might even back down entirely. Also, the brevity of notes can lead to misunderstandings. It’s not as bad as texting, but at least there are no stupid emojis.
Handling major conflicts. This is one of the tougher things to navigate. It will often happen that member of the development team vigorously disagree about notes. The conflicts can range from slightly annoying to near apocalyptic. The situation can be made worse by the parties trying to manipulate each other. For example, I have seen grown writers have near-nervous breakdowns when a powerful producer tries to get them to make the producer’s script changes that everyone knows the studio will hate. The number of possible scenarios here makes it hard to give specific advice, but very often the solution to the problem is less about the notes themselves and more about resolving personality conflicts, as in my example. My advice? Sometimes you have to stand up to a bully.
Sometimes the notes are better than they seem.
In most development situations you will get notes or give notes along the way. Sometimes both. If you’re on the receiving end, sometimes it can be overwhelming if you get 10 pages of notes for something you thought was already perfect. Don’t freak out. Sometimes notes are better than they seem. First of all, not all notes are weighted equally, meaning that while some notes can be significant, many others might just be someone floating an idea that popped into their melon at 2am, and even they don’t care about it. Second, I’ve seen many situations where tough notes are given (by a producer or network exec, for example) only to have them change their mind or even forget their own notes at some later time. Thank God for showbiz, or there’d be a lot of people with ADHD who couldn’t get a job.
Lastly, and most annoying, I have seen people give notes delivered with absolutist comments like “the script doesn’t work,” or “the script is a mess,” only to soon discover that their proposed solution to fixing the “mess” is changing all of three lines of dialog, etc. Ugh. My only explanation is that some people are prone to hyperbole or use the development process to bolster their own self-worth. Maybe both. Sometimes various development partners just want to give a project their own personal “spritz.” It’s annoying for sure, but if the solution is changing three lines, my advice is to make the changes and leave the psychoanalysis to a trained professional. One extra related piece of advice: if you get a note you don’t like but if saying “yes” to the note will cost you nothing, don’t fight it. Say “yes” and move on. In fact, this strategy has broader implications for survival in Hollywood, and life in general.
Sometimes the notes are worse than they seem.
So some notes are better than they seem, but sometimes they are worse. Hollywood is a place that can kill you with kindness, and sometimes your development partners will be disinclined to give you direct and honest feedback if they think that their honesty will crush your spirits or be counterproductive in some other way. Put yourselves in their shoes. Sometimes a script is delivered that is so bad, that the only possible honest response would be to prostrate oneself and mourn the trees that died to print it. Now this example rarely occurs, but there are many situations where there is serious work that needs to be done on a project and someone has to figure out a way to deliver this bad news. When it’s time to write up notes, the people writing the notes will sometimes sugarcoat it or speak euphemistically — anything to avoid telling the reader the truth — that they have just wasted months of their life going in the wrong direction. And it’s not just producers or executives doing the sugarcoating. Sometimes it’s the writer. In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Doug Eboch and I discuss the strategies that writers should adopt when they meet to pitch an assignment. In this situation, it’s the writer giving the notes. Our advice is never trash the source material, no matter how bad it might be. For example, it would be a mistake to open with “wow, the script really sucks. You must have been rocking the ganja when you bought it.” Rather, it would be much better to accentuate the positive and explain that, while the script as some issues, you will help bring the project’s “aspirations” (a euphemism) into the foreground, etc. As you can see “worse than it seems” goes both ways. The only problem with the way Hollywood sugarcoats notes is that you sometimes have to learn how to read between the lines. If you are inexperienced or susceptible to praise and adulation, this might be tough for you. The best strategy is to first want the truth, and then ask a lot of questions. You will eventually get to the bottom of it.
Thanks, Ken for your insight! If you’d like to read the entire essay, Ken posted it on Medium.
And if you want to learn to pitch like a pro, check out The Hollywood Pitching Bible.