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Friday, August 22, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – My Dinner with a Development Executive (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

My Dinner with a Development Executive

So, you’ve sent your script off to a production company, crossed your fingers, and now you spend your days religiously checking your e-mail, hoping for a response. (First off, stop that. Forget you even sent it. It can sometimes take MONTHS before you get a response.) Odds are, your script is going to be read by an assistant or unpaid intern. Someone like you. Probably even the same age as you. In fact, they’re probably a writer just like you, with their very own script. (Spoiler alert: they think their script is better than yours.)

If the assistant likes your script, they’ll pass it on to their boss. Who’s their boss? Odds are, it’s a producer or development executive. And their time is precious. They only have time to read the best of the best. (In fact, you might have to make it through a couple readers to get to them.) But when you do, that’s your shot. Wow them, and you’re golden…until they have to show it to their boss: the head of the company. They have to like it too. (The take-away here: your script goes through MANY hands when you submit it to a production company. It can’t just impress one person. It has to be so good that multiple people feel compelled to pass it on.)

But the development executive is your best cheerleader. Odds are, they know what the head of the company likes. They probably wouldn’t have their job if they didn’t. And once you get them on your side, you’re odds of snagging that sweet, sweet option increase ten-fold.

I’m currently in development on my latest script and had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with the development executive from the production company that optioned my script. He was kind of enough to talk a bit about the querying process.

For starters, they are a mid-level production company, making films with budgets ranging from 3-10 million dollars, with theatrical distribution at the studio level. They receive roughly 100 queries a week; so think about that when you draft your query letter. As I’ve said before, making even the smallest attempt to stand out does wonders.

He told me that the worst thing you can do is badger them. Don’t ask them too many questions, what the status of your script read is, or why you were rejected. You’re lucky that they’re even taking the time to write you about your rejection (most don’t), so don’t try and get coverage out of them. He told me the story of one person who just would not let their rejection go and absolutely had to know why he was rejected. The executive gave in and gave the guy a fair critique of his screenplay. The writer flipped out and sent the executive an angry response, cursing him out. The crazy thing was, several months later, the writer actually queried them AGAIN with a different script. Obviously, he didn’t get a read. The exec’s overall advice: a courteous reply goes a long way towards possibly getting another read. Remember: they don’t owe you anything.

Here was my favorite part of the dinner: I asked the executive if he cared if a script started with FADE IN. No. What about parentheticals? No. How about orphans? Do you care about those? No. He said he cares about story. Period. He said he’s waded through some pretty bad scripts, formatting-wise, because the story has shown promise. He said if they like the story enough, they can always option the script from you and fix it up in the development phase. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try hard to adhere to proper formatting, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Your story is.

If an executive rejects your screenplay but tells you they like your writing, keep that person in mind for future scripts. Drop them a quick e-mail, reminding them who you are, and telling them you’ve got something new. Don’t abuse your relationship with them. If you strike out with the next screenplay, it might be time to move on from them. I know it can be alluring: gaining access to an executive’s personal e-mail (and bypassing the assistant), but know when to walk away.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll beat the odds, get an option and your script will enter development. From there, it’s all cake. Fluffy, delicious cake. Trust me.

Next week’s article: Welcome to Development Hell

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog AT New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!


3 Comments so far


Greg F
August 22nd, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Thanks for this, P.J. It confirms my own belief, that content trumps formatting. Among the screenwriting websites I follow, too many writers have well-formatted scripts but fail to engage me with their flat characters and dialogue, and a less than compelling story.

Poor spelling and grammar makes it worse. That’s probably something that DOES matter to the studio reader.

I appreciate the advice for what to say (or not say) when that development exec calls or emails me.


KP Mackie
August 25th, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Hey Mr. McNeill –

Really enjoy your articles. A lot of valuable information.

I mentioned this article on the site (in the SS/STS thread). Hope that’s okay.
I think other MP members would enjoy it, as well as your other articles.



August 25th, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Thanks for reading! Glad you both enjoyed this entry.

And thanks for sharing it KP!

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