I fled Hollywood to take over the University of Miami’s Motion Picture Program, I began teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing feature-length screenplays. Fourteen years have gone by, and each has seen a pitched battle with the students as to whether grammar and correct formatting are important. They argue that substance is far more important than the “incidentals” of spelling, format, and grammar.
Many years before, on graduation from Yale Law School, I became an associate for a middle-sized midtown New York law firm. My first task was to write a brief for an anti-trust attorney and deliver it to him in shape to be filed. Summoned to his office, I was severely reprimanded for the typographical error his keen eyes had detected. This was in the era before spell-check, when work was turned out on an ancient device known as a typewriter (“A typesetting machine”; Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Ed). He brought me to my knees yelling that cases were “most frequently decided by what the judge ate for breakfast or how angry they were at any typographical errors they found.”
That lesson took.
In subsequent years, whether as an agent, a producer, or a studio executive, I always viewed sloppy screenplays as unworthy of serous consideration, the signature of an amateur. I have passed this along to my students, telling them that it is simply unprofessional to turn in work that doesn’t conform to the highest professional standards. An errant typo or two, okay. But more, coupled with format problems or grammatical errors, is totally unprofessional. In the face of their mounting resistance, I decided to poll a cross-section of literary agents, studio executives, development personnel, and other industry professionals to try to develop a broader-based point of view.
It should be noted at the outset that today’s student body in higher education, while marvelously visually literate, increasingly shows little or no interest in traditional written literacy. At the University of Miami, for example, most incoming freshmen must take two courses in Basic English Composition. But at no point in their college experience will they be tested in or take a course in English grammar. What they learned in secondary school is what they bring to the table. And it ain’t much.
These students are seriously challenged over the care and feeding of the apostrophe, not to mention the familiar writers’ bugaboos of their/they’re/there, its/it’s, to/too, your/you’re, and when to use who and whom. Homonyms are a lost cause. Recent examples (perhaps worth extra credit because of their originality) include: “She wore a sheik dress”; and, “The movie was so sad, people were balling in the aisles.” Somewhere, this generation was imprinted with the spelling of a Dining Room as a Dinning Room, and the spelling of “lose” as “loose.” Needless to say, “aisle” and “isle” are posers, along with “break” and “brake.” You get the idea.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. My late father, Paul Lazarus, Jr., a wordsmith who ran the Advertising and Publicity Department for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, retired to Santa Barbara where he taught screenwriting at UCSB. Legend has it that each year he taught he listed all the familiar spelling errors and bet each member of the class a dollar they would make at least one of these errors before the end of the semester. As the story goes, he never once had to pay off.
Literary agents consulted agreed, to a person, that errors such as typos were unprofessional and showed “a lack of discipline.” Said one senior agent, “The probability is if these errors persist, the script is, to my mind, not worth reading.” And then he added the dreaded conclusion, “I would hesitate to proceed reading further.” Again and again agents and development executives alike echoed this theme: “I just wouldn’t take any writer guilty of that sloppiness seriously.” Commented a major studio production vice president, “If the writer doesn’t care enough, why should I, the reader?” He added, “I would never submit a script with errors to my boss to be read.”
Agents and producers are, of course, salespeople. When trafficking in screenplays, they strongly oppose anything that might impede or militate against a sale. One producer revealed that he has to “clean” all scripts, to his great dismay, before submitting them to a network or studio. He is convinced that buyers share the annoyance he feels about flawed script presentations. So affected is this producer by work of this kind that he asserts he would not want to use the writer for a rewrite or a polish and wouldn’t “push” for the writer with a network or studio.
It should be noted that screenplays making the rounds in Hollywood serve more often as writing samples than as scripts that will be optioned or sold. The aroma of a sloppy script, replete with numerous errors, may therefore adversely affect the reputation of a screenwriter for future submissions. This argues strongly for taking the time and care to get one’s work as “correct” as it can be.
Every person in sales knows that it is essential to put oneself in the mindset of the buyer. Understand his thoughts and feelings if you want to close a deal. One development executive eloquently expressed this. “Look, the fact of the matter is that every development wonk has to read a pile taller than Shaquille O’Neil and unfortunately, 95 percent of the scripts are about as good as if they had been written by him too. Every night legions of assistants have to take home a fistful of these mind-numbing dogs. At 9:00 they are not looking for reasons to keep reading, they are looking for any excuse to get out that rubber PASS stamp and go to bed. Go ahead, give them an excuse. They need the sleep.”
He has a good point. Don’t give the reader the easy out of abandoning ship because of problems in grammar, spelling, or format. Don’t let him brand the work product as amateurish. Not every assistant, never mind producer or executive, has the patience, will power, or intellect to get past these errors. As one development person succinctly put it, “When taking a development exec to the forest to see the trees, there had better be stacked lumber.” Another development executive suggested that if the script were on the fence, then errors of this kind would “have an impact.” The conclusion is clear. The development executive is inundated with material. He wants a “fast read,” one in which the writer seduces him into turning the script pages with increasing urgency and excitement. Anything that distracts the reader from his appointed task is a liability. And, spelling, grammar, and format errors are certainly distractions.
Is there equal justice for all screenwriters submitting material? Sure, and if you believe that, let me show you the $25 Rolex watches I’ve got for sale. Said another way, there is equal treatment for all, and it’s just that some writers get more equal treatment than others do. If the screenwriter happens to be a bankable action star trying his hand at a screenplay, all bets on spelling, etc., are off. It is assumed that the submitted material carries with it the commitment of the actor in question, and—guess what—that proposition rules. As one development veteran put it, “studios look the other way to ignore spelling errors and hack-writer clichés in the case of big-dollar, action-oriented actors attempting to write.”
If you’re a writer with credits to your name already, that will buy you some latitude with those who read your scripts. New writers may not be able to get away with errors, but, curiously, seasoned writers can. (Try a Quentin Tarantino screenplay on for size, for example.) There shouldn’t be any surprises here. The Hollywood scene has always reflected this double standard. The clever asides that Bill Goldman weaves into his reading script’s directions for the benefit of blurry-eyed studio execs are rarely tolerated if penned by neophyte screenwriters.
Some development people go further and assert that “the big agencies are notorious for sending out hastily written stuff. Boutique agencies don’t have this freedom and are much more discriminating.”
Looking again to the ever-wise Bill Goldman for insight, perhaps his most celebrated observation of Hollywood is that “no one knows anything.” I have my principles about style, format, and grammar. I defend them these days in a classroom context and have found support for them in the marketplace. And yet . . .
I remember vividly when a director friend sent over to me a young actor he had recently directed in a low budget film, Lords of Flatbush. The actor was Sly Stallone and my friend predicted he could break out and become a superstar. I met with Sly and he presented me with a draft of Rocky which he had authored. He was looking for a producer to help him get this made, and if I said the right words, I could be in first position. The screenplay made all the errors, and more, discussed above. It had energy and power, but it was a total mess. When he insisted in a subsequent meeting that he had to star in and direct this piece, I allowed as I was not the right guy to get it made for him. I am not today able to completely recall whether it was the shape of the screenplay, Sly’s then-insistence on directing, or both that led me to pass. Thinking about that tent-pole franchise walking out of my life at that moment, I am forced to concede that rules are rules. But, rules are made to be broken.
Paul N. Lazarus, III is presently serving as Director of the Film Program at the University of Miami School of Communication and a consultant to numerous Florida motion picture projects. He has served as Film Commissioner for the State of New Mexico and as a vice president in charge of production for several studios. He produced the films Extreme Close-Up, Westworld, Futureworld, Capricorn One, Hanover Street, and Barbarosa. Formerly a motion picture talent agent and an attorney specializing in copyright and defamation, Mr. Lazarus is a screenwriter and author whose 1985 book, The Movie Producer, has been published in a revised edition as The Film Producer (St. Martin’s Press). He also authored Working in Film: The Marketplace in the ’90s (St. Martin’s). His most recent work is a novel titled Agent (Authors Choice Press, 2001).