Sunday, November 14, 2010

To contest or not to coverage...

that is the question that keeps aspiring screenwriters up at night.

I've already written a post about this subject, but I've decided to get a bit more specific in order to illustrate the disadvantages of submitting to contests vs. paying for coverage. If only to confuse you more.

This year I had a deadline, a GOAL if I may, to complete a screenplay for submittal to Film Independent's Screenwriters Lab in March. I literally finished the first-words-on-paper draft hours before the deadline. Don't do that. Never do that. Why would you throw away an average of $50 per contest submitting something you have not re-written at least once or twice? Anyway, so the great thing about FIND is that they provide coverage at no additional cost. They are not a "contest" so they're not making any money. They’re a non-profit genuinely trying to develop and mentor talent and independent projects.

While I was waiting to hear from FIND, I kept on re-writing and trying to improve the script. I submitted to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab (huge mistake), Nicholl, Austin and a couple of other high profile contests. (I probably spent $500 on entry fees. A month of doggie daycare.) I also submitted to a comedy contest, which I won for the second year in a row. Apologies, but I’m tooting my horn right here because after this triumph the story takes a dark turn. I didn’t make the quarterfinals of any of the other contests I submitted to. So after winning in June, my summer was preetee, preetee, preetee shittee. One day you feel you can actually write, the next a pile of rejection slips paralyze you to the core.

FIND was running behind so they didn’t notify applicants until two weeks after the Los Angeles Film Festival. They sent me a rejection e-mail along with this link to the coverage—the very confusing coverage. (Below)


2010 Screenwriters Lab Script Coverage

Script Title:Genre:
Application ID:Period:
558present day
Coverage Date:Locale:
2010-03-15unnamed American city
A gifted teenager employs his Mexican cooking heritage and a band of misfit ex-con line cooks to compete for much-needed prize money against a team of French chefs.
Diego is a gentle teenager who has inherited his Nana’s talent for cooking. The two illegally sell their delicious wares wherever and whenever possible, but Diego wants to get a job cooking for the summer. His mother, who struggles to make ends meet, argues that he’s too young. Diego secretly gets a job at Pancho Plotnik’s a restaurant where everyone is comically abused, including the customers. Pancho wants to be fixed up with Nana, but Diego’s not so sure. At the restaurant, Diego is harassed by the tough ex-con cooks, but takes a place in the line when one chops his finger off. They name Diego “Ratacholo” and he storms out. While he’s cooking at home, Diego’s little brothers accidentally start a grease fire and burn their sister Caro’s violin, with which she’s gifted and about to audition for a conservatory scholarship. The family’s house is in default. Susana, Diego’s mother, finds out that he’s been working and demands he quit, but she gets him a job at Chez Racine, the restaurant where she works. Secretly, Nana helps him to keep both jobs and teaches him the ropes; it turns out the cooks at Pancho’s used to work for her. Diego’s skills sharpen. Nana develops complications from diabetes. The family’s finances plummet and Diego sets his sights on a team cooking competition with a $50,000 third place prize. Diego recruits the line cooks from Pancho’s to be a team, with Nana as their coach. Because he’s got a crush on Nana, Pancho sponsors them. But Diego is so successful at Chez Racine that he’s offered a spot on their team as blind taste tester; he turns them down, but when his family learn they’re losing their house and his mother discovers he’s secretly competing with his own team, she pressures him. He quits, joins the French team, then leaves them with his mother’s encouragement after Chef Racine confirms his talent. Diego competes with team Ratacholo and they take the grand prize, $150,000 to start a new restaurant.
Comments Overview:
Ratacholo is a charming family story about a young man with an undeniable gift who finds that he’s ready to pursue his dreams at a young age. He’s too old to be a child who sits by and does nothing while his family suffers, but not old enough to walk into a restaurant kitchen with authority. The film might well appeal to family audiences on a number of levels, not least because it presents a heroic young protagonist whose passion for cooking sets him on a path to wild achievements—it’s a positive message to send to young audiences and it’s particularly refreshing to see Mexican cooking culture represented with so much respect and affection. There’s a definite indie vibe to the film; some of the language and humor might not play with a mainstream family audience. The plot could be tightened somewhat to increase the tension, as the first act seems to meander a bit and we don’t get to the heart of the story—the cooking competition—until we’re well into the second act. It would be nice to see a little more of Diego’s life outside of cooking and his family; is he giving something up to devote himself to cooking? Aside from a single friend introduced at the beginning of the story, we don’t know much about the rest of his universe. Susana stands out as being less fully developed than the rest of the characters, and perhaps her emotional journey could be taken at a more even pace, allowing room for her final reversal to happen more slowly. There’s a lot here, but the script seems already to have found solid footing; it doesn’t necessarily seem to be in need of the sort of development the Screenwriters Lab offers, and therefore seems suitable for consideration rather than a recommendation.
Concept and Theme:
The script is thematically rich. Diego’s yearning to follow his dreams and nurture his own gifts raises questions about how best to encourage young talent, particularly as we watch Susana and Lucia facing off with opposing views. There’s a subtle commentary about the food world and the way that French cuisine frequently dominates, while less expensive but equally complex and rich cooking traditions, particularly Mexican, take a back seat. And without hitting the audience over the head, the writer opens a discussion about the inheritance of family traditions both positive and negative: Diego inherits his flair for cooking from his father and grandmother and even his mother, but with this good fortune comes constant worries about diabetes. The thematic threads are nicely woven throughout the story, clear without ever feeling conspicuous.
Plot and Structure:
The cooking competition is a great device to move the story along, and it might make sense here to introduce it in the first act rather than the second. The plot feels slightly muddy as the setup is revealed, when what we really need to understand is that this gifted young man is going to use his talents to compete for prize money to save his family. In the interest of clarification, it might make sense to start Diego with a job as a dishwasher when the story begins, in order to save the real estate taken up by the long negotiation regarding which restaurant he’ll work in and in what capacity. The storyline involving Caro’s violin is a nice counterpoint, but it seems to get dropped without much resolution, and perhaps there’s a missing moment of detente between brother and sister to round out the family story.
Diego is a charming protagonist, with all the awkwardness one would expect from a boy of his age, plus the guts and talent no one sees coming. Nana, and Diego’s relationship with her, leap off the page; it’s refreshing to see such a strong and colorful older female character, and further exploring her particular emotional journey could only add more to the story. Susana feels a bit thinly treated at present. Clearly she’s burdened by financial circumstances, but her relationships with Diego and Nana seem to remain at a surface level in the current draft. It would be great to know more about her relationship with food and her history with Diego’s father, since she shows so much apprehension about watching her son follow in his footsteps.
The dialogue is fresh and funny. Pancho’s colorful rants stand out particularly, as do the majority of Nana’s scenes. Not only are we given an opportunity to enjoy an older female character with an unexpectedly dirty way with words, we’re able to watch the reactions of those around her as well. The contrast between the French and Mexican kitchens could be broadened here, as there’s more similarity in the actual language than one might expect, and it may detract somewhat from the comedic potential. The conversation among the kitchen staff at Pancho’s is also outstanding; the writer manages to paint these ex-cons as being tremendously likable, even as they’re engaged in almost constant verbal warfare.
Overall Quality of Writing:
There’s a confident voice behind this well-researched story, which is written not only with a strong cultural perspective, but a healthy sense of humor as well. The general feel of the film is family-friendly, and it seems likely that it would find its broadest audience within this market, though some of the more mature language and jokes might need toning down. It might be best to avoid referring to the French kitchen staff as “froggies,” which could be read as the writer, rather than the characters, editorializing in a way that some might find offensive. With a little more time given to character transitions and some tightening of the plot, the script will be in very promising shape.


Wait, are they saying my shitty first draft was too good to make it into the Lab? You tell me because I can’t still figure it out. (See "Comments Overview") Anyway, by the time I got this coverage and to my credit, I had already fixed it because I instinctively knew what needed to be done.

Confusion does not begin to express how I felt. Yes, I know. Contests are very subjective, if a reader doesn’t like or get your story you are done for, blah blah blah. The thing is, that may be true, but I had no indication of where I fell short. I decided I needed to know if this screenplay was worth more time and effort so I got it covered again by someone who said he prided himself in providing brutal honesty. I certainly did not have the time and stomach for more sugar-coating.


I actually thought I wrote a high concept script, but obviously I was wrong. It was hard to face that a subject I loved since I saw Babette’s Feast for the first time is a no-can-sell. At least in the minds of the people that are “in the know.” Am I still confused? Yes. Will I submit to contests again? Maybe. If I have money to throw away. Do I still feel like shit? No. I learned a lot as I saw my delusions fade away this summer. That’s a good thing. And it only cost me a few hundred dollars.

1 comment:

Batman said...

I gave up on contests long ago. And this coming from someone who has placed in several. You're right, it is all subjective, and if they don't get you, they don't get you. The good news is, do you truly believe that those telling you that you can't win the contest are doing any better? There's a skill set out there that none of those guys have, which is unique unto you, and that's the passion to see your script get made.