I don’t know a whole lot about the Bluecat Screenplay contest. They’ve asked me to plug it a few times on the blog, which I have just for awareness sake, but I’m by no means an “advocate” for it or anything.
However, friend of the blog Dan Shea wrote to me today to share some of the feedback he got on the horror script that he entered. I’ve read “Butcher Holler” and enjoyed it a lot. So I was interested to see what sort of “feedback” the contest judges offered.
I’ve entered a few contests that offer “feedback.” Usually it’s a few sentences, or maybe a paragraph, and that’s about it. It wasn’t anything that was really worth paying for, but it didn’t hurt to get it. If your script was good you basically got, “Hey this is pretty good.” If your script was bad you basically got, “Hey, you need to work on [these areas] in your writing.” A lot of contests now offer “in-depth” notes that cost an additional fee. I think this is a rip off and I’m not the only one who thinks that way.
But the feedback Dan showed me was much more than I’d expected, especially for no additional cost. Evidently, in Bluecat two people read your script. And you get far more than the generic “your script was good/bad” type of thing. Here some choice cuts from Dan’s feedback that he’s allowed me to share:
You have a strong command of story-telling and this is apparent in the story’s structure. Your first act introduces your main and supporting characters, while still setting up a strange mystery, predicated upon the haunted past that vexes both the protagonist and her antagonist. You cut back and forth between the Church of the Mountain and the base camp, never revealing too much too soon, but raising tension along the way. We know danger is looming and there is the sense that anything can happen at any time, and often does! Act one seamlessly paves the way into act two where Eliza learns Horace’s identity and makes the decision to try to save the young teenager being held under his cult-ish tutelage. As the truth materializes, your pacing accelerates adding to the tension.
There were several paragraphs like this. And afterward, there was a section on “improvements”:
There a few weaknesses that bog your script down. For starters, Preston is funny, but almost too one note. He provides some necessary humor, but his obsession with porn starts to feel too heavy-handed at times. The tail-end of the story becomes explosive, but also a bit too predictable. Still it is action-packed and satisfying however it can stand to be pared down. Once Eliza, Neva, Buf and Preston escape the church (pg 90), the action starts to get burdensome with several more obstacles – the snake, the elevator, Felicity, but in particular Horace reappearing and once again falling for Neva’s loving words, despite having been deceived by her only minutes earlier. Perhaps his demise can be a little more clever?
Now, that’s two big chunks of text, but like I just mentioned, there were several paragraphs like this. And that’s just the first set of feedback.
The second set offered this:
I really appreciate the creativity of this piece. While attempting a movie this ambitiously varied sometimes results in the pieces not all fitting together just right, it is always better to get everything onto the page in a early draft so you can get a clearer sense of what’s working. For you, the element that’s actually working the best at the moment is the violence. This is not to say you should turn this into a Hostel-style gore-fest, but it’s clear you have a very good feel for how to manipulate and shock a reader at specific moments. There’s something disturbingly primal about the way Buf is dragged off into the darkness by the noose on page 60 that I found profoundly unnerving. The flesh sacrifices by the cultists and the whole Buf skinning scene were equally memorable and unpleasant moments in the movie that do a wonderful job of jarring the reader off-balance and then keeping them there. You use darkness to your advantage very effectively. I loved the way you constructed the attack on Preston and “Grabby” on the bridge. We can imagine that just hearing the noise of the knife meeting the wood in the darkness would be unimaginably terrifying for the two people caught on the bridge. It’s dynamite stuff.
And as for negative feedback, here’s a small sample:
The greatest sin of this piece is that of over-ambition. You’re a great horror writer, but I feel you tried to do way too much with your third act and the result was that much of it felt more silly than scary. Through most of the earlier part of the script you do a very nice job walking the line between the realistic horror of religious fanaticism and the world of the supernatural. The result is, as mentioned above, the audience is never comfortable because we’re not sure what kind of movie we’re watching. Anything can happen. I feel that once we’re getting elements like a giant snake and an 8-foot troll-woman the movie loses this eerie charm and just becomes a little campy. Felicity in particular is really not playing right now. The bit with the sewed-on scalp is suitably disgusting, but in general she just feels a little too cartoonish to be all that scary. The implication of supernatural “monsters” in the darkness of the mines is so much more terrifying than actually showing us giant women or huge “godsnakes” because it allows our imaginations to run wild.
What I think is interesting is that you get two set of reader’s feedback. THis allows you to contrast what hit and missed with each of them. One reader might love something, and then the other might hate it. But, if both like something, or both hate something, maybe those are thing you want to expand on or change.
Feedback on a script is a weird beast. EVERYTHING is subjective, but if enough people say the same thing, you should pop up and listen. While I’m not endorsing the Bluecat screenplay contest, this gives you a solid example of the type of feedback you can expect. A lot of contests aren’t as transparent at the type of feedback they offer, so I think this was worthwhile to share with any of you who are curious.
This isn’t “coverage” in the traditional sense of the word. I think the term “feedback” is adequate. But many contests say they offer “feedback” and it’s more like what I mentioned above. Bluecat seems to be taking a different approach, and I can respect that. They offer a more in-depth notes service, like the other contests, but I thought it was worth pointing out that their normal “feedback” seems superior to most efforts.
Also, there is the possibility that Dan just got two readers who happened to go above and beyond what they needed to do with their feedback. That’s completely possible. However, I’m willing to give Bluecat the benefit of the doubt here.