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May 27, 2022

Top 5 Ways to Spot a Screenwriting Fraud

Top 5 Ways to Spot a Screenwriting Fraud

How To Spot a Screenwriting Fraud

There’s a lot of charlatans in the screenwritingverse of the Internet. And that means a lot of lies. 

Most screenwriting sites claim to have “experts” to read or judge your work and/or give you professional instruction, and some of them sound very impressive. Some even have links to their IMDB page where a plethora of credits are listed. They must be for real, right? Not so fast, young Jedi. 

So, how do you tell who’s legit and who’s a fraud? It’s easier than you think.

1)  The first (and easiest) way is when their credits or experience is non-specific. 

What follows are ACTUAL examples taken from the “About” pages of screenwriting sites charging you money for their expert opinion of your work:

Recognized as an expert in the Screenwriting world

By whom? There’s literally nothing else here about this person’s qualifications. I recognize Shonda Rhimes as an expert in the screenwriting world, but I do not recognize a person I’ve never heard of, who has zero credits, and nothing to show they know the first thing about screenwriting. 

Has relationships with over 60 major production companies and networks

What type of “relationship” do they have? Are they a dog walker for an assistant at a network’s marketing division? Are they a neighbor of a security guard at a production company?

Writes for producers, directors, and production companies around the world

Really? What producers, directors, and production companies? And what do they write? Dry cleaning receipts? If they don’t tell you the actual names of the companies and projects – they are at best, fudging the truth, and at worst, straight up lying. 

Has done two paid writing assignments for producers

Okay, so this guy is at least trying. Though, this could mean literally anyone calling themselves a “producer” might have paid him $1 to write a bio. Twice. 

Connected to this type of bio is the “professional screenwriter” who actually lists a credit or two. Maybe even a movie or television series you’ve heard of. But their last credit was 1997. Or worse - 1987.  

If they have no credits in the last 20+ years, you need to ask yourself - why? If they really know what they’re doing when it comes to screenwriting, and they were actually in the club once, why has nobody hired them to write anything for so long? And please don't buy the lie that they've been working, but just haven't gotten credit... that could be true for a project here or there, but for 20 years?

Works with some of the top producers in the industry

Hmm… this could be our dog walker again. Do you see the pattern here? 

Produced screenwriter

I see this one fairly often. If they won’t tell you the script that was produced (example: GEOSTORM, NCIS-NEW ORLEANS) it is all but guaranteed that they are lying. 

An optioned writer working with a prominent production company

Again, what company? Must not be too prominent. And what project was optioned? And to take this another step - being optioned means absolutely nothing in Hollywood. 

There are Starbucks baristas who have been optioned. There are car wash attendants and Door Dash delivery folks who have been optioned. Is that who you want to PAY for feedback on your work?

One of my favorite ones I’ve come across recently said the person had been “Mentored by…” and then listed several very big name producers. If they were truly mentored by so many big names, why do they still have no career whatsoever?

And this gem:

Our script consultants have significant industry credentials

Then what are these credentials? If they’re significant, why not list them? If they exist at all, why not list them? And by the way, you sexy jungle cats… 

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SCRIPT CONSULTANT IN HOLLYWOOD.

Let me repeat that: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SCRIPT CONSULTANT IN HOLLYWOOD.

If someone claims to be one, they are lying. You want to know who ALL the script consultants are in Hollywood? I’ll tell you… 

Screenwriters. 

That’s right. The ONLY “script consultants” or “script doctors” in Hollywood are working professional screenwriters. 

Studio don’t hire non-writers to consult or doctor screenplays. Part of why they don’t is because 1) the entire studio is FILLED with people who consult every single day - they’re called executives - and 2) the studio has dozens, if not hundreds of relationships (some even financial) with working screenwriters. If you were a Paramount executive and had a screenplay that just wasn’t working, would you bring in someone with zero experience, or would you bring in Kelly Marcel, or BIlly Ray, or Liz Hannah? If you couldn’t afford them, wouldn’t you bring in a screenwriter with great credits who isn’t as expensive? Or would you hire the dog walker?

People LOVE to call themselves script doctors and consultants because it can’t be checked; it can’t be proven or disproven. It’s like the dog walker thing - if they had a coffee with someone who works at Universal, and that person mentioned some project at Universal, and our dog walker gave their unsolicited opinion of said project, Boom = Consultant for Universal!

If someone claims to be a script doctor or consultant, you should run before the final syllable is out of their mouth. 

2)  The next way to Spot a Fraud is their IMDB page. 

Anyone trying to be a screenwriter should know what IMDB is. If you don’t, stop right now, and Google it, then come back. I’ll wait…

Okay, got it? So, a lot of these frauds will tell you to check their IMDB page. Why? Because IMDB is known as the bible of industry credits. If it’s not on IMDB, it didn’t happen.

That is a lie. 

Firstly, there are two IMDBs - there’s IMDB, a free website, and there’s IMDB Pro, a paid access site. They’re basically the same, except the Pro version lists agents and managers among other extras, and has the reputation of being more legitimate. 

Why does it have that rep? Because the free IMDB site has become a complete joke. Originally, it was run by a group of folks who were very serious about only allowing REAL credits to be listed. But as the site exploded in popularity, they were overwhelmed and had to open it up to the public. 

Nowadays, anyone can list anything on IMDB. Thus, it has lost its legitimacy as far as checking a person’s credits… unless you know how to read it. 

Here are the things to watch out for when checking a person’s credits:

(SHORT) listed after the title – it means exactly that. The project was a short film. Nothing against short films at all - there are some AMAZING short films. Some serious 38-minute long epics made with full crews and post-production. And some 2-minute selfie films made on an iPhone. How do you tell the difference on IMDB? You can’t really. 

The other thing about short film credits as far as screenwriting goes is they are not what we’re trying to do here. Writing short films can be a great way to get into screenwriting. And as I said, some shorts are amazing, but there are no careers for short film screenwriters. And we’re trying to build you a career. So, anyone whose screenwriting credits are all short films – chances are they may not be the best person to pay for advice. 

(PRE-PRODUCTION) listed after the title – this is a big one. Anyone can add anything to their own IMDB page, and when you see more “pre-production” credits than you do actual credits, that’s a red flag the person is full of it. Sure, there are many legit projects in pre-production, but when you see a lot of them on the same person’s page, and you haven’t heard of any of them, well, there you go. 

The other thing to watch out for is obvious - no credits. Or credits doing things other than screenwriting. There is a screenwriting site out there charging you money for instruction by someone claiming to be a working Hollywood screenwriter - but when you check their credits, there is ONE for screenwriter (a short, of course) and then there’s five or six credits over the past dozen years as everything from a gaffer to a grip to a driver! 

(ANNOUNCED) listed after the title – this is exactly what it says it is. A project simply announced. Meaning, someone went on to IMDB and listed the name of their project with no other information at all. Like you announce your order to the barista. 

If you’re thinking of spending the money for IMDB Pro, you don’t need to. As I said, it isn’t that different, just slightly more vetted because agents & managers tend to oversee their clients listings. 

If you really want to know the real deal as far as credits, you need to own Studio System. Studio System is the industry’s secret version of IMDB. You can only purchase access to it if you can prove you are an actual working Hollywood insider, and then, it ain’t cheap. But credit listing is strictly vetted and enforced, and you can get booted from it for listing BS. 

3)  Next on our list of how to spot a fraud is anytime you see the word READER. 

Here’s the truth about readers in Hollywood. Prior to the 80’s and 90’s, “readers” were the producer’s or executive’s assistant or (way back when) their secretary. 

But when the Trades (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, etc) began reporting sales figures for screenplays, the spec market exploded. Everyone and their dog walker (that’s what’s known in comedy writing as a callback!) was trying to be the next Shane Black or Joe Eszterhas, and studios were so overrun with screenplays they had to employ full-time readers. 

A reader’s job was just that - to read. They would take home a pile of scripts and read them. And there was a form they would fill out about the script called COVERAGE. Coverage lists the screenplay’s qualities or drawbacks, gives a brief synopsis of the story, and eventually gives one of three opinions:

RECOMMEND – the reader recommends the producer/studio read this script with an eye toward buying it. 

CONSIDER – the reader recommends the producer/studio “consider” reading the script. Duh.

PASS – the reader suggests there is no reason for the producer/studio to waste their time with the script. 

Readers were/are paid per script. I knew readers for Joel Silver and his Silver Pictures company that paid $75 per read, and that was in the mid-90’s. I also know of readers for smaller production companies who were paid $25 per script.  

So, yes, what you’re thinking is true… there might have been the single greatest screenplay in the history of cinema written 30 years ago, that got a PASS from some idiot reader, and so the writer gave up, and is now managing a self-storage place in Pacoima. Not likely, but absolutely possible. 

Here’s the other lie about Readers: in the last 10 years or so, the majority of studios and legit production companies have done away with Readers. The readers being used now are back to the assistants and such working at the companies - because it saves money. So, please don’t believe the lie that Readers are still these iconic gatekeepers between Hollywood and your screenwriting career. It is not the truth. 

Back to these sites of “professional readers” asking for money to judge your work. What qualifications do you need to be a Professional Reader? One… the ability to read. That’s it. 

Now, the folks who are trying to convince you to pay them for their expertise because they were or are Readers will take umbrage with that, but to their umbrage I clap back with the ACTUAL job listing post from THE BLACK LIST – a site that has become almost mythical in its Hollywood importance to emerging screenwriters…

At the time of this post, The Black List is hiring Readers for their script analysis/coverage/feedback/etc - meaning the people who will judge your work. And here are the requirements for the job:

  • Must read all scripts thoroughly and completely
  • Must have at least one-year experience as a Hollywood Reader

That’s it. No screenwriting experience needed, no actual knowledge of story or what makes a story work or not work, no understanding of the craft whatsoever. Just read the entire script (hey, thanks!), and have experience reading other scripts. 

The person at that site giving your screenplay a lowly “5” or astronomical “9” may know even less about screenwriting than you. 

What follows are actual excerpts from other screenwriting sites on why their “Readers” are qualified to take your money…

All our readers have industry experience at agencies, studios, production companies, and foreign sales firms. 

So… they know how to read?

I’ve written coverage for companies and studios including Paramount, WB, and many more

You may think, “Ooo! They MUST know what they’re doing if they read for Paramount!” Well, yes and no… here’s some truth:

I lived with a dude once who was a Reader for both Paramount and Warner Brothers. He was a struggling screenwriter (as most readers are), and his IQ was… I’d conservatively estimate it to be between a houseplant and a russet potato.

And the thing about him was - he was so insecure and envious, that anytime he read a great script he would give it a PASS or a negative CONSIDER, because he didn’t want that person succeeding.

The point of that true story is that it doesn’t matter WHO the person was/is a Reader for - they’re still just a reader, with no more or less knowledge of how to write than you. Or that philodendron in the corner of your apartment. 

4)  The next way to spot a fraud is my favorite way  – and I must preface this by saying I have to give these folks respect.

They are not lying! I found some screenwriting sites where the people taking your money have no experience whatsoever as professional screenwriters, BUT - instead of lying about their expertise, they are proudly telling you they have NO experience! 

Comes from a successful background in corporate training

This cat never even tried to be a screenwriter. He just realized there was a big market for selling advice, and so he took his corporate training and applied it to screenwriting! I love this guy. But I love the next person even more… 

Previously worked as a VP with accounts for Motorola, McDonalds, Coca Cola, and other large companies

Amazing! A corporate accounting VP… I must say if I wanted to throw my money away for bad advice, I think I’d go to this person before I went to any of the Readers or Consultants!

5)  And I’ve saved the very best for last. The last way to spot a fraud in the screenwritingverse…

I found a website offering all sorts of screenwriting services and instruction from their faculty of “industry professionals.”

When you click on the Meet The Team button, it takes you to a page where you see headshots of the ten faculty members, and… wait for it… 

That’s it. No bios, no resumes, no lies, no truths, nothing at all but their smiling faces. 

As always, you sexy jungle cats, it’s up to you. If you’re feeling frustrated right now, I get it. But here’s some truth - it’s not supposed to be easy. A career as a screenwriter is much harder than you can imagine. It takes patience, self-awareness, and endurance. I highly recommend finding others to read your work - but find other writers. Find or form a screenwriting group and hold each other accountable. This is a lonely, solitary endeavor, and we’re all in it together. So, seek each other out and help each other. 

And yes, the folks in your group may not know any more about screenwriting than the idiot Readers on these sites, but guess what? You’re not paying the writers in your group, are you? So, you’re getting your money’s worth. 

If you’re just so desperate to spend money to further your screenwriting journey, sure, you can give it to these entities that sound super cool and seem to have vast Hollywood experience… or you can do your due diligence - take 120 seconds out of your life and Google these asshats; see what, if any actual experience in screenwriting they have. And take their notes accordingly.

— Paul Guyot

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