[There is an update to this post here.]

Earlier this year, a blogger going by the name Carson Reeves began reviewing screenplays on a site called ScriptShadow. These aren’t scripts for existing movies, but rather screenplays to upcoming films — ones in production, ones in development, ones in limbo.

A recent Wired magazine article by Scott Brown discusses his intentions:

[Reeves] says he wanted to celebrate the writer, promote talented unknowns (aren’t most screenwriters pretty much unknowns?), and acquaint newbie scribes with the art of the craft. “I’ve had so many emails from writers all over the world thanking me for making Hollywood feel closer and less intimidating,” he says. “It’s particularly appealing to amateur screenwriters who want to know what’s selling. You have to realize that this is information they’ve wanted for years but just didn’t have access to.”

That’s not really the case. Aspiring screenwriters have always had access to this material the same way Reeves apparently got access to it: by working and interning in the industry.

In between answering phones and trying to get their bosses on flights out of Kennedy, bright underpaid aspirants have the opportunity to read almost every script in town. Impromptu networks of assistants pass around their favorite screenplays, in the process picking the next generation of hot writers.

Studios turn a blind eye to this because it helps the industry. You want the smartest people with the best opinions working for you, and you want them to have a good sense of what’s in development all over town. A boss at Disney isn’t going to lose sleep if an intern at CAA reads a draft of that Miley Cyrus comedy. It’s expected. It’s good.

So ScriptShadow should be a good thing, right? More is better.

It’s not. And the reasons become clear pretty quickly.

There’s a big difference between reading a script and reviewing it online for the world to see. Not only are you spoiling plot details, but you’re establishing a baseline judgment for a project that’s often still in its fetal phase.

Brown’s article is alarmingly upbeat on this point:

Scriptshadow is the logical next step in our increasingly impatient attitude toward the delivery of entertainment. We’ve seen the sun set on the medieval Age of Professional Reviews, the rise of the populist recap, and the boom of real-time in-theater Twitter. The precap, however, trumps them all. It’s the kind of access Tinsel-trolls like me have been jonesing for since the ’90s, when Ain’t It Cool News hooked us with preemptive trashings of preview screenings.1

And here’s the rub: just like the AICN reviews of screenings made studios much more reluctant to test their films, sites like ScriptShadow are making them clamp down much harder on the heretofore common practice of passing scripts around.

This isn’t theoretical. It’s happening now.

Ruining it for writers

Earlier this year, I worked on a rewrite of a potential tent-pole movie in development at Fox. A week into my writing, ScriptShadow posted a review (since removed) of an earlier draft of the same project. It was largely laudatory, but the studio went ballistic. I don’t know what pressure they put on ScriptShadow to get the review taken down, but I was suddenly given extraordinary restrictions on exactly who could read the script. I couldn’t send it to the director, the producers or anyone other than one executive at the studio. These were by far the most restrictive terms of any film I’ve written at any studio.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t X-Men or Avatar. It was one of two dozen movies that could maybe someday get greenlit. Fox legal was willing to go to war over a movie it might not even make.

The more often sites like ScriptShadow poke that hornet’s nest, the bigger the reaction is going to be. The revised terms — I couldn’t even send the draft to my agent — may become the norm. Assistants will get fired for sharing scripts. In the long run, it will be crippling for the industry, and screenwriters will suffer most:

  • Screenwriters get hired based on the last few things we wrote, and if those are sealed in vaults, we’re screwed. I got my second writing assignment (A Wrinkle in Time) based on the script to my first assignment, a project that was still in active development. If that script had been locked down, I might not have gotten another job.

  • If I can’t get feedback from trusted readers about the script I’m writing, it won’t be as good. Period.

  • Pretty soon, blame for one of these “leaks” is going to be aimed back at the actual writer, and how would she defend herself? If I leave my iPhone or laptop unattended for sixty seconds, it would be nothing for someone to send himself one the drafts I’ve emailed to myself as backup.

I don’t want to have to write in a Fox office, on a Fox computer. But that could very easily be the future.

A better tomorrow

Several screenwriter friends have emailed Reeves, asking him to take down reviews of their scripts. Every time, he has. So I believe Reeves when he says he wants to help writers. Here are two ways he can do it:

  1. Review scripts of movies once they’ve come out. Most of the scripts aiming for awards this season have freely-available .pdfs, and Reeves’ own contacts should enable him to get ahold of the ones that aren’t. Shining a spotlight on the scripts and their screenwriters would genuinely help readers see how the words on the page were translated to the screen.

  2. Ask writers before posting a review. No doubt some screenwriters benefit from getting their spec scripts mentioned, just as the Black List has helped draw attention to worthy writers. As long as Reeves checks in with the writer first — making sure that a review wouldn’t derail a deal in the works — everyone benefits.

Other sites publish script reviews. The reason I’m singling out ScriptShadow is that its owner genuinely seems to have some sense of responsibility to its readers and the screenwriting community. Hell, it uses Scrippets, so it can’t be all evil.

I’m hoping that by setting the bar higher, ScriptShadow can stop hurting the screenwriters it claims to celebrate.

  1. More than impatience, I think it speaks to a culture of entitlement: “It’s not fair I have to wait until a movie is out to know what happens.” Or, “It’s not fair that only Hollywood people get to read these scripts.” Guess what? It is fair. Fair doesn’t mean you get whatever you want.