It’s the experience almost any new writer faces at some point; the elation of getting that “yes, we’ll read it” email (the door’s ajar!), sending a fresh, hopeful script to an agent, producer or network, waiting days, then weeks, then months. And getting nothing. You try to contact them, eventually get through, and, if you’re told anything at all, you’re told it wasn’t quite what they were after. This is the silent pass, the kind of cold shoulder someone turns in a room you’re not even in.
And it’s more common than ever.
In fact, it’s becoming the industry norm.
The Silent Pass
There was a time, not so long ago, when so-called “rejection slips” were an everyday occurrence in film and TV, even for the big players.
Behemoth producer Tim Bevan of Working Title Films recalls collecting them, almost like scalps, and storing them in huge filing cabinets. Bevan knew, when he’d almost filled a filing cabinet, that by the law of averages the crucial “Yes” he’d sought for so long, was due.
To the uninitiated, scripts circulating in film and TV are typically graded in one of four ways:
- Recommend (read it now, before someone else does)
- Consider (read it over the weekend or within 7 days, preferably)
- Low Consider (read it as soon as you can)
- Pass (don’t read it and “Pass”)
And it used to be that writers were in on it. In brief, people responded to one another.
Sure, they’d take an eternity, and often offer up identikit, conveyor-belt-type Pass notes.
But they would, at least, y’know, respond.
There was a finality there. A courtesy, even. A courteous response, often with some feedback or words of analysis or encouragement for the writer and his/her agent to try and decipher.
Like everything, though, the internet changed all that.
People could now ping and whizz scripts to each other. They could fizz and zip PDFs containing the latest hot (or not so hot) spec, in seconds.
And you don’t have to be a genius to work out where things headed from here.
Devices crying out for some memory space, as scripts invaded every portable reading device available.
It changed the flow of the industry, changed the speed, the volume of that flow, and this, in turn, has had some marked effects on that sought-after response.
Jeremy Drysdale, a British screenwriter who does the bulk of his work in America, is adamant the silent pass is both a product of the digital age and over-saturation:
‘When I started as a screenwriter in 2003, there was a basic level of politeness at all levels and an understanding that because product was a vital component of the filmmaking process, it didn’t make sense to antagonise the creators. Although that is still obviously the case, for some reason writers are now often left without any idea how our scripts have gone down, which is unfortunate in a world where we only really live through the opinions of others. Generally, in America – where I do most of my work – it is less of a problem, because scripts are read within a week or two and ‘no response’ can be easily understood. In Britain, though, where it can – no word of a lie – take nine months to get a script read, the limbo can’t be so easily assessed. I think things only ever really improve when you start making serious money for producers, because that’s the point when they don’t want to bait you by not communicating. So the answer, unfortunately, is to be better and write hits. Or to do a more sensible job, where you don’t sit alone in a room for months and then find that no-one wants to talk to you at all when you break the surface for a little air.’
As above, instant communication means more submissions.
But this isn’t just about writers having a simpler way of getting their work out there; it’s also about more people taking those first steps to becoming a fully fledged screenwriter in the first place.
The market is bigger than ever and the means are simpler than ever.
Resources to help aspiring scribes learn the craft, interviews with numerous people on the inside, entire databases of screenplays from major releases past and present and, of course, script reading/coverage services, are all more accessible than they’ve ever been.
There’s a lot more nudging forward the uninitiated, a lot more to help them take that first step.
And it’s having an effect. The WGA’s membership, for example, is two and a half times what it was in 2000. And that’s just working writers – there are also now between 30,000 and 50,000 screenplays registered with them each year. (Some sources suggest even higher)
This implies a lot of input into the system, but if we look at the output of films with a large theatrical release each year, we’re looking at something in the region of 700, up only around 200-250 since the 90s. For ‘Hollywood’ (the machine) specifically, that number is far lower, around 150.
Obviously, this is a narrow view, but it illustrates something important: input has gone up a lot; output has gone up less.
This means a whole host more rejections, but not so many more acceptances.
And this means that the prospect of sending out those courteous, personalised rejection slips (or rejection emails) is now a whole lot more time-intensive. Cue a silent pass or several (thousand).
Plus, for some companies, it’s now no longer a manageable task to keep on top of those submissions at all. They’ve only got so many readers, and their readers only have so much time. This means things starts to get prioritised.
Perhaps they decide to whittle down their workload by filtering out genre-fare and focusing on taut drama, based on the kind of script they think is most viable in the current market. If so, there goes a whole chunk of submissions, deleted in a few seconds without a response, without so much as an acknowledgement.
A bulk-buy silent pass.
Printed Script vs PDF
Simply put, people react differently to the two formats.
The obvious point here is that it’s a lot harder to ignore a physical thing taking up space on a desk than it is a message among multiple thousands of messages that’s taking up nothing.
It’s also impossible to delete a physical object in bulk without fire. You can clear an inbox in a couple of seconds.
But it goes deeper than that.
There are genuine psychological differences in the way we perceive each format. As Yale neuroscientist Ken Pugh tells us:
“…reading a book, and taking the time to ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing, is more cognitively enriching, than the short little bits you might get if you’re into the 30-second digital mode”
The same applies to a physical screenplay. Attention spans operate in a different way when we take in information from different sources – words on a page hold greater impact, and encourage greater focus, than those on a screen.
As such, a hefty script will hold attention more consistently than a PDF. There’s no internet on paper, no scope to get distracted and open another tab, no screen-fatigue.
Add to this the fact that, obviously, a screenplay is more blueprint than it is literary text and getting it read with the level of attention to detail you might hope becomes a bigger ask than it used to be.
This isn’t to say it’s necessarily the best play to step back a few decades and embrace the postal service – for a lot of companies, that ship has sailed – but it illustrates the fact that there’s a whole new mountain for prospective writers to climb, and all they serve at base camp is a silent pass.
More important still is the fact that something physical is actually more likely to be read overall than something digital, or at the very least read more carefully.
Again, that physical presence demands attention, whereas your inbox is an intangible mass that only exists when you check it.
According to one study by London Metropolitan University, this perception stretches even further – people are more likely to view a physical letter as genuine than they are an email.
This is down to physical letters or submissions implying effort on the part of the sender – they feel more permanent and, as such, suggest greater pressure on the sender to be honest or direct, while the disposability of an instant message (however incorrect this may be in practice) suggests that the content of that message is somehow more disposable too.
The upshot of all this is a submission somehow seems less valuable than it used to.
It’s easy to see the rejection slips of old as a symbol of value, a sign that, while ‘this script might not be for us’, it deserved acknowledgement.
If we combine both of the above:
- Thousands more submissions
- Electronic submissions
With more people submitting, and that submission often arriving in electronic form, aspiring writers have become faceless.
And a faceless writer is a lot easier to reject.
As psychologist Susan Barnes puts it:
“The anonymity of email leads to rudeness.”
An email is easy to ignore because it feels impersonal, and as such we feel less accountable to the sender.
Each one looks exactly like the one before.
However unfair this assessment may be in practice, in the age of digital submissions, those submissions are potentially more likely to garner a negative response than their physical predecessors.
Plus, even with an honest to God pile of actual, physical scripts on a desk, that pile is now tall enough that any sense of the person behind given pages is watered down among the hundreds of others.
The upshot of this is that a silent pass becomes a far easier thing to inflict.
You’re no longer stringing along Susan from Pennsylvania or Jerry from Kent, you’re stringing along writer #462, and they’re far more difficult to empathise with.
The other implication of the above is, of course, that a reader at an agency or production company is likely to have more on their plate than they ever have done before.
So more scripts to read; more great, more good, and even more bad (as outlined in the numbers above).
This increases the cost of certain mistakes when it comes to the writer:
- Minor formatting issues (e.g. a scene heading that uses EXT to indicate standing outside a room in a hallway)
- A slightly overused beat or semi-cliché (e.g. the gun clicking empty the second it’s turned on our hero)
- A flat joke. (e.g. use your imagination)
- Overly dense description. (e.g. introducing six characters at once and giving each of them a ‘she’s beautiful, eyes burning with the naive confidence and defiance of youth’ type description)
Obviously, best case scenario is that these mistakes don’t crop up at all, but the common theme with all of them is that they’re isolated, they’re easy to fix, and, crucially, they won’t necessarily tank a good story.
If the script is otherwise great, these aren’t going to put much of a dent in it.
At least until we factor in the workload.
A formatting error or misjudged story shift that would likely have been forgiven or even overlooked in the first script of the day suddenly becomes the culmination of a string of repeated errors or minor cliches or weird dramatic left turns in the last.
As odd as it sounds, the volume of submissions potentially ends up affecting the perception of a single beat or moment in a story.
Add the anonymity of the writer into the mix, and it becomes all too easy to detach – they’re not an isolated writer who made a minor error; they’re the tenth person to make that error this week.
This makes the negative value of a small mistake that much higher. It makes it seem a worse transgression than it is, and ultimately helps inform the decision to cast it aside with hundreds of others.
New grounds for a silent pass.
Escaping the Silent Pass?
So, what’s the solution to the silent pass? Unfortunately, there really isn’t one. This isn’t an avoidable phenomenon, at least not for the aspiring writer. It’s simply the product of a shift in process that has largely anonymised budding writers.
The only play becomes to accept it, to manage expectation.
To accept that no news is probably bad news.
But it also highlights what any writer knows to be true: at the end of the day, it’s the writing that speaks.
So, as always, it comes down to making sure that submission is just too damn good for a pass, especially a silent pass, in the first place.
- Have you experienced the silent pass? Let your fellow writers and filmmakers know about your experiences in the comments box, below…
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