How to Manage Script Notes and Film Feedback the Right WayUnlock the potential of constructive criticism in your creative work.
“The best notes are those that understand and embrace the screenwriter’s or filmmaker’s intention and then work to help them realize it.”
Ah, “notes”! An oft-uttered, sometimes feared term in screenwriting and filmmaking circles. ?
Briefly, “notes” refers to feedback on a project provided by, ideally, trusted individuals – collaborators, colleagues, professors, and the like – intended to help you improve your project.
And can we be honest for a moment?
Sometimes notes sting.
Which makes sense, of course! When you hand someone a draft of your screenplay or show them a cut of your film, you’re choosing to be vulnerable – to lay bare an expression of your creative soul.
No doubt you’ve spent countless hours pouring your heart and mind into the project at hand, and even though you know deep down that it can and will get better, it stings a bit when someone tells you that something you thought was working in your project actually, well, isn’t.
In fact, there may even be a part of you that’s sort of, kind of hoping that you’re going to hand someone your script or your edit or whatever and they’ll be like, “Hey, it was fantastic. Don’t change a thing; this one’s a winner.”
Have you been there, in that hopeful seat? Me, too. But you know where I’m pretty sure few, if any, of us have been? On the receiving end of “Hey, it was fantastic. Don’t change a thing; this one’s a winner.”
Arguably, no act of creation is perfect, especially in its first form. In the words of Salvador Dalí, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
But you can try.
Once you get over the initial sting of constructive criticism, you’ll realize that notes are actually one of the most valuable resources available to screenwriters and filmmakers. Notes are a gift, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. They can unearth problems you didn’t realize your work had, enabling you to develop solutions you didn’t realize you needed.
“When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood,” Dennis Palumbo shares, “I hated getting notes from producers, directors or studio execs – even if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script. No, especially if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script.”
So, let’s do some soul searching and have an honest conversation about how to approach notes and use them effectively as a creative professional. You might think of our time together as a little aloe vera for your burns. Let its cool, soothing qualities take the heat off the criticism, so that you can focus not on how the notes make you feel, but rather on what they might mean and how that can help you elevate your project to the next level!
How to Handle Notes with Grace (and Quiet the Screaming Demon)
Let’s get one thing out of the way right upfront. I’m not suggesting that you should find a way not to feel the sting or confusion that often accompanies the reception of notes!
Between studying screenwriting, practicing the craft, and producing numerous film projects since, I can say with confidence that I’ve taken a lot of feedback over the years, and I still get that sinking feeling of “Oh, really?”.
It’s natural. These projects are our babies. When you’ve spent a lot of time investing in your creative work, about the last thing you want to hear is “Yeah, this isn’t working.”
Perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves is (1) acknowledge that notes can be challenging, (2) allow the resultant feeling to emerge, fully experiencing it, and then (3) let it go. By going through the full cycle of emotion, you’ll be able to recognize when your response to a note is a knee-jerk reaction – for example, getting teary-eyed or defensive – and instead of indulging that response, handle the moment with grace.
“It’s human nature not to like criticism,” screenwriter Philip Gladwin observes. “And unless every note is just an endorsement of what you have written (which must mean you are entirely in tune with the producer, director and market research, which is probably classifiable as a minor miracle) then there will be things that need changing”:
“With that inevitably comes an implied criticism. You weren’t perfect.
Get over it. You can walk, or you can come back to the battle. Over the years I’ve done both, and though it’s a fine call sometimes, I generally prefer to keep involvement with my baby when I can.
Go ahead and feel disappointment when you get that first feedback on a script. Feel bad for a day or two, that’s normal – but don’t let it linger or turn into self-pity.”
The bottom line here is that we’re not suggesting that you repress your emotions. We’re suggesting that, the next time a well-meaning notes-giver offers you their perspective and that knee-jerk response of “OMG YOU’RE WRONG MY FILM IS PERFECT” creeps up, you turn to that screaming demon and say, “I know what you are, you funny little thing. You’re my natural reaction to notes.” Pat it on the head and tell it to buzz off. Trust in the fact that once the demon-feeling subsides, the sting will, too, and you’ll quite possibly be left with some solid new ideas for your project.
Because that’s what notes are, right? They’re ideas.
“Notes” is the traditional industry term, but maybe thinking about them as “ideas” will help you accept that you don’t have to take them. Of course, nine times out of ten, you shouldn’t dismiss them outright – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When to Get Notes, Who to Ask, and How
When in the creative process should you get out there and seek feedback?
It’s really a case-by-case thing, but generally speaking, where screenplays are concerned, you probably want to ask for notes each time you have a new draft that you feel really happy with. In the case of a film, you should consider sourcing notes when you have a rough cut, and then again when you revise and fine-tune it.
When you arrive at a presentable draft or cut, it’s natural to want to share it with all of your trusted minds – friends, peers, film-savvy acquaintances, your mother’s best friend’s dog. And while it’s often wise to cast a wide net, bear in mind that agreeing to notes is a commitment on the part of the notes-giver. It takes time to read that draft or watch that cut, and it takes time to then come up with thoughtful feedback and share it.
So, consider staggering your requests for notes. Ask a handful of people for feedback on the first draft or cut, a couple more on the next pass, and so on. You may get lucky and have someone who’s eager to review each and every iteration of your project, which is great, but remember that not everyone will have the time to give your project the thought and care it deserves more than once – even if they say they do.
Regardless, it’s usually a very good idea to continue to bring new perspectives onboard throughout the notes-gathering process. That way, you’ll encounter fresh, objective perspectives regularly. Since the final product will be viewed by anyone and everyone who decides to watch your film, it’s a good idea to hear what different people have to say.
But how do you actually ask for notes?
Since providing notes is a commitment, it’s polite to ask the potential notes-giver first whether or not they’re available to review your work. If they agree, then pass along your draft or cut. Don’t automatically pass it along, assuming that that person is available. By checking in first, you’re communicating that you respect that person’s time and aren’t being too presumptuous.
How to Respond When Someone Gives You Notes
The first thing you should say when someone gives you notes is:
We can’t stress this enough: providing notes is usually a time-intensive process that’s tapping into an individual’s experiences and expertise. It’s important to affirm and acknowledge their commitment with, at the very least, a sincere “thank you”.
As we’ve already discussed, notes can sting. Put the “YOU SUCK I’M A GENIUS” demon in its place if you feel yourself getting defensive. Don’t react in the moment. Instead, live with the feedback. Let your emotions and your intellect digest it. When you’re ready to engage with the feedback seriously and diplomatically, you can approach the notes-giver in conversation or otherwise implement the notes that resonate, all according to your taste and creative vision.
It’s worth mentioning that both my and Lights Film School teacher Michael’s college experiences stressed the importance of mastering the knee-jerk reaction to notes. Our projects were critiqued in workshop-style classes. As Michael explains:
“At NYU, part of my training was sitting in a room full of my peers and professor who would dissect the script I’d written, and I wasn’t allowed to say anything during the process unless asked a question. They were training the ability to listen – the ability to tame that emotional ‘eff you!’ reaction.”
Because, again, notes are a gift. You need to be able to get out of your own way so that you can receive it. When you do, you’ll start to unlock the power of constructive criticism.
Look for Patterns in the Notes
Notes help you assess the degree to which your intentions translate to the page or screen. At risk of over-simplifying, your job as a storyteller is twofold: you must (1) create a compelling story and (2) communicate it effectively to an audience.
Sometimes, your story will be clearer to you than you’re able to express on the page or distill in an edit the first time around – or any time around. Michael had a professor who helped him manage his expectations of his own creative work, especially early on: “The best it will ever be is in your head.”
If someone reads your script or watches your cut and shares that they don’t understand something – or if it’s clear that they’ve missed something that you intended them to pick up on – great! That’s incredibly valuable feedback. It’s a fantastic prompt for you as you move forward: how could you more clearly express that element of your story? What can you add or change to more clearly convey your intention?
This is where you should ask the notes-giver questions. Notes can be a conversation that reveals the road to a stronger project.
Even so, film – and all of art, really – is inherently subjective. Your cup of tea may not be mine. When evaluating a note, remember that it’s a window into how that person’s unique tastes are (or aren’t) connecting with your material. Did they laugh at your jokes? Respond to your emotional scene? Why or why not?
Asked differently, to what degree is their reaction “personal” and to what degree is it “professional”?
Here at Lights Film School, we believe that the best notes are those that recognize what a creative project aspires to be and help it become the fullest possible expression of itself. This often means that “personal” reactions are flagged and backgrounded to discussions of craft and execution.
Unfortunately, such feedback can be hard to come by. The personal is not (perhaps cannot) be separated completely from the professional. That’s why it’s important to remember that everyone’s taste is different, and that you can’t define success according to just one notes-giver’s metric. Aim for a diverse set of notes-givers, especially when you send out your early work, so as to ensure a whole range of opinions! If there are patterns in the opinions – notes that crop up again and again – then you have a pretty strong indication that those things deserve another look.
Of course, you’ll want to run them and really all notes you receive through the filter of “target audience”. If, say, you’re working on a free-wheeling science fiction film but asking for notes from a Ken Burns-style documentarian, it’s possible that not all of their feedback will catch the vision (unless they’ve successfully separated the personal from the professional).
Conversely, because of that documentarian’s unique experiences and expertise, it’s possible that their perspective will bring to light something new and promising in your work which you simply hadn’t realized. Balance their feedback with feedback from people who are more familiar and naturally onboard with what you’re trying to do; in this case, scifi fans.
Again, to sum it up, the name of the game is “diversity”.
You Don’t Have to Take Every Note (Except When You Do)
You’re welcome and encouraged to take only the notes that resonate with you, the creator.
Well, most of the time.
If you’re working for a studio or other entity that wields some serious power over your project, you may have to concede. In your own projects, however, yes, the power is yours to say “That’s a great idea, I’ll take it” or “Thanks for your feedback” followed by a dismissal of the note. Just be sure that you’re dismissing it because it doesn’t fit with your vision for your story, not because you’re upset or offended. Quiet the demon!
So, how do you know which notes are helpful and which ones aren’t?
This brings up back around to our discussion of target audience. Consider the note in context of what you and your project are trying to achieve.
For example, a note that wants a draft of a dark drama to lighten up and become a slapstick comedy isn’t meeting the draft on its own terms. It’s trying to force the draft into someone else’s opinion of what’s good. Remember, the best notes are those that understand and embrace the screenwriter’s or filmmaker’s intention and then work to help them realize it.
What If You Don’t Have a Filmmaking Network?
If you’re just starting out and don’t yet have a cohort of qualified friends and filmmakers who may be able to provide feedback to your projects – or if you want to extend your existing network – then you could plug into a community online and/or commission notes professionally.
Community is a key component of the educational experience here at Lights Film School. I’ve been teaching with LFS for seven years, and in that time, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with students from literally all around the world, many of whom were at the very beginning of their filmmaking journeys when I met them.
As a part of the curriculum, our online film school includes notes on projects you create throughout your studies, in addition to the social component of the platform that enables students to connect and become each other’s network. It’s a really cool (virtual) place!
Of course, there are other online resources that focus primarily on feedback, including The Black List, which has grown from a list of top scripts curated by agency assistants to a leading notes-centric platform for screenwriters and industry professionals. In our digital age, you don’t have to embark on your filmmaking journey alone!
As you transition from developing a draft or refining a cut to opening it up for feedback, be aware that some ideas you’ll get will be great, while others will go straight to the “discard” pile.
Film is one of the most collaborative art forms in existence, and creative people in the industry love exchanging ideas (both good and bad). I’ve seen some really incredible breakthroughs spring out of the notes giving-and-taking process. Maintain an open spirit while honoring the guiding light of your creative vision, and you’ll be in good shape.
So, tell us!
How do you keep your emotions in check while sourcing notes? Have you ever received a note that transformed your script in a good way? What about a note that felt utterly preposterous? The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome points of discussion in the comments section below! We’re all in this together.
Lauren McGrail, with
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