One job in Hollywood without a clear career path is that of the script doctor. More behind-the-scenes than most well-paid positions in Hollywood, the script doctor has an enormous influence on whether a film moves forward into production.

Short-term and often uncredited, no one ever says getting a script doctoring gig is easy. In fact, no one says anything about getting the gig. But, today we’re going to answer “what is script doctor,” and show how you can make this plum gig a part of your writing career long-term.

1

Script Doctors vs Script Consultants

SIMILAR, BUT NOT THE SAME

1.1    WHAT IS A SCRIPT DOCTOR

The duties of a “script doctor”

A “script doctor” refers to a screenwriter who is brought aboard a project to help address specific issues with a script prior to its production.

The term “script doctor” is actually an unofficial title and not a used as a formal term within the film or television industry. Legend has it that the term was most likely concocted by journalists when referring to the “surgical” nature of their work.

It’s not a credible term.

But …

What they do is very much real and credible. To that end, let’s define the duties of a “script doctor:”

SCRIPT DOCTOR DEFINITION

What does a script doctor do?

A Script Doctor is a script consultant, or screenwriter, who is brought in to enhance a script at any point in the development, pre-production or production phase. Some have even been known to come in for post production script changes.  Their roles are often uncredited since their percentage of contribution on the final shooting script rarely meet the WGA (Writers Guild of America) requirements of 33% to be entitled to an onscreen credit. As a result, it is a well-paid position and often goes to Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning writers who have demonstrated they have a talent for a specific aspect of a screenplay such as action, dialogue, genre, pacing, or period-specific work.

What does a script doctor do?

  1. Evaluates Story, Characters, and Plot
  2. Offers notes that will enhance elements of the script
  3. Adjusts or rewrites the script according to their niche

Bottom line, a script doctor is simply an accomplished screenwriter who is hired by studio executives or producers to (surgically) rewrite or touch-up very specific issues with a script prior to the shoot.

Think you've got what it takes?

Here's a sample screenplay page. Click to examine the writing.

What would you do to "doctor" this?

Is the script doctor in? Click to find out if you've got what it takes.

What would you doctor here? How would you tell the story better?

The script above is in StudioBinder's free screenwriting software. You can use it right now, no strings attached. Just sign up (five seconds) and start writing your screenplay.

As a script doctor, the software lets you create different versions of your script (or the script you've been assigned) in the cloud, so you'll keep a record of what you've done to improve the story with each pass.

Comment, share notes and drafts, assign tasks, and message collaborators, all in the application.

StudioBinder screenwriting software is one component of the full StudioBinder end-to-end production management platform. When the script moves into preproduction and production, you can click to auto-generate shooting schedules, shot lists, storyboards, and call sheets. All based on your script.

1.2    SCRIPT DOCTOR SALARY & RATES

Script doctor rates are hard to pin down

What kind of salary does a script doctor make? Many don’t take a salary as they are hired contractors who provide services for a few weeks to salvage a script.

Then, what kind of script doctor rates are we talking about?

The truth is ... it depends.

Since their work is intense but often limited in scope, they are usually uncredited as screenwriters and thus not entitled to residuals on the project. To incentivize their involvement, studios and production companies pay large upfront fees to secure their services.  

These fees are negotiated between the producers and the writer’s agent. The amount is totally custom as it depends on how in-demand the writer is, the scope and timeline of the work required, and the budget of the production.

However, if the screenwriter’s revisions make it into at least 33% of the final shooting script, then the WGA mandates that they are provided credit for their work and eligible for residuals.

For example, Noah Baumbach was initially brought in as an uncredited screenwriter on Madagascar 3. However, he had contributed so many changes to the final script, that he was eventually entitled to writing credit on the project.

Many sought-after screenwriters and writer-directors make a lucrative living peppering uncredited rewrites between larger personal projects. Some screenwriters have even made it a full-time job.

1.3    WHAT IS A SCRIPT CONSULTANT?

Script doctor versus script consultant

A script consultant differs from the (unofficially titled) “script doctor” for a couple reasons.

Unlike a script doctor, who is hired by executives on a production to rewrite portions of a script, a script consultant is usually hired by aspiring screenwriters and busy producers to provide script notes and feedback.

Here’s a formal definition of a script consultant:

SCRIPT CONSULTANT DEFINITION

What is a script consultant?

A Script Consultant is a party that provides feedback and in-depth script analysis on screenplays. Oftentimes their services are enlisted by aspiring screenwriters who are seeking feedback on their work. However, production companies may hire script consultants to provide notes on a script as well.

The primary difference between a script consultant and a script doctor is that a script consultant does not modify the script.

What does a script consultant do?

  • Provides a lengthy script analysis report with script notes. These notes may range anywhere from a few pages to 20+ pages.
  • May provide line-by-line notes and annotations on a script.
  • Highlight potential pacing, dialogue and structural issues and make suggestions on how to address them.
  • They do not modify a script or seek writing credits on a project.

Although script consultants may provide helpful insights on a script, their services are rarely utilized by established screenwriters at an advanced stage of their careers since they can easily get feedback from peers, agents, and managers.

Richard Botto, CEO of Stage32, on script consultants

However, aspiring screenwriters who seek feedback or have cases of writer’s block may enlist their services.

Production companies use script consulting services if they’re seeking an outside opinion on a script or outsourcing script analysis work for efficiency.

Script doctors will look at your raw story, and they will try to make it into a refined, and workable story for the producers and filmmakers.

Watch the video below to see what script doctors will look for:

StudioBinder Filmmaker Master Class

Script doctors aren't brought in to recreate the story, they're brought in to fix the story the same way a medical doctors fixes your health.

It isn't about reinventing the creative aspects of a story, but mostly about making sure there is a cohesive and interesting take that follows story structure.

1.4    SCRIPT CONSULTANT FEES

How much does a script consultant charge?

Script consultant rates depend on the consultant and scope of the deliverable.

Some script consultants may charge modest fees of roughly $150 per high-level script notes. More sought-after script consultants like Linda Seger or Dara Marks may charge $2000-5000+ for an in-depth analysis, depending on the package of choice.

Script consultants often provide hourly consulting fees that run the gamut. In the case of Linda Seger or Dara Marks, hourly rates range between $120-250/hour.

2

How to Become a Script Doctor

THE BEST WAY IS TO GET WRITING

2.1    BECOME A SCREENWRITER

Write like Kaufmann

There is no sugar coating what it takes to become a script doctor.  

You first have to become a screenwriter.  

And … not just a screenwriter, but a very good one.   The best screenwriters become working script doctors.

Screenwriting by nature is an often lonely uphill battle for recognition.  Even those armed with an MFA in the craft of screenwriting have to start at the bottom with a bit of skill and a lot of luck.  

Not even the most experienced screenwriters can tell you the best way to get your foot in the door, but they all did it somehow.

Screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland) on creative process

All this means to become a script doctor there is but one path.  Become one of the best screenwriters in the business.

Let’s look at some of the most tried and true ways to become a screenwriter of note.

2.2    BECOME A SCRIPT CONSULTANT

Start a script consultancy

If you have honed your writing craft to the point where you are a successful in a specific genre, a logical next step is getting work as a script consultant.   

In fact, it is not even necessary to be a dedicated screenwriter in this case.  Many writers who work as script consultants have few film writing credits to their name.  

What they do have is a certain level of expertise on a subject or style of writing.

There are many opportunities to consult on projects that don’t have the mega-budgets of the studios.

Furthermore, the studio system is geared toward high-profile, Oscar-winning writers for consulting.  

But, every production company can’t afford the Coen Brothers to spruce up their scripts.  This presents an opportunity for writers who have a track record of success but aren’t a household name.

There are hundreds of production companies who hire writers on a script by script basis to offer notes and analysis of their projects.  

Now that the landscape of the film industry has changed, there are many different kinds of audio-visual content being produced.  

From projects suited for web-only viewing to augmented and virtual reality, the opportunities to consult at the scripting stage has multiplied.  

This means there is something for any script consultant with a specialty.

Common problems in first scripts, script consultant Michael Hauge

2.3  WRITE A SPEC SCRIPT FOR A TV SHOW

Write a spec for a show you love

Every writer has to write a spec script, and this is doubly true for any script doctor.

This is the best way to show others in the industry that you can write in the industry standard format.

Carole Kirschner explains the best way to write a spec

A spec script is a writing exercise that even the most advanced and well-known writers practice regularly to stay on trend in their screenwriting efforts.

SPEC SCRIPT DEFINITION

What is a spec script?

A Spec Script is any screenplay or teleplay that is written unsolicited and/ or without a promise of financial remuneration.  Spec scripts are often times a calling card to introduce new writers to the film industry. They are also used to judge a writer’s suitability as a script doctor or script consultant on existing intellectual properties.

Why write a spec script?

  • To perfect your craft
  • To get representation
  • To have writing samples for employment

A spec script may also show that you have a unique and interesting take on a familiar intellectual property.

Being able to write with someone else’s original ideas is the clearest way to show you can do the job of a script doctor as well.

“No one cares about your ideas. They're not going to come knocking on your door looking for ideas. They're going to want some concrete evidence that you have the potential to serve them or give them value for money. So that's my advice: write your spec scripts, no matter what. They're essential as a calling card, even if they don't get produced.”  

— Shane Black

2.4  SUBMIT FOR REPRESENTATION

Make an agents list, and check it twice

This is for feedback and coverage.  Don’t expect much else.

You can’t get a job without an agent or manager which means you can’t be a screenwriter or script doctor.

But, you can’t get an agent or manager without a job.  

This age-old quandary stops many an artist and craftsman in their tracks and sends them to law school.  

Getting an agent is really difficult unless you know somebody

But, you must submit anyway as Hollywood ain’t called the dream factory for nothing.  The Writer’s Guild of America provides a franchised agency list for writers.

2.5  WRITE A FEATURE FILM SCRIPT

Get your film on paper

This feature film can be in any genre or style you want.  

The hot screenplay you finish could sell for a million dollars, but chances are it won’t.  

That’s okay.  It’s still a writing sample that you’ll need if you want anyone to take you seriously as a writer.  

Now, write another ... and another.

Start submitting these to agents, managers, and contest for feedback or coverage.

Now, write another ... and another.

Script consultant Chris Soth’s tips for aspiring screenwriters

Start submitting these to agents, managers, and contest for feedback or coverage.

Not only will you grow as a writer, but you will also have more than one sample ready to go.

This will be extremely helpful when you find yourself in a meeting with an agent, manager or producer looking for their next project.  

Believe it or not you’re also on your way to becoming a script consultant and script doctor.

2.6  SUBMIT TO SCRIPT CONTESTS

Get some eyes on those scripts

Finishing a script isn’t the most difficult job of the screenwriter.  Often, the most difficult job is getting someone to read your script. But, there is one sure fire way to get your script read.  

Submit it to screenwriting contests.  

There are hundreds of contest for screenwriters, for shorts, episodic, and features alike. Some are apart of film festivals and others are stand alone contest aimed at introducing undiscovered talent to the world.

Contest like Cinequest, The Nicholls Fellowship, Stage 32, and the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition have proven track records of giving writers their big break.

If your script places in the top 10 of any of these festivals, you are all but guaranteed meetings with managers and agents who will want to know more about you and your work.  

At the very least many of the screenwriting competition do offer feedback, though sometimes for an additional fee.

2.7  MIX & MINGLE

Don’t wait for calls. Make them.

No one is going to call you. But keep submitting anyway.  You must not get discouraged.

This is how the industry weeds out the boys from the men; the girls from the CEOs.

So go do something else to get some experiences under your belt.

Go to parties or writer’s meetings and industry events. Your watchword is networkingWriter’s Digest offers great resources on networking events for writers.

2.8  NEVER EAT ALONE

Call your Uncle Sid at the studio

A lot of the film industry is about luck and who you know. Often, you have to trigger your lucky break.

So, by all means, when you hear of a relative of your roommate or a junior agent at a networking event, give an elevator pitch for one of your ideas.  

Hopefully, they’ll want to read it or make an intro.

Or maybe they’ll want to represent you (or “hip pocket” you).

2.8  NEVER EAT ALONE

Call your Uncle Sid at the studio

A lot of the film industry is about luck and who you know. Often, you have to trigger your lucky break.

So, by all means, when you hear of a relative of your roommate or a junior agent at a networking event, give an elevator pitch for one of your ideas.  

Hopefully, they’ll want to read it or make an intro.

Or maybe they’ll want to represent you (or “hip pocket” you).

If you still aren’t making any headway, fear not.

Now it’s time to really assess if you want to be a screenwriter or script doctor, then …

3

Become a Filmmaker

SHOWCASE YOUR WRITING BY TAKING THE REINS

3.1  SUBMIT TO FILM FESTIVALS

Shoot your scripts and submit to festivals

Now, shoot one of the short films you’ve written.  Submit and get into a festival or ten.

There is one aspect of the film industry that one has to understand in order to become a script doctor.   

No one is going to pat you on the back until someone else has.  

The laurels you get from entering film festivals add up until, eventually, someone will notice your work.

Getting your work noticed is one of the most difficult parts of breaking into the film industry, for new and seasoned writers alike.  Film festivals are one of the few proving grounds that give artists a little more control over getting their work in front of audiences.  

Once the laurels are on your movie poster designs, you are officially a filmmaker of note.  So submitting your scripts or films to festivals is a no-brainer.

There are a thousand festivals all over the world to consider but make sure you know which film festivals worth the entry fees.

3.2. PACKAGE YOUR SCRIPT AND FILM

Submit your script with an attached film

Once you’ve accrued some laurels or awards, package your script with your award-winning short film. Prominently emphasize any laurels you’ve received from the festivals.

Re-submit your scripts.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“I wish to be cremated. One tenth of my ashes shall be given to my agent, as written in our contract.    

— Groucho Marx

These are your goals:

  1. Get a manager
  2. Get an agent
  3. You start taking meetings
  4. You join a writer’s room
  5. Finally … you get a writing assignment

“The first thing you have to learn when you go into the arts is to learn to cope with rejection. If you can’t, you’re dead.”   

― Warren Adler

Your writing assignment will likely be a re-write or a polish.

But guess what …

You are now becoming a script doctor.

Easy does it, right?

There are of course other paths.

4

Famous Script Doctors

TAKE NOTES FROM THOSE WHO DID IT ALL

4.1. CARRIE FISHER THE SCRIPT DOCTOR

Pull a Carrie Fisher

Well before she was Carrie Fisher the script doctor, she was Carrie Fisher the child of movie stars.

Script Doctor Carrie Fisher Script Consultant spec script studiobinder

Yup that’s Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and script doctor, Carrie Fisher

Then she was Carrie Fisher, Actress.

Next came Carrie Fisher, Writer, and Carrie Fisher, Screenwriter.                                                      

Then, this highly accomplished daughter of Hollywood became Carrie Fisher, Script Doctor.

You see where we’re going with this?

Even a Hollywood princess (both her parents were significant film and music stars) had to earn her way into the pantheon of the few, the proud, the Hollywood script doctors.

Carrie Fisher’s legacy as a script doctor is the stuff of legend

Her path was not clear or easy, but she had the luxury of wealth instead of a job waiting tables or doing coverage for a film festival.

Carrie Fisher was paid millions in script doctor fees to polish and rewrite Scream 3, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, amongst many others.

In fact, we could list the many famous names that occupy the rarified career peak of script doctor, but after listing the most famous, Carrie Fisher, anyone else would be redundant.  

But there are some names that aren’t quite household, yet that it would be beneficial to include.

“Now in order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix the script. So they can get all the notes from all the different writers, keep the notes and not hire you. That's free work and that's what I always call life-wasting events.”   

— Carrie Fisher

4.2      WRITE LIKE JAMES VANDERBILT

Write behind the scenes like Vanderbilt

While he is not quite a household name, Jamie Vanderbilt is one of the hardest working script doctors in the business.  

From White House Down to Spiderman, this screenwriter has an impressive list of credits piling up.  

He first built a relationship with the action megastar The Rock on the film The Rundown and is rumored to have had a hand in several rewrites that have been uncredited.  He is also teaming up with Dwayne Johnson to tackle the Robert Ludlum universe.

Vanderbilt discusses Truth directing and writing

Vanderbilt has now started to direct, but we doubt if this will end his crown as Hollywood’s go-to script doctor.

4.3     DO IT ALL LIKE ELA THIER

Learn from a triple threat

When your credits include producing and directing as well as writing most of your projects, Hollywood will stand up and take notice.  

But, what gets this Israeli-born filmmaker her Script Doctor kudos is her website, IndependentFilmSchool, that provides screenwriting workshops on the craft that she knows so well.

A glimpse of Ela’s independent Film School any more will cost you

Her inclusion of marginalized artist sets her apart, so if you haven’t visited her film school yet, do yourself a favor and bring a notebook.

"Success is guaranteed if you remember that it's up to you to define it. My definition of success: doing work that I care about, with people I enjoy working with. I've never made a living as an independent filmmaker, but by my definition, I'm wildly successful." 

— Ela Thier

4.4     STUDY EVERY GENRE LIKE PETER RUSSELL

Don’t limit yourself

Here is another ghost writer and script doctor whose success he would like you to emulate. As a UCLA and Pepperdine ordained professor and author script doctor Peter Russell certainly has the pedigree to be an authority on screenwriting and script consulting.

The core wound: necessary to become a skilled script doctor

Russell has twenty webinars already listed on his website Peter Russell: Script Doctor that go into the craft of screenwriting for films and television. He also offers freebies on his website that are definitely worth checking out if you want to learn more about how to become a script doctor professionally.

4.5 WHEDON: PATRON SAINT OF SCRIPT DOCTORS

Follow Joss Whedon

Bow to the patron saint of script doctors.

There have been plenty of projects that Joss Whedon worked on as a script doctor before he became one of the most successful writer-producers in Hollywood.  

The list of films that Whedon had a hand in doctoring include Waterworld, Speed, Toy Story, X-Men, Titan AE, Twister and The Quick and the Dead.

Re: Toy Story “I was brought on I think, four months before it got green-lit, and completely overhauled the script. There was some very basic things in there that stayed in there. The characters were pretty much in place except for the dinosaur, which was mine. I took out a lot of extraneous stuff, including the neighbor giving the kid a bad haircut before he leaves.”

—  Joss Whedon

This list of titles can be a timeline of what Mr. Whedon was doing while also giving the world Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Serenity.

There’s a little project he wrote and directed titled Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog that is worth checking out.

Joss Whedon in his own words

4.6 BAIT & SWITCH LIKE NOAH BAUMBACH

Have more than one writing style

If we were to tell you that Noah Baumbach also was a script doctor with ample credits racking up on the resume you would think, “of course.”   

But his script doctor services aren’t so apparent when we see how very different they are from the films he writes for himself to direct and produce.

“To some people, Quentin Tarantino being the best example, film reference is like experience. For other people it doesn’t work. It just feels like a reference.”

— Noah Baumbach

Baumbach’s work script doctor on films like Tower Heist, Mr. Popper’s Penguins and Madagascar 3 shows just how much he deserves to be on this list.

Noah Baumbach has a dialogue about his craft

4.7 WRAPPING UP: YOUR PROSPECTS

Look to the future

Again, if there were an easy path to becoming a script doctor, everyone would do it.  The wages are great, and you get to work from home or where ever you want.

But anything worth going after is going to be difficult.  

Don’t despair.  

One of the most wonderful aspects of being a writer is you are continually perfecting your craft.  

Eventually, someone will notice your words and hire you to doctor theirs.

Then, you’re a script doctor.

UP NEXT

How to Overcome Writer’s Block

Join us for the next blog post as we list and rank the 20 best short films from Animating giant Pixar!  See if your favorite films made the list and in what order.

If there is a way into the screenwriting business we’ve missed, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments section.

Up Next: 30+ Proven Ways to Overcome Writer's Block →
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