I submitted ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES as a screenplay in this year’s PAGE International Screenplay Writing Contest. The script got as far as the quarter finals, but made it no further. What was very exciting, however, was the judge’s feedback that was sent to me this morning.
Now, I am hesitant (IN A WORLD WHERE SCREENPLAY IDEAS ARE STOLEN FROM WRITERS LEFT AND RIGHT) to post the actual script on line for you to compare. Even with the work registered with WGA, I have heard stories about writers kicked out of the development cycle only to see their work stolen or plagiarized.
So here’s the feedback:
The 2014 PAGE Awards Judge’s Feedback
Title: ZAK CORBIN MASTER OF MACHINES
- What is the writer trying to achieve in this script?
In New Futura City, fifteen-year-old ZAK CORBIN follows his infamous uncle’s forbidden robot designs and creates something that leads him into an unbelievable adventure.
In what ways is the writer successful at achieving his/her goals?
I enjoyed a lot about ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and above all the elements, I thought your handling of the story’s basic outline was outstanding.
You open strong, with an action-packed first five pages that set up the origin story of THE CORBIN ROBOTS, shown rebelling against the war-mongering GENERAL MAXIM at the command of their creator ELIAS CORBIN.
Fifteen years later, Elias is in jail and his nephew ZAK has inherited a talent for robotics. You elegantly set up what’s unique about this world during the opening pages, and introduce our young heroes (Zak, JASON and ODIE – short for ODYSSEUS) efficiently as they toy with robots in their spare time.
You close out the first fifteen pages with a wild comic set piece at school, and skillfully introduce our love interest and co-lead, the resourceful and lovely LISABETH RYAN.
I especially enjoyed how effectively you plant things like Zak’s DISSEMBLER device, which will play an important role during the script’s conclusion.
I enjoyed how the remainder of the script was mapped out: At page 30, you give us the tragic back story for Uncle Elias and on page 45, the surprising twist of Lisabeth being as aware of Zak as he is of her.
Page 60 puts our robot hero POGO on the trail of Uncle Elias, and the final act is a well-escalated series of exciting robot battles.
Since this script is an origin story for its title character, you had a lot of introducing to do – and you created a very likable group here. I liked Zak and his gang of pals, and the way you portrayed Lisabeth was refreshing.
But you don’t just focus on the younger characters, the adults are entertaining as well.
Uncle Elias was an effectively complicated figure (although I wish I could have seen a few scenes of him interacting with his beloved Caroline), and I loved SIDNEY DEXTER, Army captain turned private eye who helps the kids find some answers.
These grown-ups help appeal to a wider audience, and fill out your world nicely.
Like many classic family films, ZAK CORBIN has some strong thematic elements, mainly the sentiment that all human life is sacred. Elias’ creations are designed to help first, and I enjoyed how you used this subtle reworking of the rules from Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT to fuel the main conflict of your story.
Those who would use technology to help others versus those who would use it to destroy – I think this is a strong thematic note that binds this story together in many ways.
Early on, the robotic creations bring danger because they might not work properly, but later, as the designs are perfected, the harm only comes from the humans, and their mechanical creature of war.
This adds a powerful, memorable dimension to this draft.
3. In what ways does the screenplay fall short?
Probably the most troubled element of this draft, with some minor stylistic issues and more major tonal ones.
Stylistically, I thought the script was occasionally over-directed, with a style that was too interested in camera angles and movements, to the detriment of the story. In today’s spec market, camera directions are left to the shooting draft once the script is sold, and is the purview of the director. It’s best to delete throughout and keep the clutter off the page.
Tonally, some of the material felt more like a mainstream PG-13 movie than a milder family film. The action was dark and possibly too intense sometimes, especially the massive scenes of destruction near the end.
Again, related to the tonal issues mentioned in the paragraph above, I think the darker tone could possibly alienate or overwhelm some younger audience members.
Also, while I liked the alternate America where the story took place, your retrovibe might be a little too weird for mainstream consumption, according to executive types who want to maximize profitability.
4. On the contest scorecard, you gave this script a total score of: 79. Please explain your criteria for your score.
PREMISE/CONCEPT Score: 8
Solid idea for a possible franchise of adventures starring young Zak and his young friends (and their robot creations).
PRESENTATION Score: 8
There are occasional spacing issues and some missing scene extensions (DAY, NIGHT, etc.), but nothing major is wrong with this draft, it’s a professional-looking piece of work.
See below for a few notes by page number.
Jason said your parents sent you go to (to go) bed early…
Zak puts down (the) tool and looks up at Pogo.
You’re going to waer (wear) out your poor uncle before we even gets (get) there!
STRUCTURE Score: 9
Probably the most effective element of this draft, producing a tightly plotted story with fun action set pieces, solid character development, and a rising sense of excitement.
PLOT Score: 8
This draft is a fun origin story, containing an impressively realized universe and a fast-moving adventure for your title character. I would like to see some scenes between Elias and his wife Caroline before her death to deepen that relationship.
PACING Score: 8
This draft moves forward at a steady clip, with a few flashes to the past along the way, and, in reference to the PLOT notes above, I think you have room to add some Caroline/Elias scenes.
CHARACTERS Score: 8
The kids are aces in this draft, and I like how well you fleshed out Odie and Jason in support of Zak. The tentative romance between Zak and Lisabeth was adorably handled, and the adult characters appealing as well.
DIALOGUE Score: 8
Another effective element, and you did a good job handling many types of people and making their voices relatable and consistent.
I especially enjoyed the rapport between Zak and Lisabeth – as well as the bonding of the main trio of young inventor adventurers.
THEME Score: 8
A strong element of this draft, and I thought it displayed a positive message about using technology for good instead of evil.
STYLE/TONE Score: 7
One of the few troubled elements of this draft, with an occasionally overdone style and tone that shades too dark.
COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL Score: 7
Partially because of the tonal issues above, I didn’t see this one as a box office slam-dunk.
Screen franchises like this one usually come from other media originally, but the writing is still strong and appealing – if maybe not as family-friendly as it could be.
5. If you received this screenplay at your agency or production company, would you give it a:
RECOMMEND CONSIDER PASS
Why? What is your agency or production company currently looking for?
Our company is looking for high-concept film and TV projects, with characters that are complex and appealing to top talent. We look for commercial projects that can be set up at major studios with writers that have unique, clear voices.
I really liked the initial adventure of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and think it was an effective HARRY POTTER-esque style franchise in waiting. However, projects like these are always tougher to sell unless they are based on previously existing/underlying material.
Still, I was impressed enough by the fast-paced, well-structured work here to CONSIDER this screenplay.
6. How could this writer improve his/her chances of success with this script? What else would you like to tell this writer?
I liked this script, but was not as sold on the title – which doesn’t really convey the sense of fun the story contains.
I would come up with some other options that convey the story more effectively.
Good luck with the next draft,
Wow! So incredibly close to having a blockbuster. It’s interesting to finally get a professional opinion about a work. In the hands of another judge, the results could be pretty different.
I am curious about the TONAL elements mentioned. Is Zak too dark for kids? The giant version of POGO breaks Zak’s uncle out of prison and brings him back to the city. The Army (represented by COLONEL FLAGG, and yes the name was inspired by the character of the same name from the M*A*S*H* TV series!) goes overboard trying to stop the “rampaging giant robot”. There’s a lot of damage caused by a falling tower steeple, but unlike say MAN OF STEEL, the giant POGO and thousands of other Guardian robots leap to the rescue. Well, it is a point brought up the judge.
I can point at HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON as my inspiration when I was writing this screenplay. The ending of that picture dealt with Hiccup and Astrid finding the dragon nest (which is scary) and the attack by the giant Green Death dragon (which puts everyone in danger). By the end, Hiccup has suffered a major physical injury (for an animated picture, no less). And that movie was PG.
And then there’s the “not based on a known property” issue. It really is a Catch-22 situation. If a book sells a zillion copies (HARRY POTTER, HUNGER GAMES), you get the blockbuster movie deal. If your book is unknown, no one wants to take a risk. Which is totally understandable in the gazillion-dollar, sure-bet movie industry. But let’s look at some popular YA books that have gotten movie deals:
THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (flopped and panned)
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES (low returns, second movie stuck in development hell)
THE HOST (a guaranteed Stephanie Myer/Twilight franchise launcher) Dead on arrival
THE GIVER (mixed reviews, low box office)
THE MAZE RUNNER (not generating a whole lot of excitement)
So much for the “known property” theory. But wait, ZAK CORBIN is known. I have over 780,000 readers on Wattpad who loved it. Perhaps the “known property” issue needs to include social media sites?
Last of all, the title is not the judge’s favorite. A good title is very hard to come by. My book that will be released by Divertir Publishing, the first of my alt-history World War II titles, has had its share of naming problems. So if someone can come up with a new title, I’m open to it.
Well that’s it. Not bad for a second screenplay entered in a giant contest. And yes, it’s well worth revisiting. Screenplays are never final. Instead of trying to turn ZAK CORBIN into a movie, maybe a TV show?