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How to Write an Effective Screenplay for a Short Film

The most common mistake inexperienced filmmakers make is their story is weak and therefore their film is weak. This is because they spend little or no time writing a screenplay as they find it bewildering.
Steps
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Short vs Feature film. Short films and feature films are very much alike but also different. The main differences are feature films are made up of many scenes which give you the space to develop more complex characters and face an increasing array of obstacles. Technically much is the same when you start out with your idea however you may consider doing a treatment after your outline and using beat sheets to help you with structure.
Method
1
pre screenplay
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Read screenplays. Before you begin writing a screenplay it is a good idea to read and analyse screenplays to your favorite films and similar films to yours.
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Set a goal. By breaking down screenwriting into manageable chunks and working out a deadline it will give you motivation.
Time. A micro-budget short film should take a few weeks to conceive and edit. Don’t feel too pressured though as this may put you off instead just focus on writing 10 minutes a day.
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Calm environment. Work in a calming environment.

Method
2
Get an idea
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Choose a Film Title. The right film title is crucial as it will make it easier to market your screenplay and convey to the audience what the film is about. This can be established at anytime of the process.
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Key Theme. If you are unsure what the theme is, it’s the key lesson the protagonist has learnt by the end of the film.
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Formulate a premise. Write a short sentence (15 words or less) of the fundamental concept which drives the plot.
Whose story is it?
What do they want?
What’s stopping them getting it?
What’s at stake?
The premise for E.T. could be ‘A lonely boy is befriended by an alien’.
Seek feedback on your premise before you develop your film.

Method
3
Development
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What do you have available? By working out what actors, props and locations are available locally you can make your film cheaply and easily.
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Character development. This is an important part of development. The key areas of developing a character are:
1.Name
2.Appearance
3.Traits. Sociological, Psychological and physical.
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Character arc.
1.Heroes quest, on the way he faces his worst fears.
2.Bonding. At first two people who have to work together despise each other, yet they learn to live together and finally they love each other.
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. Dis-functional to Functional
What personal experiences do you have that you can apply to the characters?
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Where? (ex. location)
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What? (ex. theme, format, genre, characters goal, worst and best events that could occur)
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Why? USP(unique selling position)
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When? (time setting for story, deadline for finished film, schedule)
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If stuck. Watch a couple of short films and analyse using these key areas.
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Brainstorm the beginning and end of the film. Do this as mind maps. Then start filling in what happens in between, to make sure it doesn’t become too complicated start at the end and work to the beginning, as the middle is usually harder.
Method
4
Outline
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Create a template for the outline: (Title) is a short (genre) of (how many minutes?) aimed at (target audience) set in (location), (premise)… (Write the action that takes place in the film in the third person in a few hundred words).
Redraft outline a couple of times.
Get feedback on your outline.
Method
5
Write your script
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Write a script. Write for 10 minutes each day.
Structure. There are different ways of structuring a short film, but most importantly keep it simple, so you follow the journey of the protagonist and have no subplots. For example you could follow the three act structure (beginning, middle and end), or you could structure it like a joke following a moment in the protagonists life which ends on a punchline (twist).
Action. Keep this simple. Don’t write camera angles, instead infer them.
Dialogue. Add dialogue in after you have written the rest of the script, this way it will be more visual. Keep it simple and remember that it should not sound like real conversations.
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Face writers block.
Method
6
Feature film differences
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Outline. Should be no longer than a couple of pages long. write a paragraph for each scene.
Method
7
Redrafting
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Remember this quote: Ernest Hemingway “The first draft of anything is shit.”
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A common mistake with short film scripts is that they are overwritten and underdeveloped, only do a couple of drafts.
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Get feedback, create a list of key issues raised.
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Put your screenplay aside for a week.
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Read through. Get some people together to read through your script.
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Look at each element separately: re-draft dialogue; re-draft action; address structural problems.
Sample Script and Outline

Sample Script
Sample Script Outline

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Tips
Make a screenplay about something you are passionate about.
When casting, remember this; NEVER pick someone just because of his or her looks, or vice versa! Always choose based on their ACTING because you are looking for ACTORS not MODELS.
If you are finding it challenging you could work on it with others.
A problem with most film writers is motivation. If you find a theme/topic you really like it should be easier to write.
Show; don’t tell. Films are a visual medium.
If you are afraid of asking for feedback, it could help if you write down the worst things the other person could say.

Warnings
The most common pitfall first time screenwriters make is they don’t spend enough time developing the script and then to compensate, they tend to overwrite the script.
Things You’ll Need
A notepad, keep this with you at all times. To add and recall details.
Pencil, Colored Pens – to mark out corrections/alterations.
Screenwriting software, e.g Final Draft – used by professional screenwriters

http://www.wikihow.com/Write-an-Effective-Screenplay-for-a-Short-Film

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6 RULES OF SCREENPLAY RESEARCH

It’s often said in screenwriting books that scribes should write about what they know. I personally think it’s advice that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Oftentimes when you are hired to pen a script you have to write about something you know nothing about and bear in mind that assignments are more common and more often paid than spec screenplays which tend to be about your favourite subject matter, what you know about, whereas assignments are more likely about something you know nothing about, such as say politics, golf or astrophysics. But, more importantly, we shouldn’t narrow down our narratives to life as we experience it because for the most part we have boring lives and cinema can go much further in the way of escapism. That’s why I believe that screenwriters should stretch themselves, step out of their comfort zone, and write about things they don’t know about.

However, if you write stories about something you don’t know from your own perspective and experience, it will feel fake. And that’s the problem I have with a lot of scripts I read. Screenwriters write about gangsters, mobsters, and art dealers, but it’s clear they are just rehashing things they have seen before in movies or TV, so their screenplays sound cliché. That’s why screenplays that take me into a rich, well documented world stand out. For example, last year I read a script written by a Raindance MA student which captured a world I knew nothing about in a visually, compelling way. Although it dealt with lumberjacks in the early days of what was yet to become Ottawa, I felt that it came from a place of authenticity because the characters and world jumped off the page. It turned out that the screenwriter had done a lot of historical research prior to writing the script and it showed.

This is an example of why I believe research is an essential part of the screenwriting process, especially when you are not writing about a world and/or characters you know well from personal experience. When you can’t write from first hand experience and sit down in a New Orleans jazz pub like Alan Parker did to adapt ANGEL HEART from the horror novel byWilliam Hjortsberg, you need to do research and become a mini authority on the subject you’re dealing with to make your story as authentic as you can. That’s what Bram Stoker did when he wrote “Dracula”. He had never set foot in Transylvania, so instead he spent hours reading descriptions of disquieting Romanian mountains in a library in Whitby, a quaint coastal town in North Yorkshire.

However, while you need to become a mini expert on the subject you are exploring you also need to ensure you aren’t getting too drawn into too much research and spend months without writing a word. So, how do you make sure research doesn’t keep you from writing the actual script?

1. Figure out what you want to write about first!

I’ve met some screenwriters who are a bit too literal in their interpretation of McKee’s STORY and spend months – if not years – doing nothing outside of “researching”. Well, then, research becomes another word for procrastination. Writers love researching because it’s a good excuse to avoid sitting at their desk and actually writing. Don’t we all love guilt-free binge watching of Netflix content related to our subject matter but not actually writing?

That’s why I recommend you never start your screenplay research before knowing what your story is about, or at least “what” you want to write about, such as elephant poaching in Kenya, or a rogue agent in the CIA. First, write down a short outline so that you know what you actually need to research. Doing research in the hope that a story will come knocking at your door is a sure-fire way to wander in the dark for a very long time. You’ll just end up being a PHD candidate on a subject but still without a story to tell.

So, before you even start your screenplay research you’ll need to know “what” you want to explore at the minimum, even if it’s as broad as a 19th century explorer going to Greenland in the hope to find a Viking treasure. What is it about? Who’s your hero? What’s the timeline? What’s the theme? And if it’s a biography, what specific moment in your protagonist’ life are you interested in exploring? (for example Charles Dickens’ life is seen through the prism of the affair he had with an actress in Abi Morgan’s script for “The Invisible Woman”). Of course, it’s a retroactive process and you’ll feed off of the elements you gather along the way to further develop your story. But the core idea should already exist to ensure that you know what you’re looking for when you start researching.

2. Develop a system.

Get a notebook or your I-Pad, compile a list of facts you need to research and use it as a roadmap to save time.

You might want to compile a list of Wikipedia entries you need to check out as preliminary research, followed by movies and TV series that are good references for you story and its particular genre. Oscar calibre screenplays would ideally feature on your list as well so that you can be inspired by brilliant writers who are experts in that particular world.

But please don’t turn into a Netflix junkie under the pretense of doing research. Compile a list of documentaries and TED talks featuring the kind of people that are in your script, possible music that might infuse your world, articles, museums and places you might want to visit, etc. And last but not least draw a list of fiction and non-fiction books that you need to read. I completely subscribe to what Stephen King said: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”. I can’t stress enough how important it is to read a lot as part of becoming a mini expert on a subject. The brain has a funny way to process the information we read, which somehow seems to sink deeper into our mind. Neuroscientists believe that the brain can’t make the distinction between reading about an experience and actually experiencing it in real life (here is a great article on the subject), which probably explains why “a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” (William Styron).

3. Set aside a block of time for research… then write.

Set aside a block of time (I’d say two or three months maximum depending on the amount of research involved by the subject matter and the time you have on your hands) where you diligently go through all the material you set out to watch and read. Take ample notes in your file or notebook and keep to a strict schedule.

When the time is up do the exact opposite of what you’ve done during the last couple of months or so: spend your writing time actually writing, expanding on your outline and turning it into a script. Stick to your regular writing schedule, whatever it is, whether it’s eight hours or one hour a day. But still find a little bit of time every day to read or watch something that is related to your story, and keep absorbing information that will keep your mind fired up and excited about the world of your script.

That’s exactly what my partner at Frenzy Films, Sean McConville, did when he was commissioned to write “The White Shaman”, a supernatural adventure about a missionary doctor who goes looking for his father in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in 1975. First he mapped out the story before starting the research process. Because Sean had never been to Papua New Guinea a lot of research was in order. So he spent weeks reading every book he could find on the subject and watched plenty of documentaries.

All of this information went into Sean’s research notebook. Then he went off to write the script. While he was writing the script he kept reading books and watching documentaries during his leisure time. It helped Sean infuse his script with details that are authentic, like the fact sorcerers have amulets called a marupai they fill up out with human flesh to make them more powerful, or that pigs are used as tokens to solve conflicts, and that crocodiles are called “puk-puks” in pidgin language. It’s the fun part, the small tidbits of verisimilitude and colour which help your reader and audience see the world you create. It also gives them and you the pleasure of learning new things, which is invaluable. And Sean must have done something right with this project because “The White Shaman” screenplay was one of the 13 winners of the Scriptapalooza competition out of 4000 entries; and I have a fond memory of helping Sean throughout the development process because I learned so much myself about Papua New Guinea as I was the script consultant on that project.

4. Talk to people!

Screenwriters need to get out of their garret and talk to people who are experts in the field they are dealing with. For example, as he was developing UNITED 94 Paul Greengrass interviewed military and civilian participants involved in the 9/11 event and those who had lost loved ones on the plane. Similarly, TV writers have an armada of consultants and experts at the ready, which is how they come up with such cool ideas for BREAKING BAD. And don’t get daunted because you haven’t had anything produced and you assume nobody is going to take you seriously. It’s the right time to make good use of social media and LinkedIn. Human nature is so inclined that people enjoy talking about themselves and their expertise and they love feeling that you take their field a seriously as they do and respect their subject. Back when I was a film student in Los Angeles I did a short film involving earthquakes in the Californian desert so I knocked on the door of geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and they were very generous with their time, and even loaned me equipment that I could use when it came to making the film.

5. Become a mini-expert but don’t write a textbook/manual.

Refrain from cramming all the knowledge into your script just because you know it and don’t add scenes just for the sake of showing off your knowledge. Don’t overload it with scientific facts to the point that the story gets lost or it reads like a manual. The story and the emotions come first. Always. The tremendous amount of research you did should be like 90% of an iceberg which remain invisible, and the plot and characters are the tip of that iceberg.

A brilliant example is MARGIN CALL, a sharply-scripted thriller written and directed by J.C. Chandor which takes place over one night inside a Wall Street traders’ room. A rocket scientist type discovers that the firm is on the verge of financial disaster and the top executives have to decide before the markets open in the morning whether they or their clients will take the brunt of a wrong equation. Clearly J.C. Chandor knows his stuff (his father used to work on Wall Street) but I was impressed by the way he cleverly gets across complex information without ever taking us out of the story. The Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons characters frown at financial mumbo jumbo and always make a point of asking experts to talk in “plain English”, a clever trick which also shows the writer’s deep understanding of his subject for “What you understand well, you enunciate clearly “, said French author Boileau. Here is a link to the script, and to a scene. There is a lot to learn from that movie.

6. But use creative license.

I have an historian friend who shakes his head in disapproval whenever I mention BRAVEHEART because the real William Wallace was nothing like the noble man depicted in the movie and there are historical gaps the size of a skyscraper in the script. But, still, I personally think it’s a compelling movie. Although you should strive to avoid blatant inaccuracies, by the same token the worst thing you can do is give it to an expert and make sure everything is 100% accurate as the story always comes first. Just accept the fact that your screenplay may never be completely true but always favor the story first and then do your best to make it realistic without letting the facts keep you from writing. If screenwriters couldn’t have creative license I am pretty sure a movie like last night’s BAFTA winner GRAVITY wouldn’t exist. Cuarón moved around various pieces of celestial hardware, and endowed the Chinese with a space station, when in fact they don’t as yet, but it doesn’t matter because GRAVITY keeps us on the edge of our seats for 90 minutes – that’s what matters!

Have fun researching!

 

Stéphanie Joalland

Stéphanie Joalland is a native of France, but writes and consults globally in both English and French, from Toronto, Los Angeles or London. She combines European flair with UCLA Screenwriting education to provide the most useful script doctoring, coverage and consultation you’ll find for your screenplay – whether FIRST or FINAL draft.Stéphanie began as a reader for the French studios TF1 International and Canal Plus, evaluating hundreds of English language scripts from all over the world allowing her to gain a deep understanding of storytelling. She then worked as a story editor, where she developed dozens of international animated European and North-America co-productions, with an Emmy-nomination for Pet Aliens. In Paris she created an animated TV show Valerian and Laureline for Luc Besson (Europa Corp) while her genre feature scripts were optioned by the French studios Pathé and Gaumont. In 2008, one of her spec screenplays was showcased at the prestigious IFP “Emerging Narrative” in NYC during Independent Film Week.

Stephanie has been hired as writer and script doctor on numerous English-language feature films such as the multi-award winning Irish comedy Cup Cake, and the thriller Deadline (starring Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch). She has a London UK-based production company, Frenzy Films, to produce and direct her own screenplays.
You can contact Stephanie at: info@raindancecanada.com

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5 REASONS YOUR SCRIPT NEEDS A PAPER EDIT

A movie is essentially written three times. Once (many times!) on the screenwriter’s laptop, the second time during production and the third time in the editing room. And quite frankly I’m learning more about screenwriting from editing my first feature film “The Quiet Hour” – a sci-fi thriller taking place in the aftermath of an alien invasion – than from years spent reading and writing scripts, so I can’t recommend enough that budding screenwriters film something, anything, a short film, a scene of their film, a scene of an Oscar winning screenplay, etc. to learn the craft of screenwriting and realize how little text you need to tell a story. Even if you don’t have the directing bug have a friend direct it and sit next to the editor, which will be the best screenwriting course you can ever take. It’s by far the best way to learn about pacing, transitions, and rhythm. You will see how your scenes translate onto the screen and you will become more aware of what works and what doesn’t work.

When I embarked on the journey of directing “The Quiet Hour” after having directed a few shorts I thought my script was as tight as it could possibly be. I had done a stage reading with professional actors, been given plenty of notes, gone through quite a few rewrites, and I thought what I had on the page would be the perfect blueprint for a movie. In many ways it was indeed an effective blueprint as it attracted strong talent to the table and the story is currently shaping up very well as a movie. But little did I know that myself, my talented British editor, Michael Freedman, and my producing partner at Frenzy Films, Sean McConville, would have so many story development discussions very much akin to what we do while developing the scripts themselves. And I had no idea that I will emerge from the editing room with a fresh insight into screenwriting that will change forever the way I approach my craft. A stint at the American Film Market in Los Angeles gave me a good excuse to take a break from the London rain and the editing room and I thought I’d use the opportunity to share a few nuggets with you. Here they are:

 

1. When it comes to dialogue less is more

I’m a visual writer. The whole third act of my movie is pretty much a big visual sequence involving action and gunshots and I don’t write much dialogue but, regardless, once I got to the editing room I realized I still wrote too much dialogue. The trimming started with the actors who intuitively know that “less is more”. And once the rushes land in the editing room the pruning intensifies. Soon enough you realize that one look, one expression can say it all, especially when you are blessed to work with very talented actors as I was (“The Quiet Hour” stars Dakota Blue Richards, who was picked out of 11,000 kids as a lead for “The Golden Compass”, and Karl Davies from “Game of Thrones”).

I did commit a few sins though, hoping to wedge in a tiny bit of expositional dialogue here and there to get across a few basic facts of my science-fiction world. Inevitably, they all all had to go and we had to find more creative, and more exciting ways to convey the context of the story. Even a tiny bit of expositional dialogue slows down the film and doesn’t quite work; usually your actors feel it, even if they can’t always articulate it, and somehow struggle with the lines. Just look at “Prometheus” if you aren’t convinced and you’ll pick up on a few cringe-worthy moments that stem from explanatory dialogue (especially when they look at the brand new surgery robot).

 

2. Avoid repetition

William M. Akers who wrote “Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great” suggests you can only give information once in a script – and that’s very true in most cases. Beware of repetitions. Not only of information, which is an easy one, but also of emotional beats, which might be trickier to spot. It might not jump out at you on the page but it will become painfully obvious on a screen. While editing “The Quiet Hour” we realized that the same character walked off three times in an outburst of anger. Needless to say two of their tantrums had to go, no matter how strong the performances were, or how well shot the scenes were. It’s funny, nobody picked up on that at the stage reading because the scenes themselves worked but the hard truth is that three redundant beats created an undesirable impression of déjà vu as the story unfolded. So, the next time around I’ll ask myself whether I am repeating emotional information or not. And if I do the culprits will be nixed before I go to camera. I know that editing is a process and that inevitably scenes will end up in the bin because you can’t predict everything on the page (look at “Notting Hill”, written by Richard Curtis, one of the most brilliant writers of his generation, and how they cut whole scenes at the beginning of the movie because they realized one beat/scene was enough to show the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant character falling in love, and not the three they shot) but now I have been stung I shall certainly be more vigilant…

 

3. Don’t assume your scenes are in the right order

It’s extraordinary to realize how much better a scene can become if you alter what precedes it or comes after it. It’s something that really stuck with me when I read “In the blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch (a must read). Basically what he’s saying is that if a scene doesn’t work we tend to remove it or start tinkering with it, while maybe the problem actually lies with the scene that precedes it or comes after it. Maybe what comes before doesn’t work, or after. So the problem could just be that the scene you’re working on should come forward or later in the movie, and not that it should be cut. It might not be obvious when it’s on the page but it’s extraordinary how changing a scene’s location can transform the story once it’s on screen. A scene that drags on might be wonderfully appropriate a bit later. I was lucky, the story takes place over two days so my actors wear the same costumes all the time and I could shuffle up a few scenes for the good of the movie without upsetting the continuity (although as Walter Murch says story and emotion come first and continuity is way down on the pecking order so don’t be too hung up on continuity…). But of course as always it’s better to make the adjustment on the page before you go shoot your movie, and less time consuming and expensive. So from now on I will make sure I shuffle up my scene cards for a long time before locking a script as you never know what can happen if you swap something around…

 

4. Trust your instinct

Funnily enough, all the scenes I feared might be unnecessary ended up in the editor’s bin. You know when you have the nagging feeling you might not need a scene but you don’t cut it because everyone comments on how strong the scene is so you convince yourself you might need that scene. I would suggest you cut them and see if you miss them or not the next time you read your script. You can always add the scenes back in if they are missing. If you don’t miss them, then the odds are it will be the same in the editing room, so it’s best to let go of them before going to the trouble, time, and expenses of shooting them. Next time I’ll listen a bit more to my gut instinct because deep down we often know what’s best for our babies…

 

5. Put your ego aside with the bigger picture in mind

No matter how tight your script is some scenes will end up in the bin because you’ll realize they slow down the story or are no longer necessary. Editing is a discovery process and your story will take a life of its own and become the beast it was meant to become while the script will gradually recede as a distant shadow of its former self. Don’t be too precious. Don’t cling on to your script when you are editing your movie. As directors, especially writers/directors we are often attached to scenes for the wrong reason. I’m very open to notes on the page and value them but I must confess I have a hard time killing babies that took me a day of my tight 3 week shoot while I had to dash off a scene that was really necessary. So surround yourself with people you trust and listen to your peers. When my producer and my editor both agree that something needs to go they are usually right. The best test being that when I watch the cut a few days later I don’t notice the scenes are gone, proof I didn’t need them in the first place…

That’s it for now! More later after I’ve done a couple of test screenings and discover what I can learn from them.

And if you are editing at the moment watch “Kill your Darlings” by Susan Korda, it will inspire you.

Happy editing!

Stéphanie Joalland

Stéphanie Joalland is a native of France, but writes and consults globally in both English and French, from Toronto, Los Angeles or London. She combines European flair with UCLA Screenwriting education to provide the most useful script doctoring, coverage and consultation you’ll find for your screenplay – whether FIRST or FINAL draft.Stéphanie began as a reader for the French studios TF1 International and Canal Plus, evaluating hundreds of English language scripts from all over the world allowing her to gain a deep understanding of storytelling. She then worked as a story editor, where she developed dozens of international animated European and North-America co-productions, with an Emmy-nomination for Pet Aliens. In Paris she created an animated TV show Valerian and Laureline for Luc Besson (Europa Corp) while her genre feature scripts were optioned by the French studios Pathé and Gaumont. In 2008, one of her spec screenplays was showcased at the prestigious IFP “Emerging Narrative” in NYC during Independent Film Week.