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What is a Slush Pile?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

A slush pile refers to unsolicited manuscripts submitted by hopeful authors, screenwriters or playwrights to producers, production companies, publishing companies, or successful agents. Anyone in a position to effectively move a manuscript into development, or get it into the hands of someone capable of green-lighting it, is apt to have a slush pile of manuscripts waiting to be read.

In the movie industry, slush piles glut talent agencies like the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), William Morris Agency (WMA), and Creative Management Inc. (CMI) that receive hundreds of thousands of unsolicited scripts each year. Large talent agencies like these typically have story departments that oversee initial promotion of promising story ideas. Because the slush pile is unsolicited, the hope of finding a truly good script among the throngs of poorly written submissions is small. The idea being (right or wrong) that most people with talent have an agent and are not forced to send unsolicited manuscripts.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Since it is time consuming to read through scripts, underlings or interns are most often given the job of first reader. The first reader scans the entire script, then writes coverage as to the script’s strengths and weaknesses. The script is graded and either escalates up the ladder to more experienced staff, or if a self-addressed stamped envelope is enclosed, is returned to sender with a rejection slip. A script that finds favor will go through many readers before being passed to the head of the story department who will make the final decision on whether to pass the script along or reject it. In the publishing industry, an editor’s assistant(s) play the same basic role as first readers.

Independent agents who receive unsolicited scripts might read through the slush pile themselves, searching for new writing talent or projects for clients, but it is more common that agents use readers to pre-screen unsolicited manuscripts. This might be the receptionist, office assistant, or another staff member with time.

For those relatively few scripts that rise above the slush pile to escalate along the chain, the going gets tougher. Many story department heads, agents, directors, producers and others in a position to promote a script will not waste time reading a manuscript that does not grab them in the first 3-10 pages. So while the first reader may be instructed to read the entire script, only the best scripts will make it past the final deciders. Even then it is highly likely the script will have to go through several rewrites, if the author is lucky enough to make it this far. Rewrites might be requested of the original author, or they might be handled by professional writers.

The best way to have your script stand out from a slush pile of poorly written submissions is to make it an excellent piece of work, tightly plotted with full, believable characters in a setting that walks off the page and builds itself around the reader. Be sure to format the manuscript according to industry standards for a screenplay, teleplay or stage play; or if submitting to a publisher, per their guidelines. Convey professionalism and show that you understand instruction and will be easy to work with. There is an old adage that the cream always rises to the top. Despite the odds, a good script can rise to the top of any slush pile.

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