Sunday, 13 March 2016


LOGLINE: Ida Tarbell’s magazine series “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” not only changed the history of journalism but also the fate of Rockefeller’s empire, which was shaken by the powerful pen of its most implacable observer.

WRITER: Mark McDevitt

SCRIPT BIO: 8 votes on the 2015 black list.


We first meet IDA when she's a kid. Her two brothers are terrified of the local bully, but not Ida, she punches him in the nose and he runs away!

See, this opening scene is a metaphor for Ida's life. She's not afraid to stand up to bullies.

That opening scene is also very on the nose - as are a lot of scenes in this script. 

Being the main problem with this script - it's very OTN (On The Nose) and very over written. 

Cut to some 35 years later when Ida is now a 43 year old successful career woman. 

The Year is 1901. Things aren't easy for women - especially in the world of journalism. Sure, there's women writing Dear Aunty columns but very few women are actually doing investigative journalism.

But Ida is cut from a different cloth - that's for sure.

She gets a job at an up-and-coming magazine that does mostly fluff pieces about easily digestible topics. 

Here, Ida talks her boss into letting her investigate the richest man in America - J D Rockefeller.

She believes that he is guilty of illegal trading practices in the world of oil. 

Ida teams up with a co-worker and together they begin investigating the behemoth that is JD Rockefeller. 

Their investigation soon turns up many foul practices, but what's she's lacking is the evidence to support her main claim - that J D Rockefeller used mafia-like coercion tactics.

The question becomes, will she get the evidence needed to 'prove her claims' - or will J D crush her and magazine she writes for?


There's a lot of good going on here. There's some good writing. But there's also a lot that needs fixing. 

Firstly, as I mentioned - most scenes are VERY ON THE NOSE. 

What does that even mean? It's when it's VERY OBVIOUS what YOU the WRITER are trying to get across in that scene.

Film making and story telling is about subtly. 

Take acting for example. If an actor delivers their lines in a way that is over the top, we won't believe their performance, because in real life, people don't speak in exaggerated ways - we speak naturally depending on the context in which the words are being spoken.

The same goes for writing. If a scene is written in a way that is VERY OBVIOUS that the writer is trying to make a point - then that point and that whole scene will come across as over the top and un-real. 

There were plenty of scenes throughout this script where the subtext was louder than the main text. 

That's On The Nose scene writing. 

Then we have almost every single scene starting waaaaaaay too early. 

This is another major problem with this script. Every scene starts with a character getting to their location. It also starts with introductory dialogue -  characters introducing each other - having a little chat, then getting into why they're here. 

We don't need that. 

Start late, finish early.

You should start every scene mid-way through. Preferably with the two (or three or four) characters already in disagreement. 

As soon as you have established the REASON for that scene to be in the film - END THE SCENE IMMEDIATELY. 

Keep scenes short. You should never write a scene that's over 5 pages long. Preferably keep them to 2-3 pages maximum, but allow yourself a couple of 5 pages scenes. When a scene is running over  5 pages long, odds are that scene is over written. 


This film falls at the first hurdle. This is not a film that will make money at the box office. Why? This story isn't big enough. A female journalist at the turn of the century takes on JD Rockefeller. 

This is not to speak against the story itself - it's s very valid and worthwhile story to be told - but the concept - purely from a monetary point of view - isn't big enough to compel people to see this at the cinema.

Another huge problem on the concept front is - what happens to JD Rockefeller as a result of the investigative journalism.  (SPOILER*** - nothing happens to him.) He is never convicted of any crime - and the impact this journalist has on his empire is akin to an ant biting an elephant. 

There's no pay-off to the set up of the concept.


CONCEPT TIP: Do the movie test before you write a script. Ask yourself if you would pay money to go and see the film you're about to write. Be as objective as possible. Imagine a friend pitching the idea to you as if you've never heard it before. What would your initial reaction be? 

Do the demographic test. Who would go and see your film. Be honest. Is your idea niche? Or is it main stream? It's fine to write niche - but know that doing so means you're going against the main stream.

Do the - already showing at the movies test - what are the ten top grossing films in the last month? How does your film fit into that profile?


Form was okay. Fairly easy to read. It does use bold for its sluglines - which is a no-no. 

It is also incredibly over written - it comes in at 121 pages - it could easily have been told in 90 pages and NO SCENE would have been cut. 


FORM TIP: Learn to trim your scenes. When your screenplay comes in at 121 pages - that's just lazy writing. Think about the Start Late, Finish Early principle. Do you follow this or ignore it? The leaner your script - the faster your film will be. There won't be any of those long drawn out dull scenes. 


Structure was okay here. Except that Ida doesn't have a flaw. There's NOTHING holding her back from succeeding. To that end, I was always sure that she was going to succeed. 

Everything she put her mind to she accomplished. When characters are TOO GOOD - the story becomes dull. Sure, she was up against some people who didn't like what she was doing, so she had EXTERNAL resistance - but there was NO INTERNAL resistance. 

We engage with stories about people who have an internal issue that needs to be resolved. When a film has no inner journey - it's no longer a vicarious experience - it becomes spectacle. We're just watching stuff happen.

I watched Trumbo last night. While I enjoyed the film - it suffered from a bad case of lack of flaw. It also suffered from lack of conflict. 

For the first half of the movie Trumbo doesn't have a flaw. He develops a flaw that starts to drive a wedge between him and his family - but that doesn't show up until after the midpoint of the film. 

Interestingly - after the midpoint was when the film became interesting. 

If your main character doesn't have an inner journey going on, odds are your film will suffer for it. As does Ida Tarbell.


Characters were okay. None of them popped off the page. Mainly because their dialogue was just good - it wasn't great. 

All the characters sounded like they were spoken by the same person. 

Here you have an array of very different types of people - so there's room for some great variances in the way they speak - but if you removed the NAME from the dialogue - there's no way you could tell who was speaking from the WAY they're speaking. 

We don't learn anything about Ida's personal life. We only see her at work - working on this case. It seems like her life outside the job doesn't actually exist. To that end it leaves her not feeling as 3D as she could be. 



Ida's character would have popped way more if she had a flaw. If she had an inner journey. Rockefeller has a very clear flaw - but this isn't his story - it's Ida's. Ida's boss has a flaw - of sorts - he cheats on his wife - but that's not really explored. Ida's research buddy doesn't have a flaw. 

Try to give each of your characters a flaw. especially your main character. Then use that flaw to write their inner journey. 


Voice was okay - but again - it didn't pop. The over-writing and the OTN scenes were too much. 

The lack of good form also detracted from the voice. 


VOICE TIP: I'm coming to realise that voice is a sum of all the parts of your script. If you're just okay at all the elements of a screenplay - odds are your voice will come across as 'just okay.'

If you excel across the board - odds are your voice will come across as more pronounced - your script will stay in the mind of the reader for days and hopefully weeks if not years to come. 


I would not put money into this.

It will not make money as it stands. 

It is a powerful character piece that I can see will attract some A list talent. 

If it does go into production it needs to fix the following -- 

1) Start Early Finish Late. Every scene needs to have this principle applied to it. 

2) The OTN nature of the writing in each scene needs to be more subtle. 

3) Ida needs a flaw. As do all the other characters. 

4) We need to see more of Ida's personal life. 

5) Conflict in every scene. Some scenes are conflict free - never have a scene where people are celebrating each other, or just plain agreeing with each other. It's dead screen time. 

With those five main elements fixed this script will be on the way to becoming a decent script. As it stands it's lacking. 


The concept is not strong enough to get bums on seats.

The execution - while good - is not good enough to prop up the weak concept.