Screenwriters have funny ideas about readers. Some view us as malevolent fire-breathing trolls who get out the long knives before turning a page. The funniest misconception is the equivalent of an urban myth, still circulating among pre-pros, that readers "don't even bother to read the whole thing."
If only! Story analysts have to read each script from first page to last, even when it's obvious from Page One that it's a godawful travesty, because - and this is often the dirtiest part of the Dirty Job That Someone Has to Do - we have to write a synopsis.
Reader mean-spiritedness, when it really exists, is largely a reaction to this grunt-work. There are few things more aggravating to a reader/writer than having to speedily synopsize a poorly plotted piece of work (sci-fi/fantasy specs are the most horrific of these, since trying to understand, let alone explain story developments in an incoherent interplanetary saga can really crash your hard-drive).
Then comes the more involving task of writing comments that annotate the pros and cons of the material, but here's the awful truth that a pre-pro screenwriter ought to know about coverage. The problem isn't that the reader doesn't read your entire script - he's often the only person who does. No, the problem is that the executives we work for rarely read the entire coverage. They may not even read a word of it, before pronouncing your 2-3 years of work to be D.O.A. Their interest is often entirely predicated on a visual.
Allow me to introduce to you (cue drum roll) the grid.
The grid (aka The Box) is the alpha and omega of script coverage. Specifics vary, vis-a-vis the terms used on the left-hand side, but this one is typical. And the arrangement of "X" marks across those lines is sometimes all a buyer needs to look at before dismissing a submission.
To be fair, the 1-2 sentence log-line (summary of the concept and basic story thrust) that appears on the cover sheet with the grid is usually just as important. Of secondary importance is the Comments Summary (1-2 sentences) that follows the log-line.
I usually cover 8-9 scripts a week (the average is two a day). How often do marks enter the "Excellent" column? Maybe once or twice a year. How often am I X-ing into "Poor?" At least 2-3 times a week. About half the spec scripts one reads earn a box score like this:
Now here comes the truly abhorrent truth: the most important line is the first one. High marks for characterization and dialogue can serve a writer well (i.e. even if the script doesn't sell, the reader may recommend that writer for a studio assignment). Poor Story/Structure marks can give a buyer pause, and high ones will definitely help; same goes for Setting/Production Values. But solid "Good" for Premise (aka Story Concept)? If the log-line appeals, the exec may read the coverage. She may even read the script.
Here we enter the adjacent realm of Awful Truths. I'm stretching a bit to make my point, but even an only-fair Premise can get a movie set up if the team that's attached is hot enough, and the politics and money of it make sense to the studio.
Generally speaking, though, Story Concept reigns supreme. In fact - hold onto your 3D glasses - there is an answer to that oft-articulated question known to disgruntled moviegoers exiting theaters in a state of dazed bewilderment: "Who the hell thought that was a movie worth making?"
You see the marks for Story/Structure blasting past the Poor bar? And all the straight-up Fairs? Now look at that trail of enthusiastic X's filling up Good and edging toward Excellent... and check out the category under Pass and Consider.
The studio bought the idea. The endemic logic, in the studio system, is that everything else can be fixed; throw enough writers and other creative elements at it, and a sow's ear really can become a silk purse. And that, Grasshopper, is how we ended up with Land of the Lost.
I put this before you by way of advice. Given that what the buyers want is "the same, only different," you must look at your spec script with the harsh, cold glare of the The Grid's little boxes, and ask: What makes the idea of my movie competitive (i.e. distinct from all the others in its genre)? And if the story concept itself is not genuinely distinctive, what in the execution - the telling of it - makes it seem unique, and will provide a hook?
In comedy, concept is vital. Almost every spec we see each week that's touted as "the next Hangover" (translation: it's a comedy with a bunch of guys in it) misses the point; all of us readers routinely pass on "boys' night out in Vegas" specs. Hangover was a hit because it had a mystery as its driving motor: What in God's name did we do with the groom?
In romantic comedy, the execution hook can be what makes the difference between "Bridget Jones" (Who cares?) and Bridget Jones's Diary (i.e. the storytelling device is the thing that provides the extra level of interest). A good premise, by Grid definition, may also represent an inspired way of telling a familiar story, e.g. the in-development musical Wicked (it's The Wizard of Oz all over again - but from the witch's POV).
Either way, the awful truth about scripts and coverage is that Concept/Premise is often all that matters. So what's the hook in your movie? What inventive idea will move those top line marks to the left? What unique angle on a same-old subject will get your script read by anyone other than, well... me?