On numerous occasions, I've been asked if there is any difference between "coverage" and a "script consult" and, if so, what that might be. As someone who does a fair amount of consulting (and no coverage), I can tell you that there is most definitely a distinction. Several, in fact. Many writers confuse the two, and I thought it might be high time to write an article about how they differ.
Before I became a screenwriter, professor and consultant, I was a practicing attorney and taught business law for ten years in the school of management at Boston College. To help explain one of the biggest differences between "coverage" and a "consult", it's helpful to look at some basic legal principles.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, "coverage" is sort of like a book report for a script. A reader reads the script and then writes a report - coverage - that includes a synopsis of the plot, analysis of the story/script, commercial potential of the project, grades for characters and dialogue and, finally, a verdict that results in either a "pass", "consider" or "recommend". The vast majority of scripts receive a pass. A small percentage (less than 10%) receive some form of "consider" and only a select few get a "recommend".
In the traditional circumstance, "coverage" comes about because the reader is hired by a studio, a producer or an agency to provide that coverage. And that's where the law comes in. The reader works for whoever hires him or her. In legal terms, they owe a contractual duty to that person. More to the point - and here's where part of the confusion arises - they owe no duty to the writer!
A reader providing coverage may offer suggested fixes for the script, but they do so only for the person who hires them, not for the writer. The fixes or comments are there for the producer or studio or agent so that they can decide if it might be worth pursuing the script and/or the writer. They are not meant to help the writer, unless the person paying for the coverage chooses to share it with them. In practice, writers almost never get to see the coverage on their script. However, if they do, it is important for them to remember that the reader providing the coverage is not working for them! Most times, readers don't even bother offering "fixes". Their "coverage" is (and should be) pure evaluation for a prospective buyer or representative.
On the other hand, a script consultant is almost always hired by the writer. Under those same contract law principles, the consultant owes the duty to the person paying them, in this case the writer. Any notes, comments, suggested fixes are solely for the writer to utilize to improve their script and/or their writing. The notes are not meant to be shown to any prospective buyer. In fact, it would be most unwise for a writer to do so. The consultant works for the writer and their duty is to help that writer write the best possible script with the hopes of selling it and/or getting future work for that writer. Along with that, the consultant can provide some of the same evaluation provided by a reader doing coverage. However, no prospective buyer or representative will see that, nor should they.
One of the reasons for the confusion about all of this is that there has been some cross-over lately involving both coverage and consulting.
In the case of the former, writers these days can "purchase" coverage from companies who, in some cases, use some of the same free-lance readers used by producers and agents. However, if done correctly, this coverage should be undertaken as if there is some fictional producer/studio/agent out there paying the reader. The coverage would then tell the writer what the reader would be telling that prospective buyer/representative who might have paid them to cover the script. Of course, the writer can use whatever suggested fixes are offered by the reader, but it is important to remember that the reader is not accustomed to providing fixes to writers. They are in the evaluation business, not the amelioration business. This is the case, despite the fact that it is the writer paying for the coverage. Best to think of it as a test run for your script, without consequences (i.e. a pass), and not much more.
Similarly, consultants are sometimes hired by studios, producers and even actors to provide notes on scripts. In those instances, the consultant's duty is owed to those who hire them, but in almost every case, those notes are going to be shared with the writers, in some form or fashion. That's why the consultant was hired, even though they are sometimes paid by the same entity that is paying the writer(s). As with the reader doing "paid coverage", it's important for the consultant in these circumstances to be consistent with what their customary role is when offering their services. In other words, they are in the amelioration business.
I think the matter has been further muddied by the fact that the companies offering "coverage services" often use terms like "analysis" and "consult", even though the people they hire to provide the services have more experience in providing coverage to buyers, as opposed to writers. Please note, I am not suggesting that those folks are unqualified or incapable of providing either analysis or amelioration. It's simply a blurring of the line between the two.
There is something else writers should consider when hiring a "coverage service". In nearly all circumstances, the writer does not choose the reader and, in fact, never even knows the identity of the person providing the coverage. Because of that, they have no idea of what their qualifications might be. Instead, they have to rely on the representations of the "coverage service" that the reader is an experienced analyst. As mentioned, these services often use the same readers who work on a free-lance basis for production companies and agencies and market that fact. However, in almost all instances, they choose not to reveal their names or qualifications to the reader.
Compare that to a script consultant who is likely to have been selected by the writer because of their reputation. Writers usually are referred to that consultant or have found them on their own via the internet or in ads in the screenwriting magazines. In both of those instances, the writer knows the consultant's qualifications and presumably hires them based upon them. Moreover, they know that the notes they ultimately receive will come from the person they hired.
This leads to the question that I am most often asked after I explain the differences between the two: when should a writer hire a coverage service versus a script consultant? My advice always is to hire a consultant first, if you can afford it. Use their expertise to get the script in the best shape possible. Then, before sending it out to decision makers, give it a test run with a coverage service. Of course, a writer is free to do either one alone or neither. However, if you do hire one or both, hopefully you will do so now with a clearer understanding of what you are paying for.