The Business of Screenwriting: Script readers — Hollywood’s threshold guardians

They may not get a lot of respect, but they are important to writers.

Outside of yourself, the single most important person in the life of your spec script is more than likely the reader assigned to it. Almost no material gets submitted in Hollywood without coverage and that coverage is written by a script reader who is paid — or sometimes not — to read your script. What they say about your script, indeed how they distill in their coverage the key narrative elements of your story can have an enormous influence on how the material is perceived by people further up the food chain.

But who are these people? How do they think? What sort of lives do they lead? How do they go about the grind of reading scripts and writing coverage?

To wit: “An Impression of a Script Reader: Hollywood’s Threshold Guardians.”

It is late at night, 11:58 on a Sunday evening to be precise. We are in an apartment in Santa Monica. Scratch that, Los Feliz. Uh… let’s get real. We are in a cramped two bedroom one bath dump in North Hollywood. The script reader — let’s call her Beth — shares the apartment with two other young adults (mid-20s), one of whom is on the lease with Beth, the other an old high school friend who hit LA to stay for a few nights, but now has essentially moved in, sleeping on the living room couch.

Fortunately Marvin — that’s the slacker roommate’s name — is out tonight carousing. Maybe he’ll get lucky and he won’t come staggering home drunk as usual, Beth thinks hopefully. The other roommate Brenna is asleep, no doubt grinding her teeth, already in nocturnal stress about what Monday morning nightmares await at her job as an agent’s assistant at a boutique lit agency.

Beth is sprawled in her reading chair, the nicest piece of furniture in a living room jammed with mismatched pieces. It was her best yard sale find to date, all of $18. The fabric is well-worn and frayed, but its arms are wide, perfect for piling up scripts, pens, laptop, and endless bottles of Pepsi zero to fuel her reading regimen. She loves that her chair is so functional and comfortable. She hates sitting in the chair because she knows when she’s there, she is working.

Computer on her lap, Beth finishes pounding away on the keyboard, and hits save. Coverage on a script, the last of three she was supposed to read over the weekend. Yet another pass. Yet another shitty script. Yet another ninety minutes of her time in this universe devoured by 107 pages of wan inspiration and lame execution.

Beth offers perhaps the world’s weariest sigh, then thinks: How did I get here? She didn’t intend to be making a living — such as it is — reading scripts. Eighteen months ago after finally landing an intern position at a big production company, when she showed up for her first day of work, a stack of scripts somehow ended up in her email, accompanied by a two-sheet explanation of the outfit’s guidelines for writing coverage. No matter that Beth had never read a script before. She would learn as she went along. Fortunately she had majored in creative writing in college. Her overlords must have liked her coverage because she became the go-to person in-house to read the higher tier of scripts (which at least got her out of reading all the stray submissions that mysteriously slipped through the cracks of the company’s ‘no unsolicited material’ policy).

One thing led to another — picking up a freelance script coverage gigs, moonlighting at an actor’s prod co that was suddenly plowing through all the pay-or-play scripts that had stacked up — Beth found herself working as a script reader. No diploma. No business cards. No office. No certification. Just a steady stream of phone calls from a variety of clients requesting her services. She likes to think it’s because she is good at it and people can see that she really understands story, but she has a nagging fear it’s because she’s cheap. She keeps intending to raise her quote, but doesn’t. It’s incredibly competitive out there. Moreover a lot of outfits are relying solely on interns to provide script coverage. As if, Beth sniffs. They wouldn’t know a good story if it hit them in their pretty little faces. And yet companies keep cutting back on paying for script coverage, a silent battle being waged from Culver City to Burbank. No matter that the quality of coverage suffers. In these economic times, the bottom line isn’t “Recommend,” “Consider,” “Pass,” rather it’s all about dollars spent and dollars saved.

Beth stretches, rolling her head around resulting in a series of explosive skeletal pops. How long had she been sitting here? Three hours? Four? When was the last time she’d been outside? Had she eaten dinner? Lunch? No matter. Now it was finally her time. 11:59PM. One more minute left for the weekend. What would she do with it?

Of course, she knows what she should do. Click open the Final Draft file of her spec script To Dwell, the period piece family drama set in Ireland she’d started… God, was is really eight months ago? She’s a writer, she knows that. She is passionate about this story… or at least used to be when she first conceived it. She still claims she is, but she has hectoring doubts. A period piece. Family drama. Ireland. Even the title. If she picked up that script to provide coverage, she knows the first thing she’d do when she checked it out would be to groan. And yet Hollywood needs great stories, right? At least that’s what all the screenwriters say when she attends the endless rounds of free seminars and screenings in town.

Beth is just about to open To Dwell when she spots it, peeking out from under her chair, the little yellow post-it note waving at her. She goes through several contortions to adjust all the crap on her chair to be able to bend down and pick it up. It’s a script. The note reads:

“Some dude dropped this by. Rush read or whatever. Due Monday AM. M.”

M as in Marvin. M as in maggot! Why the hell hadn’t he told her about this? The asshole had been sitting on the couch no more than… however many hours ago. The goddammed script was right there, directly in his line of vision. He could have told her about it then. And who sends a paper script nowadays anyways?

And there goes her best intentions to work on her own spec script, crushed by yet another story requiring coverage. Fuuuuuuucccck.

Beth goes through her regular routine when she cracks open a script. She checks out the title page: Death Kill. Not good. Writer’s name? A nobody. Writer’s Guild registration number. Amateur.

Then she flips through the script from front to back, letting her eyes scan the pages, checking to see how much black ink there is. Tons of it. Whole pages with no dialogue. Thick blocks of scene description. Obviously a script with a lot of action, but did the asshole have to write so much of it?

Finally perhaps the most important consideration: The last page of the script: 127 pages. 127! What the fuck? Dude thinks he’s fucking Tarantino? Nobody needs 127 pages to tell a story especially not some hack from Ohio… I’ll just bet he’s from fucking Ohio… fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

Beth presses her eyes shut, hoping it will all go away. Her exhaustion, the rent check that is due, Marvin the maggot… and most of all this goddammed script.

She opens her eyes. There it is on her lap. Death Kill awaits her. Checks the clock. It’s 12:00AM. Now Monday. Script due in the morning.

There is nothing… nothing Beth wants to do less than read this script.

And yet she settles into her chair. Alone in the dim light. Opens the script to page one hoping against hope there might be one shred of something… anything in the story to keep her awake for the next two hours knowing that in reality, there’s a big fat PASS just hanging over head…

This is a moment in the life of one of Hollywood’s threshold guardians. The film business simply could not operate without them, not when it funnels through 30,000+ submissions per year, so in some sense script readers are unsung heroes. More than that, they are a writer’s audience. You may think you are writing your script for the masses, but in the day to day grind of the movie acquisition and development process, the people you are really writing for are script readers.

Therefore the next time you sit down to write, you would be well advised to have Beth in mind. Are your pages entertaining enough to break through her weariness and encroaching cynicism? Is your story compelling enough to propel her to read every page as opposed to the first 30… or not even 15… or maybe just 5… then scan the rest?

Write your script. Write the hell out of it. Write something that shakes Beth out of her lethargy and reminds her why she got into this business in the first place: To tell great stories.

Write something Beth will love.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted September 1, 2011]

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