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Q & A: How can I get a job as a script reader for a studio or agency?

Can I do it living outside of California?

How can I get a job as a script reader for a studio or agency? Can I do it living outside of California?

With the excessive influx of scripts into studios and agencies, busy executives and producers cannot read everything. So, material is vetted through a screening process, where “readers” (a.k.a. story analysts) review the projects and write a report. The “reader’s report” or “coverage” includes a logline and synopsis. Most importantly, perhaps, is the section devoted to comments, where, generally, the reader opines on the material’s strengths and weaknesses, the overall effectiveness of the narrative and its viability as a film or TV project. The reader gives the script a grade of RECOMMEND, CONSIDER or PASS.

This is a much maligned process, because some writers believe the reader is not qualified to judge his material. Ultimately, I think it’s less an issue of qualifications and more about ego. No writer wants to think his hard work could be rejected by an underling (perhaps even a failed or bitter scribe himself). “This guy is a loser. Probably a wannabe who couldn’t write a fucking e-mail. If my script had landed on Spielberg’s desk, I'd have a deal by now.’” (But don’t forget, moviegoers – comprised of people who’ve never heard of Robert McKee or attempted to write a script or make a movie – issue the "recommend, consider or pass" on a regular basis.)

It just isn’t realistic to expect the exec to read every script sent his way. When bringing in your taxes to H&R Block, do you expect either “H” or “R” to prepare them? It would be presumptuous to assume that Moe, Manny or Jack would change the oil if you took your car to Pep Boys.

Whether it’s revered or reviled is immaterial. This is the standard operating procedure of Hollywood. Readers vet most of the material. This system was conceived at the birth of the film industry. It is a tradition.

In the early days of filmmaking, the studios employed “story editors” who were not only “readers” (scripts were also referred to as “scenarios” and “photoplays” back then), but they also determined which scripts to buy. They did the rewriting and wrote their own original material too. They even edited films. Scenarios were bought outright in the beginning. A 1915 article in Photoplay Magazine, written by Captain Leslie T. Peacocke, tells us that “Twenty-five dollars per reel was, up to a year ago, the usual price for the average scenario. Few of the higher class companies now pay less than $35 for scripts from unknown writers, and most of the well known scenario authors were demanding and getting from $100 to $200 per reel for original stories and from $75 to $250 per reel for adaptations from stage plays and books.”

With the promise of that kind of paycheck, people wanted to write scripts. The modern deluge of screenplays into town is not a recent phenomenon. In those pioneer days, there wasn’t enough material to keep up with the output of product. (In 1915, one studio could produce almost the same amount of films that all of Hollywood turned out last year.) So, for better or worse, studios advertised for scenarios in national magazines! This eventually led to a phenomenon known as “scenario fever.” In Budd Schulberg’s memoir “Moving Pictures,” he writes about his father, B.P. Schulberg, the Story Editor for narrative filmmaking pioneer Edwin S. Porter. Shulberg recollects on his father’s experiences: “There was a stampede to ‘get into the move game,’ and if you couldn’t get a job in front of the camera as a featured player or as a five-dollar-a-day extra, or behind it as a director, cameraman or technician, you could always try your hand at scribbling. When my father and mother wheeled my fancy carriage through Mt. Morris Park, they would be intercepted by passersby who had heard that young Shulberg was Edwin S. Porter’s Scenario Editor and would press on him their latest inspirations for Mary Pickford…’They came pouring in, mostly in illegible scrawls,” BP would tell me, ‘written on everything from postcards to butcher paper. Everybody who paid his nickel to see one of our shows thought it was easy money to dash off a movie. Most of them were illiterate. Nearly all of them were godawful.’”

Eventually, Thomas Ince compartmentalized the process of filmmaking, dividing the tasks and assigning them to individuals. As a result, the story editor just mined for new material, while a writer was assigned to write and so on. Despite the changes, almost a hundred years later, a similar line of defense forages through piles of screenplays hoping to divine potential movies to send up the chain of command until a handful are greenlit for production.

Although readers come from all walks of life, at the agency, most of our dozen freelance readers have graduate degrees in writing and all sorts of Hollywood experience. However, as an industry standard, this is not a pre-requisite.

Most reading jobs in the business are freelance. Readers pick up scripts, read them at home, turn in their coverage and pick up their next batch. Freelance readers are outside contractors and do not receive employment benefits. However, reading scripts is a great education and many writers, producers and executives have started life as readers. ICM CEO Jeff Berg started his career as a reader. ICM boasts an impressive list of reader alumni – most recently Patrick Melton, who has had his first flurry of success with selling three scripts and a TV pilot, landing several assignments, and seeing his first film produced. The idea that readers are unqualified or ill-equipped to review material is – in most cases – not true. Many must demonstrate their aptitude during the hiring process. The job competition (like everything in this business) is fierce. We get hundreds of unsolicited applications in a year and have the ability to choose the best. Most readers are professionals. In fact, I would make the case that the likelihood of a reader getting a bad script far outweighs (think morbidly obese) the script getting a bad reader.

To land a freelance reading job, find examples of coverage on line. Study them. (Somewhere in this blog, I included a list of story elements I look for when reading a script.) Then, create a portfolio of coverage by reading unproduced scripts and writing up reports. Have an example of a RECOMMEND and/or CONSIDER and a PASS.

Get the “Hollywood Creative Directory” and cold call every Story Department, CE, Story Editor, and Director of Development at every agency and production company. Ask to send résumé and samples. If they are not hiring, ask them to keep the résumé and samples on file.

Most studios use union readers. There is a Story Analysts Union (IATSE Local 700S) – which operates under the auspices of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The Story Analyst Guild keeps a roster of readers that signatories must exhaust first before hiring a non-roster reader. This means it is much harder to get a job with the signatories.

Union readers start at $27.08 an hour. This is considerably higher than the starting salary for a freelance reader, which can range from $40-$60 per script. Often, books demand a higher fee. (It can take up to four hours to read a screenplay and write coverage.) Union readers hold on to their jobs until the very end when the mortician has to pry the scripts from their cold, dead hands. All reading jobs fill very quickly.

Since the demand for these jobs is great and there are hundreds of applicants within a mile radius of any prodco, agency or studio, it’s not realistic to expect companies to hire readers from outside of town. Beware of those that do.

About the Author

Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher.   For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors.   He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program.  Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor.  He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University.    He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey.   He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.  

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