PrimeTime: Your Questions About Readers … ANSWERED!

I often get questions about the professional readers working on the front lines of Hollywood, and their process reading and judging scripts for agencies, production companies, even contests … so I figured I’d address some this week.

Readers — just to get everyone up to speed — work at agencies, studio production companies, and TV networks. Their job is to read scripts submitted to the company. At an agency, a script may be submitted by a writer looking for representation, or a production company or studio hunting for actors or a director. At a studio or production company, a script may be submitted by another company or producer looking for creative/financial partners. At a network, a script may be submitted as a potential series or TV movie.

A sample coverage prototype

For each script, a reader usually writes “coverage,” a three to eight-page “book report” detailing the script’s plot, characters, strengths, and weaknesses. This coverage then goes back to the agent, executive, or producer who received the original submission. (It’s also stored forever in the company files, so future agents/execs/producers can look up it when they need to.) If the script receives favorable coverage, the agent/exec/producer may read the script him or herself. If the script didn’t receive favorable coverage, the agent/exec/producer probably never reads the script at all. Readers, essentially, help prioritize the thousands upon thousands of submissions these companies receive each year. So, if you want your script to actually have a shot of getting read by an actual agent/exec/producer, it needs to first make it past the critical eyes of a professional reader.

Years ago, I worked as a reader at CAA, NBC, and a couple of professional theater companies … but since it’s been so long, I figured I’d take your questions to someone a bit more “current”: professional reader Mindi White, author of the new book Getting Past Me: A Writer’s Guide to Production Company Readers.

Aside from writing a helpful book, Mindi took the time this week to sit down and answer some of your questions. So, first of all, a huge THANK YOU to Mindi for taking the time to do this! And secondly, THANKS to all of you for your questions!

Here ya go!

(Also FYI — because I had so many questions, and many were similar, I’ve paraphrased, reworded and condensed a bit.)

 

From Byron …

 

We always hear about the “script readers” on the front lines of Hollywood, reading scripts at agencies, production companies, studios, etc.  But who are these readers?  What are the qualifications it takes to be a reader? Do you need a college degree? Special training? Are readers full-time employees, part-time, interns?

Readers come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. The one qualification is knowing how to do coverage. College degrees are, happily, irrelevant, although they do look impressive on a resume. One does need special training to learn how to craft effective coverage that complies with production companies and agency standards. There are classes and instructors that teach this. I’d warn against one-day classes that promise to teach you how to “read for a living.” One day isn’t enough time to learn how to get it right. I taught a six-week, one-night-a-week, story analysis class at a community college and the students were always surprised to discover that coverage is harder than it looks but that the craft kicked in after about five weeks. Except for union readers, who work at studios, and interns and assistants who write coverage as just one part of a very busy job, readers are freelance. As independent contractors, we often read for several companies at one time.

Are most of the scripts you read unsolicited submissions? Agent submissions? Scripts that have already been bought and are looking for financing or talent? What kinds of scripts are most readers reading?

Unsolicited submissions are rare, as most companies don’t accept them. It’s even getting hard to submit a script to agencies for representation. At production companies, agents, producers, and entertainment attorneys submit — but it’s usually agents. If there’s a name actor or director attached, that person can submit, but it’s rare. At an agency, it’s a very different story. Scripts are submitted for a number of different reason. Some are already with a producer and/or studio and are seeking a specific client the agency represents. Some of these are submitted for open director or casting, which means that the agency will plug in these roles if the script suits clients’ needs. Some are submitted for representation. Some are submitted just for notes. Respected readers give great notes, and some writers — clients or not — arrange to submit the script just to see what kind of coverage it gets.

If by “kinds of scripts” you mean genre, it varies widely. Action films are a perennial. There are a lot of adult dramas right now. There are always too many scripts that try to mimic the latest hot trend and/or strain to appear streetwise and edgy. Interestingly, a new trend is political and social commentary, reflecting what’s going on in the world right now.

For better or worse, most readers/producers/execs/agents begin judging a script before reading even a single word. After all, you can learn a lot about the script — and the writer — by looking at the script cover, return address, formatting, cover letter, whether or not it’s an agent’s submission or unsolicited, etc. As a reader, what are the biggest factors that influence your judgment before you’ve begun reading? And what are the biggest mistakes, or no-no’s, made by amateur writers?

Great screenplay, terrible cover

That’s a great question. It’s true that one tends to prejudge the script, although I try hard not to, especially when it is irrelevant information like the writer’s address. There are a few mistakes made by amateur and even seasoned writers that can prejudice readers. If I happen to glance at a random page and see that it’s covered with typos, it forms a negative opinion right off the bat. I assume the writer is careless and that the script probably reflects that. I’ve even seen typos on the cover sheet. I’m not affected by agent submission versus unsolicited ,because I’ve found the quality of the work is not noticeably different. Including illustrations, especially full-color extravaganzas on the title page or pages of diagrams, is a red flag. One major mistake is making the script fewer pages by reducing the margins; this tells me that the writer refused to edit the script but tried to cheat instead. Bad idea.

From Taylor …

We’ve had some heated discussions on this blog about the value of writers reading coverage, or using it as a development tool to improve their script and make it more sell-able. If a writer is able to get his hands on a reader’s coverage of his script, is this a good way to get honest feedback on how to make the script more sell-able?

I believe so, although the writer needs to have a pretty thick skin. Readers don’t pull any punches when the coverage is for a company client. The logline and synopsis can inform the writer how his or her story is perceived. A good reader’s analysis pinpoints the standout qualities of the script, good and bad. A very good reader’s notes point out how the script could be better or could better meet the needs of the particular company to which it’s been submitted.

And following up on that last question, what are the best ways to get honest script feedback from industry professionals used to reading and selling scripts? Should writers hire a consultant? Join a writers group? Submit to studios or agencies and try to get a copy of the coverage?

I always recommend that writers hire a professional script consultant. A good consultant can vastly improve the quality of the work. Friends and even writers’ groups are not the best judges of your screenplay. I know people that go crazy when every person in a writers’ group gives that person a different opinion. Submitting and trying to get a copy of the coverage is worth a try, but it’s unreliable.

From Gino …

How “good” does a script have to be to win a contest or get past the gatekeepers? For instance, if someone writes a good story with terrible dialogue, would that get rejected? What about a well-written script not in proper screenplay format? In other words, are you looking for polished scripts that are ready to go … or diamonds in the rough that may take a lot of work?

I’ve been a reader for contests and I’m certainly a professional gatekeeper. A script with terrible dialogue will not be seen as a good story because the characters can’t convey the story in an effective way. Personally, I don’t care if there are minor format glitches because that’s not one of my criteria. A polished, ready-to-shoot script is rare, and I don’t look for that. I really respond to diamonds in the rough. I get excited about its possibilities and can see what it can become with work. Other readers I’ve talked to feel the same way.

We talk a lot on this blog about whether or not it’s important to live in Los Angeles if you want to be a screenwriter or TV writer.  If you don’t live in Los Angeles (or New York), can you realistically get someone to even read a spec script?

Being located in Los Angeles or New York used to be vitally important, but it’s less so now. Everything’s electronic, so location barely matters. It’s the sensibilities of the writer that matter. I’m thinking of great movies like Winter’s Bone that reflect a way of life outside the urban environment. I certainly wouldn’t care where the writer lives. The advantage to being in L.A. or New York is that industry news and buzz are everywhere and there are great parties, but being part of these things doesn’t necessarily come with the territory. Where do you write best? Where do you find your inspiration? I’ve read great scripts from towns I’ve never heard of and lousy scripts from right around the block in Hollywood. Frankly, it’s hard to get your spec script read anywhere, but communication about your work is always done by email.

Mindi, thank you again for taking the time to do this and all your great information.

Readers, if you — or anyone else — has more questions, thoughts, comments, or responses, please feel free to post them in the Comments section below, email me at chad@chadgervich, Tweet me @chadgervich, or find me at www.facebook.com/chadgervich.

10 thoughts on “PrimeTime: Your Questions About Readers … ANSWERED!

  1. Gail

    “Submitting and trying to get a copy of the coverage is worth a try, but it’s unreliable”… Would’ve loved to hear her complete that thought. Why? Because it’s unlikely they’ll let you see it? Or because, as Fred said above, getting it to Ruth (or someone actually competent) is the biggest hurdle in itself? “A whole other column” I’d love to read, ’cause I’ve dealt with both problems too many times myself!

  2. concerned students

    Gervich should be questioned– Told students as a group they were all shit then turned around & tried to sell them a “TV Summit” that he runs at 400 hundy a pop. Never has been on staff as a tv writer, but teaches it somehow? IMDB him. Refuses to give written notes to students. Has screaming tirades at class.

  3. Fred Bluhm

    Ruth: you written a great column on your own.

    By stating that “the writing needs to be strong enough to suggest that the piece has the potential to be developed into something entertaining, marketable and hopefully meaningful on some level,” I think nothing more has to be said; that’s the bottom line. If your script sells, hopefully a director will be attached who has the skills to fully take advantage of the positive gesentinattributes the script has top offer.

    Of course, the biggest hurdle may simply be getting your script to someone like Ruth in the first place. But then, that’s a whole other column. Thanks again, Ruth, for your invaluable contribution, and many thanks to Chad for providing such a positive and productive forum.

  4. ruth a

    Hey Chad another great piece – thanks for soliciting Mindi’s thoughts on the inner world of the reader! As a professional script consultant and freelance reader I fully agree. Bottom line is while we may be gatekeepers good work truly stands out. I too ignore minor formatting and grammatical errors. I’m looking for the writer’s voice and the kernel of a great, original idea. The writing needs to be strong enough to suggest that the piece has the potential to be developed into something entertaining, marketable and hopefully meaningful on some level. These kinds of scripts are pretty rare which is why they stand out.

    Also it’s really important to know where you are sending your material and what their agenda might be. An agency has a completely different agenda from, say, an actor’s production company or a contest. A writer can take only so much rejection so minimize the passes by knowing as much as you can about where you’re sending your script and what they are looking for.

    And yes, there are plenty of readers out there without the experience to be effectively evaluating material. Mindi’s right – thoughtful coverage is a lot harder than it looks and it’s often the job of someone who is not only new but doing ten other tasks. But that’s where we circle back to good writing stands out. Even to a novice reader.

    Thanks again Chad for continuing to help make the industry a little more transparent.

  5. Film_Shark

    Good article. I would like to add a few cents. Firstly, not all screenwriting contests are equal and there are some very good ones beyond the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Contest (I respect them but it’s not for every screenwriter).

    Secondly, if Quentin Tarantino entered a screenwriting contest today, it would NOT even place in the top ten. My point is that Tarantino (thankfully) breaks the rules of screenwriting (his non-linear 3-act structure). Read all the rules of screenwriting and dare to be different to stand out.

    Thirdly, I believe you can make a successful indie film in your hometown and become noticed in Hollywood. Moving to LA with the desire to make it in the film industry is what dreams are made of. Unfortunately, LA is saturated with thousands of other struggling writers trying to make it too. My point is make yourself known in your hometown first as a talented filmmaker/writer before renting that U-Haul to LA. Don’t even get me started on how expensive it is to live in LA for a struggling artist. Been there done that.

  6. Fred Bluhm

    Chad: sorry, I don’t mean to clutter your pages, but I wanted to get back to you and thank you for your quick response, and for all the info you provided.

    I think your friend’s (the reader) advice about getting a script to a consultant is the best way to go. The money would probably be better spent in that respect than taking a chance at a contest. I’ll probably pursue that route. I’m in no hurry to sell anything; just want to produce the best possible product before moving on to the next step.

    By now, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea as to what does and doesn’t work. Of course, the first time I read “Grand Torino,” I hardly pegged it as a vehicle Clint Eastwood would attach himself to. Shows what I know. I’ve spoken with Dave Trottier a few times, and may continue in that direction. Meanwhile, much continued success to you, Chad, and, again, thanks for being so responsive.

    Fred

  7. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    @ Fred– Great advice to younger writers, Fred– thanks!

    As for contests, here are some earlier posts I wrote addressing the usefulness of contests (and websites, etc.):

    4/4/11 – WHY WINNING A CONTEST RARELY GIVES YOUR SCRIPT AN EDGE – http://www.scriptmag.com/2011/03/04/primetime-why-winning-a-contest-rarely-gives-your-script-an-edge/

    1/7/11 – REBUTTALS & SMACKDOWNS… COOL WEBSITES… AND A QUESTION FOR YOU – http://www.scriptmag.com/2011/01/07/primetime-rebuttals-smackdowns-cool-websites-and-a-question-for-you/#comments

    12/17/10 – HOW TO BREAK IN IF YOU’RE NOT IN L.A. – http://www.scriptmag.com/2010/12/17/primetime-how-to-break-in-if-youre-not-in-l-a/#comments

    12/4/10 – LIVING IN L.A., SUBMITTING TO WEBSITES– REBUTTALS & GUEST THOUGHTS – http://www.scriptmag.com/2010/12/04/primetime-living-in-l-a-submitting-to-websites-rebuttals-and-guest-thoughts/

    11/26/10 – SHOULD I SUBMIT A TV IDEA VIA A WEBSITE – http://www.scriptmag.com/2010/11/26/primetime-should-i-submit-a-tv-idea-via-a-website-also-my-glee-spec-needs-a-celebrity/#comments

    Thanks for posting, Fred– keep ’em coming!

    Chad

  8. Fred Bluhm

    Chad: Although I don’t live anywhere near LA or New York, I do live near Austin, TX , which has an excellent film community of its own. A few people I have spoken with who are affiliated with the Austin Film Society have suggested that, perhaps, instead of trying to get lucky and have my scripts actually read by a reader, I might try the contest route. I been told that even those who don’t finish first can get noticed, at times.

    I discovered your column on facebook a short time ago, so, if you’ve recently covered the advantages/disadvantages of entering contests, please let me know; I’ll be happy to check them out. Either way, I would be interested in your opinion.

    On another note: I’ve been writing for over 40 years now (AP, UPI, US OLympic Committee, Monday Night Football, etc.), and if I were to pass along any advice to a young writer, it would be to write because you love to write, not because you’re hoping to someday own a mansion in the Hollywood hills. And when you’re starting out as a writer, especially in the entertainment business, it’s much more important to get credit for your work than to worry about how much you’re going to get paid – although that’s nice too.

    I enjoy reading your articles, Chad; they’re informative and to the point. Kindest regards,

    Fred Bluhm
    San Antonio, TX

  9. Charlie

    Donald, ignoring the small-mindedness of your comment, the truth is being Jewish is often a detriment to trying to break into the television industry. Television staffs look to find as many diverse voices as possible. If an agent has a choice between representing an equally talented black woman or a white jewish man, the agent will choose the woman in a heartbeat.

    Being Jewish, and trying to break in as a writer, means you have to work twice as hard to differentiate yourself from the slew of other Jewish writers swimming in the same pool.

    It is true that there a disproportionate (to the general population) number of Jews working in the television industry. But it’s an industry that was built by Jewish immigrants. And while, at least in my experience, being Jewish doesn’t give you a leg up,
    coming across as anti-semetic will definitely minimize the already minuscule chance you have to “break in.”

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