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.
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?
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.