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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, October 03, 2005

On Script Reading

Again, I must apologize for the lack of posting lately. Things have been really hectic and busy, and I will endeavor to post more frequently moving forward. Though with all the Jewish holidays coming up, who knows how successful I'll be at that. For any of my Jewish readers out there, Happy New Year!

That being said, I've been wanting to post on this topic for at least a week now, so figured this would be a good one to get started with. Probably the most frequent question I receive is about how to become a professional script reader. Specifically, Hollywood Grunt recently sent me the following email:

Just curious on how you got started as a reader. After talking with Scott the Reader, I think I'm going to try and see if I can't break into this racket. I have grown sick of the personal assistant routine, plus back in 2002-2003 I used to do coverage for several friends at CAA/ICM in exchange for all the free scripts I wanted.

Any helpful info would be much appreciated. For right now I'm grabbing 5 recent spec sales and doing coverage on them as samples.

He also posed a similar question (as he mentioned) to Scott the Reader. I suggest you first read Scott's response (and the ensuing comments), as I don't plan to repeat too many of his thoughts. Rather, I want to add a few things that might raise some other issues or supply some good tips to those of you considering trying your hand at this kind of work.

In no particular order, I'd like to discuss a few things, from how I became a reader, to some tips or suggestions.

First off, I've been a professional freelance script reader for a number of years now. The first thing I did was write up a sample coverage on a script I had lying around my apartment, so that I would have something to show people. In order to do this, I got a few examples of coverage from a friend of mine already employed in the job, so I could see the format of what these things looked like, and how they were written. As you may have seen from some of my screenplay reviews, there is a specific style of writing that goes into such reports. And the overall format, though varied from company to company, still has a number of basic elements in common.

Next, I started by cold-calling a bunch of production companies, big and small, around New York City (where I lived at the time). I asked to speak with someone in development, or in the story department. If I got to that person I spoke to them, if not I just spoke with whomever I could, and asked if they were hiring script readers. Many told me they read scripts in-house (which didn't work for me, since I wanted to freelance), and others told me they didn't pay readers (also not good for me, since I had already done free work in the past while working my way into the business in the first place). Others told me they didn't need anyone right then, but to send a resume and sample coverage in. I did.

Then I was politely persistent in checking in periodically to see if they had a use for me. "Hey, it's Joel Haber. We spoke previously about script reading work. I was wondering if you guys had any use for me at the current time." If not, not. Eventually, someone over at New Line said, "Why don't you come in and cover a script we have, and we'll go from there." So they first gave me a script that they were already familiar with to cover. This way they could see if my comments were more or less in line with what they already thought about it. I was willing to do this for free (though I can't recall if it actually was for free) as it was a one-time thing as a test. They liked what I had to say, and started bringing me in to pick stuff up periodically. As time went on, I gained more employers of various ilks. This came through word of mouth from my employers (they were good enough to pass my name along, even though I worked for them too), people I met via networking, or just by my contacting other people. Also, as time went on, people that knew me left and moved to other companies, which opened up other potential employers for me.

One of the things that helped me a lot was that people apparently felt I "wrote good coverage." At first, I found this kind of odd, since when I wrote coverage it was done so quickly, with almost no editing. So I never really thought of it as quality "writing." But I guess what I've come to realize over the years was that it was not necessarily how I said things that was good (though hopefully it was that too, since I think I'm a pretty good writer, in general), as what I said that was good. One of the small joys I would get was when a script I had read would be released as a film (often I had read it as a sample, and it was coming out for a different company than the one for whom I'd read it), my comments were usually pretty on the money. For example, I remember seeing The Mothman Prophecies come out. I had liked certain aspects of it, but had a number of problems with the script as written. The film, though probably profitable, was less than a stellar success. And when I read reviews of the completed film, many of the complaints that critics mentioned were the exact issues I had raised.

What else? Let's see... I've always worked as a freelance reader, part time. How part time it was has depended on what else was going on in my life. There were times when I read a lot, for many different companies, and there were times (such as now) when I only read a few properties a week. Overall, though, I really like the part time aspect of it for one major reason. I've met a number of people who used to read scripts at one time or another, and many of them told me about how they got "burnt out" on the reading in a year or less. But since I worked at it part time, and have always done other things at the same time (writing, teaching, etc), I have less of a tendency to get burnt out, since my mind is also occupied with other types of work. I highly recommend this.

What about the types of companies I've read for? I've read for larger production companies/studios (e.g. New Line), smaller, more specialized companies (e.g. Walden Media), artist-centric companies (e.g. Tribeca -- DeNiro), agencies (e.g. William Morris Agency), indie production houses (e.g. Shooting Gallery), foreign financing companies (e.g. Constantin), and festival screenplay competitions (e.g. Nantucket Film Festival). And of course, I also read on my own for writers, to give them specific feedback and suggestions on their work. It is worth noting that the job is somewhat different for each of these. For example, at an agency you will probably read more garbage, since less has been "weeded out" before it gets there. At least in theory, when a script comes to a production company, it has already gone through one round of weeding out at the agency level. For a screenplay competition, you will probably spend much less time on the "coverage" as it were, since you will not do a synopsis, and only the briefest of comments, in most cases. Accordingly, you will also be paid significantly less.

The synopsis often takes a lot more time and effort than the comments do. The comments have been in your head while you've been reading the script. They've been gestating and developing all along. But the synopsis takes time because you have to go back and make sure you hit the most important beats along the way. One thing I do sometimes, which saves a bit of time and effort, is to write my synopsis as I'm reading the script. Read a portion of the script, then stop to synopsize it, then move on to the next piece. That's something some of you thinking of going into this business should keep in mind.

Also be aware that this is not a high-paying job. My experiences are not much different from Scott's. Most companies pay $50-85 per script, with the average falling around $60, I'd say. You will get more money for an "overnight." Generally, whenever I pick up a script to read, no matter what time of day, the coverage is due 2 days later by 10 AM. So if I pick it up any time on Monday, it needs to be in on Wednesday at 10 AM. However, if the company tells me they want it by Tuesday AM, I get more money for it. Also, you will not only get scripts to read. I actually prefer books sometimes. You get paid more for them, generally speaking. The pay range here varies much more, but on average, Scott's figures are pretty accurate. I also prefer them because if I read a bad script, it is usually just bad. If I read a book however, even if it is not good to become a movie, at least it is usually a decent book, so I feel as if I didn't waste my time as much! I've also done coverage on many other types of work. I've covered TV movies for remake, comic books and graphic novels (fun!), magazine articles, stage plays, teleplays, manuscripts of unpublished books (both complete and works in progress), and treatments/proposals. What they all had in common, however, was that I was always considering these properties for their film potential, not was it a good book or article.

A few different experiences I've had from Scott... Firstly, I do get scripts emailed not infrequently. Though I live in LA now, I still read for the NY office of New Line (though I've met and done a bit of work for the LA office as well). They email scripts when they want me to cover them. But the bulk is still in hard copy. Also, in only a few rare cases have I done coverage for people I've never met. I'd say 2-3 of the companies I've worked for over the years. Usually, I meet the people, and generally I'm picking scripts up from them, not having them messengered to me. I'd say the only time this has happened to me regularly was with a very small company I worked for, where it wouldn't pay to make people come in to pick up one script a week or something.

Just a few more things. Firstly, I'd highly recommend doing your sample coverage(s) on scripts that are unpublished, and preferably unproduced or even unbought. This is because the bulk of your coverages will be PASSes, and also so that you can read the script with a clear and open mind, not biased by the fact that it has been purchased already. So Grunt, to you in particular (based on your email) I'd suggest not using the "recent spec sales" and instead getting your hands on a few that people give you. This does not mean they must be PASSes. In fact, I've often had people ask me for specific types of coverage. Either they want a specific genre or budget level, or they want both a PASS and a CONSIDER or even a RECOMMEND. So it is good to have a few around, if possible.

Also, I highly recommend the only book (that I know of) written specifically about doing this job. I read it before I started, and I always recommend it to anyone asking me about the job. It is called Reading for a Living and is by T.L. Katahn. It offers a great primer to the things to look for when covering a script, as well as some basics of coverage format.

I think that's about it for now. I hope this has been a helpful post for those of you thinking about joining the ranks of script reading. Overall, I highly recommend the job for anyone who wants to do anything in the film business. It really makes you think critically about films, and you don't just give things a thumbs up or thumbs down, but rather learn to pick scripts apart and really figure out what works and what doesn't. Feel free to post any follow-up questions!

And I'll try to get back to more frequent posts as well!

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21 Comments:

Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I actually jot down plot points when I am reading, so that it's easier for me not to forget anything when I knock out the synopsis later. It usually comes to about 3-6 pages, and even longer for books. It has gotten so second-nature to me that it doesn't really take any extra time.

6:23 AM  
Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Thanks for all these tips.
I want to use reading as a stepping stone to becoming a writing, like so many before me, and learning more ways to make this productive can never hurt.
Even though my location, Australia, makes it that extra bit difficult to get a job, I still enjoy reading scripts and hope to develop a more critical eye in analysing them.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Good post. Question.

How has being a reader helped your own writing?

Mark
Mark's Screenwriting Page

7:26 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Scott -- interesting. I may try that at some point. Leif -- right on and good luck. I definitely think that reading can make you a better writer, which brings me to Mark. Mark -- thanks for the question. You've just given me a new post topic! Look for it soon, hopefully! ;-)

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello.

I have worked off and on as a reader for 9 years with many similar experiences to Joel and Scott.

Almost all of my reading jobs at the 12 or so companies I worked for came from people I knew, or from recommendations from people I worked with.

I did,however, get one HUGE job from cold calling...and stupidly assumed I would be able to get another one with the same technique. Let me tell you, my friends, it's RARE!

To add to the discussion - I try to write the synopsis right after the read. If so, I can usually hit the broad strokes with a tidy 2 page summary very quickly.

However, if I wait, then I have to literally go back through the whole script while writing it up, which takes MUCH longer and produces a much longer synopsis. Ugh.

-Peter

11:46 PM  
Blogger Derek Rydall said...

Hi Folks, Derek Rydall here, commenting on "screenplay analysis" and script coverage, etc.

I'm glad to hear your comments, Joel. I'm a little confused by the positive responses from others like Scott the reader. I half expected Scott to get mad about the idea of you telling others how to become Script Readers.

Maybe I'm just misunderstanding the frustration that my previous posts brought up.

I think I mentioned that I have a book coming out on how to become a script consultant/reader, and be successful at it. It also goes into great detail about the process of in-depth script analysis, screenwriting principles, giving feedback, marketing, etc.

The reason I wrote it was because I had so many people ask me how I did it. Like Joel mentioned. And also because I had many bad experiences with Readers and Consultants, who didn't seem to know how to read and analyze a script any better than my mom.

And, finally, I wrote it because my experience as a script reader and consultant has improved my writing in quantum leaps.

I believe, like mentioned above, that when writers learn how to read scripts better, they learn how to write better scripts.

The book comes out November, but is on Amazon now. It's called:

"I Could've Written a Better Movie than that! How to Make 6-Figures as a Script Consultant -- Even if You're Not a Screenwriter."

For those writers who hear that last part and cringe...it's interesting to note that some of the very best and most successful script readers/teachers/consultants/gurus aren't screenwriters.

I would also love it if you guys would subscribe to my free newsletter, THE MUSELETTER. It's for screenwriters AND script readers/consultants, in an attempt to bridge the gap, improve the connections, and take writing, reading, and development in this town to a whole new level!

I know this feels like a shameless plug, but I don't know how else to tell you all about it without just telling you!

You can get it at ScriptwriterCentral.com www.scriptwritercentral.com

You can also get some free courses, like "7 Deadly Mistakes Screenwriters Make When Using a Script Consultant!"

www.dontgetscammedbyscriptconsultants.com

And "7 Power Principles to Explode Your Screenwriting Career!"

www.thewritesystem.com

And if you get a chance, check out my blogs -- which I'm just starting -- and continue this dialogue about script writing/reading and everything in between. And put a link back to all of your writing blogs -- so we can continue to expand the network and the knowledge everyone is sharing.

Thanks for having this forum, Joel...and for all the comments by everyone.

It's all very cool.

Have a great day.

Peace

Derek

12:17 AM  
Blogger writergurl said...

Joel,
Quick question, I notice a wide disparity between what is normally paid by the studios and what screenwriters "outside" the system pay for coverage. Why is that?

Is it because you already have an established relationship with the studios and they've done "some" vetting of the scripts sent to you, and you assume that they won't be as onerous a task to read as a script from someone swimming in the great unwashed?

Or is it simply capitalism at it's best?

12:52 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

No offense Derek, but could you at least keep your shameless plugs to shorter comments? You don't see me over on your site advertising my script reading services, do you? Thanks.

WriterGurl -- in honesty, to a large degree it is, as you call it, capitalism at its best. The reading one does for a company is simply for the purpose of passing stuff along/weeding out crap. The companies will not pay a lot when there is such a high volume of scripts coming through, and the task is less significant. Whereas, when we read for individual writers, it is usually a one-time/occasional thing, and is also of higher value to the person who hires us. I think that's fair. Do you?

12:59 AM  
Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Derek, I support Fun Joel because he's not a shameless hustler, or a guy like you whose "staff credits" seem awfully similar to his own; he's one guy, helping people. Plus he charges less than you do.

Meanwhile, you come along like you are trying to figure out how to shake every last dollar out of people, for mentors and life coaches and other nonsense like that.

$347 for 3-5 pages of story notes, without even a phone call? You ought to be ashamed of taking advantage of aspiring writers. I hope you at least give them a kiss when you are done.

1:19 AM  
Blogger writergurl said...

Joel,
I have no doubt that you give good value for your services. Please don't think that I'm singling YOU out for any reason. Your prices are very much in line (and I think sometimes better) than other services that offer coverage such as Script Shark and Bender Spink. I'm not complaining at all. I asked you because it's the topic of your post and I thought you would answer honestly.

Thanks for answering my question!

Oh, and don't be surprised if you get a request for coverage from me. ;)

4:05 AM  
Blogger Danny Stack said...

I won a BBC new writing award last year and I think I won because of what I learnt (and am still learning) as a script reader. Not that my script was perfect but it was well-written, and now it's in development. Huzzah.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Derek Rydall said...

Hi Joel and scott -- and everyone else.

Derek Rydall here.

First, I want to say sorry Joel for writing long blogs. Honestly I didn't mean it to be a plug. I just really wanted to start a dialogue in various places, and I actually wouldn't mind you going on my blogs and talking about what you're up to and if you have a book or something. In fact, I would probably put it in my newsletter.

I look at it like this: supporting each other makes us all stronger, not weaker.

And I would totally understand if you just deleted my comments -- for whatever reason. Again, sorry.

As for Scott...whoa, man, I'm pretty shocked by your contempt for me. (Or so it sounds). Maybe you've misunderstood my posts, or maybe I'm just not communicating well.

I thought I was conveying a different tone than a 'shameless hustler.' That's really not my intention AT ALL.

And as far as trying to shake every lost dollar out of writers, that's a pretty strong accusation.

Whatever service I offer is based on writers (and non-writers) telling me what they wanted and needed -- none of it was created in a vaccum.

I, like Joel, am also trying to help people. That's why I give away lots of free stuff. Stuff that I spent a LOT of time creating.

To be frank, I feel unfairly judged by you, Scott, without really getting the benefit of getting to know me. But if that's the way these blogs go...so be it.

I won't defend these positions anymore. It would be realy cool if you refrained from attacking and instead dialogued about constructive ideas. Ideas that could take this field of writing and script development to a whole new level.

Anyway, take care.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

WriterGurl -- glad you agree about my prices. I put a lot of thought into the setting them, balancing the "market rate" against the value of my time and the fact that most developing writers (much like myself) are relatively poor and can't afford super expensive services. And you can always count on honesty from me! ;-) I took no offense, and I look forward to reading your script, should you decide to use my services!

Danny -- awesome! Congrats. Hopefully my reading experiences will have the same effect when I start putting my scripts out there! ;-)

Derek -- if you honestly want your comments (they aren't "blogs" by the way) to "start a dialogue" and not be seen as shameless plugs, I would suggest you keep comments focused on the specific post topic, and not repeat a number of times that you have a book and/or website etc. We all know how to click through your name to reach your site. That should be enough. If your comments interest us enough to find out more about you and/or your blog and/or your website and services, we'll get there via your name.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Derek Rydall said...

Hi Joel,

Fair enough response.

I really am new at this particular way of communicating online...and have clearly mixed up the difference between telling people who I am and what I'm about...versus just commenting on the topic at hand.

Again, sorry (to all who felt annoyed by my previous posts)...and thanks for the patience and understanding.

Peace

12:14 AM  
Blogger Janelle said...

I read too and the synopsis is such a bust! I really should start doing it as I'm reading but i like to get the gist of the story first. I also teach and write. So i think coverage is a great part time job for the freelance type of person who wants to be some sort of writer. teaching writing and reading scripts all seem to combine to make the perfect career.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy, for a bunch of so-called writers, I really do worry about the grammar factor!

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joel,

Thank you for sharing this info. I just took a class on script reading, and your comments agree with and enhance what the instructor had to say yesterday. One difference / question - the instructor indicated that we should choose recent successful films (not sequels, remakes or animations) from which to do our samples; however, you indicate unpublished / unproduced work is best. What you have to say makes a lot of sense, as I think it would be hard to cover a successful film without bias. Do you have any recommendations on how someone not already in the industry can obtain a couple of unpublished scripts? Thanks again!

6:47 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey there, Anon!

Good question. You have a few options...

You can participate in online forums at such sites as Wordplayer and John August's blog (or is it at the Artful Writer, I forget -- certainly one of them has forums). Talk to other developing writers and see if maybe you can trade notes on scripts.

Another option is to make use of the sites that actually foster the exchange, and mutual critique, of amateur screenplays. Specifically there is TriggerStreet and Coppola's Zoetrope. Just Google them.

Lastly, you might be able to find a writing group that is completely "virtual," with online meetings only. If you participate in one like that, you might be able to get your hands on a colleague's screenplay.

Hope that helps!

J

6:53 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Patricia said...

Joel,

I am a new remote script intern (for two studios currently), and am also trying to freelance.

From what I'm experiencing, it appears there's quite a bit of a barrier to getting paid to read, mainly b/c studios don't want to pay for what they can get for free.

I also realize it will take time, experience, and the right kinds of contacts, but it can get discouraging.

You've mentioned how you made cold calls to get your foot in the door, but do you have other recommendations (while remaining positive about it all)? Thanks again!

Best,
Patricia
The Scriptologist of Doom

6:06 PM  
Blogger hershychocolate said...

Hi,

This is a bit of a different question/request, but hopefully you have some advice. It's also a bit long, sorry about that, but please stick with me.

I'm actually currently an undergrad at the University of Michigan. I'm a public policy major - and my focus up until now has been politics and journalism. Movies have been something I've loved, and always wanted to be part of, but nothing I ever thought I could make it in. I've recently been wanting to try this path out and see if it's something I could be successful in. I love to write and read, and working with script has been one of the big things I want to learn about and pursue.

I'm still young, so I'm not necessarily looking for a way to become a professional script reader, but I was hoping for some recommendations on what types of things I can do to just learn about the job and develop the skills needed. This is completely new to me - I don't know what the process is. Yours and Scott's response was very helpful, and going off of that I had some questions.
I mainly want to take this time to understand what reading script and then writing up covers entails. Like maybe read a script a week and write it up for practice - not looking to get paid, or even to do it as a job. But to learn the know how and see if it's something I'm good at. My questions were, where do I get started? How do I go about finding scripts to read? And how do I learn what type of format and writing a cover is? I'm looking for some examples that I can analyze and use as guidance moving forward. The University of Michigan does have a pretty big film department, so I'm not sure if I should start there?

I currently write for the opinion page of the school newspaper - and I really enjoy that. But that is of course a very different type of writing. I want to experiment in the field of script as well. I grew up with Bollywood and movies and stories. I want to add a creative touch to what I end up doing as a career, and so I want to see if film and script might be a better path. Thank you so much for all your help!

8:52 PM  

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