So You Want To Be A Script Reader?

Posted on June 19, 2010

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Being a script reader is one of the most common ways for writers to enter the industry, either as a screenwriter or development executive. Many companies hire interns for the summer (or longer) to read scripts for them.

All studios and major producers have trained paid readers on staff. They are a filter to sort out viable scripts. Becoming a reader is a perfect way to legitimately read a large quantity of scripts (albeit most of them rubbish) in search of the gold nugget that will become a hit.

Becoming a reader also gives you a feel for the types of scripts currently circulating, as well as exposing you to a variety of writing styles, genres and concepts. Call it immersion therapy.

Pretty soon, you’ll get piles (of scripts). Normally, I advise reading one to two scripts a day.  Allocate two to three hours per script to really get a feel for it. I remember speaking to a former Paramount executive who claimed to have read fourteen scripts each weekend for ten years so they can be discussed in Monday’s story meeting.

Your colleagues may give you a brief for the type of script they seek. It may be a general  brief looking for “good writing”, they may be looking for a suitable script for a particular actor or director, a particular genre, or even something more obscure, such as a “talking dog” script because they happen to know one.

It has been argued that readers for studios and competitions differ. Some claim that because studio readers may not even finish a script, they only read the dialogue and expect it to be as on the nose as possible to follow the plot and characterization.

Choosing the order to read scripts is like window shopping. You don’t want to go inside a store unless you’re positive there’s something inside you want to buy. You make an educated guess. You step inside and look around. What’s the stock like, the layout, the decor, the background music, the music, the lighting, the staff, is it crowded? Do you visit every department or browse everything? Or do you leave?

The first thing I look for in a script is the title. Many writers consider it an after thought, but it’s vital to me. First impressions count. Then I look at page count (ideally around 100 pages), spacing (lots of white) and general format. Then I read the first page or two. Much like a first date, you have made a decision about a second date very early on.

Overall, the main things to consider when reading scripts are: concept, synopsis and evaluation.

You will generally have a grid system to rate each script on a number of parameters. This is called COVERAGE and is usually one to two pages long. I use a ten point scoring range to separate the good from the bad scripts.

The parameters rated include:

  • concept/ central theme – controlling idea
  • overall impressions
  • originality
  • marketability/ audience
  • execution of story/ story logic/ clarity
  • tone
  • pacing
  • first ten pages
  • structure
  • dialogue
  • character development
  • format/ presentation

You may have a chance for open ended comments afterwords. This is not a forum for readers (aka frustrated screenwriters) to unleash their vitriol on their colleagues. Be constructive. I’ve scolded readers for writing emotive statements like “the worst script I’ve ever read” without qualifying the statements with constructive arguments.

Finally you rate each script overall as either a pass, recommend or consider (red, green or yellow light). Even if you pass on a script, you may consider the writer for other assignments.

Since script coverage is largely subjective, I advise being as objective as possible, even if you hate the material.

Do you get what the screenwriter has written? If something is literal, tongue in cheek, satirical, or metaphorical, be professional enough to be aware of it. You’d be surprised at how many readers aren’t.

Try to understand and appreciate the writer’s vision. There is nothing worse than a reader hijacking your script with their version of how the script should unfold. This is a deal breaker for me. I’ve demanded many heads on a stick when I see this and specifically request the reader be fired. Unless they’re purchasing your script, a reader is acting inappropriately and amateurishly. This is different to making occasional constructive suggestions where there are plot holes.

Approach the script with broad brush strokes. I always request a logline and a one paragraph synopsis to prime me. I know what I’m looking for.

Respect the writer’s voice. Many producers are looking for uniqueness, sensitivity and authenticity. Passing on a ghetto script just because the language is foul and/or incomprehensible is unprofessional.

Another pet peeve of mine, is executives picking up on cultural spelling differences such as “mom” and “mum”. Oh, please. Unless you really don’t know what something means, get over it and consider the script in terms of the big picture.

So get out there and read some scripts.

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