So You Want To Be A Script Reader?


Do You Love Reading Screenplays?

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.

Script Coverage: What It Covers

The parameters rated include:

  • concept/ central theme – controlling idea
  • overall impressions
  • excitement over idea
  • 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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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy V says:

    This is a great insight into script reading — now I’m freelance I tend to do scripts in the order they come in, but when I was reading for literary agents (and if I do for for contests, still), I always look for a good title first. One disappointing factor I always find is how many writers rely on song lyrics for titles or the idea being really WEIRD is somehow enticing.

  2. jim says:

    what are the requirements to get hired as a reader?

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      There aren’t any formal pre-requisites other than a love of scripts. You will normally be given a test script to cover to see how your comments and grades rank against those of other readers. Try production companies, competitions and film funding bodies to name a few.

  3. Brian says:

    Great info on script reading professionally. I agree especially with the part about trying to understand the writer’s vision.

    The only thing I would add is, BRIDGE THAT GAP, if there is any, between what you interpret the screenwriter’s vision is, and what’s on the page.

    That is, if you’re reading scripts and providing coverage in order to help a screenwriter, be able to see what the writer’s getting at, and what’s actually written, and then provide specific steps or examples on how she can make that vision more likely to be understood by future readers of the script, who may not have the time, nor inclination, to “get inside the writer’s head.”

    Good stuff!
    Brian

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      thanks for the kudos. many readers won’t even read loglines because they believe that the script should stand on its own. i prefer them so I can assess whether the writer’s intention is met by the script. During the Hollywood Outreach Program, I’m asking writers to submit a one paragraph statement of intent to really help bridge what the writer wanted to achieve and what was actually achieved.

      Keep writing.

      Gideon

  4. I’d love to get into script reading – I read for my (theatrical) publisher and have taken the “Reading Scripts for Television ” course at The Script Factory. However, I have had almost no response from my query letters to local ProdCos here in Vancouver. Any tips on getting through the door?

    1. perhaps local writers’ groups.

  5. Robert says:

    Enjoyed your thoughts. Interesting comments especially your response to readers highjacking scripts.

    I’ve read that some readers are paid by the number of scripts read while others are salary. How does this work in the real world? I would think metrics on how many good scripts a reader unearths would be more relevant than how many consumed.

    1. T=he script reading world is a pantheon of interns, quacks, script consultants and analysts. There are a small proportion of story analysts employed by studios who work on salary. Their jobs range from analyzing the scripts the studio currently owns, what they want to place into turnaround and what they have been sent from agents and managers. The majority of script readers are paid on a per script basis. Depending on the quality of notes, fees range from $50 to $1000 per script. I’m not sure I agree that readers should be paid on how many good scripts they discover. They could have excellent skills but just been given average scripts to read.

      1. Robert says:

        I understand your contention. Why should a highly qualified script reader be penalized for the plethora of bad scripts in circulation? I’ve read numerous articles espousing the idea that in the past twenty years the quality of scripts has fallen drastically. Your blog is in the minority of sites acknowledging that some readers are less than perfect. So we have a perfect storm of bad scripts and poor readers.

        With so many poor quality scripts, as a reader how do you avoid a Pygmalion response to the next script that lands on your desk?

        If readers expect scripts to be of low quality and they are paid for each review without compensation or demerit for the success of their own discoveries however measured, then what incentive do readers have to find the next blockbuster?

        This brings to mind the initial plight of JK Rowling when she vetted her Harry Potter novel. All major publishing houses rejected it with some claiming that the work hadn’t an audience. Others were biased against her since this was her first work. The multimillion dollar mistake was remedied by a small publishing house that took on the project. The audience we later found out was just about everyone.

  6. Sara Spear says:

    Can I be a script reader, even while living in the midwest? How do I do that?

    1. Try approaching some script contests in the area.

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