How I Became a Reader
Q: How did you become a professional reader?
I'm sure this is addressed somewhere in the ether of this blog, but to save the several people who asked this question from rustling around the cellar, I'll retackle it here, with lots of new stuff.
When I was a young boy, my friend Glen's older brother had every single Hardy Boys book ever written. Glen was too afraid to read them (he was under the odd impression that they were scary), but I picked up the first one, and absolutely devoured the rest. There were probably about 50 of them.
That was about 20 years before I ever read a script professionally, but I think that set the basis for everything. Because loving to read is key. I went on from there to devour things like the Wizard of Oz series (there are a lot of those, too), the Danny Dunn books, the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series. I even read my sister's Judy Blume books.
Fast-forward into my 20s. Armed with a useless English degree from a large eastern university (the State University of New York at Stony Brook), I was managing a movie theater when I met the friend of a friend, who was working up samples to try to get a script reading job. This was the first I had ever heard of the profession, and it sort of blew my mind. That job exists?
Someone will pay you to read?
Plus, not only was I a guy who read a lot, I was an avid filmgoer. As a theater manager, I probably saw 150 movies a year, and paid for about 10. I had a card that got me in free to any theater in our chain, plus even rival movie theater managers would let each other in for free.
And I liked to write. I even wrote a rambling column for my college paper, that if there had been things like blogs back then, would certainly have been a blog instead.
And that's the skillset for being a professional reader. You need to love to read. You need to be able to put down your thoughts in a concise matter. You need to like and understand movies, and what will work, and what won't, and why.
(And doing it all quickly enough to make it worth your time helps too. If you can't read a script and churn out coverage in 3 hours or less, it's going to be tough to make a decent living at it).
So, anyway, I learned this job existed, thought it was amazing, but I lived on Long Island. The friend of a friend was visiting from L.A., where most of the reading jobs are. So it wasn't a job that was in the cards for me at that point. (It wasn't for him either; he didn't get the gig. But he is now a well-paid location guy, so it worked out).
Eventually I moved into Manhattan. I managed movie theaters there, and while doing that I also met a guy who got me a gig reading plays for Broadway's Circle in the Square theater. They didn't pay me, but they gave me a ton of free tickets to Broadway shows, which was very cool.
I used samples from that to get a part-time gig reading scripts for New Line, before they moved out to Los Angeles and took the reading work with them. I also got a gig working for HBO-NYC, which eventually turned into a very full-time job; for a while I was their only reader, and often had an ongoing pile of about 15 things on my desk, that would keep being replaced as I knocked them off. HBO was generally getting submitted very good stuff, too, so as a reading job that was about as good as one got.
I had still been working as a theater manager, but as the reading gig got fulltime, I was able to escape that job. I was a professional reader.
When one of the execs from HBO went over to Miramax, I started reading for Miramax, too. When I moved out to L.A. in 1998, Miramax fed me reading work out of the L.A. office, as well as continuing to give me books from New York; I'd just pick them up at the library, or if necessary, at the bookstore.
As Miramax ebbed, and flowed, I picked up jobs for other companies to supplement that job, and with Miramax falling apart (they shut down their development long before the eventual Disney divorce) I have come to rely on these other companies. I'm currently juggling work from four good-sized production companies, plus a few others that very occasionally throw me work, plus my $60 notes stuff.
Sometimes a company won't give me anything for weeks, and sometimes all of a sudden I'll get buried in work, which generally all has to be turned around in a few days. Extreme unpredictability is part of the job. So is getting a lot done on weekends -- 9 to 5 this isn't. Friday night, stuff will roll in -- maybe 2 scripts, maybe 10, maybe 3 books and 4 scripts -- and most of it needs to be done by Monday morning.
The major studios employ union readers (which pays well, and they get benefits), but it's pretty impossible to get into the union. So I'm freelance, which sucks on a lot of levels. I always have to hustle for work, I have to pay for my own medical insurance, and the self-employment taxes are brutal. No paid vacations, no sick days.
Plus I have no time, or inclination, to do any leisure reading at all. And it's a bitch trying to write your own stuff, when you have about 15 scripts/books a week clogging up your brain. (Though that has been incredibly educational as well).
But no punching a clock, either. If I want to read out by the pool, or in a coffee shop, or while eating lunch at Denny's, or while riding an exercise bike, I can. I can generally arrange my schedule the way I want to, while now that diet and exercise is a priority, that works for me as well -- I have a kitchen full of healthy food, and there is a gym in the complex.
And I'm making connections in the business. Which someday will serve me well as a writer.
And there are signs that the geography of the job is changing, too -- more and more, I'm getting scripts e-mailed to me. There may be a time when readers won't need to live in Los Angeles at all, though currently there is still a lot of messengering, and still some driving on my part to pick up work. Thankfully, most of the people I work for are centralized in Burbank, about 10 miles east by freeway.
A lot of people are shocked that I can read as much stuff as I do, and still stay sane. But I love my job. I love picking up a script, and hoping it's great, and sometimes it is. I love getting paid to read books that I would have read for nothing, or to read the manuscript of something by a name writer that won't even be in bookstores for 6 months. It helps balance off the eye-rolling drek, or the pure mediocrity that makes up most of the reading.
So the job isn't for everyone. To anyone considering this as a possible career, again, you have to love to read, you have to be able to write quickly and concisely, you have to love movies and be able to judge stories. And you have to not let all the bad writing drive you crazy. And living in Los Angeles is still pretty much a requirement, though there is still a little reading work in Manhattan.
But so far, so good. 9,222 coverages, and counting...