a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, April 28, 2006

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...


At 1:06 PM, Blogger Twixter Scripter said...

Great Post. Thanks Scott.

I was curious about the profession myself and I came across a LA Times article that may be of interest to aspiring readers.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Lucy said...

I'll second all that. I found script reading meant I didn't have to live in London, which was great - I was a single Mum then and that's pretty scary. I love script reading - alot of my work comes from writing training organisations and courses, so I feel like I'm making a difference to writers. Plus reading gets you contacts. I've probably made more contacts reading and living in the middle of nowhere now than I ever did in the metropolis.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

Thanks for covering this for us, Scott!

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Optimistic_Reader said...

Thanks for this Scott - really interesting to see that things aren't really that different for script readers over the pond! I've also found the contacts made through script reading are great for my own writing. There are some useful perks too, like getting tickets to free screenings or masterclasses. Still, it isn't a full time job for me and I think in the UK it is still very difficult to live off script reading or script editing alone.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger Milehimama said...

Wow, you give me hope. The central question of my life has been, "How can I get paid for reading in my jammies?"
And, "How can I get paid for hanging out at Starbucks?"
Nice to know someone else read all the OZ books too- it's hard to watch the movie, because I know what "really" happened.
Maybe, someday, in a land over the rainbow I'll be a reader too.

At 9:11 PM, Blogger Belzecue said...

Hey Scott --

Screenplay pages are lifeblood for screen scribes -- a writer has too much of 'a life' who glances at a page and does NOT think about whitespace, margins, capitalize that? shorten this? etc.

So I still feel a pang of envy reading about your reader job. BUT, I know if I were reading professionally I'd work at glacial speed, and I'd want to rewrite as I went along, no matter that it's somebody else's pages!

But here's the thing... are you at all concerned about getting sued by another writer in the event you sell your own script and it's a hit with audiences? Lawsuits are a given soon as a movie crosses 100 million at the BO. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of the pie, and everyone crawls out from under their rock to claim it.

This would be in the back of my head if I were to begin reading professionally. Sure, there are the usual industry waivers that writers give to permit their screenplays being read by prodco's, promising not to sue in the event of the prodco producing similar material, but that rarely stops a lawsuit if a writer strongly believes they've been ripped off (and we all know that what seems like a rip-off can turn out to be a total unrelated conincidence).

Not trying to put the heebie-jeebies on you or anything :-) but have you wondered if being a reader makes you a bigger bullseye in that way?

I've never heard of a reader-turned-writer getting sued for this reason, so perhaps this is not an issue at all.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

9,222 - Dang!

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I tend to write scripts that have an odd premise and go on from there.

I suppose it's possible that I could accidentally steal an idea of someone else's that I read. But you know what? If the original writer filed a lawsuit, and I pulled the old coverage and saw that he was right and that there were overwhelming similarities, then I fucked up, and as far as I'd be concerned the script would be his.

But I don't see that scenario happening.

At 2:06 AM, Blogger Lucy said...

Alot of clients ask me about confidentiality, copyright etc and I always tell them: in the UK at least, it's not possible to copyright an idea. So if I was an EVIL script reader, in theory, yes - I could steal their idea. However, would I want to? 9.5/10 I really wouldn't - it might be because it's a premise or genre I don't relate to or because I don't LIKE the idea! Besides anything, films can have the same idea and be v different - look at RESIDENT EVIL and 28 DAYS LATER: both apocalyptic, killer virus, zombie-seige style movies. I think this is why you never hear of readers getting sued for this type of thing...No one KNOWS, even the reader, since by the time a single thread of an idea has turned into a big cobweb of one, it's become something completely different, ergo it's a different script.

If that makes sense!

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Belzecue said...

Lucy, Scott -- yeah, didn't mean to imply a deliberate plot theft by Scott! Obviously that wouldn't be the case.

I can't locate the quote, but I remember Spielberg talking about his idea of a 'global idea bank' (not his words) and how ideas are floating around up there ripe for the plucking. He was marvelling at the number of times he'd worked on a film idea only to have a very similar concept pop up with another filmmaker, and he would have to abandon his work.

I totally get that -- has happened to me, too, and I'm sure many other scribes can raise their hand. Coincidence and synchronicity is everywhere, and unfortunately it leads to lawsuits when one writer's project beats another's to the projection booth. I guess it's hard to accept it was just bad luck and that some other writer got their hands on that 'global idea' before you did.

Also, I like to think about screenwriting the same way we look at science: each new thing stands on the shoulders of those that came before. No new plots, just new ways of arranging who stands on who's shoulders.

The recently concluded Da Vinci Code lawsuit is an interesting case on topic.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Nevada Yim said...

Awesome read and a good nudge at a work many have no clue exists.


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