Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Story Vault: How to be a Reader

Of course, you could always check out a post from the past while I'm busy doing script reports. As the blog readership steadily grows (recently passed 100,000 hits, thanks for reading!), a lot of you will have missed some of my musings and rumblings in what I'm calling my 'story vault' area.

And so, here's one from last October: how to be a script reader. Even though it's linked at the side, it's still the most commonly asked question I receive in emails, bribes and shady brown envelopes. So here it is again:

"The role of a script reader is a thankless and anonymous task but every production company will tell you that they are vital to the submission pile and to some extent, the development process. Producers and development executives simply don’t have the time to read every script that comes in the door and they rely squarely on the reader’s report and recommendation.

All the readers I know or have met are usually involved in the industry in another similar respect, such as script editor or writer, so they have a full and frank appreciation of what a screenplay should epitomise. These are the readers who are consistently regarded and relied upon because the other readers who come and go are invariably interns or people looking to get to the next stage of their career or wannabe writers who want to read just a couple of scripts and then go on their way.

To be a reputable script reader, it takes more than attending a course about ‘how to read a script’ and a bit more dedication than reading for a few weeks just to get the hang of it and make a few contacts. Readers new to the process have complained to me that it takes up too much time and it pays too little (roughly about four hours’ work @ £40 a script). And others moan that they’ve read too much that week but the scripts still keep on coming.

Well, it does take up time and it does pay whack but the execs have a never ending spec pile that needs to get covered, so the work has to be done regardless of who does it. They don’t care as long as the script gets read but they’ll always lean on the more reliable readers if someone’s going to let them down.

I’ve received a few emails lately about how to become a script reader in this country. Fun Joel and Scott the Reader have written excellent posts about how to become a reader (check the links) and even though they are writing with an American slant, what they say is pretty much how it pans out here in the UK.

Still, it seems worth repeating, so I thought I’d reiterate here but make it more interesting by explaining how I did it:-

I had done a lot of sitcom and sketch reports in my job at the Channel 4 comedy dept but when I left, I asked an assistant at Film4 if I could read a couple of feature scripts so I could assemble ‘sample coverage’. I then wrote to a number of production companies around town asking if I could read for them. I didn’t hear back from a lot of them, and I got rejections from most. Now while I was lucky to have the Film4 contact from my Channel 4 job, no-one else in the film industry had a clue who I was, so what I was doing was no different if I was straight off the ferry from Ireland.

One of Tiger Aspect Pictures’ readers left to do some other job and my letter (actually it was an email) managed to land just at the right time. They were fresh from their Billy Elliot success and were receiving a lot of submissions. I met the Head of Development and she gave me a regular supply of 4-6 scripts to read a week, and the occasional book. They produced Billy Elliot with Working Title 2 and said they’d recommend me to them as ‘there was always a lack of good readers’.

After a while, I couldn’t afford to live on Tiger Aspect’s scripts alone so I contacted WT2 myself and again, the luck of the Irish, one of their readers had taken a job on Ali G’s film so they needed someone else. Me!

I then went for a development assistant job at Miramax which I didn’t get but I cheekily suggested that I script read for them instead and they said ‘yes’. Working Title then recommended me to Pathé Pictures and I read for their acquisition and development departments - the acquisition stuff giving me a chance to read the classier style of script, or at least, the ones that were actually getting made.

All of this meant that I was (am) at home a lot of the time, reading scripts and scribbling reports (not to mention writing my own scripts). Because of my passion and obsession with everything to do with screenwriting, this work came fairly easily to me. Sure, it was frustrating and lonely at times but all the while I knew it was worth it for the sake of my own writing and to maintain a continual source of active contact with the industry, however minimal.

It is this type of dedication and commitment that execs and producers are after with their readers. They want people who know how to read a script and more importantly, they like readers who can articulate a synopsis with insightful comments to match. They don’t want glib, dismissive, cynical or superficial reports that bring more attention to the reader rather than the script they’re covering. It’s all about the script, and is the writer worth a mention. The reader remains thankless, anonymous and on to the next script.*

I was extremely lucky to get the Film4 samples done but if you don’t have this kind of access to the industry, it can still be done with the right approach and - cliché police, pull over - being at the right time at the right place. My best advice to someone who wants to be a reader and has no prior experience is to approach agents and/or production companies, and offer to read their scripts free for two weeks. This will give you enough time to gather a range of sample script reports. After that, the production companies may pay you to continue reading for them (agents won't) and if they don't, you'll be able to approach other pro co's with your sample reports in hand.

But if you’re thinking it’ll be a cool gig for a week or month or two, then you’re better off trawling through Drew’s Script-o-Rama for the research you’re after. As a regular reader, you’ll find yourself unwittingly sucked into the routine of dropping off scripts/picking them up. It’ll seem never ending, it’ll sometimes feel not worth it, but for those dedicated to the craft of screenwriting, there’ll be no other option than to continue to read the good, the bad and the ugly. Authors read books, musicians read music, scriptwriters and script editors should read scripts, wherever they can find them.

*Occasionally, the production company may take you to lunch or have drinks with you & the other readers to thank you for all your hard work, so it’s not all bad, and of course, they are pleasant and courteous whenever you drop in. Working Title are the only ones who actually give us poor sods Christmas presents - shame on the rest of you!


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything except would argue Screenwriters should read books. Probably more of them.

Danny Stack said...

Oh yes, I was taking that as a given. However, once you do become a regular reader, reading books for pleasure becomes a rarity. That's not a good sentence there for R's.

Lucy V said...

Tell me about. I waited for AGES for the sequel to a "A Star Called Henry": it came out for Xmas last year ("Oh, Play That Thing"), my husband bought it for me as a present - and it's stayed on my bookcase, spine unbroken. Shame, but after reading scripts it all day suddenly it seems like a busman's holiday! One day...

Anonymous said...

I'm throwing this one in - maybe as an anonymous vote Danny - 'Who would writers like to see as new Head of Development at the UK Film Council...(and why)?'

Lucy V said...

I think Danny should be Head of Development at The Film Council. I'm serious and not kissing ass! He's got flair and knows the pain of actual screenwriting - if more Dev Execs did, perhaps Development Hell wouldn't be so frequent...?

Anonymous said...

hear hear!

Danny Stack said...

Eh? Me do what? Ha, nice one!