Monday, November 7, 2011

The last word on "How Can I Become a Script Reader?"

In the nearly three years I've run this blog, one question has been submitted more frequently than any others: "How can I become a script reader?"  I've run several blog posts covering this question from many angles and yet I rarely go long without getting an email that asks this question.  From now on, unless I have a compelling reason to give more of an answer, I'm just going to reply to that question with a link to this page.  

So how can I become a script reader?

I'll direct you to this post where I talk about my history and how I got the job.  As several years have passed, things have doubtlessly changed, but the important detail to understand is that it's rare to get hired right out of college as a script reader.  At the risk of sounding someone pretentious, Script Reader isn't a job you "get," it's a job you "earn."  Get a job that puts you in contact with people who need scripts read, then offer to do coverage on the side for them.  If you want to be a Script Reader, don't be above taking a "lowly" PA job, particularly an Office PA job.

What education should I get in order to be a better reader?

Watch movies, read scripts.  That's essential.  Don't just watch/read good movies, but do the same for bad ones and attempt to understand why they're bad.  I also highly recommend reading reviews.  When I was in college, I visited Roger Ebert's website several times a week and I learned a lot about the art of criticism just from reading his takes on films.  I didn't always agree with him - but it was almost always informative to read why he thought what he thought.

There were also two other reviewers whose work I devoured in those days.  Tim Lynch was a major internet reviewer in the Star Trek world during the late 90s.  Though he'd been mostly retired by the time I stumbled onto his review archive, I found his reviews of Deep Space Nine so insightful about the show and TV writing in general that I made it a point to read the corresponding review before revisiting any of those episodes in syndication or DVD.  It was like a master class in both criticism and TV writing.

Another Trek reviewer who always left me with a lot to think about is Jamahl Epsicokhan aka "Jammer."  He covered most of the modern Trek series and Battlestar Galactica.  If none of those shows floats your boat, that's cool.  The net is full of quality reviewers out there, so find something you're passionate about and see if there's a reviewer who inspires you to think deeper about what you watch.

Are there many jobs out there?  How can I get hired? How much does script reading pay?

If you're looking to be a full-time script reader, completely supporting yourself just on that job, I'm going to tell you it's very difficult. It used to be that some production companies I've worked for had a script reader on salary.  They'd pay a weekly rate and that reader would get a relatively consistent workload.  Those guys had the security of knowing they'd be able to pay their bills each week.

Far more common is an arrangement where the reader is paid per script.  This rate varies.  Most reputable companies should be paying at least $50 a script, but it's not entirely unheard of to get more, like $70 a script for basic coverage.  So if you read ten scripts a week (hardly an impossible task), you could pocket between $500-$700.

That's not too bad.  So what's the problem?

The problem is that for the last three years, companies have been cutting back.  As you can see, a reader who covers 2-3 scripts a day is costing the company about the same amount as a full-time assistant.  When the pennies get pinched, that becomes an unnecessary expense.  Thus, a lot of companies have started farming out work to freelance readers only when absolutely necessary and have forced the assistants to do a lot more of the reading. The reason for this should be obvious - the assistants are already on salary and they aren't paid extra for these additional coverages. Make an assistant take those extra two scripts a day and the company has just saved the cost of an entire person's salary.

Most readers I know have to read for more than one company.  When I got started, I was more than secure just with one company.  I picked up a second gig just for security and that was a perfect arrangement because when one office was light, I knew I had the safety net of another.  As work dwindled, I did my best to pick up other gigs.  At one point I was juggling work from four different companies.  Some weeks they all had enough to keep me busy, but there were times where I found all of those employers to be light on work.

Reader jobs as they were when I got started no longer exist.  If you want to really make it climbing the ladder this way, set your sites on an assistant job and try to climb the ranks in development as a development assistant or a story editor.  Long-term, that's a far wiser strategy.

So how can I be a script-reader without living in NYC or LA?

Are you daft?

Look, I get that the fantasy is that in the age of the internet, everyone can sit on the toilet with their iPads in their laps and do their jobs from anywhere.  There might even be some readers who've managed to move out of LA and continue their jobs - but they almost certainly built relationships in the business first and made a reputation for themselves by actually being in LA.

If you want to work for an agency and a production company, you're almost certainly going to have to physically be here.  The only way I ever see getting past that is if you've got an impressive resume that backs up your coverage skills.  Usually the person asking the question above is someone fresh out of college or someone slightly older who's settled into a "real" job and life and wants to work for Hollywood without uprooting.

I don't see it happening.  I'm sorry to be that blunt, but that's what my experience tells me.

But I saw an ad for Film Festivals and Screenwriting Contests who are looking for readers who can submit coverage over the internet!  You're a liar!

I consider most of those jobs beneath my notice.  Contests really don't pay much at all, and they're seasonal so it's nothing even close to a permanent solution.  At best, you'll get coverage experience you might be able to parlay into another gig.  Most of those places underpay so hideously that I think it undervalues the entire coverage process.  I know of a place that paid $30 for two-pages of synopsis and 2-3 pages of notes.  For that level of work anything less than $50 is taking advantage

There are some competitions where all you have to do is fill out a score sheet and you'll get paid maybe $10-20 a script.  That's not taking advantage quite as much, but still... what are you getting out of that?  Most contest submissions are crap and a real pain to read.  You can always learn something from bad writing, but after a few contest scripts, you'll often cease to see anything of value.

If you had to start all over again, would you pursue being a reader?

As I indicated, I'd make more of an effort to stay on the development track and rise within a company.  It's a really bad time to try to break into reading. The jobs aren't out there, the workload is shrinking and you're competing with guys like me who have a lot more experience. Reader jobs tend to go to people who have already made contacts in the business and guys like me are always looking for additional freelance assignments. If you don't have any contacts in the business yet, it's going to be hard to break into this end of it.

1 comment:

  1. One word: interns.

    I've interned (for free) for several different production / management companies, where the usual job was coverage. Two page synopsis, one page notes.

    It was long hours. Tiresome. Not fun. I've been doing it for a year. Now am temp-PAing while writing my own scripts.

    Matter of fact, I got two coverages due Wednesday. A new script and...a rewrite for my last one!

    Aw, shucks.