Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How do readers get hired and do they get in trouble for recommending scripts that bombed?

Glenn asks:

I'm curious how studios, production companies, etc. hire script readers they feel have the skill set to determine film worthy material verses those readers that are more apt to be relegated to second-tier screenwriting competitions. I often hear about interns and fresh out of film school students getting these positions in both venues so what sets a good reader from a mediocre one? Beyond the years of experience and who you have worked for, how does someone with a high level of expertise get hired? Does anyone ever track or question the number of films a reader placed under a recommend or consider status that made money verses those that bombed? 

Let me clear up something here - if interns are ever reading anything, it comes from the slush pile and from the lower-priority scripts that aren't expected to be any good.  The stuff that comes in from the reputable agents always goes to the execs, their assistants and the experienced readers.  The interns and the PAs who are new to the biz usually cut their teeth on that lesser priority stuff.  In my direct experience, the execs these interns/PAs are reporting to will usually mentor them and help them learn the ropes of writing coverage.

Agencies have their own methods of training their mailroom employees.  I can't speak to that too directly, but again, they're not reading the priority material.

How does someone with a high level of expertise get hired?  The same way they get hired for any job.  Job postings go out, assistants and readers with some experience under their belt send out resumes, have their personal references call in, and so on.  Often the company will want to see some coverage samples.

This also sometimes leads to something I really hate, which is when the person doing the hiring hands you a script and says, "We'd like you to do coverage on this script."  I get the logic behind this - they'd like to see how you break down a script that they already know so they've got a good way to size up how well you are at accurately summarizing a screenplay and giving insightful comments on it.

On the other hand, you're basically asking the person to do for free something that they'd get paid for.  You wouldn't hire an assistant by having them come in for a day or two and run the desk for free, would you?  So then why is it acceptable to get free coverage for someone who has a strong resume, solid samples and references willing to vouch for them?


As far as your last question, in general, it hasn't been my experience that someone will keep track of a reader's suggestions and punish them if their recommendations subsequently bomb.  Let's not forget - a reader is just there to thin the material.  It's not the reader's CONSIDER or RECOMMEND that got a movie made - there are always plenty of development people above them who make that call.  If the project got as far as being made, the blame is out of the reader's hands.  It's more likely that a reader recommending subpar material will find themselves out of a job simply because their bosses keep having to read terrible scripts, thereby proving that the reader is useless to them as a "first filter."

I also have found that - with production companies - there's also little risk to you if you panned a script that the company later decided to make.  Agencies are another story - owing to the fact that some agents are incredibly thin-skinned crybabies when it comes to the slightest bit of criticism directed at projects that their clients have even the most tenuous connection to.  If you think an agent isn't capable of overreacting to even a mild PASS, you haven't written coverage for them long enough.  (And if you happened to be an agent and those last few sentences have pissed you off, thank you for proving my point.)

A few months into my first job as a PA at a production company, I was given an assignment to read an important spec for the company President.  By this point, I'd been doing coverage for all the other development execs for at least three months and I'd gotten pretty good at it.  But this was "the show" - my chance to impress.  Fortunately, I had an entire weekend to read this script.

Just my luck, it was a sci-fi film with a fairly complicated premise and story.  Even though the writer had been around the block a few times, it still was dealing with some fairly heady concepts and tricky plot twists.  I read the script once and wasn't sure I understood it all, even after taking notes.  So I read it a second time, and then a third time as I wrote up my synopsis.

After I had my synopsis done, I kept rewriting it until I trimmed the length by an entire half page.  It took me the better part of the day to read and write up, but I eventually distilled the story down to its most essential components and actually made some sense out of the story.  I dare say that even the script's writer couldn't have wrung more coherence out of the story.


I made a nearly incomprehensible script make sense.  And when the story made sense, it was easy to see the stuff in there that could be cool.  The comments were critical, but not especially cutting.  It was a PASS, but it read like a gentle PASS.  I think you can guess where this goes.

Long story short - the synopsis I wrote was later used to entice buyers for the foreign presale.  For a while, I worried that my critical comments would come back to haunt me.  As it turned out, no one cared in the slightest that I spoke ill of a project that we made.

They cared less when the film was (eventually) released and it bombed.  Hey, I tried to warn them.

In another instance, a script I was assigned to read ended up being one of the worst professional scripts I had the displeasure to write up.  It was only through sheer force of will that the words "sucks" and "shit sandwich" did not appear in my coverage.  Instead, I aggressively pointed out every last plot hole and conceptual flaw.  I didn't flat out state it, but it was impossible to not read this review and not question everything about the script, including the writer's own proficiency.

Here's where you probably expect me to tell you that they went ahead and bought it the very next week.  Well I'm not going to say that.

That's because they had already bought it just days earlier.  Did they tell me that when they sent me the script? No.  Did I know beforehand?.... Does it matter?

This particular film crashed rather hard in wide release.  The reviews were intensely unkind.  The box office was worse.  There were no reprisals, unless you count the fact I had to sit through the movie.

Now you're probably wondering, did I ever recommend a script that subsequently bombed? Not exactly.  Nothing I endorsed to a company was later made AT that company and bombed FOR that company.

I did, however, recommend DOMINO.  My bosses at the time passed, frankly, in large part because of the director.  As much as I loved the script, I hated the movie.  But for more on that, read this entry.


  1. re: your DOMINO comment... how many scripts have you read that you liked and didn't like the movie and how many movies have you seen that you liked, but thought the script was wonky? do you ever read movies you've seen just to see what the script offered? just curious. it's sort of a fear of mine that, should the planets align and one of my scripts sells and actually gets made, the movie is so far from what i pictured in my brain and tanks.

  2. Yep, definitely more likely that you'll pass on a script that sells/gets made than rec a script that ends up bombing. If you rec a script, then the execs at the company will read it next - and if they decide to take it on as a project and develop it, they're the ones to blame if it ends up becoming a bad movie.

  3. I can only speak to reading for a prod. company/financier but BSR is on the mark. If you're in the right place, there isn't any fear if you recommend something that your CE or Pres. doesn't love. There's much more of a give and take - a healthy debate as to the merit of the material that's open minded. Wish this was the case everywhere.

  4. Thanks BSR to responding to my questions. Your article reaffirms to me that when the time is right, I'll seek solid representation first verses other approaches to avoid starting from the slush pile.

  5. There was energy in the Domino movie trailer and I thought, at the time, if this is the way they're going to make movies, I'd better see it.
    Yeah, I was one who bought a ticket. And came away disappointed.

    Loved your comments above.
    Thanks for posting.