As I mentioned in my last post, Script recently reprinted an old column of mine call “How Not to Annoy a Reader” -- a humorous list of do’s and don’ts for screenwriters based on the mistakes I’ve encountered in the thousands of screenplays that I’ve read over the years. I also reported that the response to the reprint was generally positive, although there were a few negative reviews as well. One of my favorites was a delightfully cranky diatribe against the very idea of readers. The comment echoed the usual complaint that writers have against professional readers, which goes something like this:
Readers are all angry, low-paid cretins -- would-be writers who couldn’t make it and are now so full of spite and bile that they hate everything they read even when it's brilliant and routinely pass on terrific screenplays because they are so jealous of genuinely talented writers that they do everything they can to sabotage those writers’ careers. Even if readers do like something, it doesn’t matter because they are so lowly and unimportant that no one listens to them anyway. The commenter went so far as to opine: “If a 'reader' is reading your script, nothing will happen with it. Readers are the step before the producer’s assistant. You need to meet producers and directors to have a chance at getting your work made.” It’s a popular assessment, but it’s not accurate and I thought it might be a good idea to set the record just a little bit straighter.
Readers are the first link in the development chain -- it’s their job to take the piles of scripts that a production entity (a studio, production company, or independent producer’s office) receives and separate the wheat from the chaff. They carefully read (not just skim through the first 10 pages while watching TV, talking on the phone, and eating crullers, as many urban legends allege) and assess (in a carefully written report) each piece, passing on the obviously bad or unsuitable (if you’re reading for a company that’s forte is horror films, then a rom-com, no matter how well written, just isn’t going to cut it) scripts and then identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those that remain, before finally either suggesting that the production entity give a piece serious consideration (this rating is usually given to a script that has a great deal of promise but that also has a number of significant problems that need to be solved) or else heartily recommending it as an absolute slam dunk (this rating is given to scripts that are pretty much perfect. For obvious reasons, it is given only rarely). Depending on the structure of the company, a reader usually reports to a story editor or a development executive -- not the producer’s secretary. If the office is small enough, the reader may report directly to the producer him/herself. Obviously, the reader is not the one that makes the final decision or anywhere near about whether a script is bought and/or made, but it is his/her initial assessment that sets the wheels in motion. I can count five or six scripts (including one pretty big Oscar-winner) that were produced by companies that I worked for and that I know I did the initial assessment on. I am in no way claiming that I’m responsible for getting these scripts made, but I know that I certainly played a not-unimportant role in the process.
Most readers are pretty darn smart, many are highly educated, and yes, many are aspiring writers. Almost none of the ones I’ve met are particularly angry, although they can sometimes get a bit sarcastic (so would you if you had to read as many bad scripts as they do). They do pass on a majority of the scripts they read -- not because they’re jealous, but because most of the scripts out there just aren’t very good (sorry, but it’s true). Because they read so much junk, most readers I know are thrilled when they come across a good script (because reading one literally restores your faith in the art form) and rather than kill it, do whatever they can to bring it to the right person’s attention. (Sometimes going to ridiculous lengths. Several years ago, I read a script that I thought was terrific. The prodco I read it for passed, so I’ve been carrying it around ever since and give it to anyone I think might be interested. No takers yet, but I’m not giving up.)
It hurts to have a script rejected -- it is, after all, your sweat and blood -- and when this happens it is probably easier to blame it on some imaginary villain than to accept the fact that your piece just wasn’t up to snuff. But if you’ve come up with something extraordinary, then believe me, a reader’s going to be your very best friend -- a friend that may need to borrow a dollar to get a cheeseburger (because that whole low-paid thing is true), but a friend nonetheless.
Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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