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02/02/2002 - The Gatekeeper
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No matter how many annual Hollywood power lists appear in various trade magazines, it still isn't clear who exactly has the power to help the amateur screenwriter. For that matter, the secret of "breaking into" the entertainment industry in general is never very specific.

Look at the acting profession, for example. The aspirant is told to take acting classes ad infinitum, perform in endless college and local theater productions, spend mountains of cash on headshots and other publicity materials and audition until their self-esteem is chiseled down to a heartbroken stub. And that's just the prep. Then they're supposed to grease the wheel of chance by hustling and gaily self-promoting until they forget what they ever wanted to act for in the first place.

The whole thing makes screenwriting look like a cakewalk. Except that would-be screenwriters aren't offered the same exposure opportunities as actors. Screenwriters can't get "discovered" sitting in a caf?, they can only try to induce those in positions of power to read their script, or at least listen to their pitch.

The topic of industry access inevitably leads to that person who everyone loves to blame for a stalled writing career: The Reader. The Reader is the Gatekeeper - the embodiment of Hollywood power, brutally grasping the reins of influence and wealth in his Draconian fist. The Reader is in charge. Impress him and your script is as good as greenlit. Displease him and your dreams are history.

Oh, wait a minute. No, that's wrong. The reader isn't at the top of the executive ladder, he's near the bottom! I get confused.

Everybody likes to blame the reader for over-guarding the development gate. This diatribe is odd precisely because the writers imbue the reader as a monolithic force who holds a production company prisoner to his opinion, rather than an industry drudge who probably has better analytical skills than the well-paid executive he works for. Believe me, many projects proceed or die despite what the lowly reader thinks. A good pedigree can take a poor script a long way.

Conversely, a great script can get recommended to deaf ears. It happened again to me this week. Called a project "possibly the next BLADE RUNNER". Have I heard anything back from the ?ol team? Of course not. "Hello - I just read the next BLADE RUNNER. HELLO?? ANYBODY CARE!?"

I guess they're too swamped with "Go" projects. There truly is only so much time in the day, and development/production executives are often too busy to go to bat for new submissions. Sometimes there isn't enough time to read coverage, let alone screenplays. In reality, if it weren't for readers, most screenplays wouldn't get read at all. It simply takes too much time to analyze a script, so executives must shunt the work onto support staff.

I was a reader for a long time and it remains a big part of my job. Naturally I get defensive about the complaints from writers. You can't help it. I honestly don't know anybody who has it out for aspiring screenwriters. Even if readers don't like a script, they understand the enthusiasm and hope that drives someone to fill 120 blank pages. We all do. That's why we throw common sense to the wind and plug away at this dubious trade.

The shoe has also been on the other foot. I worked for a company once to which I myself submitted another writer's script. It was great. More than great. It sang. It even had a notable producer attached; some interesting cast connections. I personally raved about it. When the company passed, I snuck the coverage and it stunned me. The reader didn't get it. Didn't like it. Passed.

Now, the company probably passed for reasons other than the indifferent coverage. They may have had misgivings about one or more of the attachments. Maybe the genre was out of their range. What upset me the most though, was that coverage. It may not have been the project for everyone, but the gap between my delight for the screenplay and the reader's apathy was unnerving. In retrospect she had some points about smaller problems, but it was the spirit in the story she utterly missed.

Obviously an argument can be made for both sides. The writer complains that the reason he doesn't get meetings or deals is because the readers aren't qualified analysts. The reader complains that most spec writers are simply not that good and either can't accept the truth or won't endeavor patiently to improve their skills.

Who is right?

Next week: Where readers come from, their qualifications, dealing with rejection and why you should consider being a reader.


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