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07/20/2002 - The Agency Reader Speaketh, Part I

Let's get back to a favorite topic: Readers, friend or foe?

Over the next few weeks I'll be interviewing readers from different corners of the business; production companies, agencies, studios, etc.

Below is the first half of an interview with a staff reader for one of the Big Four agencies in town. I don't know many agency readers, so I was curious to ask "Taylor" about his experiences. Names have been omitted to protect Taylor (and loosen up his tongue).

GL: Let's start with the obligatory questions. How did you start working as a reader?

Taylor: I began as a "sweatshop reader" at my first job as a runner (gofer) for a small TV production company. In other words, I read in exchange for training. Actually, this turned out to be an excellent opportunity, because I picked up the skill right away and used that to market myself for future jobs.

These smaller companies typically don't have enough of a budget to afford readers for the high volume of low priority stuff that nevertheless has to be slogged through, so they encourage the assistants and support staff to pick up the slack (though it's not required). It's symbiotic for the most part.

GL: How did you end up at [major talent agency]?

Taylor: [Agency] was the first company to hire me as a freelancer, bless them. They were (and still are) on the low end of the acceptable pay scale (there are many who are unacceptable), but they compensated for that with volume work. I freelanced for them for many years; even when I took on more lucrative gigs I kept it as fallback.

GL: What marching orders are you given in terms of material? Do you look for a specific type of project, or a vehicle for specific actors?

Taylor: Reading for an agency, the mandate is this - "Put our clients to work." Plain and simple, it's about servicing our clients and making sure that any any and all of them get a shot at any potential job (in the agency world, scripts are perhaps more accurately referred to as "jobs" rather than "movies" - this is not an irony in my opinion - agencies deal with the business end).

The staff readers almost exclusively deal with material that has been submitted by the studios in search of cast and crew. Most are projects in search of a director, or a writer. Our job is to report on the content, assess the quality, and make general recommendations with regard to its suitability for our client stable as a whole - generally without naming names.

We try to keep the reports as generic as possible so that they can be sent to any number of potential clients. Sometimes we're told to keep certain actors in mind for specific types of material, but in general, nobody likes to limit themselves to any specific genre. "Range" is a sacred virtue. We also read a lot of books that come in from the publishing world - many times they are a year or more from publication. Our company brokers the film adaptation rights well before the books ever hit the shelves. The mandate for this is simple: Will it make a good movie?

GL: How many scripts do you read per week? Approximately how many hours do you work per week?

Taylor: We read anywhere from 7 to 9 scripts a week, or 3 books, or any combination of the two. Work hours vary greatly given the demands of the material. Some massive scripts and books can be read in no time. Other stuff that looks like a breeze can be a complete nightmare. In my salad days I could turn around a script in 2-3 hours (reading to completion of coverage). Nowadays it takes me a bit longer - perhaps because I feel more is expected of me with such important material. In many ways, it was easier to read the junky stuff, though not as enjoyable.

GL: Are you under any form of confidentiality agreement based on the exclusive nature of the material you read?

Taylor: Yes. And it's taken VERY seriously. Discretion is probably the key virtue of our agency. Great scripts, roles, and opportunities are in extremely short supply in Hollywood, and it's incumbent upon all employees to safeguard the interests of our clients. For example, if I read a script and blabbed to all of my friends about it before my company had a chance to send it through proper channels, it could cost one or more of our clients a job if we get usurped by a tenacious competitor. And at an agency, it all boils down to one thing - that magic ten percent. Readers have gotten and do get fired for talking about material outside of the office - even if no harm is done.

GL: Sidney Lumet wrote that he never starts reading a script unless he can read it all the way through (although I suspect he gets better stuff than the average script reader). Is this the way you read? What's your M.O.?

Taylor: I'm not sure how I read anymore. Over the years my methodology has become so unconscious that I sometimes feel like I'm not really "working" anymore. It's only when I read some of my coverage several months later and see that my intuition is right on, that I reassure myself I'm still doing the job right. I'll say that Lumet is pretty right on though. Sometimes I'll be reading a script and be either ambivalent or absolutely indifferent about it, and it will take some time before I actually have an opinion about it. On occasion, a script will not hit me in ANY way, even afterwards. That can be troublesome when an opinion is compulsory. Most of the time, though, there is an evaluatory template that most scripts fit into. My philosophy is that all of Scriptom is composed of a bell curve. A small handful are exceptionally good, an equally small handful are exceptionally bad, but most have some degree of merit at varying levels.

GL: Did you ever read get handed a script from someone you happened to know personally?

Taylor: Not really -- by surprise. I'll read into this question a bit: Generally, most companies prefer favorable coverage on material - if at the very least because it gives the executive some positive remarks to convey while passing! Hence, if a script comes in that's written by a friend, it's considered ethical and acceptable for me to read it. Friend or not, my reputation (and hence, my livelihood) is on the line every time I give an opinion on a script, so it's not likely that I would put my neck on the line for any piece of material that I wasn't genuinely excited about. Remember, readers only give recommendations - they do not make decisions.

GL: Do you write coverage of every script, or are you allowed to skim through a particularly bad script?

Taylor: Yes, I have to write coverage for every script I read, even if it's a Schnauzer. There are several reasons for this. First, coverage provides a legal document that proves that we received, read and evaluated the material on a certain date. Second, sometimes the material needs to be evaluated as a service to our clients, and helpful, constructive comments are part of that service even if the script is a double Schnauzer with a side of Beagle.

Also, the script may be read more in the service of maintaining a professional relationship rather than interest in the project itself. As we all know, Hollywood is primarily about relationships. For me, that translates into a certain amount of crappy scripts in my diet. No job is perfect...

GL: Do you simply submit your coverage to agents/executives, or do they ever sit down with you to verbally go over your impressions of a script or screenwriter?

Taylor: For the most part, the agents glean what they need from my coverage. On occasion they'll pick my brain for more input. But I try to anticipate this and give them what they need in the coverage. Mostly I find that what everyone needs are constructive, thoughtful and positive comments, which can have several applications depending on the disposition of the agent.


That's it for this week. Tune in next Saturday for more of "Taylor's" thoughts on being a reader, with more emphasis on the craft of scriptwriting.


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