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02/09/2002 - The Gatekeeper, Part II

Where do Readers come from? Everywhere, really. College interns, assistants, professionals wishing to segue into the entertainment industry, amateur screenwriters, directors, and actors. The job tends to be temporary, although there does exist a Studio Readers Union, an exclusive club of well-paid, studio-employed professionals.

What are the qualifications to be a reader? I can't speak for any experience but my own. As a UCLA student, I was told to get busy and get an internship "somewhere". The UCLA Daily Bruin listed several intern opportunities in entertainment, one being for the company Brillstein-Grey. I called, interviewed, got "hired" (for free) and learned how to write the names of screenplays on the bindings with a Sharpie pen. I was also handed a screenplay, given some coverage samples and told to do my best.

I guessed (correctly) that I had been given a screenplay long ago covered, as a test. My supervisor was going to look over my coverage to see how well I caught the strengths and weaknesses of the script, while also observing my grammar and composition skills. I sweated the task pretty heavily, first because I always take things a little too seriously and second because I wanted to look like a smart little English major.

Apparently I did ok, because they kept me on. After college I hustled as a messenger (in an '82 Sentra with no air conditioning in the L.A. summer) until I landed a desk, then got exposed to more and more screenplays. It took a long time to learn to write concise coverage, but as a new analyst I was never given anything THAT important until those in power knew I could handle it. Many projects are clearly wrong for a company, but they still should be covered, so to a new reader they go.

Today I test new readers the way I was tested. They read some material I know well, to determine their analytical and grammar skills as well as their slant on quality. Our company likes hip material, but a reader should be able to point out a quality period drama, even if it isn't his preference. Some readers will only respond positively to scripts they want to see made, but that's not their job. Readers have to be able to recognize someone else's cup of tea.

I took precious few film classes. I only learned from reading and covering scripts. That's it. I didn't even know I wanted to do this until after college and believe me, the money was all gone by that time. I had to learn by doing, by reading scripts of widely varying quality. Frankly, I learned the most by reading bad scripts. I don't know how the good writers do what they do, but I saw what the writers of bad scripts do wrong.

If you are new to screenwriting and want desperately to write screenplays professionally (please note that I said "write screenplays", not "be a screenwriter"; there's a difference between doing the work and fantasizing about the glory), then my suggestion is to read many of them.

Yes, you should read the many produced screenplays available on the web. But you should also try to read amateur screenplays. If you can, try to work for a production company as an intern or a reader, to see firsthand what the reader's point of view is. Working for the people who buy scripts has given me a lot of insight as to what goes over and what doesn't. Once you read the gamut of quality out there you can compare your skill level to the rest and see where you need to improve.

I've never seen the reckless assignment of material to idiots (myself excluded). If you suspect that readers don't like your screenplays, you should give very careful thought to the quality of your material. Or how in-demand your premise is. Hopefully a writer who hasn't had good response to his submissions will find a way to determine whether or not his material is missing the mark for a deeper reason than the reader's whim.

It could certainly be an unqualified reader's fault that your material didn't get promoted, but if you want to be a pro, you must assume that the fault is yours. If someone else is to blame for your lack of success, there's nothing you can do about it. If you assume the responsibility, then there are actions you can take. Next week we'll look at these actions.


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