Once we finish a script and send it off to “Hollywood”, located at number 1 Hollywood Road, Hollywood, who will actually read it? With very few exceptions, our script will be read by a “reader”. Sounds obvious, but the Hollywood script reader is actually a very important and yet elusive job title. It is not really a job title at all, it is the description given to anyone who is the first port of call for a new script.
Senior executives do not have the time nor the inclination to read through the thousands of scripts that flood in to find the fantastic few, so they pass that job onto other people.
Firstly, there are readers in full-time jobs with major companies such as studios, talent agencies, and production companies. These people may be employed just as readers, but also may be interns, assistants, and junior members of staff keen to move up by discovering a diamond in the rough.
Then there are a lot of freelance readers, who are making approximately $30 per script. These people can be other writers hoping to break in, post grad students, or freelance workers in a variety of other jobs, people hoping to get a job at the one of the aforementioned major companies, or people trying to keep some sort of income coming in while they pursue their own dreams.
This person reads the whole script (in theory) and writes out “coverage”. This is a 1-2 page document that details the plot of the film, the major elements of screenplay structure such as the concept, the characters, and the dialogue, and finally a brief summation as to the talent of the writer and the potential of the screenplay.
It gives the higher ups something tangible to work from in a template that they can scan very quickly to find out the pertinent information they need about any script that has come in.
The report may offer those judgments separately for the writer and the screenplay. A sample report may look something like this:
|Title:||Pushing up Daisy||Date:||01.01.2015|
|Type of material:||Screenplay||Author:||Hywel Berry|
|Number of pages:||95||Genre:||Comedy|
|Submitted By:||Author||Era:||Modern Day|
|Analyst:||J. Smith||Location:||New York|
Logline: A morgue worker falls in love with one of the dead bodies in his morgue and must try to stop her from being cremated.
Along with a brief synopsis it will end with the reader’s analysis:
Analysis: A surprisingly funny and charming script, considering the morbid premise. The writer brings the world of the morgue to life and even makes us fall in love with a dead body (no mean feat).
It is a black comedy with relatively small appeal, but as it is set primarily in the morgue it is a very low budget script and could create a lot of pre-release publicity through word of mouth, as well as finding a cult following along similar lines to Donnie Darko.
The writer can clearly bring life and humor to even the darkest of ideas.
The coverage will usually end with one of three words:
This is obviously the most important part. This one word will determine whether the executive requests the script to read it themselves, or simply moves onto the next coverage report.
It’s funny to think that some of the most successful movies of our time had such a report written about them, and they did not all get a “Recommend”. There are always stories about scripts that went on to make millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, that were initially turned down by various studios. If that script came from a relatively unknown writer, then its first port of call would definitely have been a lowly reader.
Even if the script is from an experienced writer, it will still pass through the reader at some point, if for no other reason than to get the above coverage report produced. This coverage report is the short hand that many executives throughout the studio need to keep track of the many projects that are running at any one time without having to read all the scripts.
For those of us trying to break in, the script reader is God. Without their “Recommend” at the bottom, our script is dead. No one else is going to read it.
Therefore, we are writing our script for the Hollywood script reader. If only we knew exactly who that was going to be. What we can do though is build up a picture of the challenges that they all face to be as aware as possible of what our script needs to do to get that elusive “Recommend”.
Firstly, readers can be required to write coverage for anywhere from 10-30 (or maybe more) scripts a week, often in their own time once their real work has finished. Even if they are being paid for this, remember that they have to read the whole script and write the coverage for their $30. The hourly wage on that doesn’t work out well in their favor.
If they’re not being paid any extra, then the stack of scripts in front of them is nothing more than a barrier to getting to sleep.
However, in all my discussions with anyone who has indulged in this joyous position within the film industry, one prevailing characteristic shines through; every time they pick up a script they want it to be fantastic. Nothing would send them to bed with a bigger smile than to find a script with which they can bound into work the next day, hold it up and say “I’ve just found the next Hunger Games.”
That’s why it is so depressing for them when script after script is poorly structured, illogical nonsense.
We want our script to stand out for all the best reasons, and the first way to do that is to be very deliberate in the length of our script. Imagine that a reader has a stack of fifteen scripts to get through, and it’s 1 am, and they need to wake up at 6 am. Which script are they going to read, the 100-page script or the 135-page script?
And it doesn’t have to be 1 am. Think of how busy you are in your own life. The reader is busier, I promise. If they have three hours to get some reading done, they could potentially read three 90-page scripts or two 120-page scripts. It’s more efficient to read the shorter scripts. They’re not lazy people, they’re just logical.
They will get round to reading the longer scripts obviously, they can’t put it off forever, but don’t underestimate how much more laborious those extra 30 pages make the whole enterprise, and believe me when I say that the longer script, therefore, needs to be exponentially better than its 90-page counterpart to stand out.
I have suggested that we should aim for 100 pages, but let’s get more specific now. What determines the acceptable page length more than anything else is our genre. A simple explanation is that the funnier our script is, the shorter it needs to be, and the darker and more depressing, the longer it is allowed to be.
The actual running times of successful films are not our guide here. Our guide is the expectations of the reader. Anything less than 90 pages and they will assume that we simply couldn’t come up with enough material. Anything over 120 pages and they will assume that we don’t understand the industry. The two-hour film has developed because it allows an optimum amount of entertainment for the viewer while allowing an acceptable number of screenings per day to maximize revenue for the theater and the distributing studio.
Before some of you start scoffing, I know that the two most successful movies of all time are Titanic and Avatar at 194 minutes and 162 minutes respectively, but believe me when I say that we are not James Cameron. When we are, we can hand in our 300-page opus. Until then, we are going to do everything we can to get the reader on our side.
So we are going to be as efficient as possible in our writing, and get the page count down as much as we can. We are also going to choose a title that effectively describes the genre of the script. Readers don’t necessarily have a logline to work with, so if we do have a 120-page screenplay the only thing that lets them know that it’s a drama script that warrants such a page count is the title. Similarly, picking up a 90-page script with a title that screams “comedy” lets them know that our page count is appropriate and that they might have an easy and funny read ahead of them.
Any script around 100-110 pages can get away with being pretty much any genre, and that’s why it’s a useful page count to keep in mind. 100 pages could be a 90-minute film if it includes lots of dialogue, or a 120-minute film if it’s predominantly action, but at 100 pages, we’re not putting off any readers from wanting to pick it up.
Next we have to make sure that they keep reading. We have talked a few times about readers giving up on page 20 and throwing the script across the room. How can they do that, you may ask if they have to write a coverage report on the whole plot? Easier than you think, I promise.
Firstly, there is a big difference between reading a script and skimming a script to get enough plot details to be able to write coverage. Secondly, if their judgment is a PASS then there is almost no reason for anyone else to ever read the script, so even if a few plot details are a little off, no one is ever going to notice.
Covering twenty to thirty scripts a week may seem impossible while also working a full-time job, and it would be if they truly read every single script with the diligence that we would like them to. They are realists and if the first twenty pages of a script are appalling then it’s a clear PASS, and it would be ludicrous to keep reading with that kind of intensity when they have so many other scripts to get to.
To keep them reading, it’s actually less about our script being fantastic and more about avoiding the things that will annoy them. What the reader wants to think at the end of Page 1 is: “Oh, thank God. A real writer.” That means that they can relax and just enjoy the writing. It doesn’t mean that they will love the script, but they know very quickly that the script will be easy to read and professionally presented.
Remember, they want to enjoy the script, but certain things will make this difficult for them including very basic elements such as spelling errors and incorrect formatting. Another problem to avoid is tropes and clichés of new writers, such as every female character being described as “beautiful” or “attractive” no matter what role they play in the story, or great big blocks of action text that just make the whole page look daunting. A great story can get lost if our script is simply too irritating to read.
There is a wonderful book that details all of these things and many more called 500 ways to beat the Hollywood Script Reader, by Jennifer Lerch. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It lists 500 tips, collated from professional readers, of things that help or hinder their job of reading your script. It’s a very quick, enjoyable and useful read.
So they’ve picked up the script, we’ve proven that we know how to write and we’ve kept them reading right to the end, but that’s not enough. How do we get them to “Recommend” the script?
To do this, we need to surprise and excite them. This sounds easy in theory but is actually very difficult in practice. With the sheer volume of stories that people consume these days through TV, film, and online it is nearly impossible to surprise anyone anymore, never mind someone who reads scripts for a living, but surprise and excite them we must.
To explain what this looks like this I am going to tell you the true story of a script. There once was a young filmmaker. To break into the industry, he borrowed money from his parents and other family and wrote and directed a very low budget film. That film didn’t make much of a splash but it did get him noticed in Hollywood. After years of writing and struggling he finally got a deal with a major studio and wrote and directed a film with a $7m budget. The studio was run by a famously difficult producer who railroaded the young filmmaker and made his experience a misery. The filmmaker meanwhile, was getting some writing work with other studios, but nothing that made him anything close to a star writer.
Furious at the treatment he received from the difficult producer, the filmmaker decided to get back at him by writing a script so good that every studio would want it. The filmmaker would then make sure that the difficult producer would not be allowed to buy the script.
The filmmaker went away and wrote the script. Giving it to his agent he specified some very detailed rules. The script would be offered for sale for only one day. The minimum acceptable offer would be $1m (far more than he had so far made as a writer) and he would have to be attached as director. The last condition was that the difficult producer would be mailed—not emailed—the script, making sure that he would not be able to get an offer in.
The script went out, and by the end of the day, after a furious bidding war, it was bought for $3m with the writer attached as director for another $600,000, just as specified.
That filmmaker was M Night Shyamalan, and the script was for The Sixth Sense.
If you haven’t, I implore you read this script now. Personally, I think The Sixth Sense is a very good movie made from an exceptional script.
That ending didn’t particularly work for me in the theater. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t affect me in the way it did the rest of the huge audience the film attracted. But when I read the script, five years after seeing the movie, that last page blew me away. And I knew it was coming! Imagine how it would have felt to readers on that day it was first sent out.
That is how we need to make the reader feel, and if we do, then, believe me, they will not be able to put anything other than “Recommend”, or maybe get someone to give you $3m for it.
If you’re interested, the producer was Harvey Weinstein.