Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Reading Scripts

I have a cold and don’t feel like writing anything, but since I know many readers, mostly women, purposely stay home on Saturday night in order to read my latest post, much preferring my urbane, albeit virtual, charm, to facing another dull Saturday evening with some “date” set up by their relatives and friends. 

“Why does every single man always plan the same date night out?” a reader might ask herself, and rightfully so.  “It’s always the same — we share one chicken entree at Applebee’s, and then go back to the apartment he shares with his mother for ten minutes of doggie-style sex while he grunts the theme from “The Lord of the Rings.”  When did men become so unoriginal? Where’s the romance?”

I will not disappoint you, dear reader.  Despite me coughing and sneezing, I am there for you.  OK, maybe it is true that I already wrote the following post when I was guest posting last month at Heather’s blog, No Pasa Nada.   But what are you gonna do — fire me?!   Ha Ha, I get the last laugh!

Re-posted from Heather’s site.  If you already read it there, make believe that you haven’t.  It reads better on this blog, anyway.

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I moved to Los Angeles to go to film school and become a screenwriter. I was surprised by how quickly I got a job involving screenwriting at a major Hollywood studio. Unfortunately, it was not a job writing scripts. It was a job READING scripts.

Yes, I was a low-paid, low-on-the-totem-pole script reader (or script “analyst” as we liked to call ourselves). It was the worst job I ever had.

“What’s so bad about getting paid to read?” you might ask. It sounds like the ideal job for an English major and someone who loves to read. First of all, a true “reader” reads for enjoyment or enlightenment. A Hollywood script reader reads and reads and reads and reads endless piles of CRAP. Serial killer movies. Vampire movies. Retreads of whatever comedy was successful the year before. If a dumb movie like “A Night in the Museum” is successful, be assured that within three months, there will be a hundred similar scripts about “A Night at the Zoo” or “A Night in the Art Gallery.”

Step one of being a reader is reading the material. Step two is doing the “coverage.” Coverage is the equivalent of writing a little book report for each script or book submitted to the company. It is never-ending homework. You summarize the written material. You write a one sentence “log line.” You give your opinion of the story, the characters, and the writing. You decide whether the material deserves a “pass,” “consider,” or “approve.”

Within the first week, I was called into the producer’s office and told that I was being TOO honest in reviewing the terrible scripts. As a newbie, I didn’t realize that Hollywood is mostly based on relationships. My job was not so much to review the script, like a critic might review a book in the New York Times. My main goal was to read the script so the producer didn’t have to, but still enable him to LOOK like he read it. Part of my job description was to help the producer be like Paula Abdul on “American Idol” — finding something positive to say while still rejecting the person. Since you never know who a script may come from, it is always important for the producer to be able to say SOMETHING positive. For instance, if Tom Cruise’s aunt wrote a really bad screenplay about a League of Superheroes, the producer should be able to say “the script had some fine moments of dramatic action, but we aren’t going in that direction right now.” This way, the producer can look like a cool guy — and blame someone else for the script’s rejection.

During the second week, I was called into the producer’s office again because I “approved” a script about women’s wrestling during the Depression. I thought it was a moving story with great characters, exactly the type of oddball movie I would want to see. No one else agreed with me. Even worse, by “approving” a script as noteworthy, the producer actually READ the script, and HE doesn’t like to have his time wasted. That’s why he is paying YOU. So, out of fear of losing their jobs, most script readers rarely approve a script unless box-office gold is dripping off the pages (which is rare). In four years of reading scripts, I think I “approved” four projects, all of them vehicles for popular actors.

During the first month, I was called into the producer’s office a third time — this time to learn about a new wrinkle to my job. The producer had taken on a partner and they disagreed over some projects. “My” producer said he would appreciate it if I “liked” certain materials more than I did, in order to convince his partner that a script was not as bad as it seemed. For example, he handed me a script that “he knew had major rewrite problems” but wanted his partner’s approval because he thought he could get Eddie Murphy to be involved. So, surprise, surprise — my coverage of the material contained only mild criticism, with expressions like “flawed, but with a little work, this can be a rollicking comedy, maybe for someone from SNL.”

For four years, I never read a book for pleasure. Writing became a chore for me. I saw how difficult for any screenplay to get past a reader. There was always going to be a jerk like ME, some frustrated writer, dismissing my script after reading it in a coffee shop at three o’clock in the morning. I lost my ability to distinguish between good and bad. When everyone said a movie sucked, I would just be impressed that the project actually got made!

Eventually, I quit this job and my mind got a needed rest.

In the scheme of things, being a Hollywood script reader isn’t the worst job in the world. You can do a good portion of your job sitting in Starbucks. You don’t have to shovel horse manure. You don’t have to wear a suit.

But for me, it was the worst job I ever had, because it was soul-destroying.

12 Comments

  1. Thanks for the insider’s look.

    Hopefully you found your soul again… I think you did — at least in writing for this blog!

    Feel better, Neil. Hey, I’ve got chicken soup and WHOLE WHEAT matzah balls just waiting for you. I’ll freeze them until you can get to Toronto to pick them up. 🙂

  2. see, that is EXACTLY why I got out of the military. It wasn’t horrible, and I made decent money, and when they weren’t trying to send me to foreign lands to get shot at, I guess it was okay. But it was SOUL CRUSHING. I’m still recovering….

  3. God, how depressing. Makes me grateful that I’m not working on a screenplay. How does anything ever get made in this town? Did you ever see a screenplay you passed on and thought was crap appear later as a successful film?

  4. I shaved my legs for a re-run! Wah!

  5. Great insight… oh how I’d kill for that reading job now and justify a quick relocation… and BTW, I only do it doggie style while watching documentaries (cause I can’t hum their theme songs)

  6. Moviequill — You would hate it.

  7. I had a job like this for awhile, when I was an assistant at a literary agency. But the stuff I read I had already vetted– we would get a ton of query letters, and for every twenty or thirty we rejected, we would ask for one sample (first 50 pages, say). Then for every ten sample rejects we would ask for one full. Still, there were a lot of crappy, self-indulgent writers who would get through to the full. It was very depressing and almost put me off writing altogether. They say everyone has a novel in them– well, in most cases, they ought to just save themselves a lot of trouble and keep it inside.
    Still– once or twice I came across a book we’d rejected on the paperback originals pile at Borders!

  8. Interesting, very interesting. Try teaching people to summarize legal depositions without interjecting their own opinion and taking it out of q&a format etc.

    Since I refused to go to law school, my father was always telling me to get a job at a studio reading slush piles. Not only did we have studios in NY in the 80’s, one of my best friends was an HR VP at one

    Now I could tell my father it would have sucked out my soul–do know what you mean as I reviewed movies for two un-entertaining years

    But then I was too busy trying to teach people that the same question could be asked and answered five different ways, and it was their job to figure that out–that’s just the easiest example

    A part of me has always wondered what would have happened had I worked for a studio, so thanks Neil

  9. Soul destroying, soul sucking, it’s all the same.

    This was one of my favorites. So thank you for posting it.

  10. So you’re saying you won’t read my script? ha! Gawd it is depressing. Lucky for me I’m a writer and depression is a natural state for me and in no way discouraging.

  11. Now see, this is fascinating to me, a little peek into your life, your real life. I loved this one, Neil.

  12. Hi.
    It’s difficult for me to seek readers, and to cross the red line unless I put extra thick knee pads on.
    I have an award winning story that I intend to direct.
    Thank you.
    Richard

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