Misadventures in the Scriptreading Trade

By Joanne Wolf


While the trials and tribulations of directors, screenwriters, actors and even studio heads have become common knowledge, the unique suffering of the professional script reader remains an unheralded occupational hazard that deserves public exposure--if only to warn misguided film school graduates and aspiring D-people of the grim circle of hell that awaits them.

It sounds like an exaggeration, I know. But ten years of script reading has convinced me that few jobs are more thankless and demoralizing, exploitive and tedious--and I speak as someone who’s done stints as a restaurant potato peeler and a Nautilus exercise instructor. Those jobs were less than fulfilling, but at least they resulted in the occasional perfectly sculpted potato or a gesture of gratitude, respectively, neither of which can one hope to net as a script reader (although odds on the potato are quite a bit higher). As a reader, it falls to you to read, summarize and evaluate screenplays for the convenience of production executives whose attention span is typically severely stunted, and who are likely to be terrified by the prospect of making a decision that can’t later be blamed on someone else. If a script is brilliant or idiotic, masterfully crafted or painfully clumsy, the reader must try to capture its particular flavor and comment on its cinematic potential, for a small group of people who are paid roughly 1000 times his/her salary and who get through the day by barking "too soft", "too dark", and "too small." Like Goldilocks, they appear to be looking for that script that is Just Right; but the truth is, they’re looking for something that reminds them of something else, but with more special effects and a role "for Gwyneth."

If a script is really bad, one must tread carefully around the individual who has the highest stakes in it (the person it was submitted to). In that case, it’s wise to say of a thriller about cloning and evil land-developers that culminates in the woods with a huge mutant radioactive baby: " It’s a good concept, but it doesn’t really work." As a rule, action/thrillers are the most tricky genre to cover, as they tend to be structured around a ludicrous premise and usually focus more on weaponry and hijinx than on plotting or character development. Explaining to an executive that an action/thriller is stupid beyond belief and barely makes sense will not deter him/her from "sending it in to the Studio (i.e., where ever they have their first-look deal). But if the story is a screwball comedy, a love story, or a poignant period piece, for example, you will need to do back flips to get anyone to take it seriously--unless it’s somehow deemed Gwyneth-worthy.

There’s a belief among successful writers that their screenplays will be read by the executive to whom the material was submitted--after all, these writers already have a track record and merit more serious consideration than novice screenwriter Joe Blow. To these guys (since the familiar, highest paid names do tend to be male) I say: Ha. The executive, your buddy, whose fawning flattery you expect as a given, isn’t gonna look at your script until--if ever--he has reader "coverage" of it on his desk. Then, he’ll either take it home to skim through it, or just quote from the coverage over the phone, as though speaking his own thoughts. I once heard an executive call a well-known screenwriter and say of a script he hadn’t looked at but which I’d described to him as silly and forgettable: "You know, you are quite a writer", using a seductive personal tone that suggested he was still under the spell of her dazzling screenplay. It was ultimately bought by Universal, not by my executive, who’d gone on to express to the writer his surprise that her script wasn’t "funnier." Presumably, she had no such complaint regarding his assessment of her story, which happened to be a romantic social drama.

Over the years, I‘ve suffered the indignity of phone-calls from a story editor half my age who scolded me for rating a script an 8 on his company’s scale of 1 to 10. "No script is an 8," he admonished, "except if it’s ET or something like that." A scale of 1 to 10 that doesn’t even go to 8, is only one of the many amazing paradoxes one must accept as a script reader. One must often fax "coverage" over the weekend to an executive who won’t be looking at it before Monday but will raise hell if his fax machine doesn’t receive it by Sunday noon, at the latest. I was once severely chastised for faxing coverage to an executive on Sunday evening, even though he was out of town that weekend. On one occasion, I was asked to write "comparative coverage" of two scripts, both adaptations of a revered comic novel that has thus far evaded the degradation of an awful film version. The veteran Bigshot who needed to make a decision about this project (and who hadn’t read the famous novel "about the fat guy") required a list of differences between the scripts that was outlined accordingly: "In scene 1, Mother wears a hat. Whereas in the new script, Mother does not wear a hat." I heard he was pleased with the coverage--a minor miracle, given his volatile mood while adjusting to a change in his medication.

Having by now read many thousands of screenplays, manuscripts, treatments and plays, I’ve learned a thing or two that might be useful knowledge for the aspiring screenwriter or struggling reader. For example, Readers: If an Uzi appears on page one or two, you’re in trouble. If the heroine is called Max or Sam, ditto. Writers: If you like the noun "pandemonium", use it if you must, but don’t try to pass off "pandemonious" as a word. Similarly, if you like "nonplussed" to describe a character’s reaction, try to know what this word means. Writers, it’s a tough row to hoe, but take courage in the fact that most scripts by the acclaimed screenwriter I’ll call Don Trout (oh, okay: Ron Bass) are so notoriously awful and pretentious, they are dreaded by all who encounter them.

And to Readers, finally, I can only offer my heartfelt condolences, with the advice to use plenty of film school lingo like "character arc" and "beats" if you’re working for the types who fancy themselves as "smart". In other cases, your best bet is simply to be punctual with your work, keep your opinions as ambiguous as possible, try to look envious when someone mentions the Havana Room, and if you’re invited to sit in on meetings, try to hold your fire each time you hear the phrase: "but at the end of the day.....", which is the Hollywood verbal tick of the moment. Instead, have fun by counting the times this phrase is uttered, and enjoy the linguistic manipulations employed to avoid saying a simple yes or no. My all-time favorite is the verdict commonly used by a well-liked but insecure Bigshot: "I’m not so sure I don’t disagree." The phrase is a treasured memento of my years in the scriptreading trade, which for all their magic moments, however, I wouldn’t wish on a dog.


Joanne Wolf

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