Writing great scripts worthy of consideration is only part of a screenwriter’s journey. As screenwriters hone their skills, they must also work to find a way into those hallowed walls of movie studios and production companies to even be part of the conversation as far as what scripts are purchased, developed, and produced.
So how do screenwriters break through those walls? How do they get that foot in the door? And more specifically, what Hollywood jobs are available to otherwise unconnected and inexperienced novice screenwriters looking to attain the necessary edge they need to create opportunities for themselves?
Each of these jobs create different levels of opportunity for networking and experience. And with each of them comes great responsibility as far as being careful to choose opportunities wisely. If screenwriters are constantly asking people on the lot to read their script, they’ll be out of a day job pretty fast.
The Novice Screenwriter’s Studio Job Hierarchy
First and foremost, it’s difficult to make the jump from novice to connected screenwriter, but it’s necessary. Without contacts and proper networking, no opportunities will present themselves and no opportunities will be made.
Here we’ll explore the jobs that novice screenwriters need to make those things happen. We’ll start from the bottom of the hierarchy and work our way to the top, detailing what jobs are available, what they entail, and what they can gain for screenwriters in the long run.
Studio Security Guard
It can be a rather thankless job to most, however, if put into a certain perspective, this is one of the easiest studio jobs to get into and allows for some of the most access to studios as well.
You will be a uniform security guard assigned to studio gates, lobby desks in corporate buildings, security for special events, roaming duties on foot or golf carts, the parking office handling day-to-day traffic in regards to guest pass database, etc.
You can go to any movie studio’s job website* or simply call the studio and ask for the Security Department. Some studios have their own security force while others contract out.
Little to no respect is often the norm for this position, which is why it is placed at the bottom of this hierarchy. You could put this next to working in facilities, custodial, and food service (not included in this list), however, security is looked upon as more of a direct hassle to employees, contractors, and visitors.
It is an essential job that benefits the studios and those within, but don’t be shocked when you have to deal with some irritated people. In turn, don’t be shocked to work along side those that are there to just collect an easy paycheck. This isn’t to say that all security officers are lazy and don’t care, however, you’ll see that all too often.
Access. Plain and simple. Access into the studio allows you to get a sense of how those things work. As a security guard, you’re often given full access to the studio lot. Before and after shifts, you can wander the lot (to a certain extent) and get a feel for studio life. You can usually attend employee movie screenings — which is a nice perk — and all too often have the ability to meet and converse with many A-listers as far as actors, producers, executives, etc.
The best way to take advantage of such a position is to request the security details that offer the best access to the powers that be. Working as a lobby desk security guard in production, development, and executive offices is an amazing opportunity to get on a first name basis with executives, as well as visiting producers, directors, talent, etc. These types of officers all too often receive holiday gifts from the powers that be, as well as daily food, treats, etc. That’s how close screenwriters can get to them in this position. After some time, it’s just a matter of finding the proper moment to possibly say, “I’m working on a great spec about a menacing great white shark that terrorizes a small island community.”
Working as a gate officer at any VIP gate (often where valet parking is available) works just the same. You have less time with them compared to being a lobby guard (due to the traffic of incoming VIPs and guests), however, you’ll often get to know the powers that be just as well as you greet them day after day.
Barista/Studio Store Employee
While working as a barista may apply to food services, it has more of an opportunity for social interaction with the powers that be. The same goes for working as a studio store employee. Most studios have their own main street area that often house the main coffee shop and studio store.
The studio store is where employees and visitors can buy studio apparel and other items. When employees and the powers that be bring family, friends, and acquaintances for a studio visit, they almost always make a stop there.
Studio store employees are basically retail workers — stocking shelves, handling the cash register, doing inventory, etc.
Baristas obviously serve coffee, drinks, and cafe snacks.
You can attain these positions by visiting the studio website’s job listings, but all too often it’s easier to be creative and find the number of the studio store or coffee shop and inquire about possible openings.
Working either position can be often seen as thankless work to many. Baristas and studio store employees are doing jobs that could be done in any local shopping mall.
Access and networking.
While access to the studio will be a common theme in all of the jobs listed here, it is so key because it allows the screenwriter to create opportunities.
Both positions allow for interaction with the powers that be and while the screenwriter that takes either job may feel that it is thankless, the best thing that screenwriters can do in this position is to focus less on “the pain” of the job, and more on how it can be used to their advantage. Baristas and studio store employees see the powers that be almost every day. They get to know who they are and especially which ones are friendlier and more approachable than others. They also usually have a lot of access to the studio lot and can experience studio life.
The best way to take advantage of such a position is to be extra friendly with amazing customer service. The powers that be may take notice if they see that day in and day out. It’s not uncommon that when they do see someone working in these positions with a standout positive attitude and excellent work ethic, they just may possibly consider them for assistant jobs, if there is a need and if a casual relationship has been made. If not, during a slow day when they’re getting their midday coffee after a studio stroll or are picking up a shirt for their kids at the store, engage them in small talk. Introduce yourself. Ask how their day is going. Even if you know what they do and who they are, consider asking them. These moments allow for possible bridges to be made and opportunities to casually mention that you’re hoping to get into development as a script reader (see below) or that you’re working on your writing.
Mail Room Clerk
If you read various biographies of studio heads, major executives, and Hollywood agents, the common theme among them is often, “I started in the mail room.”
The mail room isn’t as prevalent as it used to be with the advent of electronic technology (email, PDF, etc.), however, it’s still a necessary department where all branches of the film and television industry send various documents, contracts, packages, etc.
The mail room clerk logs, stores, and transports incoming and outgoing mail and packages. Anything being sent to and from locations within the studio walls usually goes through the mail room, so the mail room department is charged with running it as a more casual and hip version of the post office.
This is a job on this hierarchy that is a little more enjoyable than being a security guard, barista, or studio store employee. There’s a freedom to it compared to those jobs. Mail room clerks often rotate positions. Sometimes they are in the mail room department sorting while other times they are sent out to deliver the items to the necessary offices within the studio lot. If you’ve ever been to a movie studio and have seen people riding bikes to and fro, a majority of the time they are mail room clerks.
You can attain these positions by visiting the studio websites job listings, but all too often it’s easier to be creative and find the number of the studio mail room and inquire about possible openings.
While the grass is always greener on the other side, mail room clerks have it pretty good. The monotony of sorting and delivering envelopes and packages can get old, however, because of the freedom they often have, it’s one of those studio jobs that everyone wants — at least compared to the alternatives mentioned above.
Access and networking.
Mail room clerks have a lot of access to the studio and often enjoy the freedom of being out and about throughout most of the day (unless they are in the department sorting), but the key benefit to this position is the enhanced interaction with the individuals that play such an important role in a screenwriter’s success — assistants. Assistants are the doorway to the powers that be. Everything goes through them, including query letters, scripts, etc. If you befriend an assistant to a major player (development executive or producer)? As Johnny Depp said in Donnie Brasco, “Fuhgeddaboudit.”
While you still need the right concept and script, this is a door that is open for so many in the mail room clerk positions. Relationships are made because they see these assistants each and every day on a regular basis. They are often — but not always — around the same age and the small talk between the two is often a welcome break from both of their normal day-to-day duties.
Mail room clerks have a history of moving up the ladder. They move into assistant positions and onward. It’s a historical stepping stone, thus the powers that be all too often are willing to honor that history.
Studio offices and production companies based on the lot utilize interns on a regular basis throughout the year (mostly during the summer). While some may be tempted to put them lower in the hierarchy, they rise above the previous jobs because of the access, networking, and potential for promotion into full time positions. A majority of the time, with a few exceptions, you need to be enrolled into college in order to take advantage of internships, which can be found in the studio websites job listings.
A little bit of everything. Answering phones, making copies, delivering documents and packages to the mail room and other studio offices, getting lunch, getting coffee, etc. However, interns also learn how to field incoming queries and write studio coverage for incoming scripts.
You’re a gofer. You “go for” things when asked. Depending upon the office, you may either be treated as nothing more than a gofer — not worthy of a second thought — or if you luck out you’ll work under those that remember having been there before, thus you’ll be treated better and may even be mentored in a positive light.
The pay isn’t great, but at least you get paid. A few years ago most internships were unpaid, but due to eventual lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming that unpaid internships were basically illegal free labor, studios now offer a low, but legally acceptable wage.
Access, networking, mentoring, and consideration for possible promotions.
Possibly the best benefit is that you’ll learn how to write studio coverage. You’ll usually be charged with reading a few scripts a week. You are then asked to write studio coverage on them. A majority of the scripts you read will be easy passes. Since internships only last for a short amount of time, it’s very rare that you’ll find gems (And it’s likely that you’re getting the worst of the bunch as an intern), however, you’ll be learning a lot of the general guidelines and expectations of the film industry. This is key information that will help you with your own work down the road.
Beyond that, if you collaborate well with the powers that be and showcase an excellent work ethic and attitude, chances are you may just nab yourself a full time position as an assistant.
This is the coveted full time position in any branch of studio or production company operations. Assistants work directly under the powers that be and it happens to be one of the most powerful positions in the film industry, at least in relation to screenwriters trying to get their script read.
Consider this position similar to that of the intern, but on steroids. Answering phones, making copies, delivering documents and packages to the mail room and other studio offices, getting lunch, getting coffee, etc. Yes, you’ll likely do all of those things, unless you’re smart and hand them off to the interns when they’re in the office.
However, as an assistant, you’ll be more involved with the goings on of the office and especially the powers that be. In fact, you’ll be running the office to a certain extent. And you’ll be reading a lot of scripts and writing a lot of coverage. You’ll also be interacting directly with visiting talent, executives, agents, managers, etc.
Be prepared to work your ass off. Be prepared to work overtime. Be prepared to never fall into a comfortable day-to-day schedule as your responsibilities will change like the wind each and every hour, day, week, month, and beyond.
Many would be screenwriters find little to no time to work on their own scripts. They instead either burn out or work hard and advance into junior development executives or producers, which to many isn’t such a bad thing mind you.
The networking is through the roof in this position. In fact, some producers and development executives insist that their assistants make networking meetings on a weekly basis for one-on-ones with agents, managers, etc.
You’ll be mentored by power players in the industry. You’ll work directly with or around major Hollywood talent.
Studio Script Reader
Now, studio script readers and assistants are not one in the same as most people believe. And yes, one could argue that assistants should be at the top of this hierarchy because of the benefits that come along with that job. However, we’re primarily taking the angle that these jobs help a screenwriter become a more connected and overall better screenwriter. Thus, the studio script reader takes the edge in that respect.
Attaining a studio script reader position can prove to be very difficult. Another reason why this is listed at the top of the hierarchy. Networking comes into play here. It’s very rare that you’ll find a job listing in the trades or on a studio’s job site. All too often, you’ll have to have worked as either an intern or assistant to attain this position, given the need for an experienced background in writing studio coverage.
Reading scripts, novels, and writing studio script coverage. That’s it.
No answering phones, no fetching coffee, no making copies, etc. All studio script readers do is read scripts, novels, and write coverage. That is the extent of their job for the most part. The studio script reader often takes writing studio coverage to another level, something ScreenCraft covered well with Terry Rossio’s Script Reader’s Checklist.
That is all you do for the most part. While it sounds like a dream job, it can and does take its toll, especially given the fact that roughly 95% of the scripts read are terrible or just not ready. Yet even in those cases, script readers are required to still write full coverage on the script, detailing what works, what doesn’t, and why. The worst part about this is that they are also required to write a synopsis for each of those terrible scripts. This eventual loathing is amplified because you’re all too often reading dozens of scripts per week. And thus, you’re writing coverage on each of those as well.
This will be the greatest education in screenwriting that you could ever attain. Forget film school. Forget seminars. This is the ultimate education anyone can receive in the art, craft, and business of screenwriting.
You will learn what works, what doesn’t work, and why. You will learn all of the guidelines and expectations of the film industry. You will learn the tricks of the trade. You will learn all of the little things to avoid. And you will be a better screenwriter than most because of all of this.
I’ve worked three of these studio jobs and have worked directly with many in the other four. My time as a script reader awarded me the best screenwriting and film industry education I’ve ever had.
I’ve seen a former intern in a major production company advance into an assistant position and is now the head of their television department.
Screenwriter Antwone Fisher was working as a security guard at Sony Studios when studio executives began hearing about his life story and offered to buy the rights. Fisher refused, insisting that he write the screenplay himself. He later sold it to Fox. Denzel Washington was brought on board to direct and star in 2002’s Antwone Fisher.
Actor Derek Luke was working at the Sony Studios gift shop when he met Antwone Fisher who was working on the lot as a security guard. When Fisher’s screenplay was bought by Fox Searchlight, Luke asked Fisher for a copy of the script. He went to the casting director unannounced and asked to audition. After a second audition, Denzel Washington came to the gift shop to tell Luke that he got the lead part.
Kathleen Kennedy was an assistant to John Milius and Steven Spielberg in the early 1980s. She’s now one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood and happens to run the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples of screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, and studio executives that started off in these jobs. Needless to say, the proof is in the pudding.
These are the jobs that screenwriters should be looking for. Great concepts and scripts all too often aren’t enough. You have to make opportunities for yourself and the only way to do that is from within the studio walls, production company offices, agency offices (where many of these jobs can be applied as well), etc.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies