What does a Hollywood script reader do, how much does it pay, and how do you get these coveted jobs?
Reading and critiquing screenplays for a living sounds like a dream job to most screenwriters — but you’d be surprised about the realities behind taking on such a position.
Why You Want to Be a Script Reader
The fantasy is pretty simple — you imagine getting paid good money to sit at home reading movie scripts and telling your bosses how terrible or awesome they are. And then you imagine that your insights draw the attention of those producers, development executives, or agents — enough for them to either hire you to write the script, hire you to become a development executive, or give you the keys to the machine to work as a producer.
All of that is fantasy for the most part.
While being a script reader is an amazing stepping stone for any screenwriter, producer, or development executive, it’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems. We’ll get to that later.
Why you should really want to become a script reader is simple — it’s the best screenwriting education you will ever receive. Remember that when we talk about how much — or how little — you may get paid.
The educational aspect is the true treasure. You can quickly become a master of screenwriting structure, format, dialogue, prose, and theory — all from learning from the mistakes and the triumphs of others.
You also learn the ins and outs of the film and television industry expectations, which is key in advancing your own screenwriting career.
So forget about fantasies that have you rising up the ladder after your bosses see how brilliant you truly are. It’s just coverage, baby. And while many of Hollywood’s elite started off as readers, that doesn’t mean that the reason you want to be a script reader should be to follow in their footsteps.
You want to read to learn. Anything else that comes from it is icing on the cake.
Why You Don’t Want to Be a Script Reader
Once you’ve attained such a position, you’ll go through the one-week honeymoon phase where everything is fine and dandy. You’re reading scripts given to you by Hollywood insiders — and you’re (hopefully) getting paid for it.
The honeymoon doesn’t last.
It slowly becomes a grind as the scripts-to-read pile begins to grow. And the grind becomes a sad realization that most of the scripts you’re reading aren’t exciting, entertaining, and amazing. In fact, most of them just outright suck. Yet you are forced to read them because that is your job.
And before you say, “Well, you can usually tell the bad ones within the first ten pages,” you need to understand that this truth doesn’t matter. You’re being paid to read. And that means you have to read the whole thing. You aren’t afforded the power of tossing scripts aside after a few pages. Why? Because you have to write coverage. Let’s come back to that one.
Regardless, the allure of being a script reader gets old pretty quick. In fact, most burn out within the first few months. If you’re just in it for the money, or lack thereof, you’re not going to last long. If you’re there to learn, grow as a writer, or parlay that position into one higher on the Hollywood totem pole, that want or need can drive you through the monotony of script reading.
But make no mistake, no matter what level in Hollywood you attain, reading scripts is usually the worst part of the job. Until you find that one gem, that one Recommend. You can go for months or years without finding one, but if you do, it’s a damn good reset to keep you going.
What Script Readers Really Do
Script readers are tasked with writing script coverage.
Script coverage is the analysis of a screenplay, encompassing various grading of a screenplay’s many elements and accompanied by detailed analytical notes that touch on what works and what doesn’t work within the script — everything from concept, story, characters, dialogue, pacing, and structure to marketability, castability, and overall worthiness of acquisition by whatever company the script reader is working for.
The general structure of coverage varies per company, but you can usually count on including a logline, synopsis, character breakdowns, and anywhere from a single page or more of notes.
CLICK HERE and HERE to read coverage samples from ICM’s Coverage Packet that was previously handed out to the agency’s readers (I’m sure an updated packet is in circulation now). Read the packet’s overview HERE, which breaks down how ICM approached coverage.
At the end, based off of the grading and notes, the script is given a final Pass, Consider, or Recommend rating.
Pass means the script isn’t ready, is outright terrible, or just not for the company.
Consider means the script has elements that showcase promise (concept, writing style, characters), but likely needs some major work.
Recommend means the script is worth investing in, whether it be through an option, development deal, or outright purchase. In short, if you the script reader gives anything a Recommend, you’re telling your boss that they should spend millions of dollars on the project right now before someone else picks it up.
Generally speaking, 95% of the scripts you read will be easy passes, 4% will be above average at best, and maybe 1% will be actual great reads that showcase huge potential.
While it’s great discovering that 1% (or less, to be honest), it’s the 95% of crap that really burns script readers out.
But the coverage doesn’t stop there. It’s not just about the script. Many times, the scripts are being used not for potential acquisition, but as samples to see if there are amazing writers that the company would like to hire to develop and write their own material — whether it’s a rewrite of an acquired script or an assignment to take an original (or franchise) concept the company is developing and turn it into a screenplay.
As a script reader, that’s all you do. You read scripts and you write coverage.
You don’t know who the coverage goes to. You don’t know how far up the coverage goes. You don’t have any say beyond the coverage you’ve written. And you certainly can’t take credit for any major discoveries because most scripts have been vetted by multiple readers.
That’s pretty much what a script reader does.
What Script Readers Get Paid
This is where it gets interesting — and utterly depressing for some.
Most script readers start as interns. And as you may or may not know, interns don’t get paid. Some do, but most don’t. More on interns later.
So, yes, if you’re first starting out, you may not even be making any money. If you’re an assistant at a studio, agency, or production company, script reading may be rolled into your hourly or salary pay for that position. So not only do you have to answer phone calls, sit at the front desk to welcome visitors, grab lunch, grab coffee, and a dozen other duties, you also have to read scripts and write coverage.
If you’re a freelancer, you can maybe make $40-$60 per script. Most freelancers, when not working for free to prove their worth, may start as low as $25 per script. As your reputation (hopefully) grows, your fees can grow as well.
Ken’s Note: I have been paid from $25 to $400 per script from a major studio and additional major production companies.
But on average, expect between $40-$60.
However, if you’re a union story analyst, you’ll be making the union minimums — $43 per hour (average of a few hours to read a script and writer coverage) and/or $1750 weekly if you’re an in-house story analyst.
So joining this script reader’s union, which is an off-shoot of the Editor’s Guild, can be more lucrative if you’re not one of the poor souls that have burnt out. However, it takes some time and money to join the union. You need to work a confirmed thirty days within a guild signatory company and then pay $1900 in initiation and processing fees.
So enough about the details…
How to Become a Hollywood Script Reader
These positions aren’t handed out that easily. It’s a great responsibility, thus the positions are kept close to the hip by the powers that be.
It sucks to work for free, but that’s what you often have to do when starting out. It’s the classic Catch 22 from Hollywood — in order to be considered for prime jobs, you have to showcase that you have experience in those prime jobs. The ultimate conundrum.
Internships afford you the ability to get your feet wet. Yes, you have to be enrolled in a university for most internships. However, there are companies that will take on others willing to prove their worth for no monetary return.
Ken’s Note: The first coverage I wrote was as a non-student intern for Randal Kleiser, director of Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Flight of the Navigator. My best friend from childhood had been his assistant until he left to be on a reality show. I was referred and spent a few months reading for him while working as a security guard at Sony Pictures.
The job will also entail answering phones and being a “gopher” (ready to “go for” anything, including coffee, lunch, dinner, packages, etc.).
Assistants are glorified interns, except you get paid a salary — not a great one, but a salary nonetheless. You’ll answer more phones, “go for” more things, and have more responsibilities, including reading scripts and writing coverage.
Generally speaking, that’s how you attain most script reader jobs — through internships or assistant positions.
Hollywood, as you know, is all about networking. You have to network to get internships. You have to network to get assistant jobs. However, you can also network to get freelance script reading jobs as well.
Explore all connections you have to the film and television industry, no matter how many times removed and let those people know that you’re available to write coverage for them.
Read ScreenCraft’s Maps Screenwriters Can Use to Build Their Industry Network!
Writing Coverage Samples
You will often be given test scripts to write coverage for. If not, they’ll be asking for coverage samples. If you haven’t worked a coverage job before, you can simply be honest about that and ask if you can write test coverage from any script they have. If they like what they see, they’ll hire you on a freelance basis.
Ken’s Note: I was working as a studio liaison for Sony Pictures when a new development executive walked into my office to get a Sony Security ID. I took the job to make contacts and await opportunities. After giving him the security clearance he needed, I saw that we had a good rapport and decided to take a chance. I told him that if he needed any readers, I’d be up for the task. I then name-dropped the director I had interned for and the development executive asked me for some samples. I sent him what I had and a week later I was a Sony script reader/story analyst.
If the freelance work goes well, they may hire you on as an in-house script reader/story analyst. If they are an Editor’s Guild signatory, you just need thirty days of work to be eligible for the union.
Reading for Contests and Competitions
When you’ve established yourself as a Hollywood script reader, you can make additional money reading for screenwriting contests, competitions, and fellowships. Most of the legitimate ones (like our very own) only utilize readers that have worked at major studios, production companies, and agencies.
For any given contest, depending on the load of scripts that you are able and willing to take on, you could make upwards of $2000 or more for a single annual contest run.
Another option? If you write coverage for consulting websites, you could make a consistent honest wage — depending upon the number of scripts that become available for coverage.
What It Takes to Be a Great Script Reader
Being a Hollywood script reader is more than just reading scripts. It takes the ability to objectively analyze each and every screenplay that is assigned to you. You have to be able to communicate not only what is wrong with each script, but what works as well. You need to have the ability to truly break down each script within the context of the multiple elements we’ve mentioned above, including the needs and wants of whatever company you are reading for.
It’s no easy task. It’s no easy paycheck. But the education you receive will be better than any film school program, any screenwriting book, any lecture, any seminar, and any article you read.
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