I have two questions for you. First, there are several services out there that offer coverage from Hollywood readers. Would it make any difference to you or someone in the know, if you received a query from a writer who had received a “consider” or “recommend” from one of these services? Or is it just another waste of time/money?
And secondly, I've also read that for unknown writers it's important to get your work "in the door" anyway possible. Some have even suggested contacting people who work in the mailroom, because these are future agents and someday they are going to need clients and they would be more open to reading a script from an unknown. What are your thoughts on this avenue? And if you do think it may be viable, can I get a direct number to ICM's mailroom?
Personally, I would have no interest in learning that a script received favorable marks from someone else – especially if that reader is unknown to me. Some writers have sent coverage from these services or from studios or other agencies. How do I know if they haven’t been doctored? A writer once took a rejection letter sent to him from me and doctored it to read most favorably. This is a small town and it got back to my office. (A friend had read the script based on this “favorable” letter and called me to say, “Dude, this script sucks ass. Why the fuck did you glow about it in this letter?) Needless to say, the next piece of mail the writer received was a “cease and desist” letter.
I have mixed feelings about these coverage services. A friend has paid in excess of five hundred dollars (per coverage/notes) to “experts” whose names are unknown to most anyone in the industry, so he suggested that I start up a service myself. My wife - picture a sun-kissed Lady MacBeth - overheard this and immediately formulated my business plan. But I rejected the idea. I’d be too truthful and probably wouldn’t have much of a business. “Dude, this script sucks ass” is not the way to achieve client satisfaction. And I’d feel dishonest taking money from and giving notes to some aspiring writer that will never ever make a dime in this business.
To pay for coverage, I think, defeats the purpose unless the reader is being dead honest. When a script goes into a studio or agency, the coverage is completely impartial – which can lead to some painfully candid comments. Can a reader who is paid directly by the writer be as frank? Or does he risk future business? That’s not to say these services do not provide a purpose. However, to use the coverage as a means of entrée into a company may not be all that effective.
As for the mailroom, it is, indeed, the place where many future agents start their odyssey. However, it’s pretty busy down there, and there may not be much time for that sort of phone call. But if you decide to stroll down this avenue, let me know how the call turns out. By the way, not everyone in the mailroom wants to be an agent, so make sure you don’t end up pitching to the Fed Ex man. (And the phone number you request is listed somewhere.)
How can I get a job as a script reader for a studio or agency? Can I do it living outside of California?
With the excessive influx of scripts into studios and agencies, busy executives and producers cannot read everything. So, material is vetted through a screening process, where “readers” (a.k.a. story analysts) review the projects and write a report. The “reader’s report” or “coverage” includes a logline and synopsis. Most importantly, perhaps, is the section devoted to comments, where, generally, the reader opines on the material’s strengths and weaknesses, the overall effectiveness of the narrative and its viability as a film or TV project. The reader gives the script a grade of RECOMMEND, CONSIDER or PASS.
This is a much maligned process, because some writers believe the reader is not qualified to judge his material. Ultimately, I think it’s less an issue of qualifications and more about ego. No writer wants to think his hard work could be rejected by an underling (perhaps even a failed or bitter scribe himself). “This guy is a loser. Probably a wannabe who couldn’t write a fucking e-mail. If my script had landed on Spielberg’s desk, I'd have a deal by now.’” (But don’t forget, moviegoers – comprised of people who’ve never heard of Robert McKee or attempted to write a script or make a movie – issue the "recommend, consider or pass" on a regular basis.)
It just isn’t realistic to expect the exec to read every script sent his way. When bringing in your taxes to H&R Block, do you expect either “H” or “R” to prepare them? It would be presumptuous to assume that Moe, Manny or Jack would change the oil if you took your car to Pep Boys.
Whether it’s revered or reviled is immaterial. This is the standard operating procedure of Hollywood. Readers vet most of the material. This system was conceived at the birth of the film industry. It is a tradition.
In the early days of filmmaking, the studios employed “story editors” who were not only “readers” (scripts were also referred to as “scenarios” and “photoplays” back then), but they also determined which scripts to buy. They did the rewriting and wrote their own original material too. They even edited films. Scenarios were bought outright in the beginning. A 1915 article in Photoplay Magazine, written by Captain Leslie T. Peacocke, tells us that “Twenty-five dollars per reel was, up to a year ago, the usual price for the average scenario. Few of the higher class companies now pay less than $35 for scripts from unknown writers, and most of the well known scenario authors were demanding and getting from $100 to $200 per reel for original stories and from $75 to $250 per reel for adaptations from stage plays and books.”
With the promise of that kind of paycheck, people wanted to write scripts. The modern deluge of screenplays into town is not a recent phenomenon. In those pioneer days, there wasn’t enough material to keep up with the output of product. (In 1915, one studio could produce almost the same amount of films that all of Hollywood turned out last year.) So, for better or worse, studios advertised for scenarios in national magazines! This eventually led to a phenomenon known as “scenario fever.” In Budd Schulberg’s memoir “Moving Pictures,” he writes about his father, B.P. Schulberg, the Story Editor for narrative filmmaking pioneer Edwin S. Porter. Shulberg recollects on his father’s experiences: “There was a stampede to ‘get into the move game,’ and if you couldn’t get a job in front of the camera as a featured player or as a five-dollar-a-day extra, or behind it as a director, cameraman or technician, you could always try your hand at scribbling. When my father and mother wheeled my fancy carriage through Mt. Morris Park, they would be intercepted by passersby who had heard that young Shulberg was Edwin S. Porter’s Scenario Editor and would press on him their latest inspirations for Mary Pickford…’They came pouring in, mostly in illegible scrawls,” BP would tell me, ‘written on everything from postcards to butcher paper. Everybody who paid his nickel to see one of our shows thought it was easy money to dash off a movie. Most of them were illiterate. Nearly all of them were godawful.’”
Eventually, Thomas Ince compartmentalized the process of filmmaking, dividing the tasks and assigning them to individuals. As a result, the story editor just mined for new material, while a writer was assigned to write and so on. Despite the changes, almost a hundred years later, a similar line of defense forages through piles of screenplays hoping to divine potential movies to send up the chain of command until a handful are greenlit for production.
Although readers come from all walks of life, at the agency, most of our dozen freelance readers have graduate degrees in writing and all sorts of Hollywood experience. However, as an industry standard, this is not a pre-requisite.
Most reading jobs in the business are freelance. Readers pick up scripts, read them at home, turn in their coverage and pick up their next batch. Freelance readers are outside contractors and do not receive employment benefits. However, reading scripts is a great education and many writers, producers and executives have started life as readers. ICM CEO Jeff Berg started his career as a reader. ICM boasts an impressive list of reader alumni – most recently Patrick Melton, who has had his first flurry of success with selling three scripts and a TV pilot, landing several assignments, and seeing his first film produced. The idea that readers are unqualified or ill-equipped to review material is – in most cases – not true. Many must demonstrate their aptitude during the hiring process. The job competition (like everything in this business) is fierce. We get hundreds of unsolicited applications in a year and have the ability to choose the best. Most readers are professionals. In fact, I would make the case that the likelihood of a reader getting a bad script far outweighs (think morbidly obese) the script getting a bad reader.
To land a freelance reading job, find examples of coverage on line. Study them. (Somewhere in this blog, I included a list of story elements I look for when reading a script.) Then, create a portfolio of coverage by reading unproduced scripts and writing up reports. Have an example of a RECOMMEND and/or CONSIDER and a PASS.
Get the “Hollywood Creative Directory” and cold call every Story Department, CE, Story Editor, and Director of Development at every agency and production company. Ask to send résumé and samples. If they are not hiring, ask them to keep the résumé and samples on file.
Most studios use union readers. There is a Story Analysts Union (IATSE Local 700S) – which operates under the auspices of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. The Story Analyst Guild keeps a roster of readers that signatories must exhaust first before hiring a non-roster reader. This means it is much harder to get a job with the signatories.
Union readers start at $27.08 an hour. This is considerably higher than the starting salary for a freelance reader, which can range from $40-$60 per script. Often, books demand a higher fee. (It can take up to four hours to read a screenplay and write coverage.) Union readers hold on to their jobs until the very end when the mortician has to pry the scripts from their cold, dead hands. All reading jobs fill very quickly.
Since the demand for these jobs is great and there are hundreds of applicants within a mile radius of any prodco, agency or studio, it’s not realistic to expect companies to hire readers from outside of town. Beware of those that do.
I am an Entertainment and Arts Management major at Drexel University out in Philadelphia. It has been my goal for awhile now to become a talent agent at one of the big 5 (WM, ICM CAA etc.) or maybe a boutique agency that is on the larger side (Paradigm, APA etc.) I have read countless accounts of how agents started off in the mailroom and muscled their way to the top. My question is this: how do you get into the mailroom? From what I understand, the application process is extremely fierce and typically a resume sent through H.R. is incinerated upon arrival. I still have a few years of school left (I'm in my first year) so what advice do you have in terms of breaking in to such a difficult industry? Should I try to bolster my resume or concentrate more on making contacts? Do any of these agents have a legitimate internship program for current college students? I should mention that the program of studies for my major includes two "co-ops" (which are basically internships) for the summers after my sophomore and junior years. Any idea on what type of internship during these time periods would round out my industry experience? Any advice you can give me to help me along the path to becoming an agent is greatly appreciated.
You are referring to a Hollywood agent? Not a travel agent? Or even a secret agent? Because the life of a Hollywood agent is really tough. Just a quick glance at Ari Gold from HBO’s ENTOURAGE provides a taste of the stressful and demanding work required to achieve any sort of success.
First and foremost, agents are salesmen. Few have backgrounds in the arts. Most have business or law degrees. If “sales” is not your thing, consider another aspect of the entertainment business. The prime responsibility of an agent is to get work for their clients. It’s a hard night’s sleep when the phone sheet is covered with the names of client’s who haven’t worked and cannot afford to pay the rent or the kid’s school tuition. While the agent frets and toils over that, he also worries that competing agents are trying to steal clients. If he has an up-and-comer on his roster, for example, he often needs to accompany him everywhere – to mark his territory and ward off the poachers.
Agenting is not a job, it's a lifestyle.
The first few years for most agents (which would include a training period) are not lucrative. They might make the salary equivalent to a New York City school teacher – only the kids in Hollywood are bigger, not as cute and much more unruly. Often, burn-out sets in before the big bucks ever arrive. Agents at big agencies don’t get 10% of what the client earns; the agency gets that. The amount of commission an agent brings in to the agency allows him to negotiate a bigger contract (and get a commensurate bonus), but if his overhead (cost of doing business) exceeds his contribution to the agency, he's scrambling for another job. Show business isn’t known for its civility either, so be prepared for a barrage of invective and cruelty not seen since the days before the Emancipation Proclamation. (Observe Kevin Spacey’s dead-on performance of a studio executive in SWIMMING WITH SHARKS.) One must not only endure pain but take some pleasure in it to survive on this side of the business. But for those who belong here, this is a great business.
And why should we have all the fun?
The smartest move for you to make would be to enter an internship program. Many interns have come back to our agency after graduation to take jobs as assistants. Some have gone on to become agents. An internship is a great way to get frontline experience and make necessary connections. Furthermore, agency experience is real capital in this business. Interning at one of the top five agencies looks great on a résumé and can help move you to the top of any job applicant list. However, these internships are very competitive. We get interns from all around the country. The crop is often very impressive and they come from some of the very best schools. Summer internships are the most popular. (And a summer in L.A. is awesome.) If you plan on applying for a summer internship, you need to do it now.
Contact Human Resources at any of the desired agencies to learn about the requirements. Phone contact is important. Put a personality to the application. And be persistent. Since most internships are not paid, college credit is almost always required.
To insure that return trip after graduation, take the internship seriously, make sure everyone will remember your name and, in the words of Purlie Victorious, “Do what you can for the white folks.”
Everyone who reads my script really likes it but no one wants to buy it or sign me. Is it really this hard to get a break?
Yes, it is that hard. But, most often, the writer makes it harder.
I suspect no one really likes the script, which is why you haven’t gotten that break. It’s important to understand that rarely will someone tell you the script isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Screenplays are like baby pictures. No one will look at a mother's photo of her baby and say anything negative. Most can, at least, sympathize with the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a screenplay (the writer's "baby"), so decorum is often used. Because the writer thinks he has written a great script, he believes the false praise. (Just like a mother believes her ugly runt is adorable when someone tells her.)
Always observe the actions behind the words. At the least, if someone is willing to pass the script on or refer you to others, he probably believes in the material. As I’ve stated over and over again, I do not believe one has to write a “great” script. One merely has to write the “right” script – which means getting it to the right person at the right time. Perhaps this isn't the right script. You need to distance yourself from the material and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. At a later date, you might have a better understanding as to why no one is embracing the script. Use this fresh POV to tackle a rewrite and then strategize a new marketing plan.
In the meantime, start your next script.
I'm having a tough go generating requests to read a script of mine with this query letter. Any ideas how to better my results?
...It's 1942, World War II is raging, when a mysterious German scientist contacts the Allies wishing to defect with breakthrough technology for developing an atomic bomb. Now it's up to a war-weary American colonel and his crack team of Allied agents to infiltrate a top-secret Nazi research facility and bring the scientist out before the Germans learn of the breakthrough and develop the weapon themselves.
This is the premise for THE BEST MAN an Alistair MacLean style high-adventure for today's video game generation.
My first script, a horror story called Taboo, was recently optioned by Film Factory New Zealand (Ike: Countdown to D-Day, Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America) with Stuart Orme (The Puppet Masters) attached to direct. Currently, I reside outside of Los Angeles, but I am just a one hour flight away and I can travel there for meetings without restriction. May I send you the script for your consideration?
New writers trying to break in with a spec script set outside of present day have an uphill climb (steeper than the usual climb). Period pieces are often a tough sell, and WWII movies haven’t set the box-office on fire lately.
Also, you would probably get more mileage referencing the likes of Ludlum. The last feature adaptation of a MacLean novel starred Michael Dudikoff almost twenty years ago. A young CE might not have ever heard of Maclean. At least they (probably) know that Ludlum is responsible for the Jason Bourne character
You chose a subject matter that's a tough sell. Ultimately, it sounds like an idea from which both agents and producers would shy away. This is probably the best explanation for the lack of enthusiasm. And you should have known better.
New writers must do some advance work. This is not to discourage you from writing what you want. However, a scribe should have a list of a few stories he’d like to tell. Let’s say he has ideas for a comedy, a WWII adventure and a biography of Renoir. The writer needs to do some investigating to understand the current state of the marketplace and then choose the concept that motivates him - but will also excite both buyers and sellers. Granted, the climate can change rapidly by the time the script is complete, but it still makes sense to work on an idea that has set some recent, successful precedent.
Hollywood’s most successful scribes have the gift of writing material that inspires both themselves and their audience.
Like a lot of aspiring writers, I have people at different agencies who will read my stuff. They've liked something I've written in the past, (though not enough to sign me) or at the very least don't want to miss out on what could be a next great script, so are always happy to read the next spec. Fine. Great. However, due to recent agency mergers and buyouts, some of my contacts are now working together (or at least under the same roof). So my question is: What is the etiquette on this? Do I let each agent know when the next spec is ready? Do I pick the one I like more and hope the other doesn't find out? Do I contact them both, but not inform them about the other one, and worry about it later? Should I go with the one who contacted me first between the two while their agencies are separate? Obviously I want my work to get read; but also don't want to burn any bridges before even getting started by stepping on the wrong toes.
Let me answers these one by one.
Do I let each agent know when the next spec is ready? Yes.
Do I pick the one I like more and hope the other doesn't find out? You're not asking her to the fucking prom.
Do I contact them both, but not inform them about the other one, and worry about it later? Yes. Contact them both. Different agents have different tastes, so send it to everyone. One agent will read the script and say, “I can’t sell this.” And the other agent will read the script and believe he can sell it. Why should you reduce your odds of finding the right person? If they both love it (and they’re at the same agency) they can co-rep you. If they are at different agencies, you can decide the best home for you. A writer wants to be careful in sharing his scripts with both sellers and buyers simultaneously. If you send the script to every production company in town and it’s a unanimous rejection, a rep may not want the script afterwards. (It’s damaged goods.) I suggest tackling the search for representation first. If that fails, then market the script to buyers.
Should I go with the one who contacted me first between the two while their agencies are separate? See above.
By the way, there is no etiquette in Hollywood.
In “Mailroom #10,” I responded to this question: "I think you focus too much on loglines and pitches and not enough on screenplays. Don't you understand the importance of the screenplay over the logline? I think all this pitch and logline preaching is doing writers a disservice. Don't you?" A reader wanted to respond based on his own experiences. This is what he has to say:
I am going to create a Breathalyzer Test for sending emails: The email sender will have to go through a series of brain/reflex tests to prove they are not intoxicated. Only after which, will they be allowed to "send" the email.
My questions for the person who sent the email:
When you decide to go to the movies or order a movie through Netflix, do you watch EVERY movie offered in hopes of finding one that suits your fancy or do you base your decision to watch a movie on the SNAPSHOT given that indicates what the movie is about? Then why should it be that much different for the professional producer, agent, actor, story editor, reader, etc.?
We, as moviegoers are so accustomed to using a visual logline (trailer, etc.) to determine our level of interest in a movie that it should not be a surprise or shock that Hollywood has something similar in place to determine their interest in spec screenplays.
What Chris' focus on loglines has done to my writing: It has saved me from a lot of false starts, unnecessary drafts, etc., because I will only start a screenplay after I have written a logline for the script. If the logline works, I proceed to write the script. If the logline sucks, then it's off to writing the next one... in search of the “Halle Berry” logline that can be turned into a “Halle Berry” script.
And I no longer tell anyone how "good" or "great" my logline or script is: I'm the writer... not the audience. It's my job to write and their job to tell me what their reaction to the script... not the other way around.
With all the bad scripts floating around Hollywood, I personally don't think there is enough focus on loglines. When a writer says, "I'm going to write about such and such...," he's talking about the logline/concept of the screenplay.
So why gloss over such an important aspect of the process in favor of rushing to FADE OUT, tell ourselves (and that stripper at the club) how great it is, and waste the $$$ on copyrights, contests and script stalking?
Bob Carroll Jr. died on January 27th at the age of 88. Mr. Carroll was the co-creator and prolific writer of the seminal TV sit-com I LOVE LUCY.
I LOVE LUCY followed the exploits of a wacky housewife (Lucille Ball) and her husband, a Cuban entertainer (played by real life husband and Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz). It was a monster hit for CBS when it premiered in 1951 as the #3 highest rated show of the year. It found its way to the #1 slot where it remained for most of its life – even in its final season as a weekly series.
Carroll had helped create the “Lucy” character, with his writing partner Madelyn Pugh Davis, on a radio show called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND that also starred Ball. Carroll co-wrote all 180 episodes of I LOVE LUCY along with Davis and producer Jess Oppenheimer. In the fourth season, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf joined the staff. Only Davis and Schiller survive.
Carroll & Davis remained with Lucille Ball for most of her career, penning many of her post I LOVE LUCY TV series and co-writing the story for her 1968 feature YOURS, MINE AND OURS. Carroll also co-created shows and wrote episodes for many other series during his career, which ended in retirement in the 80s.
The I LOVE LUCY writing was meticulous. Lucille Ball was an actress not a comedian, so the gags (like candy wrapping and grape stomping) were written out in detail (which Lucy referred to as “the black stuff”) and even given a test run by the writers before the star ever got hold of the script.
Using “Laughs, Luck…and Lucy,” by Jess and Gregg Oppenheimer, as a reference, here is an excerpt from “LUCY DOES A TV COMMERICIAL, which features the redhead pitching a vitamin syrup called “Vitameatavegimin.” (“Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? ) After endless rehearsals in preparation for a live commercial, Lucy unwittingly discovers the health tonic is loaded with alcohol:
LUCY: Well – I’m your Vita-veeda-vigg-vatgirl. Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you pop out at parties? Are you unpoopular? Well, are you? The answer to ALLLLL your problems in this li’l ole bottle. Vita-meeta-vegamin. (She looks real pleased with herself for getting it right.) Contains vitamins, meat, metagable and vinerals. With – (She looks at the bottle.) Vitametavegamin you can spoon your way to health. All you do it take one of these full-vita meedy mega meenie moe a mis (She holds up the spoon.) … after every meal. (She has a lot of difficulty getting the spoon under the neck of the bottle. Keeps pouring so that it doesn’t hit the spoon but goes on the table. Finally, she puts the spoon down on the table, takes the bottle with both hands and pours it on the spoon. She puts the bottle down, looks at the spoon to see that it’s full, beams back to the audience, turns back to the table, picks up the bottle and drinks out of it. As she puts the bottle down, she notices the spoon again, picks it up and puts it in her mouth. She forgets to take it out. With the spoon in her mouth.) Taste just like candy. (She takes the spoon out of her mouth. By now, she is leaning, practically sitting on the table.) So why don’t you join the thousands of happy, peppy people and get a great big bottle. (She opens her mouth but realizes that she’d better not try it again. Holds up the bottle.) This stuff.
Over fifty-years later, Mr. Carroll’s creation remains as “poopular” as ever. I LOVE LUCY is one of the few 50s sitcoms that airs regularly on TV stations around the world. It can be seen over a dozen times a week on FOX here in Los Angeles.
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