What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Friday, November 01, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
Reading for a Living by T. L. Katahn
I've been reading (movie scripts) for a living for nearly 10 years now, and although it's a very popular way for aspiring screenwriters like me to earn some extra cash while also making a few contacts in the entertainment business - and learning a heck of a lot about writing (by analyzing both good and bad work of other writers) - I've never seen any books on the subject, which always surprised me. But then someone on a screenwriters' e-mail list I subscribe to mentioned this book earlier this week, so I had to rush off and read it (particularly since I'm also writing a bit about reading for a living in the book I'm currently working on).
To my surprise, the book is far from new - in fact, it was published in 1990 - but while large chunks of it are hopelessly dated (it extolls over and over the benefits of using a word processor instead of a typewriter, and why it's so great to be able to print out your work after you've written it), the parts that deal specifically with the readers' job are as timely today as they were 12 years ago. In short, the book explains how to land a reading job, what story editors expect from readers (i.e. how to keep a reading job), and then goes into great detail on how to write script coverage, that combination of story synopsis and readers' comments which can make or break a script's future at any production company or studio. The book also explains how coverage is used by the companies that commission it, which also remains quite accurate in today's Hollywood.
In short, the book does a very good job of explaining the basics of reading scripts for a living, and would probably provide a rank beginner with enough information to produce a good piece of sample coverage, which could then be used to land a reading job. As a 10-year veteran of the script-reading trenches, I was quite familiar with almost everything the author describes, though I did run across two pieces of information that were new to me (or one that was new and one which I should have been aware of long ago). The information brand new to me was the description of how a rarified few readers actually become "union" readers, who unlike most of us are not freelance piece-workers, but have full-time, union-protected jobs at the major studios, and actually earn a living wage, complete with benefits. I've always known union readers exist, but I've never met one, and never really knew how they get to be what they are. But this book explains it, and now I know.
The second "new" piece of information, for me, was one that should have been old hat. There's a very useful chapter here that explains some of the not-immediately-obvious benefits of script reading, which include tax deductions for business expenses such as subscriptions to the Hollywood trade papers, and the purchase of movie tickets. While I've always been aware of these, and dutifully deduct them every year, the book reminded me that because readers work at home, and are required to drive to their employers' offices to pick up scripts, mileage to and from those offices is also deductible. Well, as someone who makes most of her living as a freelance writer and producer in corporate communications, I've long deducted mileage for my corporate work. But for some reason, my idiot brain never made the mileage connection for my script reading work, despite all the years that I've dutifully traipsed back and forth to various production companies, on an almost daily basis, picking up and dropping off scripts. (Yikes! I hate think of all that good mileage gone unclaimed!) Now, however, after reading this, I won't forget that nice little deduction at tax time...which means the book has probably just paid for itself, several times over.
Finally, while the book goes into great detail about coverage formats and how to write coverage, I've found employers today do ask for slightly different things than the book describes.
First, when describing the small summary sections on the front page of readers' coverage, the author uses the terms "concept" and "theme" interchangeably. In my experience, however, all companies now use the term "concept" exclusively, and what they want here is a one or two-sentence "logline" describing the main details of the script's story and central conflict (e.g. "A young Kansas farm girl is hurled through a tornado to a brilliant fantasyland, takes a perilous journey down a yellow brick road to find a the great and powerful wizard who may be able to send her home again, and meets a trio of unusual friends along the way." "Theme" on the other hand, usually refers to the subtext of the story (e.g. "there's no place like home"), and is one of the story elements the reader is responsible for identifying and commenting on later in the coverage.
Second, the coverage samples included in this book tend to have very short story synopses (one to two pages is the stated length preferred), but again in my experience, synopses have gotten a bit longer in recent years, and most companies now seem quite happy with 2-3 page synopses that give a slightly fuller sense of the story's key details. (I did work for one company that started out asking for two-page synopses, and later trimmed that back to a one-page mandate...but that's been the only such case in the dozen or so entities I've read for). Personally, I prefer the longer synopses, because they're much faster to write. Trimming a story down to a coherent one or even two page summary, which still accurately conveys the tone and timing of the original, is much harder, and takes a lot longer (at least for me).
Finally, one of the most fascinating details of this book, for me, was its note on how much readers make for reading scripts. It says freelance readers make $30-55 per script. Now, since this was 12 years ago, you'd expect that figure to have risen a bit. Well, it has. Rates are now $50-60 per script. Yes, that's a whopping $5 raise, at the high end, in the last 12 years. Really, however, I'd say that rates haven't actually risen at all. You can still find plenty of people looking for people to read scripts for free (and plenty of aspiring readers ready to jump on those jobs), and I find just as many clients paying $50 per script as they did when I started almost 10 years ago. (In fact, my first big client paid $55 per script, so the $50 I'm still getting now from a couple of fairly big-name companies actually represents a drop in income, especially when you factor in inflation.)
So you'll never get rich reading scripts. But if you do think you might enjoy the work, and if you're curious about the nitty gritty basics of the reader's job, then this book would probably be very helpful (though it would be even more helpful if the author would update it by dropping the many sections on word processors, and by finding some slightly more current coverage samples).