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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last but not least: Citizen of the Month

-My final guest post, because really now, is by Neil of Citizen of the Month.

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."~Bertrand Russell

I moved to Los Angeles to go to film school and become a screenwriter. I was surprised by how quickly I got a job involving screenwriting at a major Hollywood studio. Unfortunately, it was not a job writing scripts. It was a job READING scripts.

Yes, I was a low-paid, low-on-the-totem-pole script reader (or script "analyst" as we liked to call ourselves). It was the worst job I ever had.

"What's so bad about getting paid to read?" you might ask. It sounds like the ideal job for an English major and someone who loves to read. First of all, a true "reader" reads for enjoyment or enlightenment. A Hollywood script reader reads and reads and reads and reads endless piles of CRAP. Serial killer movies. Vampire movies. Retreads of whatever comedy was successful the year before. If a dumb movie like "A Night in the Museum" is successful, be assured that within three months, there will be a hundred similar scripts about "A Night at the Zoo" or "A Night in the Art Gallery."

Step one of being a reader is reading the material. Step two is doing the "coverage." Coverage is the equivalent of writing a little book report for each script or book submitted to the company. It is never-ending homework. You summarize the written material. You write a one sentence "log line." You give your opinion of the story, the characters, and the writing. You decide whether the material deserves a "pass," "consider," or "approve."

Within the first week, I was called into the producer's office and told that I was being TOO honest in reviewing the terrible scripts. As a newbie, I didn't realize that Hollywood is mostly based on relationships. My job was not so much to review the script, like a critic might review a book in the New York Times. My main goal was to read the script so the producer didn't have to, but still enable him to LOOK like he read it. Part of my job description was to help the producer be like Paula Abdul on "American Idol" -- finding something positive to say while still rejecting the person. Since you never know who a script may come from, it is always important for the producer to be able to say SOMETHING positive. For instance, if Tom Cruise's aunt wrote a really bad screenplay about a League of Superheroes, the producer should be able to say "the script had some fine moments of dramatic action, but we aren't going in that direction right now." This way, the producer can look like a cool guy -- and blame someone else for the script's rejection.

During the second week, I was called into the producer's office again because I "approved" a script about women's wrestling during the Depression. I thought it was a moving story with great characters, exactly the type of oddball movie I would want to see. No one else agreed with me. Even worse, by "approving" a script as noteworthy, the producer actually READ the script, and HE doesn't like to have his time wasted. That's why he is paying YOU. So, out of fear of losing their jobs, most script readers rarely approve a script unless box-office gold is dripping off the pages (which is rare). In four years of reading scripts, I think I "approved" four projects, all of them vehicles for popular actors.

During the first month, I was called into the producer's office a third time -- this time to learn about a new wrinkle to my job. The producer had taken on a partner and they disagreed over some projects. "My" producer said he would appreciate it if I "liked" certain materials more than I did, in order to convince his partner that a script was not as bad as it seemed. For example, he handed me a script that "he knew had major rewrite problems" but wanted his partner's approval because he thought he could get Eddie Murphy to be involved. So, surprise, surprise -- my coverage of the material contained only mild criticism, with expressions like "flawed, but with a little work, this can be a rollicking comedy, maybe for someone like Eddie Murphy."

For four years, I never read a book for pleasure. Writing became a chore for me. I saw how difficult for any screenplay to get past a reader. There was always going to be a jerk like ME, some frustrated writer, dismissing my script after reading it in a coffee shop at three o'clock in the morning. I lost my ability to distinguish between good and bad. When everyone said a movie sucked, I would just be impressed that the project actually got made!

Eventually, I quit this job and my mind got a needed rest.

In the scheme of things, being a Hollywood script reader isn't the worst job in the world. You can do a good portion of your job sitting in Starbucks. You don't have to shovel horse manure. You don't have to wear a suit.

But for me, it was the worst job I ever had, because it was soul-destroying.

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Blogger fringes said...

Soul-destroying. I shall use that word henceforth. Thank you for giving me such a perfect description of my now-former job at NASA.

11:19 AM  
Blogger deannie said...

I am with fringes: I think we have all had (hopefully only in our youth) a "soul-destroying" job. They do leave a mark you never forget.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Not-faint-hearted said...

To leave a soul-destroying job in hopes of making a living doing what you love the way you love to do it. That's courage. Even if the job was low paying and had no insurance. As the tag says: You've got guts.

Congratulations to all who have done it.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous zandria said...

A very interesting look into what some might consider to be a "glamorous" occupation. I hope you ended up finding something, Neil, that wasn't quite so soul-crushing. :)

11:55 AM  
Blogger Karl said...

I always knew those "get paid to read!" jobs were too good to be true. You've confirmed it.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Heather B. said...

This is a very good end to my 'oh my hell' project. Thank you.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous V-Grrrl said...

The world tortures English majors and creative types...

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my niece has her honors degree in english and is currently working as an editor, she still loves pleasure reading, but i think the writing thing has become a chore.
congrats on your first guest host gig!

6:08 PM  
Blogger Dagny said...

I can relate to the soul-destoying. Congrats on escaping!

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Schnozz said...


Oh, how I miss reading books for pleasure. Instead, I read books about, say, a grandma detective who turns into a bat at night but never forgets to make cookies for the grandkids. OK, I made that up, but seriously. Working as a manuscript editor is not for the faint of heart. I feel your pain, sir.

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This scares the crap out of me since my wife thinks my second career I just started as a screenwriter will make us millions. She drinks a lot.

9:32 PM  

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