Here is the preamble to a question I have for you:

Some people criticize story analysts/readers as being overly harsh on all material because they are frustrated writers bitter about their own lack of career. I have never bought that excuse for getting poor coverage, but that is just my opinion. In another post, the subject arose of submitting your script directly to buyers, for example through a direct contact inside the buyer, versus submitting through a producer. A variety of differing and conflicting opinions emerged regarding the best way to submit. Being strategic is important, but there are obviously different ideas about how to do that. In addition, story analysts are not uniform in their attitudes or prejudices. About the only thing they are uniform in is that flawed or poorly executed scripts get uniformly hammered. That’s what readers do – look for storytelling flaws and poor execution. However, well-executed scripts often get hammered, too, by various readers for various reasons.

So, today, here is my question for you. What are your experiences with readers? If you’ve seen coverage of your own material (which is usually a brutal experience), tell me, did you see any reader prejudice?

13 thoughts on “READER PREJUDICE”

  1. Clearly it is easier to believe that the reader was “prejudiced” than that my script was deeply flawed. I think what adds fuel to the fire of this assumption is that coverage can be, not just critical, but snarky and biting. In my own experience as a reader, it’s very tempting to get sarcastic and snide with the comments after reading a hundred dreadful screenplays. I was trained to not use that kind of tone, but I think as a writer you have to learn to look past it. It’s nothing personal — they don’t even know you. It’s just a defense mechanism to keep the reader from going completely batty under the assault of so many horrible screenplays. So don’t make yours one of them.

    I have to say that when I did come across a well-written script, I cheered for it. I would hold my breath and hope the writer wouldn’t botch the ending. No script is perfect, but you do sense when the writer has a firm grasp of the story and writes with confidence and authority.

    As a writer, the worst treatment I’ve gotten is production company coverage that seemed like an exercise in how to show the boss how clever and witty the reader is. “Look at my droll humor, aren’t I a peach? If I can entertain you with my coverage, think how simply wonderful my screenplay would be!” I’ve been perplexed by contradictory coverage — one praising my dialogue as fresh and funny, another condemning it as plodding and cliched. What does that tell me? Nothing really. Not everyone likes the same movies, why should everyone have the same opinion of the script?

  2. Just to add to Dave comments, I did some reading for a small independent production company here in New York. I wasn’t there for long. The timing was bad because of 9/11 and I couldn’t get downtown where they were located but I did get to read and give coverage on a handful of screenplays.

    The first screenplay they gave me was the cream of their crop. Basically saying, “What do you think of this? We think it’s pretty great.” Following that I found there is a lot of dreck out there and it was tedious and laborious to get through it but I guess that’s the price to find the diamond in the rough. The reader can get cynical though. I equate it to the music industry. Going out five nights a week, seeing five bands a night and having to report back on what you saw. That cycle could burn anyone out.

    I didn’t feel resentment towards the writers thinking I could write a better screenplay than them. I believe they all had intentionally written the best screenplay they could and I did read some good ones. I don’t remember reading anything that was a blatant, unoriginal commercial product. Unfortunately because of a lack of guidance, discipline or talent their best wasn’t that great. I guess my agitation came from my feelings that the bar was so low that they thought their work was acceptable. When reflecting back to my career or lack there of, I don’t think my work was that great at that time either but I think the difference was I knew that.

    My experience was with a small independent company and I am assuming a mid or larger company has a more rigorous standard and the pressure is greater to advance. Readers get slammed with screenplays and maybe that has something to do with it. The level of fear that exists also has something to do with it. No one wants to hand off what they think is a great screenplay that gets thrown back in their face for being garbage so I think that puts everyone on edge too. Once you recommend a screenplay, it better be good.

  3. reality check: few people are going to like my comments

    most scripts are very poorly written. i don’t mean you get to the end and go ‘that’s not very good’, i mean line by line, sometimes phrase by phrase it’s so bad. this is a tough pill to swallow – but only if you’re writing this garbage. there is, however, good news. just as bad writing gets noticed, so does good writing. the best thing you (meaning us) can do is rise above. do not compete with lousy wanabe writers. why? let them write sludge, let them compete with themselves.

    part II: remember how i said most people would not like my comments? gets worse. the coverage (and casual comments) my scripts has gotten has been very good. these comments came from producers, agents, coverage services. why? well, damn. cause i write good stuff. why? cause i have the ability and work very hard at it. how? by seeing that my writing is sludge and doing something to improve it

    most wannabes crank out a miserable 1st draft and send it in full of typos, structural errors, clunk dialogue, etc. this is why most coverage is bad – most scripts are bad

    good writing is recognized for what it is. rise above – if you can’t, accept writing as a hobby and be happy with it. if you can, congrats.

    see you in lala land

  4. I am a writer and have been a reader. As I reader I concur with what some others have said… there are so many dreadful attempts at screenwriting out there and you have to read them all and give some kind of intelligent assessment to the company that employs you. It is hard, after the fifth dog of the day, not to slip into supercilious nastiness, as though all the bad scripts were insults directed at you personally by one malevalent writer. As a reader you have to get past that. And it’s not all amateurs. I have read scripts that I could barely wade through and some of those writers have gone on to become big names. Very big names. And it’s not all amateurs. I have read scripts that I could barely wade through and some of those writers have gone on to become big names. Very big names. As a writer I have found 90% of readers reports to be really helpful and encouraging. Good readers know their stuff and whether you agree with them or not usually have something intelligent to say about your work. Even if you disgree completely with a reader’s assessment intelligent commentary will force you to analyse what you are doing, often in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to you. I love reader’s reports, particularly when I’m about to start on a new draft, knowing something is required but uncertain as to exactly what. Don’t fear the Reader!

  5. Two caveats on using coverage as a writer’s tool:

    1. Coverage is not written to help the writer. It is written to provide a quick analysis to the producer. As such, it is often devastating for writers to see how brutally their writing is treated. This can be true even with scripts that may only be a draft or two shy of a good script. Readers are trained to focus on the flaws.

    2. Coverage is often inconsistent between readers. I’ve received both terrible and excellent coverage on the same draft of the same script. It is a story often told. Consistently bad coverage on a script is very telling, but a single read is just one point of view.

    Everyone gets bad coverage at some point. Use coverage as a tool if you have the skin for it, but do not take anything readers say as gospel. Input is just input. You are the writer. Ultimately, story decisions are up to you.

  6. Readers rarely have much experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be readers, eh?

    The CAA reader DESTROYED a script our company submitted to CAA. HATED it. We managed to pull in a favor to get the agent to read it anyway. He liked it and sent it to Lord Richard Attenborough, who signed on as director.

    Gee, who knows more about scripts, Richard Attenborough or the 20-year-olds working for CAA as readers?

    Readers are a necessary evil, but bear in mind who they are. If they knew a whole lot about moviemaking, they wouldn’t still be readers.

  7. I think these are all valid points about criticism of one’s work. It is brutal to see or hear those destructive words said about your screenplay but it does serve a purpose beyond pinpointing the screenplay’s weakness though. It toughens you up and gives you the right tools you need to have longevity in this business. I had a 20-something read my screenplay and as soon as she spoke to me I knew she had no critical point of view whatsoever. I dismissed it because her points weren’t valid in my mind. The other side of that coin is, if you send it out to 10 readers and they all have a problem with the little dog scene in the second act there is probably a problem with the little dog scene in the second act.

    It takes time to be a good writer. What’s that saying, “My overnight success took 10 years” or something like that. At the end of the day you need to have enough confidence and perspective to put out what in your mind is the best work you can do at that point in time. In 5 years you will probably be a better writer, in 10 even better. That’s not now though. The only advice I would give anybody if they want critical feedback on their writing is to give it to someone they respect and trust preferably a screenwriter. That makes all the difference in the world. Some of the best feedback I got on my screenplay was from a screenwriter.

  8. i want to add to my comment above. while coverage of my scripts has been positive, there have also been flaws pointed out. some subtle, some glaring structural gaffs. there is a notion that readers are dumb kids. i can’t comment about readers at agencies and prodcos – all my coverage has come from coverage services and i’ve found those readers know exactly what they’re talking about. i’ve always been impressed. my work has always improved after applying the suggested changes. i have to admit i lack an objectivity about my own work (guess that’s by definition). the flaws pointed out have been a bit embarrassing. i plan on using (good) readers throughout my career.

    you know, now that i think of it, one time i got a read from an agency reader. they liked the script and bumped it up to their boss. boss liked it, too. however, same script got a read from another assistant up the hall at the same agency and they hated it. their comments were idiotic. i was pretty mad

    cuts both ways i guess. but, i’m sticking to my guns. good writing gets better coverage

  9. Yeah, a further word to add to above. Maybe there are a lot of know-nuthin’ readers out there, but some of the most supercilious and ignorant readings of my work have come from people who I knew had credits. They just didn’t get it and so be it. But even that is useful in letting you know that a particular reading is possible. Of course you want it to be as bulletproof as possible, but even two experienced and intelligent people will read the same script differently. You have to have to have confidence in what you are doing and be prepared to submit it until you encounter that person can see your trees falling into line. Or else make it yourself. I shot one of my projects on video and established producers hated it but audiences (targetted) loved it. We are about to re-edit for release to DVD. Not everyone likes the same stuff.

  10. I’d like to add a couple of comments as well. Since I’m a reader, and have yet to submit a screenplay of my own for coverage, I felt I’d wait to comment here. But I’ve been a professional reader for 5+ years, and have worked for tons of companies of many types over the years, so I think I have some insight, hopefully.

    For a few more comments, see what I wrote on “complications ensue.” But a few things to add here. As someone above said, coverage is written for producers, not writers. I have specifically written “softer” toned coverage on the ocassions when I knew the writer would be reading my comments, and thus would have his ego at stake. My occassional harsh comments have been written with the knowledge that only company eyes would have been reading it.

    Also, I’d like to point out that good producers (and I’ve worked with some) know good readers, and specifically knw which readers to give which scripts. Though I have read nearly every genre, I am particularly good at reading comedy. Thus, when one of my employers wants a comedy read, they’ll give it to me. Whereas, someone else might be atronger at straight drama, not my greatest forte. So a good producer will know that, and assign the drama scripts to a different reader.

    Lastly, it’s important to realize that many readers have had to earn their respect and prove themselves. Before I got my 1st paid reading job, I had to do coverage on a script the company was already familiar with, to see if my comments matched. Then, over time, I was given more and more scripts, and then got other jobs from other people, because (as I’ve been told) I write good coverage. I’m not saying this to pump myself up at all. Rather, in my experience, I’m pretty much like most of the other professional readers I know. We have experience and know our stuff, having earned our jobs. Sure, there are plenty of crappy readers out there too, but I know quite a number of really good ones too.

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