To Read or Not to Read
There's a very old Hollywood joke that asks, “Why don't studio executives read scripts themselves?” The answer is: “Because their lips get tired.” Across the industry, studios and production companies receive thousands of script submissions annually. For various reasons, most of them will be something a studio can't use, and it would be a waste of resources for a highly paid studio executive to spend her time reading every submission. Instead studios hire story analysts or script readers for the initial “weeding out” process.
The position of story analyst can be as varied as the budget of the company employing them. Larger studios will hire union members, per their obligation as a guild signatory. A union story analyst can receive $25 to $40 per hour as a full-time employee. Some production companies and agencies hire freelance readers, sometimes for as little as $10 an hour but usually at around $50 per script.
It's not unusual for an executive's assistant or unpaid intern to provide the services of a story analyst as a favor to the company, and as a way to demonstrate a knowledge of production and development requirements.
After reading the script, the story analyst writes up a thorough summary and critique, called coverage. If the coverage is positive, the script moves up the development ladder with the coverage attached for everyone else to read. It's widely suspected that most script readers are unemployed screenwriters taking out their frustrations on the scripts they're hired to read.
The truth is, script readers want to impress their bosses just as much as anyone else would. They want to find that one great script. As a writer or filmmaker, be assured that these individuals can be your allies, carrying your banner through the halls, trumpeting your brilliance and insisting (as far as they can) that the studio make your film. Some people consider script readers to be a screenwriter's worst enemy, but you're better off making them your best friend.
When submitting your script for consideration, it's an industry standard that you fasten it with two or three brass brads. When fastening brads, fold the flat points outward, then doubled-back under themselves. This will prevent brads from snagging on the reader's clothes, other papers, car upholstery, or anything that might put the reader in a bad mood while reading your script.
The Upshot of Coverage
The coverage of any material done by a script reader is a summary of material a production company is considering buying. The material itself can be a script, a treatment, a manuscript, a short story, a comic book, a magazine article — just about anything. The 1986 blockbuster action film Top Gun was inspired by an article about the United States Navy's flight training school, written by Ehud Yonay for California Magazine.
Different production companies require different styles for their coverage, but most of them include the following:
Title of the submission
Name of the author or authors
Length of the material (in pages)
Locations (usually in very general terms — e.g., Los Angeles freeway or Arizona desert)
Budget (low, medium, high)
Time period in which the story takes place
Date when the reading was done
Logline (a one-sentence synopsis of the material)
Summary (one or two sentences summarizing the reader's reaction to the material)
Recommendation (typically the script is classified with a “pass,” “consider,” or “recommend” followed by a checklist of attributes such as premise, structure, and dialogue)
Synopsis (a full breakdown of the major elements of the story, usually several paragraphs long)
Comments (the reader's impressions and recommendations about the material, specifically in regard to strengths and weaknesses)
Conclusion (usually a short paragraph specifying the reasons for the reader's recommendation)
If the script reader recommends the material, it's passed up to her boss, along with the coverage. That person then reviews the material and the coverage before deciding if it should be recommended further. Depending on the size of the production company, the coverage could follow the material through several levels before ultimately being accepted or rejected.
If a script reader likes a concept but isn't impressed with the actual writing, she can recommend the script, but not its writer. The reverse also holds true. The reader may like a particular writer's style, but not the material itself. In either of those situations, script coverage can be passed on for further consideration.
If the material is given a “pass” at any point, both the material and the coverage are kept on file and tracked. Sometimes old scripts are rescued from files years later by a development executive looking for hidden treasure.
Unfortunately, the opposite also occurs. Bad coverage can haunt a script for months or years as it makes its way around town, and it's nearly impossible to get past it once a few companies keep track of the same poor results. Oftentimes, the only clue a writer has of this scenario is continual rejection by production companies. If you find yourself in that situation, it may be best to put that script away and try a new one.