Becoming a Professional Script Reader
Are you interested in learning how to make money reading screenplays for a living?
I’ve been working as a screenplay analyst for the past decade, starting from my first internship in LA, with prior time in college at Columbia University devoted to classes on script analysis. So, I have a pretty good idea how to turn script reading into a living.
About 10-20 times a year, someone emails or texts to ask me about how to do what I do. They’ll ask me how to get started, or how to make money doing it.
So, I wanted to put all that info together in one place. I’ll be talking specifically about reading for companies, not for individuals, though I do both.
If you’re looking to learn more about how to become a professional screenplay analyst, here’s where to start your journey to becoming a professional script reader.
If you have additional questions at the end, post ’em in the comments!
This post contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using the links. Please see my disclosure for more details.
What Does a Script Reader Do?
A script reader or someone who does screenplay coverage is a professional hired by studios, agencies, management companies, and executives, to read screenplays, books, and other media, and write reports on those pieces of media. The report generally includes a summary of what you just read, plus a series of notes indicating the quality of the material, and whether the executive or studio should pursue the project.
What Does It Mean to Pursue the Project?
Pursuing a project might mean optioning it, it might mean pitching to direct it, it might mean purchasing the rights to develop a screenplay based on it.
Why Do Companies Hire Readers?
Coverage is often done by a company assistant or intern; the majority of companies, in my experience, do not hire outside readers.
They mostly use their own assistants or interns to read for them.
If they have a lot of work coming in, or they want to free up their assistants, then they might hire readers. I see ads for bigger companies more often than smaller companies, so budget and amount of work tend to determine whether a company hires a reader.
Executives simply don’t have time to read 100 scripts a week. They tend to subdivide the work among a few readers, or assistants and readers.
Contests also hire readers. My main note is that contests generally pay less than companies do, and contest scripts don’t often have the level of quality of scripts submitted through agencies and management companies. You are more likely to encounter early drafts that haven’t been revised when reading for a contest.
What Kinds of Material Do You Read?
I have read books, scripts, plays, news articles, and even listened to podcasts and watched old TV episodes for coverage purposes. Inspiration is everywhere, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, there actually is a desire to find new and original material to produce for the screen.
How Do You Get Started?
My path wasn’t the same as everyone else’s, but it’s similar to a lot of other readers. My start was as an intern. I interned for a number of production companies and was taught by various Creative Executives how to do coverage.
I then moved on to working for production companies and showrunners, where I read for them, as part of assistant and coordinator work.
Around this time, I had a lot of friends sending me scripts for notes. It got to the point where I was receiving upwards of 5-10 scripts a week. I enjoy helping people, but my schedule became overwhelmingly busy. I didn’t have time to do my own writing, because I was working a 70 hour week, then reading other people’s material. I was only making $25k a year with no benefits at the production company where I worked, so it wasn’t like I had spare free time. A lot of scripts started to come in from people I didn’t know, who were referred to me. Flattering! But too much work.
So, I put out the word that I would be willing to read for pay, but no longer for free. Some people tried to offer dinner, but I don’t do that – dinner doesn’t pay rent. At that point, I assumed I wouldn’t get any more reading work, and could focus on my writing. Instead, the same people who had asked for free reads were now paying me to read for them!
A business partner suggested starting a coverage service. Our service was primarily built to help writers. She had extensive background in TV, while mine was more in features. We hosted events, compiled a blog with writing tips and interviews with writers and creative execs, and attended screenwriting conferences and classes.
We also read. A lot. At Columbia, I read a number of books on screenwriting, including Story, Writer’s Journey, and The Sequence Approach (note: if you struggle with structure and haven’t read this one, I recommend it).
I also read The Virgin’s Promise, Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Save the Cat, and more.
I still read books on screenwriting when time permits, as I like to have as many tools as possible at my disposal.
I was also obsessed with reading screenplays. Every year, when the Black List came out, I would read every script, and I eagerly awaited releases of Oscar-nominated scripts online.
As much as I enjoy reading scripts, I recommend also reading books about screenwriting. Books synthesize the information in a cohesive way. And read as many good, produced scripts as you can handle. It helps you understand the language of storytelling, and how screenwriters break the myriad “rules” we are constantly told exist in the writing space.
I hear a lot of talk about how helpful it is to read bad material. It’s useful to see where things go wrong and how they can be adjusted, but once you’ve read a few dozen bad scripts, it’s no longer a worthwhile exercise. That said, reading good material is always a chance to grow your knowledge.
Eventually, when the coverage company I co-founded closed, I moved on to writing and directing my own material. But, I got a message from a friend of mine, who wanted to hire me to read for her.
Of course, I said yes! It was my first company-paid gig for reading. 7 years later, I’m still reading for that company, and I now have 8 regular company clients. The majority of my clients are LA-based, but I have a few in London, Dublin, and Toronto, as well.
What’s Your Job-Landing Strategy?
For me, this is mostly a referral process. I hustled my ass off 7 years ago, applying to every company reading job I found online. And, I landed 4 of them! One was Amazon, so I feel pretty good about the “applying online to reading jobs” process. As long as the company is reputable and able to pay, I think it’s worth it.
So: online applications is one step.
I also used my other connections through social media. People know that I work as a reader, so companies have sought me out to work for them.
Another step is referrals. Again, that first contact opened a lot of doors. She probably found me 5 of my current clients.
A last step would be cold calling. If you’re not seeing jobs posted online, it doesn’t hurt to compile a list of studios whose work you like and cold-call or email to see if they need a reader. I know 1 reader who has made her entire client list off of this! I haven’t done this much, but it’s an option to consider. I would only say this: be kind, be willing to take rejection, don’t spam, and only email 1 person at the company. Don’t email every manager and hope one of them will say yes. Just pick one person.
How Do You Get Referrals?
I ask people to refer me when work is slow.
And, I do good work. I always make my deadlines. I try to over-deliver on deadlines, in fact.
I communicate with my clients. They know my schedule and when I’m out of the office.
I always am thorough. I do a full summary and provide clear and actionable notes.
I’m always honest. I don’t say something is great when it isn’t. But, I always point out what’s working.
Even the most problematic pieces usually have something good. I don’t want to be the reader who’s just dragging people down. So, I make it a personal mission to find something good.
That doesn’t mean I will compliment something that’s simply not working, or that I’m overly generous. I just try to be honest – because writing is hard. And I understand why a lot of common issues might arise.
How Do You Land Those Online Gigs?
When you apply, you might find a lot of rejection at first.
Here’s how I overcome that:
I have a strong portfolio. You should have at least 3-5 pieces of coverage that prove you understand:
1) Basic coverage format
2) Basic coverage expectations
3) How to do a good summary and notes
4) What modern screenwriting is all about (structure, character, dialogue, format, etc)
Understanding those areas and demonstrating them in your portfolio will help.
Most of the online jobs I’ve seen ask for coverage samples. If you don’t have any ready, read a book and do coverage on it. Or ask a friend if you can cover their script.
And – get some good references. If you send a resume, highlight your ability to understand story (especially screenwriting).
Becoming a professional script reader isn’t easy, and definitely takes a good amount of hustle.
Becoming a Professional Script Reader FAQ:
1) Do You Make a Lot of Money?
No. I don’t. Some places pay $10-45 for a feature. Think about how long it takes you to read a feature film, and consider if that’s a worthwhile hourly rate.
Understand that, as you build your resume, you may end up taking work from contests where they pay in free festival passes.
I don’t believe anyone should have to take work they can’t afford, but it’s not my call to make, and I am aware these places exist. If you’re looking to get rich quick or pay your rent easily – you may want to do something else.
2) How Do You Make a Living?
It took me 1 year of working full time to make as much as I was making at the production company I left. I was able to make more, but it’s an uphill climb. Having roommate or family support goes a long way. I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s true of a lot of full-time readers I talk to.
Another area that readers make money is via festivals and conferences, working as speakers or at Pitchfests hearing pitches and giving notes. I don’t do these things very often, but I enjoy them, when I have time.
Professional readers also sell books, consultations, and classes. That’s usually a lot more money than doing 1 coverage.
I have seen a number of people who have stuck around in the 10+ years I’ve been doing this, and they all seem to have multiple side-hustles. So, be aware – only reading, without doing anything else, doesn’t pay in the millions.
3) Would You Recommend Doing Coverage?
Honestly? If you love reading, love storytelling (and love material that breaks story convention), enjoy networking, and understand the difference between honest and harsh critique, sure. If you can separate your personal preferences from what you’re reading, so you can judge a story for its merits, that helps. I don’t love horror, but I do a lot of notes in the horror space, and I enjoy that.
But I don’t think script reading is for everyone. Can you read 500 pages between Friday night and Monday morning? If not, it might not be for you.
Being willing to give up your weekends and read things at the last minute with tight deadlines can be a part of the process. So, if you struggle to read something quickly, coverage may not be your jam.
4) Where Do I Start to Look for Work?
No matter where you begin, you will be competing with thousands of assistants with years of coverage experience. So, keep building your portfolio and network of contacts.
If you have a good portfolio and resume, seek out creative and development executives to see if they have openings.
There is not a singular, central place online that posts coverage gigs. There is 1 very selective email list I know of. But you have to have a recommendation to get on that list. Craiglist sometimes has jobs, and so does Upwork, so it can be worth spending a bit of time on those sites.
A lot of people see online “coverage services” charging $200 or $500 a script and think they can instantly do that and make good money. Those services are not always helpful, so do your research and find out where they come from/who they’ve worked for/what their credentials are. Don’t hesitate to reach out and see if they can provide tips for you.
Most individuals who make “living money” doing coverage are union. I’m not, though people think I am sometimes. It’s through the editor’s guild? I don’t know how to get into that union, but if I find out, I’ll post it here.
5) What’s the Alternative, if I’m Really Looking for Money Now?
I recommend jobs that are always hiring, pay regularly, and will pay ok starting out: teach English online, transcribing, resume writing services, or Craigslist gigs for whatever skills they have. Those are all areas where you might be able to hone your reading and typing skills, which are good skills to have for coverage.
Also, line up as many assistant gigs, internships, and free/cheap reading gigs for your friends as you can. This will help people know you:
1) Can do it
2) Do it well
3) Are reliable
4) Can begin to build your contacts and portfolio.
I fortunately like reading and have fantastic clients. But it’s never been easy or fantastic pay! If you don’t like doing it, you will likely burn out.
Last points on becoming a professional script reader…
If you are looking for a get-rich-quick/easy side gig – there are easier ways to land one. If you’re still determined to do it, keep motivated, keep networking, and keep sending out job applications. Because I did it, I know it’s possible.
But I also know it’s hard, so best of luck to anyone who wants to make the leap!
As noted: this is based on my own experience, so someone else’s knowledge may be different than mine. Some of my friends make more than I do, so I know it’s possible – just know there’s a cap on how much you can realistically make doing this full-time.
If you have other thoughts or questions on reading for companies, please feel free to post them below!