Meet the Reader: Bitter Script Reader
Brianne Hogan meets the man behind the puppet behind the pseudonym.
By Brianne Hogan.
One can expect a bit of mystery from a Hollywood script reader who goes by the pseudonym Bitter Script Reader (and who sometimes goes by the name Zuul, which is, yes, fittingly inspired by the infamous gatekeeper from “Ghostbusters”). We’re not sure what companies he’s worked for the in past, or which ones he works for presently. We don’t even know where he’s originally from. But what we do know is that he wanted to be a filmmaker at five years old and that it was “Superman” (the original with Christopher Reeve), that inspired his love for movies. We also know that, later on, as he was more exposed to more and more film in school (wherever that was), he realized he wanted to pursue being a screenwriter/director, and eventually ventured out to L.A.
He first received his script analyzing chops after toiling as an intern at a boutique management agency and then at a production company. He eventually landed a paying job as a PA where he impressed the SVP of Development with his coverage enough so that he was being brought scripts regularly. Soon afterward he was made a full development assistant before moving on to read for an agency and then becoming freelance.
Though his blog The Bitter Script Reader (http://thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.ca) is an extensive resource for both aspiring screenwriters and those who are simply curious about the inner workings of the entertainment industry, Creative Screenwriting Magazine wanted to ask Bitter Script Reader for ourselves about what he looks for in a script and if he really is that bitter after all (he’s not).
Why did you start your blog?
I had noticed a number of bloggers and reviewers who were being discovered on the Internet. In the late ‘90s, there were several people who were invited to pitch for the various Star Trek shows after becoming known for reviewing every episode. Later, a couple recappers on the website Television Without Pity ended up being hired on various shows after breaking out there, so it always was in my mind that I should put my voice out there on the web.
I discovered John August and Jane Espenson’s blogs around 2006 or 2007 and realized that there was an audience for people who talk about writing. And then after I discovered Amanda Pendolino’s blog, which at the time focused on her insight as an aspiring writer and an agency assistant, I realized that one didn’t even need to be a working pro to have something valuable to offer the conversation. I figured I could write about my experiences as a reader, but at the time I was so busy with work that the thought of maintaining a regular blog was exhausting. As work began dwindling in 2009, I launched my blog. Since then, I’ve branched out and gotten quite a following on Twitter (@BittrScrptReadr) and I started a YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/BitterScriptReader, where I feature interviews with professional writers and offer advice.
How would you describe what a script reader does?
We are the “first filter” at an agency or production company. Our job description is pretty much “we read so the development executives don’t have to.” The vast majority of screenplays submitted to a particular company are either terrible or an ill fit for that company. Readers are the people panning for gold in those piles, looking for something worthwhile. When we find something that has potential, it’s our job to write up coverage (basically a 1-2 page synopsis of the story and a page or so of comments about the merits and weaknesses of the story.) The execs above us review that coverage and decide whether or not to read the script or bring in the writer.
How many scripts do you read/provide coverage on each week and for what type of companies?
It varies. To sustain a living income, most readers need to read at least 10-12 scripts a week. During my busiest years, I often handled more than that. Throughout my career I’ve read for multiple production companies, some specializing in particular genres, some that were less rigidly defined. I also read for an agency, which gave me a sense of how that side of the world operates.
What is your process when you sit down to read a script?
It’s not particularly complicated. I read the script in about an hour, taking notes when applicable. Usually the more notes I have, the less likely I’ll be to consider. The best scripts are the ones you can just get lost in and never have to backtrack to clarify a story point. More often than not, if I start making lists of characters so that I can remember which name goes with which player, the writer has cluttered the read and is doing something wrong. Usually it takes about an hour to read, an hour to write up the synopsis and 30 minutes to an hour to write up the comments.
What does every well-crafted screenplay need to have in order to avoid the slush pile?
Good characters, an interesting concept, a story that keeps moving, sharp dialogue, solid structure and strong pacing.
If the writing is entertaining, will you keep reading past standard benchmarks if things that are “supposed” to happen by then, have not happened? Or is your world hard-wired to three-act structure, etc?
I don’t go into a read with a checklist of what “Must” happen and by what page that NEEDS to happen. However, if the writing is lacking, I absolutely will point out that the script ignores basic three act structure, or has terrible pacing, or that the main character doesn’t appear for 20 pages. When I say “this is a problem,” it’s not because it ignores conventional wisdom about writing – it’s because something is WRONG with the script.
An excellent writer like Aaron Sorkin knows how to keep his audience captivated even when he’s doing things that shouldn’t work. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is littered with elements that would be at the top of the “Don’t” list in any Screenwriting 101 course. It opens with a nine-page dialogue scene, then voiceover is used only for one sequence and never again. The story ends up being told non-linearly using two entirely different depositions as framing sequences, and those “framing sequences” aren’t even introduced until well into the script. And yet, it’s an excellent script. If you read that, you can’t put it down and despite all the hopping around in time, it’s not a hard script to follow.
So naturally, when an aspiring writer is told that part of the problem is that their writing breaks rules, they’ll haul out a Sorkin or a Tarantino script as “proof” that great writers don’t follow rules and thus any criticism of their own brilliance is hogwash. Breaking rules alone does not solely make Sorkin and Tarantino great writers. Nor do they get a free pass for those “sins” just because of who they are. The fact is that they are brilliant writers and the strength of their craft is so exemplary that they overcome the reasons for why that rule-breaking often hurts a script.
Someone is bound to counter that everyone rejected Tarantino before he made it, but one also has to consider that Tarantino also works in polaraizing material that pushed the boundaries in a way that few people were used to. It wasn’t until he was able to control the translation of the script to the screen that he was able to show us why this worked and once an audience had a point of reference for how those tones came off on screen, it was easier to apply that to his later work at the script stage.
When do you stop reading a script?
Professional readers can’t stop reading. It’s our job to provide a full synopsis for material that has been submitted. There might be some circumstances where we have the freedom to toss a script aside (such as if we’re going through a slush pile, or if we’re reading scripts on the Black List site.) In those cases, one of the first things that will kill a read is lack of identity. If I’ve read ten pages and I still have no sense of the tone, genre, or even who the main character is, that’s a problem. It’s not that I need to be able to predict the whole story based on those ten pages, but I demand some semblance of trajectory.
To understand what I’m talking about, watch the first ten minutes of BACK TO THE FUTURE and make a note of everything that comes up in those scenes and how you can tell it’s all leading somewhere. You won’t necessarily be able to guess that this is going to turn into a time travel story, but you can feel the dominoes being set up in a logical, engaging way. Bad scripts don’t have that.
What are some common mistakes that drive you crazy?
Overwritten scene description. Long unbroken paragraphs of description that become hard to read. Too many characters introduced at once.
What are your thoughts about those screenplay reader services? Helpful for the aspiring screenwriter or not? Do you have any that you would recommend?
Reader services can be useful IF you are using them wisely. If you have no other way to get to people in the industry and you really want to know how someone who handles scripts all day will evaluate your script, then it might be worth it. Personally, in that event, I’m more likely to suggest a particular reader rather than a service. Amanda Pendolino gives great notes via her blog at http://aspiringtvwriter.blogspot.com/. She also charges less than most of the reader services.
Don’t pay a reading service on the hopes that you will be discovered via their contacts. The only service I endorse for that endeavor is The Black List website. There you pay a monthly fee to host the script, so that it can be accessed by over a 1000 industry professionals who are members of the site. I’d advise paying $50 for a review, as a strong reviews will draw attention from those pros. Well over a dozen people have been signed after putting their work up there, including a good friend of mine. I want to emphasize that this is a place to put your script only when you think it’s able to hold its own against professional writing. The reviews aren’t particularly in-depth so this isn’t the place to come if you’re looking for guidance on a rewrite.
But beware, plenty of reading services are just out there to take your money and overcharge you. Do your homework on any service – and never, ever pay anyone to evaluate your loglines or query letters.
What comes first for the aspiring screenwriter: getting the producer to option your script or getting the agent to represent you?
I’m sure people have had luck either way, but I think people more often are successful when they seek representation first and then the reps do the work of pushing the screenplay out there.
What film(s) do you think has the most well-crafted screenplay?
Honestly, this is one of those questions that is going to mean different things to different people because there is no universally perfect script. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that aspiring writers always want answers in absolutes. They try to apply a math or a science to something that is inherently subjective. The problem becomes that when they read these universally-liked screenplays, they take all the wrong lessons from the experience. You know, like “Well everyone says my script can’t be more than 115 pages, but this script was number one on the year-end Black List and it was 165-pages so length doesn’t matter!” Or worse, when they read a script that finished high on the Black List and say, “That wasn’t so great! THIS is what passes for a brilliant script?!”
But my point is that different scripts will be exemplary for different reasons. The best ones will excel in several areas, but even then, it can come down to subjectivity. “Well-crafted screenplay” is a loaded term, as it might imply that the script needs to be high-brow. I’m drifting, but my point is that asking this question is like saying “What is the best movie in the history of film?” And that’s an impossible, even arrogant question to answer. Hell, one might argue it’s arrogant to declare that any single film released over the course of a year is objectively superior to every other film that was released.
Having said all of that, I feel like one of the best scripts to study if the writer wants to really understand the three-act structure, subplots, conflict, set-up/payoff and character is BACK TO THE FUTURE. It is one of the most structurally-perfect scripts ever written. This is particularly true if you want to get a handle on the kinds of scripts written in the studio system. It’s a brilliant example of a script that colors within the lines without actually feeling like it is constrained. I might also suggest THE SOCIAL NETWORK as an example of a script that breaks a number of conventions but does so with such skill that it doesn’t hurt the script. KISS KISS BANG BANG has long been a favorite, though with Shane Black getting hot again off of IRON MAN 3, everybody’s claiming that one now.
Any other advice for aspiring screenwriters?
While I didn’t take a total hardline stance against coverage services, I will say that I find the practice of screenplay coaching to be deplorable. No writer should ever pay for that kind of service, and I don’t care what kind of success stories these professional mentors claim. I can almost guarantee that any writer who did get discovered after using a screenwriting coach probably would have been discovered through their own talent eventually. Some of these people might have experience in the business, and heck, some of them might even be very knowledgeable about the business. That does not change my opinion – one which I share with virtually every other professional writer I know – that this is not a service of any value to someone trying to make it as a writer. Paying someone to be your mentor never felt like a winning strategy to me.
If you’re paying for screenwriting courses, that’s a different story. Scott Myers offers a number of courses throughout the year – but Scott is also a professional screenwriter and a college professor. To me, there’s a world of difference between paying someone who teaches this material at a respected institution and paying someone who’s passing themselves off a “coach” because they couldn’t hack it elsewhere.
There is so much information out there for free. Between my blog, Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story, and many of the others I’ve already mentioned, aspiring writers can get a great education about writing and the business without dropping even a dime. Most screenwriting books are even available at your library, so if you have the urge to check out one or two, you don’t even need to buy them! So many of us are giving it away for free that there’s no need to subsidize the opportunists!
Are you really as “bitter” as your pseudonym suggests?
Nah, not at all. It’s just a title.