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THE READER AND WRITING COVERAGE
by Rona Edwards and Monica Skerbelis

The fate of material submitted to studios and production companies lies in the hands of readers. They are the gatekeepers and are the first ones to read a screenplay or novel submitted to a company for consideration. Studios, production companies and agencies all have readers. At the studios they are officially called "story analysts" and part of a Union. While the major studios only use Union readers, production companies and literary agencies use non-union readers. This is because the studios signed a Basic Agreement with the Story Analysts Union to only use their members. Production companies and literary agencies do not have this agreement and therefore do not use Union readers which tend to be more expensive than a non-union reader.

With a weekly flow of approximately 60 to 110 submissions sent to creative executives at the studios (compared to a production company receiving over twenty-five submissions each week), the executives send these submissions to the story department who then organize the material to be logged in and assigned to a reader.

The studios generally have eight to seventeen readers on staff. The average professionalUnion reader is approximately 40+ years old and earns an average of $70,000 a year, including health benefits and company perks. Some Union readers make more than their story editor bosses or even the development executives.

WHAT DOES A READER DO?

The reader's job involves accurately conveying the story in a one and a half to two-page synopsis and then writing an intelligent and objective evaluation on the material in a one-page comment. They must state why they liked or didn't like the material, and possibly provide a few suggestions on how to improve it. Excellent writing skills, understanding the structure of a story, and possessing the ability to make concrete suggestions on what elements are missing in a story, are a reader's strengths. They read one and a half to two screenplays a day, cover-to-cover, which comes out to about eight to ten scripts a week, or 350 pieces of coverage a year.

To become a reader, send a query letter along with three sample coverages-using a novel and two screenplays-to the story editor at a studio and/or a Vice President of Creative Affairs/Production/ Development at a Production Company. The Hollywood Creative Directory is a great resource to identify companies to submit your sample coverages. After you've sent a query, wait a week or two and follow it up with a phone call. Another suggestion when applying to a production company is to offer to do one coverage for free so they get a taste of how your write. Jobs as readers are not easy to come by and a lot of times production companies will use unpaid interns to read and synopsize screenplays that are submitted to them. However, this is a good way to get your foot in the door if you want to work at that particular company.

There are also many courses offered at UCLA Extension, as well as countless other film schools and organizations, that teach the art of writing coverage. To learn more about writing coverage, ESE Film Workshops Online offer workshops on the film development process that explains how to write coverage in depth. Our book,I Liked It, Didn't Love It (Screenplay Development From The Inside Out)also offers samples and instruction on how to write coverage and development notes.

WRITING COVERAGE

Coverage is formatted in a very standard way for most studios and production companies. For the most part, it is divided into five parts:

1) The logline;
2) The synopsis;
3) The reader's comments;
4) Rating box;
5) Recommendation.

After putting all the pertinent information on your top sheet, coverage begins with a premise or a logline followed by a complete one and a half to two page synopsis of the entire story. Coverage is written in present tense, recounting the "who, what, where, when, why" and tone of the story along with a one-page comment focusing on the strength and weakness of the premise, characterization, dialogue, storyline, and the writer's ability. This three or four page piece of paper can make or break a project submitted to a studio.

Some companies use a "rating box" which is also referred to as "box scores" or the "grid." Marking an "x" in each box as either "excellent," "good," "fair," or "poor," they rate the premise, characterization, storyline, and dialogue.

Readers are also asked to make a recommendation on whether the company should pass on the script or pursue it as a project. Usually with rating codes of "Recommend," "Consider," or "Not Recommend;" or "Pass," "Yes," "Maybe," or "No," noted on the coverage, depending on each studio's coverage format. Also evaluated is the writer's ability. The screenplay or story may be a "pass" but the writer may be flagged with a "consider," allowing creative executives an introduction to a writer and possible new talent who might be right for another project at the studio.

With its hundreds of thousands of screenplays, books, treatments and pitches logged into vast databases the story department is the backbone of the studio system. The most difficult part to comprehend is that less than 1% of those projects submitted actually are put into development. It takes a whole lot of sifting to find that 1% and hopefully usher that one great movie to the silver screen. The story department is the filter for all those stories waiting to be told.

You can contact Rona and Monika via their website: www.esentertainment.net

Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis are the co-authors of "I Liked It, Didn't Love It: Screenplay Development From The Inside Out" from Lone Eagle Publishing. They have worked as development execs and producers, and collectively have 25 years worth of experience in Hollywood.


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