making the sausage

Polone: Who Really Determines the Fates of Aspiring Screenwriters?

Last week, during the Supreme Court hearing on the president’s health-care law, Justice Antonin Scalia asked an attorney, “You really want us to go through these 2,700 pages? … Or do you expect us to — to give this function to our law clerks?” Never before had I felt such appreciation for something that came out of Justice Scalia’s mouth. Probably the most consistent frustration I — and most others in the film and TV business — experience is how much we’re expected to read. And, just like Justice Scalia, I would assume that those of us with the wherewithal to employ minions below us push much of that reading down to others. Aspiring and established scriptwriters likely fantasize about a high-powered exec or producer personally discovering their genius after a cold read and calling their agents, demanding a meeting. And those dreamers might be distressed to know just how much of their fate — when it comes to getting a staff writing gig on a TV show, a feature-film assignment, or the possible sale of their spec script — is in the hands of inexperienced low-level executives, assistants, and even interns.

I started as an agent 25 years ago, and I remember sitting in the Monday morning staff meeting where we would talk about all of the scripts we had read over the weekend. A huge pile of scripts in front of you was a red badge of courage, and I felt superior to agents with smaller piles. (Nobody has paper piles any longer, as everyone reads on iPads and Kindles.) Back then, I would routinely plow through up to about 1,200 pages’ worth of sitcom, TV drama, and feature scripts over a weekend. While I might not have read them super-thoroughly, I didn’t skim them either, devoting 45 minutes to an hour to each feature. It was exhausting and life-killing. Today, I read a fraction of the material I used to and none of my peers do much more. 

Here’s the short list of what I do read: For a project I’ve sold into development at a film studio or television network, I will read and usually write notes on each new draft; if the changes made to that script were small, I will only read the pages that have been changed. (This is easy to do, since most writers use screenwriting programs that either star or highlight changes to the last draft.) I also closely read scripts that my friends send me or those that have been submitted by writers with whom I’ve worked before. But other than that, scripts submitted to me as possible development projects are given to my development executive and our assistants, who write a synopsis and critique on each. When an agent calls and says, “I’m going out with this project that I think you’ll love,” I always reply, “Thanks, I’ll read it right away,” but both he and I know that what I really meant by “it” was the write-up from my assistant, not the script. If my assistant really liked it and my development executive concurs, I will read about twenty pages; if I like those twenty pages, I read on until I don’t like it anymore or I finish. If I get all of the way through, I probably will get involved with the project in some way; if I pass (which is the usual outcome), I will send an e-mail to the agent thanking him for thinking of me but declining to produce the project. I’ll offer some reason as to why I’m passing — maybe I didn’t “relate to the premise” or “connect to the characters” — but, of course, anything specific I say is actually plagiarized from the document my assistant gave me urging me to pass. If this seems disingenuous, keep in mind that the writer’s agent probably didn’t read the script either: A more genuine process would be to have my assistant deal directly with his assistant, since they’re the only ones who did read it. But to preserve the illusion on all sides, when the agent calls his client and goes over the list of producers to whom he submitted the script, he will say, “Gavin Polone passed,” not “Gavin Polone’s assistant told him to pass.”

TV-network execs and showrunners are hit by a bigger wave of scripts than I am. I asked the head of the comedy department at one of the broadcast networks to break down who reads what in his office: “Almost everything gets read,” he said. “Fifty percent is getting read by an executive at the manager or director level. I’m reading [the] 20 to 25 percent that is coming from well-known agents or producers. Twenty-five percent is read by assistants, but they’re getting the stuff that is from lower level writers who haven’t done much. If it is coming from a rogue manager, it will go to the assistants.”

But the most voluminous amount of reading comes when it’s time to staff a television series. I reached out to Dan Halstead, whose management company represents not only showrunners who ostensibly hire writing staffs, but also many of those in the hunt to get one of the staff jobs available during the short staffing period after shows get picked up to series in May. He explained that “we rep several top showrunners and they receive at least a hundred scripts for each position, and there are eight or nine positions on each show. Who can read all of this?” Obviously, they can’t and don’t, instead depending on assistants and interns to do this work. The former assistant to a network drama showrunner told me of her boss, “He was producing, writing, and directing. He didn’t have the time to read.” So the key function of staffing the show fell on her: “I staffed the show for three seasons. I read all of the writers. He did not read them; he had me put together the writers list and I picked who I wanted to hire. Then we got them cleared with studio and the network and they were hired.” 

Knowing who the real gatekeepers are, Halstead says he takes that into consideration when submitting a client for a job on a series. “I know interns and assistants are doing all of the reading,” he says, “so I think about what is going to appeal to a girl in her twenties from a small liberal arts college before I send it. We actually give drafts [of new writing samples written by their clients] to our interns to see if they like them and if we missed something.” And while Halstead, who has been around as long as I have, laments that it is more difficult than in the past to get the actual decision-makers to read a client’s material, he also points to a bright side for TV writers: “It is easier to get a TV writer a feature-film job today because studio executives are more likely to read a 30- or 55-page TV script than slog through a feature-film sample.”

At movie studios, executives don’t rely on their assistants to do their reading for them, as they have a large, union department of professional readers to serve them. An executive vice-president at a major studio told me that she reads some of almost every submission of a script that is available for acquisition. “I rarely read zero pages unless it came from someone really fringy,” she says, meaning a less trusted representative. “I read writing samples only if it comes from an agent with good taste. Otherwise it goes through the story department.” 

When I entered the entertainment business in the late eighties, I don’t think there were as many scripts being written and submitted to producers and networks. The number of people booting up Final Draft or Scriptware in the hopes of becoming the next Steve Zaillian or David E. Kelley has probably expanded as a result of the popularity of famous screenwriting teachers like Robert McKee, increased numbers of film and television writing classes taught in colleges, and a plethora of websites devoted to instruction in the craft, so it makes sense that the system would be overloaded and that more of the scavenging for material would be left to those lower on the food chain. But if you are one of those hoping to break into scriptwriting and are disillusioned that your prospects may rest in the hands of someone just out of school and with little experience, I’d say two things:

(1) Fear not, since, in my experience, truly good writing always finds its way to the decision-makers because the young people who are reading the scripts are more like the audience than those of us they assist. We do listen to these early readers, knowing that in some ways the opinion of an assistant or intern has even more validity than our own.

And (2) No, there isn’t a chance in hell that I’ll read your fucking script, so don’t ask.

Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone

Polone: Who Really Determines the Fates of Aspiring Screenwriters?