On this week’s Scriptnotes, we talked about professional readers and the challenge of making a living as a freelancer. We got several great emails from listeners, like this one from “Zeke.”
Like most people outside LA, I had no idea that people are actually getting paid to read scripts or that coverage even existed. That changed when I took a story analysis course that specifically taught us how to read, analyze, and write professional coverage.
From there I started doing unpaid reading at a couple of places around town as an intern and with the Austin Film Festival. My first paying gigs were with some popular script competitions such as Screencraft and obscure ones such as the Canadian Wildsound. The pay ranged from decent ($30-$40 a script) to downright embarrassing ($15 per script).
My first “real” reading for a company was Paradigm talent agency, and then UTA, who pay more but also require more extensive work (additional character breakdown, etc.). From there, and for the past few years, I’ve been focusing on reading for production companies and, most recently, for premium cable and streamers.
Consistency is the bane of the freelance reader’s existence. I always make sure I’m reading for at least 4-5 places simultaneously, and even then, there are slow weeks with little to no work (especially around the holidays). As for rates, I started with lower rates and had to fight for raises. And that’s a big issue: unless you push the companies to pay more and ask more than a few times, you will stay at the same rate you started with years earlier. I know that for a fact by asking other readers who just didn’t know they could ask for more money.
Being a reader for multiple companies, I have to be on call essentially all the time, including nights and weekends. For example, just this week, I got a request to read a script at 11 PM on a weekday, and the requested turnaround was for the following morning. This is not a rare incident.
Technically, you don’t have to accept the work. If you turn down one script or one book, maybe it won’t change much. But the second time you do it, you risk losing the gig with that company, no matter how good your working relationship is with them. Needless to say, sick or vacation days do not exist. I go to Israel every year to visit family, and I work from there as well. Again, I was never forced to do so, but I have no choice since this is my main source of income.
As for the union, we’ve been having a discourse about organizing as freelance readers, but it’s still quite vague on what steps we could take. A union reading job is much-coveted since it not only provides you with stability, but also a respectable salary, excellent health insurance, and paid days off. I would note that Netflix is probably the company that offers the best pay and terms of all non-union companies who work with freelancer readers.
Finally, I believe that a major problem in this field is the fact that many of us, including veteran story analysts at the studios, often feel somewhat inconsequential. Intellectually, we know this work is essential to the development process of any production company/studio/agency. But it doesn’t often feel that way. And that problem translates to everything else: if readers don’t respect themselves, why should companies?
It’s hard to convince employers to offer better rates or better conditions when most places in town use assistants or interns to read their projects. No matter how good a given reader might be, free labor is hard to compete with.