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Script Readers, Getting Past Hollywood’s Gatekeepers

Script Readers, Getting Past Hollywood’s Gatekeepers

Articles - Directing

It’s 7:30 on a Monday night, and the
Alibi Room, a Seattle film hangout, is packed. Suddenly about half
the crowd gets up and walks downstairs with an air of cheerful
anticipation–except for one guy who looks like he’s heading to
his execution. A woman at the bar grabs his arm as he passes.

"Excuse me, where is everyone going?" she
asks.

"To a staged screenplay reading."

"Oh," she says, wrinkling her brow and
nodding. She’s never heard of a such a thing.

The guy with the air of doom about him joins the
50 others assembled in the downstairs screening room. Twelve actors
file in, scripts in hand, and sit on the stage in a row facing
the audience. Kathleen McInnis, the event’s organizer and narrator,
warms up the crowd, introduces the writer, then launches into page
one of his romantic comedy. Half a minute later the first big laugh
comes, and the writer remembers to breathe.

Two hours later, he’s ecstatic: people laughed throughout
the reading, and the public critique session at the end was both
helpful and laudatory. Better yet, a director in the audience approached
him, expressed interest, and later brought the script to a production
company which offered him an option contract and a rewrite deal.

People have been making feature films for 90 years,
but until very recently the staged reading ofscreenplays did not
exist as a form of public entertainment. The first regular reading
series outside of Los Angeles began at New York’s Nuyorican Poets’
Cafe in January, 1994. Since then, similar series have been launched
in Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco,
Philadelphia, London and Paris, and others are in the works. Some,
like London’s "Script Factory," were directly inspired
by the instant success of the Nuyorican’s "Fifth Night" series.
Others seem to have arisen spontaneously, as though sprung from
the film community’s collective unconscious. Their success and
popularity have also been immediate.

"There are 25,000 actors in New York" says
Roland Legiardi-Laura, director of the Fifth Night series, "and
on any given night, 24,500 of them have nothing to do." This
may help to explain why dozens of well-known actors, including
Claire Danes, Eric Stoltz, Frances McDormand, Lili Taylor, Stanley
Tucci, Matthew Modine, Wallace Shawn, Martha Plimpton and Mary
Stuart Masterson have participated. The Seattle series has recently
hosted the likes of Tom Skerrit, D.B. Sweeney and Ned Beatty.

As McInnis points out, staged readings are good for
everyone involved. The most obvious beneficiary, of course, is
the writer. Many writers look at their scripts with fresh eyes
just before a reading ("This thing is actually going to be
read aloud?") and do some of their best work in one final,
frenzied rewrite. He or she trades the vacuum of solitary composition
for flesh-and-blood actors, a live audience and the excitement
of performance–all this without first having to convince someone
to spend millions on a production. The script’s strength and weaknesses
are made clear by the crowd’s moment-by-moment reactions and the
discussions that follow.

Invariably, writers are astonished by what happens
to their work when it’s presented at a reading. "My dialogue
sounded so much different in my head compared to what the actors
did with it," says Steven Crozier, whose Out of Town Zombies
in the Big Apple
was presented at the Alibi Room. "They
showed me which lines didn’t work, which lines were foolproof,
and they discovered comic moments that I didn’t know were there.
Also, I had not anticipated the passion that actors bring to even
small parts. That will affect my writing in the future."

Readings provide invaluable exposure, and it’s not
essential that the right agent, director or producer be in the
audience. The series’ organizers receive constant queries from
the industry, and they forward good material to selected contacts.
Thus the readings provide the unrepresented writer with a direct
channel to Hollywood and the opportunity for their script to be
magically transformed from the dreaded unsolicited submission into
the coveted exclusive sneak peek.

In some ways a successful reading can be more satisfying
to a writer than a successful movie premiere. The story is presented
just as the writer envisioned it, without the inevitable changes
and compromises of a finished film. There is no director present
to be handed most of the credit, no much-hyped actors to get all
the attention. The writer is the star of the evening.

Producers and directors go to readings to discover
new screenplays as well as new actors. They can also use the forum
to test material without spending a penny. A reading may reveal
that a script needs substantial changes or should even be abandoned
altogether. They may also find that they like their script just
the way it is. Seattle director John Lampassi commented after a
reading of his next project, On a Naked Horse, "We’re
not going to change a thing. There was controversy, but that’s
exactly the response we hope the film will provoke."

Actors, too, get exposure, experience and a chance
to practice their craft in a fun, informal way. They can try on
a variety of roles and expand their range. Many have landed the
very part they initially read. "It’s also a great chance to
practice reading cold," says Seattle actor Eric Liddell, "and
to watch other actors read cold and see how they handle it." Perhaps
actors are more inclined than anyone to recognize the benefits
of the staged reading. Once a work is performed before an audience,
it has come to life and is less likely to lie dormant or go unnoticed.
It’s worth noting that a number of recent films that were developed
in this way were written by actors. Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, Adrienne
Shelly’s Sudden Manhattan and Eric Schaeffer’s If Lucy
Fell
are prime examples.

Audiences at a reading are treated to a unique form
of live entertainment, and find it gratifying to be asked to critique
a script afterward. "I get tired of watching these scripts
where guys think about the meaning of life and women don’t," was
one woman’s comment at a recent Seattle reading. A female cast
member instantly came to the writer’s defense: "This is a
story about guys. It’s not Little Women." A lively
debate ensued, and the director and producer, who were in attendance,
paid close attention. Once a picture is shot, changes can be prohibitively
expensive. They were getting invaluable feedback for free.

"Every filmmaker should test their script in
a public reading," says New York director Kermit Cole, who
often holds impromptu readings in his apartment. "They have
absolutely nothing to lose, and so much to gain. After all, they
are about to dig an enormous hole in the earth and throw all the
money they have into it. They need honest feedback. An audience
is the one thing that will never lie to you."

Not all reading series solicit the public’s comments. "We
don’t do that," says Fifth Night’s Legiardi-Laura, "because
the writers don’t want to." He explained that the Fifth Night
audience regularly includes literary agents and scouts from companies
such as Miramax, New Line and Tribeca, all there looking for material,
and that writers don’t want their work trashed in front of these
potential buyers. "One negative comment can do a lot of damage," says
Crozier. Writer Ken Liotti, whose script The Waiting Game was
recently presented at Fifth Night to a very enthusiastic crowd,
agrees. "I wouldn’t want a public critique session. I learned
enough from watching the audience and speaking with individuals
after the show."

Agents obviously have much to gain from staged readings.
They can assess material that has been approved by the organizers’
selection process but not yet seen by their competitors. Some agents
have also begun to use the readings to attract industry attention
to scripts they already represent.

Even casting directors stand to gain. "They
can discover talent, try out actors they’re unsure of, and perhaps
do a favor for an actor they like who hasn’t worked in a while," says
Legiardi-Laura, who relies on a different casting professional
to cast each weekly reading.

A less obvious group of beneficiaries are the organizers
of the series themselves. "It’s a tremendous amount of work," says
McInnis, "but it’s a great tool for community-building and
an excellent showcase for the Seattle International Film Festival,
which sponsors the Alibi Room series. I have widened my sphere
of influence and been able to meet people, put people together
and feel that my work is vital to local filmmakers." Legiardi-Laura,
a writer himself, echoes her sentiment. "I have made thousands
of industry contacts, and I have made them on my own terms."

The readings reflect the different personalities
of their organizers. The Austin series, so far, is open only to
Texas screenwriters. The Seattle series focuses on script improvement.
The Fifth Night readings are called "unstaged," a term
Legiardi-Laura prefers because the actors are seated and usually
not directed. Of all the series, Fifth Night seems to have the
highest profile. Every Tuesday evening performance is sold out
in advance and reservations go fast. Ninety-two scripts have been
read so far. Eight are now finished films, and five others are
in production. Dozens of writers have received assignments, options,
mentions in the press and agency representation.

If you are a writer, however, be warned. Your brilliant
screenplay may bomb in a live reading. Everyone seems to agree
that certain scripts are more suited for the format than others. "Genres
that work are comedy, romance, thriller, drama and mystery," says
McInnis. "Scripts that rely heavily on description don’t work
as well, such as science fiction, which is so visual, and political
thrillers, which tend to have too much explanation." Legiardi-Laura
agrees. "Action films don’t work. What can the narrator say?
‘A large explosion. Another intensely large explosion. . .’ The
audience wants to watch actors interact, not hear a lot of description.
Sight gag comedy doesn’t work. And we work with the writer on every
script to cut away all nonessential description."

Many writers resist this editing chore, then discover
its advantages. "I found I didn’t need it," says Seattle
writer Kristin Kirby of the description she cut from her Western Last
Chance, Wyoming.
"I left most of it out after the reading." This
may be a smart approach, given the well-known tendency of studio
and agency readers to ignore ‘across-the-page’ and rely on the
first few pages of dialogue to judge a script.

"Writers are finally getting the credit they
deserve," says Barbara Morgan, a director of the Austin Heart
of Film Screenwriters Conference, which has launched its own reading
series. "Have you ever noticed that the Academy Awards go
to best director, best actor and best screenplay, not best screenwriter,
as if no one wrote the thing? All that is changing. In a few years,
I think, many screenwriters will be household names."

Kathleen McInnis offers a historical perspective. "In
the early days of filmmaking writers had little status. But they
had their own community; they had in place a system of collaboration
to get each other through the rough spots. As the industry grew,
their stature rose, but they felt increasingly separate; not in
the same sphere as producers and directors. In the ’50s and ’60s
the auteur theory viewed the director as the author of a film,
and the writer as almost incidental. The turning point, when writers
finally began to come into their own, may have been the Writers
Guild strike of 1986. Suddenly people were forced to recognize
[the screenwriter’s] crucial contribution to the medium. It is
only in recent years that the art of screenwriting has attracted
the respect it deserves. The Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab was a
visionary program in that sense.

"These staged readings work for audiences because
film is the most accessible and egalitarian art form. Everyone
feels they could make a film, and they love the opportunity to
see the early stages of the process and to participate. Also, these
readings may exist because they help feed the tremendous demand
for new material. The industry must look beyond itself for new
blood."

"Readings elevate the script to an art form," says
Legiardi-Laura. "The traditional film development route is
slow and cumbersome. People were hungry for an alternative. Plus,
this format is simply great entertainment. It’s a wonderful storytelling
experience. You sit back, close your eyes and make a movie in your
head." MM

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