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Script readers-- the people who sift and sort the vast piles of scripts submitted to Hollywood -- do they start at the beginning?

The reason I ask is that I know 99% of scripts are awful and just get thrown out after a couple pages....but if that's true, do they even bother starting at the beginning, or do they just flip to the middle for a sample of the writing?

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Why should they do that? If the beginning is crap, then there is no hope for the middle part. If you are not hooked at the beginning, no-one will read/watch till the middle. – John Smithers Feb 7 '13 at 10:13
@JohnSmithers: If it's a movie, you won't walk out after first ten minutes. If the action picks up after the initial exposure, and makes up for the lost time before the end, you will walk out satisfied and recommend the movie to others despite the downer beginning. It's quite frequent that the movie really picks up the pace after halfway through, so it would stand to reason if you want to sift through a bunch of scenarios, a peek at that part would be telling more than the first paragraphs. Now if this is how it works in reality or not... – SF. Feb 7 '13 at 10:30
@SF. Yes, but there are two things to consider: if you see the same boring beginning on TV, you're going to change channel. In the cinema, you'd be wasting money so you stay. And secondly, watching a movie and reading a script are different things, especially for someone who reads many. I don't know their job, well... But hey, perhaps they occasionally check the middle, who knows. :P – Alenanno Feb 7 '13 at 11:31
It would be very good to wait for an answer from someone with some actual insider knowledge. – Aerovistae Feb 7 '13 at 16:35
Just curious: Why do you care? Have you written a script that you know starts out awful but gets good in the middle, or vice versa? I wouldn't be surprised if they don't have a fixed rule about such things. If an editor or reviewer starts reading a script and the beginning sucks, I doubt he's going to flip to the middle to see if it gets better: he's going to throw it out. Likewise if he starts in the middle and it sucks, he's not going to go back and check for a good beginning. I suppose a writer could get lucky and the reviewer just happens to flip to the best part ... – Jay Feb 14 '13 at 21:59
up vote 4 down vote accepted

The short answer is, yes, although there's no rule about it, studio readers do seem to start on page one.

Readers looking for scripts for their employers to film look for a lot of things: That there's a basic concept at work in the script, that the three-act structure is being followed... there's a list to be ticked off, and every studio will require their readers look for certain things. But these guys read a lot of scripts and only have so much time in the day. It's generally assumed that they may not even finish reading a script, skimming it or even abandoning ones that are not promising.

While readers not part of a studio may read for broad strokes or even just skim the dialog, studio readers seem to just start at the beginning. Saying that you can tell if a script is bad by the tenth page (and sometimes earlier) seems to be not unusual at all.

There may be some that dip into the middle first; I do this when evaluating manuscripts I may edit, knowing that writers open with a bang and the beginning may be atypical, but if they do, I suspect this isn't the norm. Movies are, by their nature, generally front-loaded, particularly modern ones. So it's never going to hurt to grab the reader up-front, and it's probably expected that you try. Just make sure you follow this through in the rest of your script.

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Caveat: This answer is based on research, reading, and the few conversations I've had over the years with scriptwriters. I have no experience myself as a reader. If we have any studio readers here, I'll gladly defer to their expertise. – Neil Fein Feb 15 '13 at 6:21
I don't see how this says anything that my answer didn't. This one just uses more words to say the same thing. – Kit Z. Fox Feb 15 '13 at 11:14
@Kit - Not at all. Your answer was about paid readers/reviewwers, mine's about studio readers. A different anomal altogether. – Neil Fein Feb 15 '13 at 16:45
anomal?? what is this anomal??? – Aerovistae Feb 17 '13 at 17:45
@Aerovistae - *animal – Neil Fein Feb 17 '13 at 22:25

I have no experience with screenwriting specifically, but I see no reason why this would be different from the considerations in the fiction market (where "sending chapters" is always the first three chapters: the reader will start from the beginning, precisely like a viewer would. Why would he do otherwise? That's what makes sense; that's what gives him the best understanding and experience of the work as a whole.

But beginnings are naturally slow and less-exciting? True. Also: tough. Quite simply, there's no good excuse for having a dull beginning. As a screenwriter, it's your job to bring the entire script up to par - before submission. That means you need to overcome the "how do I draw viewers into the movie" problem, just like later on you'll need to overcome the typical problems of a screenplay's middle and end.

Don't think of it as looking for a "sample of the writing," because that's not really what it is. It's "I'm going to experience this screenplay precisely as a viewer would, but if at any point I'm persuaded that it's not good enough, then I can stop." In a vast majority of cases, that point comes pretty early.

That being said, readers know movies and their genres. You don't need to start out with an erupting volcano because the opening of your domestic dramady isn't exciting enough. Lots of movies open with endearing characters, or great settings, or fun dialogue, or whatever. If you know why you would be riveted to this movie from the start, why your expected audience would leap right into this movie as soon as it begins, then you're absolutely fine. But if everybody would be bored by the first 15 minutes before "things get interesting," then that's a real problem - and the reader's quite right to reject your script as unready.

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