Meet the Reader: Kate Rocheleau
(Repost) Script reader Kate Rocheleau takes you inside the script business
To sell a screenplay or a TV pilot, the emerging screenwriter first needs to get it past a reader, like Kate Rocheleau. She is a gatekeeper (well, one of many) who decides whether a screenwriter’s work gets passed along to the big guys who sign the checks. A true New Englander (she counts Boston, Maine and New Hampshire as her hometowns), Rocheleau meandered between pursuing acting, writing and producing while she was studying as an undergrad at NYU. It was when she earned a spot in a competitive internship at New Line Cinema back in 2002 that kicked off her career as a script reader while she was still a college sophomore.
“Right from the beginning, I was given the chance to read scripts in development and do coverage for all the incoming scripts and several book adaptations as well,” Rocheleau recalls. “It was a great time to work for New Line Cinema. I remember pinching myself, because I felt like I got to be a very small part of it.”
After graduating her first gig was working as an assistant to a producer at New Symphony Pictures who helped Rocheleau develop her strength as a script reader. Soon she was promoted to assistant producer and started developing projects for cable television. “My specialty was always finding those few great stories out of the countless piles of scripts,” says Rocheleau. “I always had to keep in mind who our client was and then I would scout scripts and find the perfect stories for our clients target audience.”
Clients ranged from family-friendly stories for ABC Family and the Disney Channel to sci-fi thrillers at SyFy.
Now working as an independent consultant for Fierce Entertainment, as well as for a television producer who specializes in family entertainment, Rocheleau has worked on projects such as the critically-acclaimed film Mud, Water for Elephants, and the upcoming L’ecumes Des Jours by Michel Gondry. Creative Screenwriting talked to Rocheleau about her process as a script analyst, her advice for emerging screenwriters and what she looks for when she’s reading all those screenplays.
Give us some background—how did you find your way into the script reading business?
I think I was really lucky choosing NYU for my undergraduate degree. Going there offered so many opportunities to gain that “real world” film and television industry experience while I was going to college. In my sophomore year I earned a spot in a competitive internship with New Line Cinema, and I was so lucky to intern for a woman who was on her way up— making a name for herself in film and television development. The better coverage I delivered, the more responsibility and access to the development process I earned in my internship. It was a great time to work for New Line Cinema.
After graduation I moved to Los Angeles, and like most rookies in the industry, I applied for whatever jobs would get my foot in the door. I seriously have the best luck because my first job in LA was working as an assistant to an independent producer who mentored me and really helped me develop my strengths— all leading back to the written word—the golden script. I was promoted from assistant to assistant producer and started developing projects for cable television. But throughout it all my specialty was always finding those few great stories out of the countless piles of scripts. I always had to keep in mind who our client was (I worked with cable networks a lot) and then would scout scripts and find the perfect stories for our clients target audience. For example, one week “that perfect script” may have been scouting a family friendly Christmas film for ABC family, and the next week I would be looking for a sci fi thriller with a funny tone for SyFy.
How would you describe what a script reader/story analyst does?
It really depends on whom you are talking to, and who they work for. An independent production company operates differently than the bigger studios, which in turn, operates differently than an individual agent or manager’s office. But in general, script readers are the front men in the development department. Whether they are interns or executive assistants to agents, a script reader’s job is to read the script and do coverage, which includes a full analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the story as well as a market analysis—the reader’s take on the scripts potential to make money in the market. The title of script analyst and/or script consultant usually indicates someone with additional years experience (many are writer/producers) who has decided to specialize in being paid to take a script currently in development and complete a much more in-depth analysis. This includes how to improve the script, and often times they are additionally qualified to make the improvements and/or rewrites as well.
What is your process when you sit down to read a script?
Like a complete nerd, I still get excited when I get a new assignment. Every script is a fresh chance to find gold. My process varies but usually I read it once just to take note of what I call “the ride.” I don’t really let my analytical brain participate at this stage. I read the script and when I am done, I take note of what I felt, what parts resonated the strongest with me, what characters made me feel what emotions, etc. The best marker I often have for “the ride” is my ability to turn around and tell the story back to someone the next day without having to return to the script for details. The more details I vividly recall, the stronger the script. I then go back for a second read to dissect story structure, character, development and market potential. Finally, I try and get a sense of the writer’s “voice.”
What’s been your favorite script that you’ve worked on?
One project I loved working on was Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, and released in May 2013 starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. It was a small but beautiful coming-of-age story that reminded me of the pure magic of that period between childhood and adolescence. It has a Stand By Me feel, but stands uniquely in a world of its own. What really stood out for me was the writer’s voice, which is the hardest part of screenwriting to develop. And yet Jeff Nichols was able to weave his voice, his “take” on this world he created, into the entire landscape and its characters in such a way that the world became real, right down to the details of the Piggly Wiggly market and the riverboat families. The world he created is a world of which I knew nothing, and when I was done reading the story, I felt connected to the characters as if I had lived there my entire life.
What keeps a reader honest to the slush pile of countless unknowns, instead of just promoting friends’ scripts?
Ethics? It has never been an issue for me, or most people I know working in the industry for the simple reason that reputation and integrity in this business is everything. If I recommend a script, it’s because I have done the work and recommend a script based on its overall strengths, and I have to be ready to stake my reputation on that. Also important to note is the fact that I have always worked on assignments I have been given, whether it’s the latest script from last year’s Oscar winner or a script from a complete unknown.
As a consultant or analyst, you work with projects already in some stage of development, so they have already “made it” into the system somehow. In other words, by the time the script gets to me, I have had no say in “who gets to skip over the big pile.” That’s not my job. My job is to take the script they give me and give an honest critique on the strength of the overall storytelling as well as its potential in the market. But I do understand the question all those writers out there trying to get their script read have as this is an industry run on relationships and connections. It sounds really boring, and maybe even slightly Pollyanna, but my advice to writers who ask me how to get their script chosen out of the countless piles of scripts in development is first and foremost to pour all the energy spent worrying about who will read it and pour it straight back into writing great work, and nd rewriting the script. As many times as it takes until you have something so strong, it will stand out when someone finally reads it. Great work gets chosen, period.
If the writing is entertaining, will you keep reading past standard benchmarks if things that are “supposed” to happen by then, have not happened? Or is your world hard-wired to three-act structure?
I read scripts from start to finish, even when it’s a favor, even just for fun. The reason is that I truly believe that in every script—even the really awful ones—there is some sort of a golden ticket, something I can learn, something the writer can learn, to build a new foundation and improve the story. Even if it’s the fact that the character introduced at your midpoint twist should possibly be your main character/hero because the writer has written them so much better than the other characters. Or maybe it’s the fact that the writer has the basic journey down, but they need to raise the stakes, the conflict, and the emotional transitions in every scene from start to finish. There is something unique in every script that can be built upon, even if you have to tear the thing to shreds first.
Do indie production companies have readers? Do they follow different rules?
Every production house, or any organization within the industry, has its own way of doing things. That is why it’s crucial for the writer to research everything about the organization and person of interest—whether it’s the reader, an agent or the agent’s assistant. I mean, really become Columbo and do the work no matter the status of the company or the employee working there and always look to get the information from someone who either works for the organization, or has a direct connection, as your information will be reliable (this industry moves fast and employee roles change just as quickly). Being prepared is powerful. Preparation gives you the confidence you need in order to relax and the freedom to be in the moment with the person you are meeting, which sets an excellent tone for establishing relationships there. They will remember the fact that you did the research, asked insightful questions and had great energy, and that comes from research.
When will you stop reading?
Never! I still think I am so lucky that I get paid to do what I have loved to do since elementary school; read a story and let my imagine run wild.
What are the common mistakes screenwriters make that drive you crazy?
When writers waste time fighting basic structure. It irks me because I see the very best writers—ones who will win an Oscar someday—waste so much precious energy on wanting to be free, or unique or defy convention. You can’t. If you are writing a story, you are taking from things you have experienced, read, seen, heard and felt and therefore nothing is ever completely new. But you can make it yours. You can make it powerful.
You can make sure that when I read your story I can hear your voice in every delightfully constructed scene. All the great stories, the stories we truly respond to as audience members, hit the basic beats of story structure. You can read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, or Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey, or Robert Mckee’s Story, or Sydney Lumet, and you will see they all preach to the same choir: use the basic structure to make your story so powerful that we are left with nothing to say but, “What a ride!” The strongest writers take structure and use it to make their material the best it can be, rather than wasting time and energy fighting structure, which leads to weak storytelling… and no development deals.
The aspiring screenwriter has read blogs, read screenplays, placed in competitions and is now ready to take on Hollywood. What’s the most important thing she still doesn’t know?
When Mr. Big Time producer asks who you are and what are you known for, do you have an answer? You have to know the answer because first impressions are everything when you are starting out. You not only have to know the answer, you must believe it, and say with confidence who you are and what kind of writing you can absolutely knock out of the park. It’s the same thing as saying, when people think of you, what kind of story comes to mind? You may think that you can write any genre of story in any medium, and someday that may be true. But when you first start out you need a strength, something the industry will remember you by. Do you write mysterious ensemble action thrillers like JJ Abrams? Do you write the young professional woman struggling to find her way in situational comedy? Do you write feel good family films? My advice is to seek out mentors and critics who will give you honest feedback on your strongest work, and that will give you big insight into what your strength is. You may want to write the next episode of Sorkin’s Newsroom, but if you are getting a lot of positive feedback on that random teen horror flick you wrote in your first screenwriting class, you may want to explore that path.
What elements do you think need to be aligned in order to pass forward a script?
It depends of the criteria of the client and how much wiggle room there is to make improvements. If the concept is amazing, and the basic gold is there, I will recommend the story with a rewrite to strengthen the pace and plot of the script.
But overall my standards are impossibly high, and they should be. It may be optimism, but I do believe the average audience wants more and demands intelligent and moving storytelling. Audiences don’t settle, I don’t settle, and therefore the writer should never settle for good when they know they can make it great.
Any further advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Live life so you have something to say. At the end of the day you are writing for a reason. Your voice must be in that story in order for it to be its best. So what do you want to say? What’s your perspective? What are your convictions? I want to know… and I can’t wait to read it in your next script.