A few years ago I had an argument with a writer friend of mine about how many pages I thought the reader would get through in his script. It went something like this:
"So did you read my script?"
"Yeah, I thought it was pretty good."
"Think it'll sell?"
"I don't think a reader will get past page fifteen."
"I thought you said you liked it!"
"I do. But your act one starts on page forty. Everything before that
is just two guys talking."
"Well the reader has to read it all. It's his job."
And there it was.
The big question: how much does a reader read?
First off, my friend was right. It is the reader's job to read the entire screenplay.
The studios do this because they are not looking for a "story" out of a screenplay, they are looking for a concept. Something solid for them to hold on to and develop into movie. So even if the first 100 pages are horrible in a screenplay, there could be something special in the last ten (in theory).
Is it foolish to believe that every studio reader reads every screenplay from start to finish? No. Most readers will give writers the common courtesy of finishing their screenplay.
But it would be foolish to believe that no reader skims.
When you read enough screenplay's, you start to develop a sixth sense. Every reader has it. I can tell if a screenplay is going to be good by page three. And most studio readers can tell faster.
It's really easy to tell. If on the second page there is a block of text that is thirty lines, slowing the pace to a crawl. Or if there has been two flashbacks and it's only page two. Or if the first line of the screenplay is: "A beautiful woman and an ugly man are f***ing"(all three examples are from scripts I've read).
You just know this isn't going to be good.
So they skim, not because they are lazy or because they hate you, but because the script just wasn't engaging enough. There was nothing to grab on to, right from the beginning.
And with three more scripts the reader has to get through that day, he/she don't have time to analyze every word of your screenplay.
So when asked the question: "how much does a reader really read?" there are two answers.
Answer 1: Ten pages. Most readers will read your set up without skimming. After that, if your story doesn't get going with a catalyst/inciting incident, they will assume that there is no story to be told. And start to skim.
Answer 2: All of it. If you have an exciting concept, fun and layered characters and a solid structure with excellent pacing, the reader will read it all.
Writers tend to blame the reader for not selling their script. Writers rarely point the finger at themselves.
Remember: readers are people. People with lives.
If a reader only has a few hours to read a 165 page screenplay, nothing in this world will stop them from skimming like crazy (for the love of God, don't send anyone a 165 page screenplay).
The reason I created Reader Proof was not to trick the reader into finishing your script, but to entice the reader to.
And there lies the true answer to the age old question.
A reader will read anything; as long as you make him want to.