Story Analyst Michael Sweeney on Script Reading, Taylor Sheridan, and the Future of Screenwriting

For 10 years, Michael Sweeney has been a script reader for Netflix and other producers. In this interview, he talks about working for Taylor Sheridan’s 101 STUDIOS, the impact of A.I. on screenwriting, how streamers changed screenplays, what he is currently writing for himself, and how YOU can break into Hollywood. If you’re interested in screenwriting, make sure you subscribe to our Youtube channel, as we frequently have exclusive insider tips about improving your story, your screenplay, or script pitch.

Karel Segers: I’m here with Michael Sweeney. Michael is a union story analyst, and he’s read scripts for some of the most successful TV shows of recent years. Welcome, Michael. Could you introduce yourself and share a bit about your background?

Michael Sweeney: I’m from New Jersey, USA, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. Since graduating, I’ve worked with several production companies, including Netflix and 101 Studios, the team behind Yellowstone. Meanwhile, I’ve also launched my own website to help clients with their scripts, making them festival-ready, and I still do freelance work for other companies. So, busy, busy.

The Union Script Reader

Karel Segers: You call yourself a Union Analyst. What does that mean?

Michael Sweeney: The Screen Editors Guild created a category for story analysts, offering union protection similar to other groups. It’s odd that it’s not under the writing category, but since we’re technically editing and suggesting in the stories, we have our own classification. In other words, this ensures fair pay and work conditions for script readers, a niche part of the industry. It’s nice for them to know their jobs and work are protected by their own representatives.

Karel Segers: Tell us about your work as a script reader. How did you start out in this field?

Michael Sweeney: It’s all about who you know. After school, I stayed connected with a creative executive, kept pushing for work, and built relationships by constantly asking for meetings and opportunities. You just keep grilling, keep on asking people. You want to set up a meeting, go have lunch, have a chat. 

Remote Work in Hollywood

Karel Segers: Are you still working in physical offices, or has that changed since the pandemic?

Michael Sweeney: I mostly work remotely now. During my time with one company, they offered a main lobby space, but most people, including myself, chose to work from home. While remote work is convenient, it does make networking harder, requiring more effort to stay connected with industry contacts. One benefit of script reading is that it can be done remotely, so I stuck to working from home.

Karel Segers: Now, obviously, that is a different setup from previously. While it’s more convenient, wouldn’t you say it’s harder to make the connections that help you further in the industry?

Michael Sweeney: It is definitely a downside you have to work through. You have to be the driving force, constantly emailing, texting, and messaging on LinkedIn. You have to push almost double time under these conditions. Despite being shut in and feeling like a hermit, the need to connect and be collaborative compels you to reach out. 

Karel Segers: Yet, the work of the scrip reader remains the same: reading scripts and providing feedback. How does this process typically work, and how do scripts reach producers?

Michael Sweeney: It varies by company. Many have a no-solicitation policy, so scripts usually come from agents or managers. If a script stands out, I might look up the writer on LinkedIn to explore connections. It’s about who you know and using any connection to sell a script. If you know someone and have a script that fits the company’s niche, use that connection. Sometimes you find scripts from unrepresented writers that end up being great.

Karel Segers: How many scripts do you read, and how do you provide feedback?

Michael Sweeney: With Netflix, a script reader is paid by the hour, so you can take your time to be detailed. Other companies pay per script, so there’s an incentive to be quicker. I read 8–12 scripts a month, and feedback usually includes a synopsis and comments. Some companies prefer you to tailor your feedback, offering ways to improve the script rather than just passing or recommending it. So, the feedback format can vary by company, but it usually involves a dialogue with the assistant or person who submitted the script.

Karel Segers: Have you noticed changes in script quality over the years?

Michael Sweeney: There’s always a mix of good and bad scripts. However, I’ve found more scripts that resonate emotionally in recent years. One memorable script, Come Away, a dark story about grief, really moved me. Despite the constant flow of bad scripts, the emotionally impactful ones stand out more now. I’ll never forget the first script that really moved me. Over the last few years, I’ve read scripts that genuinely moved me, even made me shed a tear. It’s powerful when that happens, and I think there are more emotionally resonant scripts now.

Advice for Aspiring Screenwriters

Karel Segers: In terms of specific craft aspects, what are the things that jump out where you think, “If only writers would do this, it would be such an easy fix”?

Michael Sweeney: If only writers would pace themselves better. One of the biggest issues I see is poor pacing. Writers often over-embellish the action or clump all the character development into moments of calm, because they don’t know how to integrate character into action. A character’s choices should define them more than their words. Even in a high-speed car chase, a character’s decision can reveal much more than a lengthy monologue around a campfire.

Another thing is knowing your characters well. There’s that image of an iceberg, with more beneath the surface than above. As a writer, you need to know the entire iceberg, even though the audience only sees the tip. If you have a main character with three friends, ensure each friend has a distinct perspective. If their dialogue is interchangeable, consider cutting them. Every character should be essential and someone an actor would want to play, even in a small role.

When you write, ask yourself, “What would I lose without it?” If you can’t answer, then you need to develop it more or cut it. This applies to characters, locations, and any other elements. These are just some of the common issues I’ve seen in scripts this week alone.

Karel Segers: Have you seen anything good on the screen lately that you wish you had written?

Michael Sweeney: I haven’t seen much lately. I’ve been busy, which is fortunate. I’m currently watching the Star Wars animated show, The Bad Batch. The simplicity of how they make those shows is engaging. It might not win awards for writing, but it’s emotionally driven. All the animated Star Wars shows have been some of the best content they have. Despite rough animation in The Clone Wars, the storytelling is strong. I’m also anticipating Cobra Kai and Doctor Who returning. I’ve shifted from watching films to TV shows. I used to go to the movies frequently, but now, being busy, I don’t have the time. The main movie-going demographic is 16 to 26-year-olds…

Karel Segers: Michael, what screenwriting software do you use?

Michael Sweeney: I’ve used Final Draft since film school. It’s been reliable.

Karel Segers: We’ll talk about something else soon that might change the script format dramatically. Do you mind scene numbers or not?

Michael Sweeney: As a reader, my main concern is how easy the script is to read. I feel strongly about fonts; a script not in Courier New can be a headache. Scene numbers help reference specific scenes and make the script look more professional. But if a script doesn’t have scene numbers, I just use page numbers.

Karel Segers: How do you manage the analytical versus creative brain? I know more than one script reader who often struggles with this.

Michael Sweeney: I don’t have trouble switching between them. When reading someone else’s script, being analytical is like a day job. When writing my own script, I abandon the rules. Once the script is written, I use my analytical skills to revise. With clients, I warn them of pitfalls but don’t say anything is set in stone. I suggest improvements while understanding the audience’s expectations. That’s how I bridge the gap between analytical and creative.

Taylor Sheridan Script Reader: A Unique Experience

Karel Segers: I’m jumping back now to your job as a reader. You have to keep your objectivity. I know you’ve worked for 101 Studios and got to read Taylor Sheridan’s work. You’ve said you’re not particularly the type of audience who would tune into his work because it’s tailored towards older people. How do you handle that? Do you remember what you said after reading those scripts? Which scripts did you read?

Michael Sweeney: I had the opportunity to read all 10 scripts of Mayor of Kingstown before it was released. I knew the whole story of season one before it came out. It was fun seeing the trailers and knowing the twists. Taylor Sheridan didn’t want intense comments because he knows what he’s doing. My notes were more like, “I lost this character here,” or “I am confused because of the back-and-forth cuts.” It was about giving the production team a sense of the story without heavy critique because Sheridan’s experience speaks for itself. Prolific writers can afford to have things that don’t make sense until later episodes. But if a new writer did the same, I might not be as generous.

Karel Segers: I realized after you told me about Mayor of Kingstown that the project was initially knocked back. It wasn’t until Sheridan made a name for himself that he could produce it. So, how does it feel to read material you know will go into production? That’s different, right?

Michael Sweeney: It definitely is. Knowing a project is green-lit changes your perspective. You think about the production’s validity, the sets needed, and you envision it coming to life. This privilege comes with being established. If I know certain actors are attached, I start reading with their voices and inflections in mind. This can shift the way I view the script. It can be unfair because a decent script might get discarded if it doesn’t hook the reader quickly. Reading for production companies can be demoralizing since many scripts get rejected, whereas working with clients can be more fulfilling.

Karel Segers: So, regarding Mayor of Kingstown, you didn’t know which actors were going to play the roles?

Michael Sweeney: Not initially. By the end, I heard Jeremy Renner was in talks to play the main role, and I thought it was perfect. Knowing the actors can enhance the reading experience, but for Mayor of Kingstown, it was about the writing and the twists.

Karel Segers: If this had been a rookie screenwriter, what would have been your script reader advice regarding the twist?

Michael Sweeney: The twist would need to pack an emotional punch, not just surprise. It has to move me in my gut. For instance, Hitchcock’s Psycho made viewers assume the story was about one character, only to shift unexpectedly. If done well, a twist like this can be compelling. For a rookie, the twist should hook the reader and make them want to see what happens next. Even if it’s a pilot, it needs to end in a way that compels the audience to return.

Karel Segers: What’s the best script you’ve ever read in terms of craft?

Michael Sweeney: That’s tough. I have two in mind. One is Michael Arndt’s Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a fantastic screenplay that translated well to film. Another is The Avengers script. I was surprised by how seamless and flowing the dialogue was, and how visually impactful the action lines were without being overly descriptive. Both scripts are completely different but stand out in terms of craft.

Karel Segers: What’s the biggest unproduced project you’ve ever read? Was that Mayor of Kingstown? Or was it something else?

Michael Sweeney: Well, unproduced or produced?

Karel Segers: When you read it, it was still unproduced. It may have been produced afterward.

Michael Sweeney: Right. Mayor of Kingstown is a big one. I also read a Sorkin script, The Trial of the Chicago 7, before it was produced. It was very long, even for Sorkin. I wondered if it could work as a film or maybe a TV series. Netflix picked it up, and when I watched it, I saw it was a self-contained story. This was early in my time at 101 Studios, and I was still learning. It was interesting to see how my perception changed and to realize, oh no, they were right all along. Aaron Sorkin knows what he’s doing.

The Future of Screenwriting: AI and Digital Platforms

Karel Segers: Absolutely. Now, the big questions. As a script reader, how do you see the future of screenwriting in the context of developments like AI and creativity?

Michael Sweeney: Thanks to the writers’ strike, there will always be pushback against AI. I experimented with feeding my ideas into AI and found the responses uninspired. AI can’t replicate the human voice. I’m wary of it but understand it will become a tool for writers. It’s essential to fight to ensure it stays a tool and not an employee. Beyond technology, there are many ways to break into screenwriting now, like podcasts, YouTube channels, and self-produced shorts. These platforms can bypass traditional Hollywood routes and later attract interest from big studios. For example, Critical Role, a Dungeons and Dragons YouTube channel, became a top-rated animated series on Amazon Prime. Thinking outside the box and leveraging digital platforms can strengthen you as a writer and lead to opportunities.

Karel Segers: Is the rise of streaming services changing the way we tell screen stories?

Michael Sweeney: Yes, for a few reasons. Technically, many pilots don’t have act breaks anymore because streaming doesn’t require them. This allows stories to flow without interruption. Streaming services also offer more inclusivity and variety. Each network used to have a specific style, like the glossy look of ABC shows or the sitcom style of CBS. Streaming provides so many options that it allows for more versatility and caters to various niches. This means different kinds of shows can coexist and thrive on the same platform, offering more content for viewers to enjoy.

Karel Segers: Almost at the end of this, Michael. What are you working on right now? Do you want to share that with us?

Michael Sweeney: I’d love to. I’m working on an hour-long adventure mystery pilot called OURS. The title stands for the Omnipresent Underground Repatriation Society, a secret group that stealthily returns artifacts to their rightful places. It’s inspired by the problematic elements in adventure films, like Indiana Jones, where cultural artifacts are taken and stored in museums. The story follows Annie Anderson, a security guard devoted to a billionaire named Ava Bowman, who personifies imperialism. Annie discovers the darker side of Ava and gets drawn into the society’s mission. Essentially, the show’s core theme is reclamation, both of cultural artifacts and personal identity.

Karel Segers: Who would you want to star in it, and where would it premiere?

Michael Sweeney: Dream casting for Ava would be Meryl Streep. For Annie, I’d prefer an unknown actress to give the character a fresh face. For Abigail Flynn, I’d love Tessa Thompson. As for the premiere, the Chinese Theatre would be amazing.

Karel Segers: Fingers crossed for you, Michael, and thanks so much for your time. 

Michael Sweeney: Absolutely. I appreciate it. If anyone’s interested in my script reader coverage services, the link is in the description. You can find me on Instagram @msweeney_scriptcoverage and the website is in the description as well.

Karel Segers: Thank you, Michael. I look forward to catching up again in the future.

Michael Sweeney: Thanks so much, Karel. All the best.

Karel Segers: Cheers.


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