Industry Spotlight" is our newsletter series where we interview professionals from across the entertainment industry about their current jobs and career trajectories. Our hope is that you will learn more about the positions you're already interested in, discover new roles you may not have considered, and utilize the wisdom of those who've paved the way before you to forge your own path for success.
This month, we sat down with Shannon Massey Smith, an out neurodiverse writer, filmmaker, and single mom. She works as a script doctor/ghostwriter (one of the good ones) and sensitivity/authenticity reader. When she’s not writing and letting other people take the credit, she works on original content for screen and prose.
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: Give us an overview of what you do, and how you would define each of your roles.
SHANNON MASSEY SMITH: I own a production company, Girls To The Front! Productions, and we’re working on finalizing financing and distribution for our 22/23 slate. I’m a freelance filmmaker and typically work as writer/director, assistant director, or somewhere in the art department (although after this many decades in the industry I’ve worked in every department). I also work as a script doctor/ghostwriter (one of the good ones) & sensitivity/authenticity reader both for screen and prose. Explaining what that is can be tricky because there are so many misconceptions about what people in my line of work do. What I like to tell people is to think of the nerd in high school that did the jock’s homework to help them stay on the team. Except instead of doing math homework, I’m doing everything from properly formatting screenplays so they can be broken down and the budget can be made, to helping to ensure the women in the script look/sound like real women and not something you’d see on the Men Write Women Twitter/Tumblr account. Regardless of what I’m doing though, I’d say the most important part of my job is to uplift and empower other creatives and create a safe space for them to thrive. Some people have great ideas, they just don’t know how to execute them, so I help them get those ideas on paper and flesh them out into full screenplays or novels.
HR: What do you enjoy most about your job?
SMS: I absolutely love helping people, it genuinely fills me with such joy. Whether it’s helping someone take an idea and characters that have existed in their head for years and helping them get out onto paper or just helping to educate and empower people with the knowledge needed to do better in the future. There is nothing like knowing I helped make a difference for someone.
HR: How did you become a script doctor/ghostwriter/sensitivity reader?
SMS: I fell into it. it was around 2002, and I’d been working sets for 4ish years. I had a friend I’d worked with in LA who sent a screenplay to me because he knew I was a writer (I was active in the zine scene in the late 90s and published on a few now-defunct sites) and wanted to get my opinion on his script. I sent him my suggestions, and that’s where it all began. As I started to get other people asking for help, I decided to go to film school to learn screenwriting properly. I have a degree in writing/directing. Then through networking and a random string of events, I landed my first major client in 2004 which led to a lot of other clients, and I’ve just sort of kept doing it ever since (yes, you’ve seen or read something I wrote; no I can’t talk about it due to NDAs and contracts). Back when I started as a sensitivity/authenticity reader, we didn’t really have a term for it. We were just people trying to make sure there wasn’t anything deeply cringey in screenplays (or novels).
HR: What advice do you have for someone looking for script reader roles?
SMS: I have very strong feelings about script readers that aren’t always popular. Be careful when looking at script reader positions, because so many of them are volunteer or unpaid. While doing free labor as a script reader can be a good way to learn about what works and what doesn’t in a script, I personally believe everyone should be paid for the work they do. Readers tend to be, in some regards, gatekeepers to what makes it through, which unfortunately opens us up to the issue of people’s personal bias and prejudice coloring what they read. Which is why it can be so hard to get work through from marginalized creators. It’s something we’re trying to fix with my production company. I read every script that comes through our inbox. I don’t hire readers. With my extensive experience both on set and as a writer, I usually know within the first 5 pages if a script is producible.
HR: What does sensitivity reading entail?
SMS: There are sensitivity readers, then there are authenticity readers. Both serve a vital service, but they’re very different. Let’s say you have a film about professional rock climbers, but you’ve never even seen a mountain. The authenticity reader would go through to make sure the climbing scenes are accurate, and the lingo is on point. A sensitivity reader will go through and also make sure your scenes are accurate and on-point, but they’re dealing more with characters and how they interact. If you have a Black Nigerian man, you’re going to want to make sure he’s accurately represented and not a damaging stereotype. Most of the work I’ve done is helping with women and lesbian characters, however, I’ve also helped to make sure characters with PTSD or ADHD are accurately represented. But there are dozens of things I check for both as a sensitivity reader and an authenticity reader.
HR: Why is this work important?
SMS: This work is vital because writers are the first line of defense against problematic stories and content. We have a moral obligation and ethical duty to make sure we are not perpetuating hateful or harmful stereotypes that can do real world damage and cause actual harm. Especially because the people that are most often hurt are ones that are in marginalized communities and already in danger. We can also help you determine if this is a story you should even be telling. While its okay to write characters that are different than you, it’s never okay to write about being part of a community that’s not your own. Sensitivity readers can help make sure that when you’re writing about people that are different than you, you’re treating not just the characters, but the community as a whole, with the respect they deserve.
HR: When should writers hire a script doctor or sensitivity reader?
SMS: The most important thing is to make sure you’re hiring someone that knows what they’re doing, because the last thing you want is to waste money on someone that can’t actually help you. People like me that have experience both on set and as screenwriters are ideal because we understand what it takes to take words from paper and turn them into something more. You want to hire a script doctor/sensitivity/authenticity reader once you have a polished script or manuscript and you’re getting closer to querying.
HR: Can you share a little bit about your process working with writers?
SMS: Everyone has a different way of doing things. Before I even start a project I tend to ask for movies/books that have a similar vibe to what the writer is trying to achieve. I'll then watch/read to get a sense for the voice/style. When I’m doctoring, I’ll go through and do a pass for formatting first. Once I’ve fixed or marked any formatting issues, I can go through for creative content and make sure the action/dialogue is strong. After this initial pass, I’ll send my first round of notes to the clients so they can integrate them and ask any questions they may have about why certain changes are being made. Once we’ve gone through that, I’ll go ahead and do another pass to make sure we got everything and it’s looking okay. As a sensitivity reader, it’s a similar process, but I don’t look at formatting, only the representation/characters.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
SMS: Humility is the single most important skill. You cannot do my work if you have a big ego, because you need to be okay with doing all the hard work and letting someone else get the credit. I’ve helped clients win hundreds of awards, placement in fellowships/labs/incubators, and get optioned/staffed. No one knows about my involvement, but that’s not important. What is, is that I helped someone else succeed. You also need to stay on top of current/future trends. I am constantly watching shows/movies/listening to podcasts/reading because I want to stay informed. You also need lived experience to be a sensitivity or authenticity reader. Anyone can write anything they want. However, it’s incredibly important to make sure you’re not actively doing harm with your representation of people that are different than you. I have honestly lost track of the number of women characters I’ve had to rewrite because they were just being treated like another prop in the story, instead of a human being with human needs. This is not only unfair to the women in the audience but also to the actress who has to bring the role to life.
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
SMS: If you are a writer: learn to accept criticism and not take it personally (yes, I understand how hard this can be, but trust me, it’ll help you be a better writer). You are doing the best you can, and there is nothing wrong with your best being different than my best. As a writer, I understand that sometimes we have a blindspot when it comes to our own writing, I know I do. I can look at someone else’s work and within the first 5 pages know what’s wrong and how to fix it. However with my own content, I read things the way they are supposed to be written, not always how they’re actually written. I always have someone do what I call the “sanity check” before I query original content to make sure things are the way they’re supposed to be. So see? Even someone that’s been doing it for decades sometimes needs help, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make me a bad writer -- it means I’m only human.