Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

O, the joy of a southernly jaunt

gable colbert
Fortunately, I didn’t have to resort to this

The suitcase is put away. The dirty clothes laundered. The thank-you notes sent.

All the result following your humble blogger’s recent trip to the land of potential future employment, aka Los Angeles, which continues to yield results and, hopefully, keep on doing so.

“Los Angeles? How in the world did that come that about?” you may ask, and probably just did.

I was invited. At the behest of a new media company (as in “new media” i.e. online content, not “a media company that is new”) called AfterBuzz TV that produces a myriad of programs about an even wider variety of topics – all entertainment-based.

This one in particular is called The Unproduced Table Read. As the title implies, after finding a heretofore unproduced script they deem appropriate, they assemble members of their core group of actors and do a table read of the script – first as livestream video, then viewable on Youtube. Following the read, there’s a brief q&a with the writer. Sometimes the writer’s there in person, or if they can’t make it in, done via Skype.

Seeing as how the City of Angels is an hour-long plane ride away, I opted to attend.

They’d found my fantasy-swashbuckler in the archives of the Black List website and thought it fit the bill. The producer contacted me earlier this year, and after some informative back-and-forth emails, it was all set.

Seizing the opportunity of being in town, I also went about setting up meetings of both personal and professional natures. Although the scheduling didn’t work out with a couple of potential representatives, I was able to have some very productive conversations with some exceptionally talented professional contacts.

Networking, people. Establish and maintain those contacts! SO worth it.

But getting back to the table read. It was great. And fun. The actors did a fantastic job, and as a bonus – they really, really liked the script on several levels. I’m quite thrilled with how it turned out.

Was it worth doing? I’d say so, and not just because it got an enthusiastic reception from the people involved. It’s probably a little early to see if it’ll contribute to the career-building aspect, but it definitely makes for a strong marketing tool.

If you ever get the chance for a table read to be done for one of your scripts, take it. You can even put it together yourself. It’s a great way to evaluate the material, plus the actors might provide some unexpected insight. All you need is a workable space and the ability and willingness to feed your performers.

While talking afterwards with the show’s producer and some of the actors, somebody asked what other scripts I had. I mentioned the western. “We haven’t done one of those,” was the reply. Thus raises the possibility of a return trip. Time will tell.

Q & A with Rick Ramage of The Screenplay Show

Rick Ramage

Rick Ramage is a writer, director and producer with numerous credits on major motion pictures and television shows. During his 25-year career as a screenwriter, he has set up or sold over 40 scripts in Hollywood.

Rick’s latest project is The Screenplay Show, a new 10-part online series to educate about the art, craft and business of screenwriting and storytelling.

What is The Screenplay Show, and what inspired you to do it?

The Screenplay Show is an actual show about writing, presented in a fun, narrative style. It’s a ten-part webseries that will focus on the trade secrets I’ve developed (and learned) from Hollywood’s most talented writers, directors and producers during my 25-year career.

As to what inspired it, a few years ago, a buddy of mine started a writer/actor group called, “Write to Act” and he asked me to put on a seminar for his people in Denver. I was reluctant to say the least. For the last 25 years, my only job has been writing and producing film and television. Speaking in public? Not so much. He kept twisting my arm and after about a year of hounding me, I finally gave in and promised him I would do a one-day seminar. Then reality hit me: What could I possibly say for six hours that would interest other writers and actors? In an effort to alleviate the poor souls who would be stuck looking at my ugly mug all day, I pulled in my editor and we put together a long list of writing samples and clips covering every element of screenwriting so they could actually SEE what I was talking about – instead of listening to me pontificate as I clumsily tried to explain it.

For instance, using stills from The Shining, I put every moment of Jack’s character arc into a still photo sequence. You can actually visually track his descent into madness. I then put the page number from the script beside each expression. The audience literally gasped, because it was the first time they had actually seen a character arc moment by moment. I did the same thing for all the other elements of storytelling. As screenwriters, we have to write visually – so I figured it would work for seminars, too. But one thing really surprised me: the audience had as many questions about the writing experience as they did about the nuts and bolts. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by the methods of actors, athletes, and other writers, so I guess it’s fair that they wanted to know about my method – and how a life and career in the film business actually works.

What sets The Screenplay Show apart from other online seminars?

One look at the teasers we’re putting out there will let people know this isn’t your father’s seminar. I can’t honestly say I had an epiphany and The Screenplay Show was suddenly born. But doing the seminars over the next year or two, it definitely evolved into a rolling narrative; my personal Hollywood experience merged into describing actual methods that have worked for me and many of my colleagues. So far, I’ve set up or sold over 40 scripts. But I have to give credit where credit is due: I didn’t learn how to survive the biz, or sell scripts from books. I learned from working closely with tremendously gracious agents, managers, producers, directors, executives and actors who were generous enough to share their knowledge with me for one purpose – to get the story right.

My goal with The Screenplay Show is to share what they’ve taught me with other writers and storytellers. And when I say storytellers, I mean anybody involved in the film and television business. Directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, and even executives. They are storytellers because they impact the script and help bring it to life.

Tell us a little about your writing background. How did you get started?

I didn’t finish my degree. Instead I went into business with my dad, selling tractors. But I wanted to be well-read and well-spoken, so I sat down with 100 of the great novels and voraciously read them back-to-back. In the process, I began to see how the authors worked the elements. The storytelling process fascinated me. So when I was out covering my sales territory, I began to daydream about becoming a writer. Eventually, I tried to write a novel. Long story short – it sucked. But the person who told me it wasn’t very good also told me I was a good writer. That seemed like a contradiction, but it wasn’t. He told me I had a very visual style, and suggested I write a screenplay. So I turned my bad novel into a bad screenplay! (But that process lit a fuse in me, and I’ve never looked back.)

What have you recently read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

When I’m deep into writing one of my own scripts, I don’t usually watch or read much. By the end of the day, more words and plot lines are the last thing I need to relax. But two shows I try not to miss are Game of Thrones and House of Cards. From their production values, to the great characters, to the tight, well structured scripts, I admire them both a great deal. In fact that’s how I can tell when I’m in the hands of great storytellers – they make me forget I’m a writer. I become a fan.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Definitely. Recognizing good writing can and certainly should be taught and learned. I’ve known some executives who were by no means writers, yet they learned to identify good writing and write smart notes. Their jobs depend on it. I’ve learned to recognize good writing by the way it makes me disappear into it.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

For me, the single most important component of a good script is simply this: It must have soul. I need to feel what the writer is trying to say through his or her characters. If that happens, I know the other elements are working.

What are the three most important rules a writer should know?

-Dialogue:  When to shut up and let the subtext play.

-Action:  When not to overwrite. (more often than not, you’ll lose your reader.)

-Characters:  We write in search of ourselves. (makes them real.)

How can people find out more about The Screenplay Show?

We’re really encouraging people to go to their most comfortable social media site and follow us. Also, we’re really hoping they go to www.thescreenplayshow.com and sign our landing page. We won’t bombard you with trivial junk, but we do want to build a steady audience so we can let people know about events and new material.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever had. Golden, flaky crust made from scratch, crisp green apples sliced thin, and lots of cinnamon! I do miss that woman.

Works for me

Got my own way of doing things
Just doin’ my own thang

Over the past few months, I’ve made a sincere effort to expand my network of writers, filmmakers and industry folks. I can honestly say it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve had the benefit of connecting with a lot of fantastic people, both online and in person. Added bonus –  my self-confidence has shot through the roof.

Trust me. I’m phenomenal.

See?

This really comes in handy especially when I’ll read about someone else’s career taking a huge step forward (sale, option, deal, etc.). It stings at first, but then I remind myself that the only thing that person and I have in common is that we’re both writers. Their path and mine have been totally different and will continue to be so.

My turn’s coming, and I’m plenty experienced at being patient. You have to be in this business.

It doesn’t me do any good to compare myself to others. How I write, what I write, what I say to people, and so on. I’ve got my own totally unique approach to all of it. It’s taken a while to get to this point, and I like how it’s going, not to mention where it’s headed.

In the meantime, I keep writing (putting the comedy on hold to revamp the outline for the pulpy adventure, with ambitious plans for the finished product), reaching out to more people (great face-to-face meetings this week with a local actor and a writer) and continue the striving towards the ultimate goal.

Ask a Proficiently Perceptive Script Consultant!

Sidney Stephens

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Sidney Stephens of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

One of my favorite things is when a novel is adapted to the big screen. That’s when the writer in me really comes out to play. I’ll first read the book, then the screenplay, and eventually I’ll get around to seeing the film. I did this about a year ago with the hit TV series “Under the Dome” by Stephen King (only read the pilot script, however), and I also did this with “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. It’s very interesting to see how the story changes from one medium to the next. I enjoyed both of these the most of my recent reads.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

While getting my Master’s degree in Creative Writing years ago, I read numerous scripts, mostly for my classmates, friends and co-writers, and mostly as a pay-it-forward kind of thing. Over a year ago, a friend of mine asked if I would like to start up a script consulting business together. I’d done so much ‘freelance’ work that it made sense. Three months later, my friend backed out of the whole thing. I, on the other hand, rarely back out of anything. So here I am, sole owner of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely. Part of learning to write a good screenplay is learning to recognize what that means. And there’s no better way to do that than to read tons of screenplays. Breaking them down into what makes them good and what makes them great. The real trick to recognizing a good screenplay is not finding one that reads smoothly and is error free, its finding one that reads smoothly, is error free, and will translate all its intended emotion to the screen in a way that will captivate its targeted audience.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Believable characters and natural dialogue are two very important components of any decent script. Good characters are what draw the audience into the situation; they are what the audience relates to. If they aren’t believable or their dialogue isn’t natural or strong, it will leave the audience asking themselves why they even care to finish the script/film. Yes, settings are awesome and a twisty plot is always a great way to ramp up a screenplay, but without relatable, believable characters, its not enough to make a good script great.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Some writers, mostly new writers, try to dictate every inch of how the story will play out on film. With tons of camera angles, actor cues, and scene transitions it is hard to stay in the story. It’s important for the writer to know their part of the process and to do just that. Let the actors do their jobs, allow the directors and cameramen do their job, and just stick to writing a great story. Always remember to show, not tell.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

End of the world stories are really starting to wear me out. I think I’ve read every possible way the earth could end, blow up, shatter, freeze, burn, etc. and yet, the surrounding stories are all the same. Man saves family only to stay behind and sacrifice himself for the future of the world. The entire movie is watching them attempt to stop the inevitable only to fail miserably. Until finally, at the last possible moment, the guy saves the planet and is reunited once again with his loved ones. Yawn.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

  • Writing is rewriting. No matter how great you think your draft is, it needs a rewrite. Deal with it.
  • Have a target audience and know exactly what it takes to reach them.
  • Write what you know.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I’ve definitely read some worthy scripts in my days as a consultant. However, it is only after working closely with the writer on rewrites and such and knowing what producers were looking for at that particular time. I think finding any script that is “without a doubt” anything is a rare find that all consultants want that next script on their desk to be.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Screenwriting contests are a great way to get your screenplay read and possibly receive some fairly descent feedback. However, using these contests to “break into the business” or as a way of earning thousands on their scripts, they better be something spectacular. The reality is, hundreds of thousands of writers enter screenwriting competitions every year, and only a handful make it past the volunteer readers in the initial read. Can it be your screenplay? Of course. It is worth it? Well, that depends on the writer.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

My website: www.SidneyScriptsConsulting.com

My Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sidney.stephens.9465

Email me with any questions: SidneyScriptsConsulting@gmail.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Sorry, I’m a brownie girl!*

(*Editor’s note: The blasphemy of this statement will not be held against Ms. Stephens.)