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

Proofreading Q&A panel – part 2

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross
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Bill Donovan and friend (friend occupying Bill’s lap)

Here is the second of a two-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net about proofreading and its connection with screenwriting, along with some info about the proofreaders themselves.

Part one can be found here.

When you proofread a screenplay, do you also take on the role of story analyst?

Tammy Gross (TG): Not as a primary service, but yes. Since I’m reading it anyway, I do offer inexpensive add-ons if a writer wants some basic “coverage.” And even with proofreading, there are some story issues which may be addressed during the edit if there’s a problem with consistency and/or continuity.

Before I started my proofreading service, I took a course on story analysis and offered a coverage service. I soon learned how bad formatting and text were too distracting for my left brain. It’s agony for me to look past multiple errors/issues.

Bill Donovan (BD): To a limited degree, yes. However, I put these and other words at the top of every set of notes I give back with the proofread copy:

“These are not the words of an expert script analyst … I strongly hope not to hurt your feelings … To the extent that you find my comments on your story to be wrong-headed, pointless, or insensitive, you are hereby counseled and, with regret for any hurt feelings, encouraged to ignore them.”

What’s your writing background?

TG: The agony of trying to look past typos sent me down an editing path in my 20s. I read a book published through a major publishing house that had multiple errors in the soft-cover version. I sent my corrections to the publisher, and the author contacted me personally to thank me. Ever since, I’ve honed my editing skills.

My life plan was “sing while I’m young and write when I’m old.” I did write a couple of novels in my 20s and managed to have some sort of writing or editing responsibility in every “real” job I ever worked, whether at a church, a bank or Fortune 500 company.

In 2008, while taking a break from singing, I learned about a couple of female pirates. These historical swashbuckling stories fascinated me. I traveled the world researching pirates (including falling victim to real ones in the Bahamas) and learning about writing screenplays. I haven’t looked back.

So far, every script I’ve entered in contests has placed or won. In fact, my first script won the first contest I ever entered. Since then, I’ve realized that my ability to write in “the language of screenplay” was getting me further than better storytellers due to their weaker technical skills.

I’m currently writing an adventure story for a producer who found me because of one of my scripts (which I also turned into a YA book).

BD: -Screenplay contest judge (three contests)
-Screenplay contest executive (11 screenplay contests, 5 scene-writing contests, two logline contests)
-Two of my own screenplays won three first prizes equaling $30,104 in prize money in today’s dollars.
-Former Editor of Creative Screenwriting Magazine
-Author of three e-books for screenwriters to date; a fourth is upcoming
-USC Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting and Filmmaking
-Copy desk chief at a daily newspaper, the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record
-Copy editor at the Associated Press
-Copy editor at another daily newspaper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
-Copy editor for several business-to-business trade publications
-11,200+ published pages and screenplays edited/proofread over the years
-News stories I wrote and/or edited won five national journalism awards.

How’d you get into proofreading?

TG: Totally by accident. I started a screenwriting group where we would table-read 10 pages of each writer’s script. I found myself making lots of corrections on everybody’s pages, and many of them asked me to proofread their entire scripts. It was a little overwhelming, due to also running a thriving music-arranging business at the time, so I put up a website to help me prioritize and charged a low but fair fee.

And it’s good that I did, because after the 2007 writers’ strike, followed by the recession, the spec-writing business boomed while music arranging fizzled.

BD: For an upcoming book, I surveyed and interviewed producers, agents, screenplay readers, directors, contest judges, and contest executives, asking them for their comments on the most common and the worst mistakes they see. Within the screenplay, proofreading and editing mistakes were named both the most common and most disliked by people in the industry.

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

TG: The order page functions as a quote calculator, or send an email anytime: Proofreader@ProofMySpec.com

BD: Email me at Bill@screenwritingcommunity.net or use this form at my website.

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

TG: Humble. I should eat more of that and less Key lime.

BD: 1. Great pizza. 2. Pumpkin, my own homemade recipe. 3. Blueberry, Comstock filling, augmented.

Hey! Long time no (preferred form of communication)

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A hard-at-work pre-Internet server keeping things up and running

There’ve been several previous posts here regarding the benefits and necessity of networking. It can’t be stressed enough how incredibly helpful and effective it can be, especially if you’re not in Los Angeles or somewhere you don’t have a lot of in-person access to other writers.

But it’s not enough to just make a connection. An effort needs to be made by at least one of you (most likely you) to maintain that connection and keep it healthy. And it’s not as hard as you might think.

While it can be extremely easy and tempting to get sucked into the never-ending rabbit hole of the internet, designate a portion of your non-writing time to be just as productive and try to get some networking stuff done.

Are you connected to another writer in your area, but you’ve never actually met in person? Ask them if they’re up for a get-to-know-you coffee or lunch chat.

If you’re limited to online communication, send them an email or tweet asking how they’re doing, and how their latest projects are coming along. Be helpful, or at least offer to help. They might just take you up on it.

*Important – if it’s been a while since you’ve been in touch, don’t start things off by straight-out asking for something. Would you want someone to do that to you? Didn’t think so.

If something good (career or otherwise) has happened for them, send a note of congratulations. Likewise, if something not-so-good has happened, express your sympathies accordingly.

Cliched as it may sound, keeping the lines of communication open really can help you out. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have established strong relationships with several local writers and filmmakers, and exchanged notes with writers scattered across the globe.

I reconnected with a consultant I hadn’t been in touch with for several months, and that conversation led to them offering up coverage (which I still paid for) that proved to be quite helpful.

A writer I know who works in TV and film emailed me, wanting to discuss her latest concept because she thought I was a good match for it.

None of these would have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to keep each relationship going. Rather than taking a “how can you help me?” approach, I go in with the mindset of “maybe I can help you?”

One of the things you hear so often when it comes to establishing a screenwriting career is “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. I’ve found both parts to be true. You definitely have to know what you’re doing in terms of craft and writing ability, but it’s equally important to establish and maintain solid, professional relationships with as many people as you can.

Because you never know who’s going to suddenly be a person of influence willing to help you out because you did the same for them.

So here’s your voluntary assignment:

1. Contact five of your connections.
2. Ask them how things are going.
3. Take it from there.

Good luck!

A workload on steroids

Man drowning in stacks of paperwork
All I need to do is cut out the non-essentials. Who needs food, sleep or oxygen anyway?

I’m in the home stretch for the November writing project. I got into Act 3 over the weekend, and think there about 10-12 pages left before I can call it a day. No reason I can’t wrap things up in the next couple of days. Estimated final page count should be somewhere in the mid-90s, so pretty much where I was hoping it would be.

My original intent was to put that on the back burner once it was done and shift my focus to another script, but something else has developed that definitely requires my attention: other people’s work.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been very fortunate to have gotten some fantastic feedback from friends and trusted colleagues. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.

Actually, make that favors. Plural.

Every time I’ve asked someone if they’d be willing to read and give me notes, I always offer to do the same for them. And several have taken me up on the offer.

Which is totally fine. I just didn’t expect all of them to happen within such a short timeframe.  But it’s cool. Just requires a little planning.

Some script-related items, two scripts requiring special attention (with a bit of a time limitation), and at least 4-5 others getting straight-up notes. Yeah, that’s a lot, but I’d feel pretty shitty if I didn’t reciprocate the kindness all of these folks extended to me.

While I’d love to keep the 2-pages-a-day momentum going clear through to the end of December and have at least part of a draft of another script, taking care of these is now top priority.

It may take me a little longer than I expect, but I always strive to honor my commitments. I said I’d do something for you, and by gosh, I’ll do it.

It’s the least I can do.

Ask a Decidedly Ingenious Script Consultant!

Ryan Dixon

The final installment 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 Ryan Dixon of the now-defunct ScriptShark.

Ryan Dixon is the manager of ScriptShark, a creative consultation company, and a screenwriter currently writing projects for Universal, Disney and WWE Films. Previously, Ryan worked in development for Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nathanson (L.A. Confidential, Draft Day) and at such companies as Paramount, MGM/UA, IMAX, World Wrestling Entertainment, Endemol and Good in a Room. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and Entertainment Technology Center, Ryan co-authored the graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening and co-wrote and exec-produced the upcoming feature film backstage comedy OPENING NIGHT starring Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Cheyenne Jackson (30 Rock).

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

EX MACHINA’s screenplay was masterful. It reminded me of a sci-fi version of those great meta-thriller plays of the 1970s, like DEATHTRAP and SLEUTH. P.T. Anderson did an extraordinary job with INHERENT VICE. His adaptation added a layer of depth and Los Angeles historicity that was missing in Pynchon’s fun, but flawed and rather juvenile novel.

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

As a movie-obsessed child, I used to buy shooting scripts at the late and belated Suncoast: The Movie Store. In college at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, reading scripts was part of the curriculum. My first job in Hollywood was interning for Tom Cruise’s former company CW Productions, so from that point on, I’ve been reading and covering scripts professionally in one form or another.

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

I think it’s a matter of taste. Of course, one must have a certain degree of training and skill in order to fully recognize and appreciate any craft. A classically trained musician or a fine arts scholar is better able to pinpoint the minutiae of Beethoven or Picasso. At the same time, taste is a separate sort of knowledge and instinct. A layman can find beauty if they’re a person who can digest and appreciates art for art’s sake. Nickelback’s members are studied musicians, Lisa Frank is a trained artist, and both are wildly successful in their fields. Study can hone and illuminate the elements of a craft but that can only take you so far.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The basic elements (structure, character, theme) must be superiorly executed. Next, there should be something special in the piece. Even if it’s basic genre fare, the script should include elements that make the reader sit up and say, “Wow! I haven’t seen that before.”

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

From young writers it’s always basic mistakes: mechanics, too much dialogue and/or scene direction. Sadly, these mistakes are also the easiest to avoid. What they reveal is that that writer hasn’t bothered to learn the fundamentals. This is fascinating because I can’t think of any other vocation where a similar incident would occur. If one were serious about learning to cook, a cookbook would be the first purchase. If you wanted to scuba dive, you’d take lessons before jumping head first into the ocean. While all the fundamentals are usually outstanding in the work of veteran writers, there is often a lack of courage and conviction in terms of content, as if they’re afraid to try something different for fear of being tossed out of another development meeting. If you are going to make the huge time commitment needed to write a spec script, swing for the fences. The creative dilution process can come later, once the script’s been optioned.

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

One is when characters (particularly female characters) are described solely on their looks. It tells you nothing about who a character is and often times a bit too much about the writer’s psyche.

Another is the oversaturation of beautiful people playing everyday characters. Even if you look at a movie from as recently as the 90’s, a man could be a regular guy with full chest and back hair and a woman could do a nude scene with a soft, everyday body. In contemporary films, everyone is sculpted, plucked and dyed to perfection. In this renewed Golden Age of Television, character actors are able to once again shine and it really strengthens the storylines and characters (Breaking Bad and Mad Men are obvious examples).

My wife is a screenwriter as well (and very opinionated to boot), so for better or worse, this is a constant discussion and analysis in our household. A big one for her is that men can have high-risk jobs and a strong drive, but if it’s a woman is in the same position, she needs a tragedy or a backstory. GRAVITY most recently did this—George Clooney is an astronaut because of his skill but Sandra Bullock is an astronaut because her kid died.

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

-The believability of characters is often more dependent upon the execution of other elements in the script (e.g., plot, theme, dialogue) than anything else. A trap writers (myself included) often fall into is to confuse “believable” with “realistic.” Thus the ever-present tendency to write characters who are mill workers, teachers, office drones, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with this if that’s what your script dictates, it’s also important to remember that some of the most believable characters in cinematic history were also some of the most unrealistic: E.T., Yoda, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc. They’re believable not because you could see them walking down the street, but because the creators of those characters did an amazing job of creating the world in which they existed.

-Master the art of writing a “skimmable” script. We all dream of studio execs, producers, agents, etc sitting down in a quiet space and focusing fully on our script, but the truth is that they are often read in a rush during limited time frames. This is why it’s important to craft your script in a way that a decision maker can easily understand it if they are forced to skim it. You want your script to FEEL like a movie. That means, a reader should be able to zip through it in about 90 minutes. If a first time reader can’t do that, they won’t be able to envision you script as a movie no matter its other strengths.

-This is stolen but golden: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King, a favorite author, from ON WRITING). Lightning doesn’t just strike and no one will just hand you anything in Hollywood. Nothing comes easy in writing and you have to work yourself to the bone to get success. I track my time using my iPhone timer and a writer’s log. I make sure to always get in 6 to 8 hours of writing a day. If I’m blocked, I take a brainstorming walk. I’m not perfect. I can procrastinate with the best of them and it took a few years to build to that point. But like any exercise, it works if you keep working at it and pushing yourself.

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

Elizabethtown by Cameron Crowe. I read the script while it was in development and was never so moved or in awe of a piece of screenwriting. In the end however, the final lesson I gained from the experience was that great scripts don’t always make great movies. For whatever reason, the alchemy needed to successfully transform material from page to screen failed. This specific incident was doubly disappointing since the writer directed the piece himself and has shown time and again that he’s an immensely talented director.

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

There are only a handful of contests that will have an impact on your career if you are a top finisher. I’m hesitant to state that all the others aren’t worth it if only because placing high can be a great confidence boost to any young writer (if they have the money to spend). But if you are cash-strapped, go for the big guns and ignore the others.

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

You can visit www.ScriptShark.com or email us at ScriptShark@gracenote.com

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

Boston Cream. As a writer and eater, I like synergy and mixing genres. There’s no pie that does this better.