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

Results may vary

crystal ball

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been involved in a few online discussions about posting and pitching one’s material via script-hosting and pitching sites (The Black List, InkTip, Virtual PitchFest, etc). I even featured a Q&A about it last year with a trusted colleague who also happens to be a very savvy writer (and had some moderate success in this area).

The primary question: are any of them worth it?

As you’d expect, there’s no easy answer, and everybody’s experience is going to be different. I can only speak for what’s happened to me.

A few years ago, I posted my fantasy-swashbuckler on The Black List, and paid for a review. Based on their comments, I was convinced the reader got to around page 22 or so, had no interest in reading any further, and then skipped to the last page. Biggest clue – no mention at all about anything that happened in the second act.

I griped about it on Twitter, which somebody at the Black List then responded with “You can’t make those kinds of accusations without any evidence to back it up!” (I love the idea that it was Franklin Leonard himself, but doubt he would have been spending his Sunday morning checking the Black List Twitter feed). Skittish newb I was, I backed down.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Through a series of interesting events, the script did get some positive reviews, which actually got me a manager. That was nice, but it didn’t work out, and the relationship soon ended. Since the script wasn’t getting much traction (read: any) on the Black List anymore, that subscription also came to a close.

I’ve also heard from other writers who got a 2 on one review and a 9 on another, or who’ve paid for reviews and heard nothing back. Then after asking about it, managed to get a refund; sometimes they’ll also throw in a credit for a free review as a form of apology. Are these commonplace or rare occurrences? Beats me.

I also signed up for the batch of pitches from Virtual PitchFest, and have so far only pitched to two production companies. While I felt my script was a solid match for the criteria they were seeking, each yielded the same response – “Nothing personal. It just didn’t grab us.” No doubt this is the generic rejection everybody gets.

I still have something like 10 or 11 pitches remaining, and if I opt to actually use them, will probably still be very selective about it. But I also suspect I’ll get the same boilerplate response.

I’ve written before about my experiences with pitching to Stage 32, so I’ll just leave this link here. I believe a lot of the points I make still apply. And at the time, I wouldn’t mention them by name. Things change.

Finally, there’s InkTip. I signed up and posted three scripts. Each subscription period is four months, and I did it two consecutive times. During those eight months, the loglines got constant views, which really doesn’t mean much, one script got downloaded once, and another had the synopsis downloaded twice – amazingly, on the same day, which was also two days before the hosting would expire.

*Interesting side note – If your synopsis or script gets downloaded, InkTip doesn’t want you to follow up with the company until at least three weeks later, and then ONLY by regular mail. I’ve always found that a bit odd, but I guess it’s to discourage bombarding them with constant emails. A follow-up to the prodco that downloaded the script yielded no response at all. A little disheartening at the time, but I got over it pretty quickly.

I also subscribe to the InkTip newsletter because a lot of the time there’s at least one or two listings on it that I can send to. That’s yielded a few read requests, but each of those has ended with “Thanks, but it’s just not for us.”

Between the two, I think the newsletter is the better choice. More options, more possibilities; especially compareed to the extremely low return for just having your scripts hosted on the site. I’ve since let those expire, with no immediate plans to return.

I’m sure there are those who think posting or pitching this way is their way in, and for some it probably is, but it can get a bit exhausting to keep shelling out bucks on a monthly basis and getting nothing in return. I’ve had better results with contests and query letters, and you know what longshots those can be.

What if you did this for a few years and still got nothing? Would you still think it was worth it? Sometimes on the InkTip newsletter, they’ll list “success stories”, which mention how long the writer has been a member. Some of them go back 10 to 12 years. That’s A LOT of money invested.

There’s spending money to make money, and there’s reaching the conclusion you’re just throwing money away. Despite the controversy surrounding the practice, I’d rather spend that money on quality notes, which in the end helps me become a better writer.

Like I said, all of this is stuff that’s happened to me. Your experience might be the total opposite. For all I know, you’re one of those “WRITER SELLS SCRIPT THANKS TO OUR SERVICES!” people. If so, great. You beat the odds and I’m glad it worked out for you.

But for the rest of us, how’s it been for you? Good? Bad? Somewhere in that nebulous middle? Have you had similar experiences with any of these companies, or any who aren’t listed? Did you get a read request? A writing assignment? Connect with a filmmaker or production company? Get representation? Can you point to an actual completed film and say “I wrote that!”?

Like I said way back at the beginning, it’s different for everybody. Is subscribing to any of these sites something you’d recommend, or would you deliberately steer people away from them?

Inquiring minds want to know.

What’s in your peritia scripturae*?

mailroom
This is just the resume pile. You should see the submitted spec script room.

An acquaintance recently told me about a small production company seeking material, and they (the acquaintance) thought one of my scripts might be a good match for it.

“Great!” I responded. “What do they need?”

“Your synopsis (with a logline), along with your writing resume. If they like what they see, they’ll ask for the script.”

Hold on one second. I had the synopsis, but a writing resume? Never heard of that before, let alone including it with the script material. Did such a thing even exist? What would it even look like? Was this some new trend of which I was unaware?

Apparently they do exist, but based on my experience and research, it sounds like being asked to provide one happens very, very rarely.

You’re probably thinking “Couldn’t they just look you up on IMDB Pro?” They could, but that doesn’t contain all my relevant details and information.

But this place wanted a resume, so I had to put one together. What to put on it?

I looked up what I could for “writer’s resume”, but got a lot of non-screenwriting-related information and examples. This resulted in a lot of tinkering around and adapting the best I could.

It all boils down to listing all of your screenwriting and screenwriting-related experience, along with any applicable accomplishments. Many writers with a personal website or blog have a page featuring some kind of version of it.

I wasn’t a produced writer, except for a writing credit on somebody else’s film school short, so I could mention that. Plus some material I’d written and filmed years ago as part of a freelance assignment which at last check was still available on YouTube.

Some of my scripts have won awards in reputable competitions. I listed the titles and their assorted results.

I included being a reader for a few screenwriting contests. (True!)

Oh yeah. THIS BLOG. Been going strong for years, plus a few accolades along the way. This triggered the realization that I could use some other screenwriting-related materials I’d written.

Turns out I had a somewhat decent amount of material to work with.

A little editing and revising, and off it went, along with the one-pager.

Unfortunately, the prodco passed. Not because of my lack of experience, but the script “just wasn’t what they were looking for.” No big surprise and no big deal.

But now I have a writer’s resume, which I keep updated. Chances are nobody’ll ever ask for it again, but I’m glad I put it together and have it ready to go. Just in case. Stranger things have happened.

There’s no doubt that some follow-up thoughts and comments to this will be of a “this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard” nature. And in some ways, I totally agree. But I chalk it up to just adding another tool to your arsenal of self-marketing materials. It took all of 15-20 minutes to put it together, so no harm done.

Normally, this would be the end of the post, but part of the reason I wrote about this is there are always writers on assorted online forums seeking feedback from other writers, and they get a lot of volunteers eager to offer up their two cents.

While it’s great that somebody’s so willing to help you out, what if their level of experience isn’t similar to yours? What if you’ve written ten scripts, and they’ve written two? Or still working on their first one? How much value would you give their notes?

It’s not a bad thing to ask somebody about their writing experience. It’s also not the best idea to ask a bunch of strangers to give you notes. You’re much better off building and developing strong professional relationships. Most seasoned writers don’t seem to have a problem discussing their experience.

So the next time somebody you’re not too familiar with says they’d be more than happy to give you notes on your script, don’t feel bad asking them how much experience they’ve had.

Or you could even ask to see their writing resume.

*Latin for “writing experience”.

No small feat using another medium to be a writer-at-large

HG Wells
The man responsible for tales of time travel, alien invasions, and assorted mad scientists, just to name a few…

After a gap of several years, I recently had the opportunity to reconnect in person with a respected colleague who has had more than their fair share of experience dealing with writers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of talent.

This person used to deal a lot with screenwriters, but now deals primarily with writers of manuscripts. Over the course of our conversation, I was asked about my scripts and my writing (What do I like to write? What genres are the scripts I have now? What kind of stories am I working on?)

As has been documented here before, my genre of choice is definitely adventure, along with hyphens connecting them to other genres (i.e. western-adventure, pulp sci-fi adventure, etc).

I gave a quick thumbnail sketch/five-second elevator pitch for the two completed and the one currently in revision mode.

You’d be harder pressed to find a stronger advocate for using your already-existing material as a springboard to jump into other mediums – primarily books and/or graphic novels.

It was their opinion that all three sounded like very original and fun ideas, which would make each a prime candidate for attracting attention. And this person has also been following the blog for quite a while, so their opinion is also that my writing is pretty solid. They cited examples of writers they knew who’d foregone the traditional route of trying to get in with one of the high-profile publishing houses and done it all themselves, each achieving respectable levels of success. Nothing to break the bank, but still some impressive numbers.

“A script is more or less an outline for a novel. And even though you’re not limited by page numbers, it still takes talent to create a novel,” I was told. “Your stories are original and unique, which makes them prime candidates for this. At least think about it.”

Believe me, I am.

My success in trying to get these scripts through to reps and production companies has been practically non-existent at best, yet I persist. I’m sure I’ll continue along that avenue, but this new alternative is definitely food for thought.

I’ve been told by more than a few people that my writing is very visual (which you would think would make it ideal for film), and that it really moves. In the past, I’ve entertained and even at times partially investigated the notion of applying my scripts to a graphic novel format (a great match), but am also not averse to trying my hand at converting it to pure prose.

I’ve no intention of stopping writing scripts. I like it too much. But I also like the pure act of writing by itself, so for the time being, all this talk about working in other formats is nothing more than speculation and conjecture.

But in some ways, still worth considering.

The (much) tougher part

ali hit
99% of the time, you’re George Foreman

In this week’s previous post, I wrote about the necessity of how a writer needs to enjoy the actual writing part of being a writer.

A few colleagues piped in, saying while that part of it holds true, they also find the business aspect (i.e. the marketing of YOU) to be significantly harder and much more challenging. Taking it one step further, lack of progress on that front adds to their frustration.

I can’t argue with any of that. I’ve experienced it firsthand many times.

Friend of the blog Phil Hardy had this to say:

“…this should resonate with most of us that are doing the same thing as you are. However, one of the keys in trying to be a successful writer is spending a fair amount of time crafting query letters, answering ads or attempting to make contact with industry people anyway you can. Many writers fall flat in this area. One should definitely spend as much time as they can trying to promote and sell their work, as well as taking joy in the act of writing it.”

Simply put, marketing and promoting oneself is a necessary evil that a writer has to be willing to undergo and endure as many times as it takes if they want to succeed. Sucks, but it’s the truth.

After working on a couple of scripts and building up my arsenal of materal, I’ve decided to take the plunge again.

I’ve put together what I consider to be a pretty effective new draft of the query letter. Gone through the list of managers, agents and production companies, researching who might a good match for each script.

A few queries have been sent, so the waiting and hoping for a positive response begins yet again. All the while, working on more scripts. It’s all I can do.

My efforts to improve my networking skills have also paid off. Every once in a while, a colleague will send me a listing that seems tailor-made for one of my scripts. Even though none of them have worked out, it’s made me aware of more opportunities than I would have been able to find on my own.

We all know this is not an easy path. It’s extremely tough and really puts your endurance to the test. The question you have to continually ask yourself is “Am I willing to keep working at this until I get the results I want, no matter how long it takes, how frustrated I get, or how impossible it seems?”

I can only speak for myself.

Yep.

-You might find these older posts somewhat relevant and worth a read.

The me businsess – a 24/7 operation

A support staff of one