Q & A with Christopher Lockhart
March 18th, 2014
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor.
From the Archive here is some Q & A with Chris!
Q: I was reading your piece on twoadverbs.com about constructing loglines ("The Construction of a Logline"), and I was surprised that you advise not to include a self-addressed, stamped yes/no postcard. A couple years ago I did this and received about twenty back. Granted they didn't have a "no" option-- just "please send me the screenplay." But I thought it also added some marketing value to my idea. I had them professionally printed with some imagery that dealt with the humorous nature of my screenplay. Why do you recommend not sending one? Is it amateurish or something? I'm planning to begin querying again for my latest screenplay and I'm wondering if I should approach it differently. What other options do I have?
A: Yes, I do think they look amateurish since studios and professional writers don’t use them – only amateurs. If your query provides an e-mail, I can just as easily reply yay or nay. However, I know many assistants who appreciate postcards and SASEs because they peel off the stamps to use for their own mail. But what do I really know? If you had success with postcards then continue to use them.
What do you think about Internet sites where producers request screenplays (I mean Hollywoodlitsales.com, The Screenwriters Market, etc.)? Have you ever heard about someone that sold a screenplay by that way?
I’ve blogged about this in the past (IN MEMORY OF MRS. MARY C. BROCKWAY). These sorts of sites have been responsible for a sale or two. But none can truly offer up statistics that make their services anything more than a shot in the dark. For instance, Hollywoodlitsales.com – which offers a referral service - tells us that “the Joel Zwick produced movie FOREVER TOGETHER, was found through us.” If that seven-year-old direct-to-video effort is the website’s only claim to fame, it’s hardly an endorsement. (And whatever happened to the screenwriter?) However, the problem doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of these websites. Although it's true that few reputable producers prowl the likes of these domains, the real culprit for their lack of success is due to the poor material that's offered up.
Last week, the Big Apple complained of a bad smell that emanated from New Jersey. New Yorkers, despite their tough reputations, walked around the city holding their noses to ward off the miasma.
On a daily basis, Hollywood suffers from a similar stench.
We have our own New Jersey: The putrified pile of bad scripts.
And nowhere is the proliferation more offensive than the toxic dumps of these websites. So, the lack of success is due to both website & writer - the apotheosis of Wonder Twin power.
Interestingly, these websites have a built in safety net. If writers complain about the lack of bang for their buck, it can always be blamed on their bad writing - which will usually exonerate a tenuous service. This might be why there are very few complaints against the websites.
Ultimately, if the Internet service is affordable and provides one shot in a large cache of ammunition, I suspect it won't hurt. However, it seems doubtful it will help either.
I am sure you get this question quite often, but I'll ask anyway... How do I get read? Let me rephrase that -- what I mean is, Holy crap, in the name of all that is good and pure, how in the heck can I get anyone who knows anything or has any sort of decent reputation in the business to read a script? I am a published author -- my novel comes out in June, 2007. I got to the quarterfinals of the Nicholl Fellowship in 2002, and through to the second round twice (with two different scripts) at the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Contest, so it's not like I am a complete hack. But I'd like to be more proactive than simply entering screenwriting competitions. I live in Colorado -- please don't tell me to move to LA – if someone bought a script I'd be more than happy to, but I don't have that kind of money right now. I met a great executive from ICM at a Writers' Conference in Colorado in April. She actually ripped a piece of paper from her purse and gave me her email address (she was out of business cards) and told me to send my Nicholls' script to her. I did. And never heard back. I don't hold that against her, she was lovely, and supportive, and probably had three hundred calls waiting for her by the time she got back to Hollywood. The process just seems so random. Help!
Your cries for help mingle with the cacophonus wallows of thousands and thousands of other struggling writers. You are not alone. Your assertion that the process is "random" is the whole truth. And each writer must sum up his own situation and devise his own individual game plan. Assuming that you have a product that is even saleable within the halls of Hollywood (a very big assumption here), it is imperative that you take advantage of every little situation that comes your way. For instance, did you try to contact the ICM exec? You must follow-up.
It's very thoughtful that you didn't want to pester the exec by adding another name to her phone sheet. But fuck her three hundred calls. You're trying to get this woman to read your script.
Being persistent is one of Hollywood's Ten Commandments; it's how things get done. Although the concept might be alien to a writer from Colorado, it's part of the language of Hollywood. If you're not speaking our language, it seems unlikely we'll ever communicate.
The easiest way to get read is simply to ask. It's easy because it doesn't take much time or cost anything. You can ask by letter, e-mail, phone or in person. If you ask 100 executives, most will say "no." But some will say "yes." And that's a perfectly good place to start. The fear of rejection and embarassment plays a big part in causing writers to shy away from such tactics. I suggest to take a pill or something and get over it.
As I've mentioned in the past, try to contact reputable managers who are open to new writers. A scribe who lives in Colorado needs a mouthpiece here in town who can work on her behalf. But never exclude anyone who might be willing to read your script.
Of course, you need to keep writing. Turn out 2-3 new scripts a year. The more scripts you have, the more likely you are to find the right match for one of them - which in many cases is all it takes to launch a career. Set a quota for yourself: Contact X amount of execs, producers, managers and agents a month in an attempt to get your script read. The more queries, the more likely someone will say yes to a read.
The competition to get your script read is fierce, so your game plan calls for a bit of ferocity. If you're not getting read, either your material is weak (I'm not impressed with your contest placements, by the way) or your marketing skills are neglible. Try something new and different this year. If no one is reading your scripts now, it can't get any worse.
I’m hoping to get a little logline help if possible. I’m not getting any responses to read my screenplay based on the following logline, and I’m wondering if it is too confusing, or just too expensive a concept for a beginning writer to try and pitch?
“When a group of misfit teenagers find themselves magically transported into their favorite fantasy role-playing game, they must overcome their social anxieties by working together with their game characters to defeat the villain and find a way back home.”
This logline is mostly competent. Perhaps, it could focus on the main character instead of clumping him in with the group. You could probably offer up a smoother way to present the idea of “social anxieties.” The logline doesn’t give us an understanding of the world in which this takes place. So we don’t have a sense of the sort of budgetary “expense” to which your question refers. Is this an animated project combining it with live action – like ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES? As you might already know, animated projects are a difficult sell within the marketplace and many agents and managers won’t touch them – especially from a new writer. Since few studios deal with animation, your pool of potentially interested parties evaporates quickly. The fact that I’m not sure as to the delivery method of your story (animated or not) doesn’t bode well for the logline. I can only hope that in any correspondence, you make that clear.
Sometimes material just doesn’t click with the people you’re trying to solicit, and you may want to cast a wider net.
It should be taken into consideration that this is not the most original idea ever. I’ve read several versions of this concept. The season premiere of SOUTH PARK offered a similar version – but with a much better hook than you have here.
About a week before your question arrived in my mailbox, another writer sent me an e-mail with a query that was also getting the cold shoulder. He suspected his lack of response was because he included info about a finalist placement in a screenwriting contest and the potentiality of a live stage version. He feared that, perhaps, others (based on some of my comments here) might not find those achievements to be impressive. He wanted to know whether or not he should remove them. (In a brief diversion to answer that writer's question: I don’t think those credits are turning off prospective readers.)
Here is the logline from that other e-mail:
It’s a story about a trio of nerdy twelve year olds whose role playing game characters appear in the real world. When the game’s reality-altering villain follows, the kids team up with their alter egos and find it within themselves to save the universe.
This second logline is a variation of the first. Two very similar concepts in my mailbox within a week. I suspect the town is being flooded with this concept. (This concept could be for 2007 what vampires were for 2006.)
I suspect this may have something to do with the lack of enthusiam rather than the loglines themselves.
CAKE WALK: A disgraced athlete must claw his way back to the top in order to win an endorsement deal that will save his marriage, his town, and his dignity. His sport: The rough-and-tumble world of professional cakewalking. Of course, I have no script. Probably the cardinal sin when pitching a logline.
Pitching an idea before it is written can save the writer a lot of time. Many agents and managers like to know what the client plans to work on to prevent him from wasting energy if the concept would seem problematic for the marketplace.
I suspect the first reaction from many would be, “What the fuck is cakewalking?” I think that would be your biggest hurdle. If an executive cannot picture it – then he cannot see the movie. Maybe Southerners would have a better understanding. It’s an obscure reference, hearkening back to the days of minstrel shows - not necessarily another plus. I’m aware that in the “old days” there were cakewalk competitions, but does the “sport” exist today? Is there really a modern precedent for “cakewalking” or is it a figment of your imagination? If the sport does exist (like dodge ball or eating competitions or Lambada: the Forbidden Dance) then some literature to support the absurdity would work in your favor. If it doesn’t exist, I think this would be a tough sell.
I think you focus too much on loglines and pitches and not enough on screenplays. Don't you understand the importance of the screenplay over the logline? I think all this pitch and logline preaching is doing writers a disservice. Don't you?
Are you kidding?
It's true I do focus on those elements more than the screenplay, per se. But it's purely practical and not philosophical. Throughout my career, I've read over 25,000 scripts, and deal with them on a daily basis, so it would be a bit cretinous - to put it politely - to ask whether or not I understand the importance of the screenplay over the logline.
I can't read every script of every writer who asks a question, but I've learned that I can diagnose a story via the logline. I can gather the information to ask the right questions to make an assessment on the story and offer the writer some guidance. In this extracurricular world of websites and blogs, the logline & pitch is the easiest way for me to get some bearing on the material. A logline review takes a couple of minutes while a screenplay read takes a couple of hours.
Last year, I received 739 queries (separate of my agency work or any pitches I may have heard at various events). To read those scripts at two hours each (I'm not a fast reader), I would have to invest 1,478 hours. There are 168 hours in a week. Subtracting 4 hours a day for sleep leaves 140 possible hours a week to read scripts. If my math works out, I would need over ten weeks to read those scripts. (At the end, I would have about four hours left over, which I could divvy up over time to shit and shower.) Of course, I haven't factored in the time invested to follow-up on all those scripts, offering rejections and story notes.
The logline and the pitch are ways to filter through the requests to avoid spending that much time reading scripts. When a new writer with no track record asks someone to read his script, how will the exec determine if it's something he wants to see?
"Believe me, this is a good script. You won't be disappointed," says the writer.
That mantra has become as creepy and ill-fated as a schoolyard pedophile offering a child some candy.
"I've written a script, I'd like for you to read. It's about (insert logline here) blah, blah, blah...."
A few minutes later (hopefully it's that quick), an exec can determine if the story idea is worth an investment of time. It's his preogative to decide which scripts he will and won't read. (Regardless, he almost always ends up molested. )
But the logline is an effective way to help the exec make that decision, so don't underestimate its importance or power.
About the Author
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University. He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey. He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.