More Q & A: Topics include Querying Agents, Producers, & Character Direction
April 12th, 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.
Q: Could you address the "rule" that writers shouldn't even bother querying agents until they have at least three exceptional scripts? I'm pretty sure I know where you stand--that the concept/logline of the script on the table is all that matters. But what about agents? Obviously you can't speak for all agents, but do you have any insights/anecdotes on how some of them feel about this?
I think it depends upon the type of script you’ve written.
Most agents usually sell one writer’s script at a time. So, one script is more than enough. But it has to be the right script. A high concept story with solid execution may be more advantageous than ten brilliantly written scripts about an Iowa earthworm farm.
It certainly behooves the scribe to have more than one script in his portfolio which can serve as writing samples. Each individual agent has his own standard operating procedures. The best way for a new writer to be prepared is to have several scripts under his arm. If an agent only requires one, the writer is ready. And if he requires more than one, the writer is also ready.
Q: I've never had an agent, so I don't get it. Recently I've heard a story about a guy who turned his freshly polished (and 6 looong months nourished) script to his agent and she hated it. Not just some bits but everything from the page 1. I read about it all the time. Nope, I just don't get it. Don't clients discuss scripts with their agents? I mean, not just scripts, but concepts, synops, everything? Don't agents warn clients not to waste months of writing on something they can't possibly sell?
Agent/writer relationships vary. Some agents want to be involved in that process – helping a writer choose what concept would be best suited for the marketplace. Some writers aren’t interested in that sort of feedback – believing that writers should write and agents should sell.
When scribes spend six months writing a script, they expect their agent to perform. Working writers who have clout within an agency often demand their representation be successful. This can be very difficult if the script is not good. Of course, the difficulty quotient rises and falls based on the writer’s level of success within the industry. It isn’t easy to tell a working writer - whose salary contributes to the agency - that his script sucks. An agent might distribute the script to a select few to get some feedback, which he can then take to the writer. He might say, “The script isn’t getting good feedback and it might be smarter to put this project on hold for the time being. We don’t want to stall your momentum right now.”
But writers leave agencies all the time (in search of new reps) because agents will not go out with scripts (to try and preserve the writer’s image). Scripts not selling and projects failing to be realized (after being set-up) are other reasons that motivate writers to look for new representation. A script is a writer’s livelihood, so she has plenty of reason to have high demands. Conversely, the quality of the work an agent markets sets the standard for his business. Often, the writer’s needs clash with the agent’s – especially when the writer’s demands exceed the limitations of the screenplay.
Ultimately, the representation works for the talent. It isn’t the other way around. But it is often a complicated and emotional relationship which goes beyond the barriers of an agent simply telling his client to write a different script.
Q: Could you give your thoughts on including character direction in action lines? There seem to be two schools of thought on this. For example, let’s say we have a scene where a man enters a room, reads a ransom note, and becomes upset. One way to describe this character is to list his actions: “He bites his fingernails, checks his watch, looks in the mirror and cries.” The other approach is to simply say “he reads the note with growing concern.” I understand that it isn’t the screenwriter’s job to interfere with an actor’s take on what their character would do, but I can’t tell which approach is less intrusive to that process. Any thoughts?
In my opinion, you’re not writing the script for the actor, you’re writing the script for the reader.
Your objective is to simulate the experience of a movie using the written word. Not an easy task. (The WGA had that great ad campaign featuring various scenes from the scripts of famous movies – reminding us that a writer was responsible for it.) There is no right or wrong way here. I’ve seen all sorts of methods used – including writers telling us the thoughts of the character.
The best method is the one that communicates the emotion of the beat to the reader.
It’s always fun to read screenplays of your favorite movies (after you’ve seen the film) to see how a particular scene or beat was written on the page. You’ll learn quickly that all writers have their specific techniques.
I have no opinion either way. Ultimately, I never judge these sorts of things until I see them in print and understand the way they work within the context of the script as a whole. These sorts of matters are often discussed ad infinitum by screenwriting teachers in an attempt to engender some objective rhyme and reason out of the very subjective craft of screenwriting. Your success depends on making the right decisions that communicate the movie in your head - via the page - to the reader.
There is no blanket answer – which is what makes the craft so unpredictable and wily.
Q: I might have a chance to pitch to a production company, I would appreciate knowing your opinion of my logline: A TRUE STORY. In 1913, a friendship between a St. Louis housewife and a 17th century spirit from England becomes an international sensation.
The idea of a “true story” creates some genuine intrigue because of the supernatural element here. However, the logline itself is too vague.
A challenge the writer often faces is the amount of information she should include in the logline. In this case, there simply isn’t enough. This pitch fails to stimulate any interest because it isn’t clear as to what the story is about.
When I read a logline, I expect to find the dramatic “mission statement.”
The “mission” is focused on the protagonist and his pursuit of a specific goal – either physical or psychological. It is this goal – the mission – that creates the throughline, the conflict, the tension, and the “hope and fear” of the narrative.
In this case, “a housewife and a ghost become pals and create a sensation” doesn’t allow us to understand the conflict in the story. There is no dramatic "mission statement" here.
It isn’t clear who the protagonist is and what s/he strives for throughout the story (the mission). The logline doesn’t open a window to your story, allowing me to peek inside and envision the cinematic possibilities.
If a logline does not allow the reader to “see the movie” then it hasn't achieved its objective.
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.