Sunday, March 18, 2007


Continuing to play hooky from my blogging duties, I offer up an entry by Terrence Loose.

Terry is an MFA student in screenwriting at UCLA, who served as an intern in our Story Department doing clerical work and reading screenplays. Terry was recommended to me by my previous intern.

When I first met him, I was rather shocked. He looks more like a surfer dude than a pasty faced screenwriter who rarely ventures outdoors. He has a quiet demeanor - almost genteel (a rare trait in Hollywood) - and took his assignment seriously. He was a great help during the turbulent time of our move from Beverly Hills to Century City.

As part of the Film/TV 498 Professional Intern Class at UCLA, Terry was asked to write up an overview of his experience at the agency.

He has kindly allowed me to publish it here. I think it's interesting to see the learning curve of a writing student who takes that real life plunge from the staus quo of act one (school) into the dangerous and turbulent journey of act two (a talent agency).

This is his story.


I went to International Creative Management (ICM), one of the three biggest and busiest agencies for talent in Hollywood, to cover, or read and evaluate, scripts as an intern – a lower position than the guy who pushes the mop in the men’s room.

As such, I fully expected to be dropped into a scene from Swimming With Sharks. I pictured a Kevin Spacey-like character throwing volume 10 tirades – and coffee cups – at cowering, confused assistants. And me.

But that’s not what I encountered. In fact, while everyone at ICM is buzzing with energy, drinks much too much coffee, sees much too little sunlight and, except for the mail boy and janitor, wears a telephone headset, they are also very nice.

Now, you may be asking, “Why is this guy talking about manners in a graduate paper supposedly focused on his learning experience?” Here’s why. Because it represents the one thing that I learned week after week at the agency: Sure, some of the stereotypes about agents might be dead-on, but on a whole, they are pretty much just like the rest of us. They’re doing a stressful job, actually do care if people like and accept them, and generally want to help other people achieve their goals. And if there’s a buck in it for them, all the better.

My direct supervisor, Christopher Lockhart, Executive Story Editor, who oversees the Story Department, is a prime example. The Story Department at ICM is where all scripts and books go to be “covered.” Coverage is done by one of a dozen freelance readers, who read the submitted script or book, write a one-page synopsis of the plot, followed by a one-page commentary on its strengths and flaws. Their coverage also includes a brief logline – what the story’s about in two or three sentences (and as I would discover first-hand, on poorly written scripts this is often the hardest three sentences to write) – brief character breakdowns and the completion of the “idiot chart,” as it is known by people who will remain nameless. The idiot chart is another very difficult section to fill out, mostly because when covering an average or below average piece of work, the reader feels that he or she is putting an end to the script’s chances at development and/or the writer’s career, at least for the time being. At least, that’s how I felt: as though I was in an un-deserved God-like position of judgment.

As I mentioned, coverage is done on lots of literature that comes through the mailroom at ICM. It could be submitted by writers who are seeking representation (but have been recommended), by production companies hoping to interest talent and even by studios. The Story Department legitimately seeks a way to judge whether a project or its writer has potential to earn the agency 10% of significant dollars. And like throughout the entire industry, most of the time, the results are disappointing.

This is because of one of the few clichés that holds true: Everyone in Hollywood is predisposed to say no, even readers. As one writer quipped, “The job description for a studio development executive reads, ‘Just say no today.’” This is because saying yes is a risk and no one in Hollywood, no matter what they tell you over your double decaf soy latte, likes risk, because deep down they know that every aspect of their industry is based on risk. There are simply no certainties in a business that deals in subjective art.

In reader terms, a no is a “Pass” on the idiot grid, which sports a section where a project or writer can receive a “Recommend” (rarer than a flying pig), a “Consider” (think white rhino… in L.A.), or “Pass” (commonality equal to waiter/screenwriter).

As an illustration of just how genuinely frightened people in the industry are to say yes, and also why I expected to be profoundly condescended to, if not physically and psychologically abused, I relay a story from a fellow intern reader, also a UCLA MFA student in Screenwriting (we’ll call him Ross).

Ross went to one of the three top agencies, not ICM, for the same purposes as I: to read and cover scripts. In his initial interview, the interviewer (we’ll call him John) approached him with a deadly serious air. “Welcome to the kingdom, where all great things happen,” John said, gesturing to the Story Department. “But there are risks, always risks. This is why you are here. You are my official food taster. You are here so I don’t get poisoned and die.” He went on to explain that there are two kinds of scripts: steaming piles of feces that need to be shown the working end of a toilet, and cherry pies. They were looking for that one cherry pie in the mountains of feces that come through the agency every day.

But there was a catch: The reader could not be trusted to detect a cherry pie from a steaming pile of feces. And worse, the ramifications of being wrong were worse than dire. “Let’s say you come to me and say, ‘I found a cherry pie!’” John explained. “I will then run down the hall to my boss with my hair on fire yelling that I have a cherry pie. He will then run down the hall with his hair on fire to his boss. Soon, everyone is running around with their hair on fire about this wonderful cherry pie that I discovered. Then, in a flash of putrid realization, we see that it is not a cherry pie, but in fact, a steaming pile of feces. And do you know what happens then?” Ross just shook his head, no. “I get fired, that’s what. So don’t find any cherry pies.” John then gave Ross a script to take home and cover, as a test. Ross agonized over the coverage. He really liked the script and the writing but was petrified to tell John that he had found a cherry pie, even though this was just a test. So he wrote bad coverage, giving the script and the writer a pass, and sent it to John.

A few days later John called. “That’s Will Ferrell’s next movie. You fail.” Click.

The script was Stranger Than Fiction by Zach Helm, one of the most respected spec scripts and new voices in the last few years.

Ross had relayed this story to me before my first day at ICM, so when Christopher gave me a script to cover as a sample before I even began my internship, I was understandably worried. The script was a comedy, and I didn’t think much of it or the writing. It was not terrible, but wasn’t anything I could honestly recommend. So I tried to offer balanced, constructive criticism, basically mirroring what we do in Screenwriting 434 classes for fellow students. I complimented the things that worked – building tension, simple structure, clarity of plot – and respectfully took issue with the things that didn’t – lack of humor, stilted dialog, confusing stakes. But, in all honesty, I did write one un-called for line, the final thought in my coverage, which was a stab at sarcastic humor using the script’s own concept to take a potshot at it.

I emailed my coverage to Christopher and went to ICM the next morning at 10:30 a.m. He was not there, but I was greeted by his second-in-command, Ana. She explained that Christopher wouldn’t be in till noon. Then she told me the news that had me quaking for the next hour. The script I had unfavorably reviewed and even poked fun at in my final line of coverage was actually Christopher’s pet project. Ironically, the script had placed very high in a screenwriting contest – a contest in which I had failed to get past the first round. Christopher had passed the script to Julie Richardson, the producer of Collateral, a movie I love – and she optioned it. They were actively developing the script.

When Christopher arrived at noon, he called me into his office. He held my coverage and asked me to sit down. I contemplated running instead. “So I read your coverage,” he said. I steeled myself for a stapler or paperweight assault. But none came. “It was well done,” he said. “I really appreciated how fair you were and how, while you obviously didn’t care for the script, your comments weren’t condescending or mean-spirited.” I almost asked if he had read the entire document, then figured it really wasn’t a great career move to point out that sarcastic final line.

For the next 30 minutes, Christopher went through my coverage line by line, pointing out things I had done well and respectfully criticizing areas in which I could have done better. He even commented on that final line. “I think it’s great to get a little creative, to put a little of your writing style in,” he said. Overall, he was more than generous and ultimately very helpful.

And it was Christopher’s generosity that led to my greatest learning experience during the ten-week internship. He invited me to sit in on the “Trainee Lunch,” a once-a-week luncheon in which the dozens of participants in ICM’s Agent Trainee Program – a three-year stint designed to find and groom aspiring agents – study various aspects of the business, listen to speakers or participate in all kinds of mock sessions from negotiating to development. As further evidence of his altruistic nature, Christopher oversees this program despite it not being part of his job description.

This week’s meeting was special however, as Ms. Richardson herself was coming, not as a speaker, but as a potential client. Weeks before, the agent trainees had divided into six groups of three to five, each group consisting of people from different aspects of the agency– literary, finance, talent, and so on. Their assignment was to read the very script I passed on and offer casting suggestions (using clients) and a plan for bringing the project to market, everything from acquiring production money to product tie-ins and target-audience suggestions.

This was a pretty big deal and on my first day Christopher invited me to the lunch and sat me up front next to himself and Ms. Richardson. “Don’t say anything and look important,” he said as we entered. “Everybody’ll think your some big producer.” Not exactly what I want everyone to think about me, but hey, it was a free lunch and a chance at some “reality theater.”

And at the start, that's what I thought about it. I had a front row seat at the theater. But the next hour would prove me wrong and naïve in so many ways about everything from the value of a commercial idea and its relationship – or lack there of – to a well-written script; the value of a well-written script and its relationship – or lack thereof – to its marketability; and to how an agent goes about attracting various elements to a project so that it has even the slightest chance of going forward.

First, every team commented on the need for major rewriting. A common remark was the script, in its current form, “would never attract an A-list director or A-list cast.” But rather than send it back to the original writer – whose name never even came up – each team had ideas of who could do the job. It was a true wake-up call for a student to hear what goes on behind closed doors. But I got the distinct impression that for these Agent Trainees, it was a sincere and serious process.

I saw that while most people feel comfortable talking about business and “high-concept” and star roles, writing is a mysterious subject, one that is so subjective it’s safe ground: There is no logical debate and therefore the critical party has no vulnerability to defeat (see “saying no” paragraph above).

Though the writing was not up to anyone’s standards, the idea appealed across the board – or at least they said it did. All agreed that this had the potential to reach a wide market. Groups from the tie-in angle had big plans for brands (although Ms. Richardson had her doubts since much of the script is subversive and unflattering to industry it portrays). One group mentioned the probable and very lucrative interest MTV would have for the project, and used it to form its presentation. Others commented on the various states’ tax breaks for shooting in their towns – the project was very attractive due to the fact it could be shot virtually anywhere and on a low budget. Still others posited the different foreign distribution deals that could garner money even before production began (though again Ms. Richardson was doubtful since she saw it as a very American movie).

By the end of the lunch, I saw why a movie is truly a collaborative effort – even before shooting begins. In the case of this script, the story and characters were but a fraction of the discussion. It was the concept everyone was forming, selling, marketing, and when the script was mentioned, re-writes and other writers were the suggestions. Suddenly, I felt very guilty about my sarcastic remark in the coverage.

This was a great day that summed up the rest of my time at ICM. My internship goals were to see first-hand what I was up against in the professional industry by reading scripts that were being considered by Hollywood’s professional community. I chose ICM specifically because I would never be able to get a script past the security guard without first gaining representation, which is why I wanted to get a script past the security guard.

After reading a number of scripts, I was both hopeful and defeated. I was hopeful because I found many of scripts that made it past the ICM threshold were really not very good. They were boring, convoluted, wooden and shallow. Average was truly the norm. I have read much better scripts written by fellow classmates.

I had, of course, heard the stories about how bad the majority of scripts out there were, but something in me – maybe a writer’s defense mechanism – wouldn’t allow me to believe it. Now I did. And that gave me hope. “I can compete with these guys,” I thought. But at the same time it was fairly defeating. Sure, I may be able to write as well as these guys, and their scripts and careers will likely go nowhere, but how does that help me? In other words, I still can’t get past security. And, judging from the material, it takes some mysterious combination of knowing people, luck, tequila… whatever... to merely get a pass from a reader blazing through your work to make $50.

And it wasn’t that I loathed the readers either. Their “lack of respect for the writer” was another Hollywood cliché that turned out true – at least partially. Many readers are writers, and they simply have no patience for other screenwriters who do not follow the “rules” of Hollywood scriptwriting.

And I found myself doing the same things when I did coverage. First, I would check the length and instantly become wary of anything longer than 110 pages. Next, I’d check the amount of white space. A lot of ink spelled trouble – statistics showed that it was probably overwritten. I also became accustomed to regularly skipping narrative. If the writer was good, I either wanted to or had to read all the stage direction, but poor writers or writers who overwrote lost my patience fast and I would merely read the dialogue. Finally, if the writer didn’t hook me by page 10, trouble was nigh. (This one, by the way, I have believed in for a long time. Consider a novel, which is normally 300 pages. Ten percent of 300 is 30 pages (equal to 10 pages of a 100 page script). When is the last time you read the first 30 pages of a novel, said to yourself, “I don’t know who the main character is or what the story’s about, but I’m going to give this guy 30 more pages”?)

I should mention that it did not take days and piles of bad scripts for this change to come about. I morphed into the classic Hollywood reader within hours. And to be fair, it was only logical. In addition to graduate school, I have a job as a magazine writer, a four-year-old daughter and wife, commute from Orange County, and my own bad scripts to overwrite.

So I just didn’t have time to indulge the whims of a writer who didn’t respect my time. Again, it was a true education on how to write scripts that have any chance of moving “upstairs.”

Overall, I really enjoyed my time at ICM, so much so that I am probably going to continue reading for them on a semi-regular basis. I found that it is a cutthroat industry and not always – or almost never – perfect or a refuge for higher art. But I also found the agency's people to be dedicated, passionate, and truly helpful to those they respect.

Yes, the Hollywood clichés are true, but there are enough exceptions to keep the dream alive.


Visit Terry's website at

Sunday, March 11, 2007


The following has nothing to do with wet t-shirts. This entry is actually about screenwriting contests - a subject with little marquee value.

One of the most popular category of questions that I find in my e-mail box is about screenwriting contests.

As I say over and over, I believe that most are a waste of energy and entry fee. Some - like the Nicholl and Disney Fellowships - are very reputable and have launched a few Hollywood careers.

Regardless of how reputable any contest might be, the screening process for most seems tenuous. Low fees for contest readers and a bulk of scripts guarantees a sloppy vetting system.

Recently, Scriptapolooza sent me a nice letter asking if I would read for their contest. Late last year, I judged the BIG BREAK! FINAL DRAFT SCREENWRITING CONTEST and found it to be a painless (even rewarding) experience.

Of course, I was only reading the ten finalists.

Scriptapolooza was prepared to send me a pile that could have weighed in at eighty scripts! I promptly declined.

The contest was targeting executives, agents and managers to read big piles of scripts - with permission to snatch up any great screenplay they discovered in the process. To the inexperienced, that is a Siren song, since it seems credible that most of those scripts will be wretched.

This leads me to believe that a busy executive isn't going to read scores of bad contests scripts from beginning to end. As a result, most will be tossed aside quickly. Now, in the real world of Hollywood, that's common practice.

But a writer isn't shelling out fifty bucks to William Morris or a studio to judge his work. Is it fair that a writer pay a contest entry fee and have his script tossed aside by page ten?

Of the ten finalist scripts from the BIG BREAK! CONTEST, I thought only about half were good enough to be there. Were all the other entries so bad that these mediocre scripts slipped through into finalist slots? Or is the reading process for screenwriting contests flawed?

We've all heard the countless stories of scripts that couldn't even place in some big contest yet went on to sell for six figures.

And then there's the bad buzz that often surrounds a contest winning screenplay. After all, the competition in a contest doesn't come close to the competition the same script faces in the real contest of everyday Hollywood. As a result, the industry doesn't greet the winner with the same sort of fanfare it received at the award's banquet a month earlier.

I have a friend who reads scripts for most of the big contests in town. A while back he wrote an article for, and I recently asked him to update it so I might dodge my blogging duties thanks to the class I'm teaching at L.A. Valley College.

Below is Johnny Rude's methods of reading scripts for screenwriting contests. He might be a dick, but it's an honest look at how - at least - one reader does it.


How does anyone win a screenwriting contest? How does the system work in a city where rules are meant to be broken? Follow these Nine Simple Rules and you’ll be well on your way to attaining your own brand of star power. It honestly isn’t all that hard.

I am a script reader who has digested thousands of screenplays. In that time, less than forty of those stories have made a positive, lasting impression. Depending on what contest you’re entering, I am your judge and jury. I am the gatekeeper that stands between you and the prize. I decide if your script is worthy, if your name will be smattered across a full-page ad in Variety. Bring your A-Game, dazzle me, and give me better than your best.

I’m not a steroid enhanced doorman donning expensive sunglasses and a strange haircut at an exclusive night club. I want to unclip the velvet rope and let you in. I am on your side.

But never, ever, ever waste my time. The consequences for your inability to follow a few simple guidelines are deafening silence. You could fail, and never know why your work was thrown into an insatiable garbage pail. Actually, that’s not true. I recycle.

My wrath will be unleashed if you fail to ignore my Nine Simple Rules. The rules are here for a few simple reasons – they work because they are a foundation to successful storytelling.

Reading for Talent Agencies:

This is where I started. The process is different from contests. Creating reports or “coverage” of a script is a one-on-one deal. I’m paid to write a critique of the script at hand.

The dirty reality: Most agents don’t read scripts themselves, they only read the coverage. Would you rather have your agent spending eighty hours a week reading scripts, or working the phones trying to get you a deal? Right or wrong, your opinion doesn’t matter. This is how the system works.

Reading for Contests:

In many ways, this method is more brutal on the writer.

I am comparing your work against other scripts.

How does the reading system work?

Do I soak in a hot bath and eat chocolates while I gaze in wonderment at the script cradled in my hands? Do I relish every word, paying attention to the meticulous detail hand crafted into each page? Do I re-read the script to make sure that I comprehended every nuance, every arc, and every setback?


You’ve got fifteen pages to grab me, before your work is dumped.

It’s not all that bad. Remember what I said: I recycle.

I’ve heard all the curses and moans before. “I paid a fifty dollar entrance fee; you’re being paid to read the entire screenplay.”


Look to what I said above, it was even italicized for your convenience.

I am comparing your work against other scripts.

I am being paid to find the top three scripts out of one hundred.

RULE NUMBER 1: Understand what you are submitting your script for.

This is a contest, not coverage. You are competing, not seeking feedback.

This is a big deal. Once you get it, you’re well on your way to understanding what is expected of you. More importantly, you recognize the reader’s mindset.

I never know the writer’s name. Sometimes I don’t even have a title for the script. There’s only a code number to reference. My job is to give a cold, logical appraisal of your work.


I pick up each script and before I really start reading it, this is what I look for. It’s like perusing a novel at a book store; this is my initial test drive.

RULE NUMBER 2: Know and obey the formatting rules.

Any font other than 12-point courier will usually get your script thrown out of the first round. Use oversized paper, a binding method other than two brads in three-hole punch paper, or some sort of clear plastic covers and you will be ousted.

Why so rigid on formatting rules?

After reading countless scripts, a reader’s eyes are used to seeing Courier 12-point, just as your eyes get used to a certain font style when reading a book. Plastic bindings don’t allow us to flip to the next page easily. Plastic covers just get in the way and serve no purpose. Oversized pages make the script big and too bulky to handle.

Ask yourself this question, do you want to make my job easy or hard? Work with me, not against me.

While we’re on the subject, no cast lists of potential actors to play the roles and no suggested movie poster designs on the cover page.

RULE NUMBER 3: Watch your page count.

I flip to the very last page. Is it over ninety pages, but fewer than one hundred and twenty? Any less than that, you have a treatment. If you run over that amount, your scenes are too long, your story too complex for your writing skills and you have more characters running around than you need.

RULE NUMBER 4: Keep your description appropriate.

As I’m skimming through the pages, I’m looking at random words under the description. I don’t want to read about azure skies and limpid pools of pure water. Do you have a fifteen-line paragraph of wordy redundancy? I’ve read my share of scripts with five pages of dense text. It’s great for a novel, death for a screenplay.

Why am I so firm with these rules?

To get an understanding of how big my pile of scripts is, let’s say the average screenplay is one hundred pages long. That equals ten thousand sheets, which is twenty reams of paper.

Pretend each script is one used car on a big parking lot. From a distance everything looks fine. Up close there are dings in the hood, another car has a flat tire, and several of them have smashed windshields. Right from the beginning, I’m not even going to give them another look, because there are so many more intact vehicles for me to choose from.

All is not lost. No matter how you performed during the first set of rules, I will now proceed to read your script. But if you already have a few demerits, I’ll be looking for any reason to toss your script.

I always read the first ten pages. Here’s what I’m looking for:

RULE NUMBER 5: Have a universal story.

There needs to be something in your message that everyone can lose themselves in. One reason why “Star Wars” was so successful is it's the classic good versus evil journey.

Simple done well is better than complex done poorly.

RULE NUMBER 6: Who is the main character?

Sounds basic, doesn’t it? But what does your protagonist stand for? I’ve read entire scripts where the main character reacts to events around them. They stand for nothing, nor do they have any purpose to their journey. In reference to “Star Wars”, everyone has been Luke Skywalker who wants to run off and make something of their lives, instead of working on the farm.

How can anyone decide all of that in ten pages? That translates into ten minutes of screen time. Who doesn’t make up their mind in that short period of time? If you’re not engaged in ten minutes, you pop out the DVD or switch to another channel.

I’m not expecting all my questions to have answers. I want there to be something engaging in what I’ve seen. A character I want to know more about, good dialogue exchange, and an interesting setting.


Assume those ten pages has been a smooth ride, and I’m engaged in your story. That’s good for you. I then flip through the script and read one or two scenes at random.

I want to be sure that your opening wasn’t all that you have in your writing abilities. I’m sampling the rest of your script and asking myself:

Do the scenes appear complete?
Does something happen or is the writing just filler?
Is the description crisp and to the point?
Does the dialogue flow, creating an engaging exchange?

At this point, I don’t care as much about the story as I do about your knowledge of writing. Do you understand the craft?

First Cut

I may go through ten scripts that don’t meet these minimum standards. Then the eleventh may have all the elements which grabs my attention.

These are the writers that trust I know how to read a script. Nothing is rammed down my throat, nor do I feel they are wasting my time.

These are the scripts that make it to the next round.

I go through each of these one hundred scripts using this process. By the end of the first cut, I usually have between fifteen and twenty scripts left. For the others, t here’s no final reprieve from the governor, nothing can save them from their fate. Four out of the original five scripts are hauled out to the blue recycling bin. All because they didn’t follow Six out of the Nine Rules to Win a Screenwriting Contest.


If your script made it this far, you’ve done well. But there are still quite a few scripts left, and only one can be the winner.

I really delve into the scripts in front of me, taking one at random and reading it from page one.

Do you have what it takes to close the deal?

RULE NUMBER 7: Develop your character.

It’s one thing to have a good character, but can you successfully send them on a hero’s journey? Do you have a believable conflict? Does the story ebb and flow from success to setback?

Far too many stories take an interesting character and have them do almost nothing throughout the entire script. It’s not enough that the protagonist react to the events around him. His reactions need to shape his journey and achieving his goals.

I need to empathize with the character; weep when they are injured and throw my fist in the air when they succeed.

If any of this seems foreign to you, then buy a good book on story structure so you can understand and implement these features.

I stop reading, and dog ear the page at the end of the First Act break. This is usually around page thirty.

Three Questions I ask myself.

Do I want to keep reading?
Do I care about the character?
Is the dialogue engaging?

If I answer “yes” to all three, you could very well be in the top three scripts.

If I answer “no” to one or more, the script isn’t necessarily out of the running. But this is where the cruel game begins.

Like Olympic Downhill Skiing, the first person to finish the race is – by default – the Gold Medal Winner. That is, until the other racers finish their runs.

As I read the other scripts to the end of the First Act, I continue my culling process. By the time I’m done, I have five to seven scripts remaining.

A common complaint is, “If you just keep reading, it’ll get better.” This brings me to:

RULE NUMBER 8: Make it better from the beginning.

If the other scripts have kept me engaged from page one through page thirty, why hasn’t your screenplay? There is a one hundred and twenty page ceiling on your story, there’s not one scene, nor a single line of dialogue that can be wasted.

My job is to find the diamond in the rough. This is the process I’ve created from reading many scripts.

I’m not out to make anyone’s life miserable. I want to read a great story. I want to be moved, entertained and dazzled. I’m giving you my full attention, and you’ve gotten me this far. Don’t ruin your chance to win it all.


This is it, the final read through. I’m out to see if your mastery of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, melded into a collection of seemingly random words, is entertainment. It doesn’t have to be art, just a fun ride.

I pick up a script at random and begin from where I last left off. If I put the script down more than twice out of boredom, it’s usually finished.

How can your script make it to the winner’s circle?

That brings us to the final rule.

RULE NUMBER 9: Be precise and concise.

Each scene has to move the protagonist forward or backward. Don’t let the scenes start too early, and cut them off before they go on for too long. If our character is meeting someone at a restaurant, we probably don’t need to see them dropping off their car at the valet, and we don’t need to see them ordering food.

Figure out what you are trying to accomplish in each scene. Once your information is presented, go onto another scene. Make them tight, bright and to the point.

Do not ram a point home. If a murder weapon is an eight-inch knife, tell us once. We don’t need to be reminded again and again.

The best scripts are the one’s I’ve read the quickest. I’ve slogged through a few ninety-page scripts in three hours. I’ve joyfully cruised through one hundred and twenty page scripts in less than an hour.

A well written script will have the reader flipping through the pages at a breakneck pace. The description is enough to give a loose framework of the scene without going into camera angles and poetic prose.

A good writer allows the dialogue to propel the story forward in a manner that allows the reader to lose themselves in the exchanges. There are no rambling monologues or useless introductions between characters that slow the pace.

The good scripts have the reader arriving at the back cover far too quickly.

With the best screenplays, I always say, "It was so good, I could see the movie poster."


Send questions and comments to

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Recently, you were discussing Sherwood Oaks College as a path for honest industry access to agents, etc.... How about the Concept to Sale Conference and Pitchfest in February at The Hyatt by Fade In? They already have my $300, but now that they sent the actual list of attendees for the pitching this weekend -- there are not as many agencies as advertised on their website, only 4 if you count one that's a law firm too, and for the big agencies... nada. (This is out of the listed 62, mainly production co's). Fade In's guy told me over the phone today that more (possibly bigger?) parties might commit at the last minute with definite names. In your experience, do the major and even medium agencies attend? And do they send decision-makers/seasoned pros with savvy, or the assistant's intern to listen to pitches for college credit?

I myself heard writers gripe about seeing listed "buyers" lining up to collect some small paycheck after they were done hearing their pitches at The Screenwriters Expo downtown a couple years ago. In a sense, writers are paying for pitching when they pay $300 for these things, but should the industry rep get paid? I wish their company would pay them because it is their weekend (or a nice love candle or box of pears anyone?), but I'm hoping they don't look for checks at Fade In and just good ideas from motivated writers, who yes... have to pay for such access before showing their goods. I'd be more optimistic about posing queries by mail except for one blunt, quite honest agent telling her audience that the ripping sound she hears every morning in her office is that of her assistants destroying unsolicited query letters.

Oh yes, Fade In's phone guy pointed out that big agencies --- ICM, Endeavor, UTA, and William Morris -- will be in the Q&A panel Saturday. Sounds great, I don't know if that means you from ICM, but do you know if it means each agency will absolutely send reps to hear writers at Sunday's pitches? Would they be highly motivated to look for new writers to represent at this free-for-all? (At least free for the pedestrian crasher who sneaks in, grabs lunch, and squeezes out with his weekend and wallet unmarred.)

If there are only a handful of agencies (4 and counting) and with 174 other writers there vying for the limited number of slots, with 8 arranged pitches each, doesn't sound like I have this part nailed down as well as I thought for my $300.

Appreciate any thoughts.

This response arrives after the scheduled FADE IN event in February. I apologize for the late reply, but I hope you write back to fill me in on your experience.

There isn’t much I can say here that I haven’t said in the past. These types of events are useful in allowing the writer to practice her pitching and social skills. Also, the writer can make friends within the industry that he wouldn’t have made had he stayed home. However, it’s doubtful that great talent will be unearthed at a pitch fest.

Generally, these local events are not attended by bigwigs. (Higher ups are more likely to attend out-of-town events, where a free vacation is the swag in exchange for listening to pitches.) Instead, the minions are sent to the local fests, many of whom go simply to get practice in taking pitches.

Most of these events do NOT compensate. It’s slave labor – a racket that involves not paying your work force. If travel is involved, expenses will often be covered. The very first pitch event I attended was in Las Vegas. Although payment was promised, I got shafted on the full amount. (I took it as a sign.) I think the EXPO (which I’ve never attended) pays their guests $100, which covers gas, parking and lunch. This is a paltry fee for what the agent must endure.

In my opinion, it is unethical to accept remuneration in exchange for hearing pitches. But this is the heart of the problem. What’s in it for the agent?

The idea that he might find a diamond in the rough is ludicrous. There are a million more time efficient ways in which to mine for (better) material.

And let’s get something straight. Listening to pitches at a fest is hard, exhausting work. I attended the FADE IN event last year when Ana (who’s now coordinating our Story Department) wanted to go. It was a fucking zoo. We were only there for about two hours – but heard the maximum amount of pitches. It’s a tough environment because there’s so much happening at once. (And I listen to the conversations all around me while I’m engaged in one of my own.) Then an earnest writer sits before you with the worst fucking idea ever spoken. Two minutes later a bell rings and another writer takes his place – with an idea that’s even worse. All the while, you must stay alert, polite and focused. Each writer has shelled out hard earned money – many traveling great distances – and is determined to have you leave with his script – which is stressful for anyone with an iota of humanity. Each “no” results in a disappointed writer – which takes its toll on the agent. A “yes” makes the writer smile and eases the agent’s stress at the scene. But in the aftermath, the script stares longingly at him from a huge pile of unimportant material. Time goes by and e-mails from the writer along with the dread of having to put aside a Saturday afternoon to read (if the agent or exec doesn’t have access to readers) are different sources of stress. After the read (which is probably painful), the agent will have to contact the writer with – most likely - the bad news, which can induce more anxiety. Multiply this by the amount of times the agent said “yes” at the fest, and it becomes time consuming and draining.

So, again, why should an agent from William Morris subject himself to this kind of unhappiness? He can simply call his buddy at BenderSpink and ask, “Any good writers?”

I had thought at one time these events would slowly eat themselves up. I assumed that as agents, producers and execs discovered the cruel and unusual punishment for little – if any – return on their investment, fewer would attend and, subsequently, the fests would dry up. However, the Hollywood dream can successfully reconstitute the dehydration, and as long as someone will listen, writers will gather and pay to pitch.

If these fests didn’t exploit the “Hollywood dream” and, instead, simply promoted themselves as educational events (which is what they really are), it would all be easier to digest.

If you pay close attention to the guests invited to “screenwriting conferences,” the list is often comprised of the “gurus” and very few agents/executives. That’s because the gurus have more motivation to mingle with bad writers. It’s their bread-and-butter. They write books and attend conferences in order to solicit consultations, offering all sorts of high priced analysis on bad scripts that will never be movies. Agents and executives have a different sort of business, which is why they seldom attend any of these events.

My familiar advice is to pitch managers at these festivals. Your $300 will be put to better use and your odds of success are greater than signing with an agent from CAA – who isn’t going to show up anyway.

Where do I start in finding a career as a pitch man for products seen on T.V. - like the amazing gadgets we see every day - please help if you can I am at a loss.

I don’t have a fucking clue. This is a Q&A forum for writers. I suggest you direct your question to Ron Popeil or Nancy Nelson (both of whom have websites).

“Career” doesn’t quite seem like the right choice of word – since being a “pitchman” is probably just a job within a career that covers other areas. Many of the pitchmen you see on TV are the actual entrepreneurs. In other cases, they are celebrities or “host” personalities, who started in voice-over or broadcasting. (Did you study broadcasting in college?) Quite a few have evolved into producing those TV spots themselves and, as a result, have created lucrative businesses. You could do an Internet search for the various companies that produce infomercials and make cold calls.

If your pitch doesn’t cut it, you probably shouldn't be a “pitchman.”

I worked for Jerry Bruckheimer and have sold several stories through deals represented by Warren Dern.

I came up with a high concept pitch that seems like a no-brainer, yet can't seem to get traction with it. Any idea why? It's cheap to shoot. It has sequels, and it's a perfect starring vehicle for any comedy actor. It also nicely poaches off The Sopranos audience.

The idea is to get the two Sopranos writers at Paramount to write a draft and then go after Francis Coppola to direct so Paramount can claim the mother of all Mafia movies that brings together The Sopranos with the Godfather audiences, with cameos by cast members from both.


A 9th grade swimming coach, busted for embezzling money from his team’s training fund, is sentenced to community service as a counselor at a summer camp in Maine...for mobster kids. Vehicle for Jack Black, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or Jim Carrey.

I think Hollywood is tired of the Mafia angle, which might explain the tepid response.

The idea is cute but not wholly original. I’ve read many similar projects over the years. One that comes to mind involves a Mafia kingpin - on the lam from a federal indictment - who poses as a camp counselor, turning all of his little campers into wiseguys (In one scene, he uses “cement shoes” to enable a hydrophobic kid to swim.) It’s called CAMP COSA NOSTRA.

My point is your idea isn’t particularly original and, it’s possible, that every studio already has a facsimile on a shelf somewhere.

To make matters worse, you propose the loopiest packaging idea. I’m not sure if the TV audience of THE SOPRANOS would be interested in seeing a feature family comedy. I suspect it would be a hard sell exciting a studio over the notion of TV stars, and it would be an even greater uphill climb to entice Coppola into a project that seems more appropriate for the DISNEY CHANNEL.

Your enthusiasm is admirable but not contagious. Fuhgeddaboutit!

We have been toiling away on a would-be TV series and need to formalize it for pitching. I am wondering if you know of any examples or could point me to any examples of how best to outline a show, what the show bible should look like and include, etc..

Although it’s not unprecedented, new writers are unlikely to sell a TV pilot. That aside, having an original TV pilot along with a spec from an existing TV show helps to create a good portfolio when looking for representation. Regardless, there are no standardized outlines.

A “bible” at this stage seems completely unnecessary.

In addition to the pilot script, provide the show’s concept (logline).

Then offer up a more detailed synopsis (a page in length) of the series, suggesting its scope and trajectory.

Also include a breakdown of the recurring characters (about half a page for each) – which should give the reader an idea of backstory, how they interface with the concept and the interrelationships. TV is character based. Even shows that seem to lack a dimensional dramatis personae were all sold based on the strength of the characters.

Finally, include six to eight loglines for potential episodes.

The subtext of the presentation must allow the reader to understand the architecture of the show, see the movement from episode to episode and season to season and even provide an idea of the "producibility" of the project.

I was shocked to see your coverage of The Black List. Now, a regular kid from Vancouver wouldn't usually be shocked by such a document, unless that regular kid from Vancouver was on it and not only on it, but yes, in the top ten. And then I read your blog site, got more and more excited, reading down until, "Here are the top ten...." And then I cried and cursed Caleb Kane to hell (I didn't really cry or curse... maybe just a little). My name and my script were nowhere to be seen. Why? Because I was not in the top ten, I was in the top 11 and you bluntly slapped me across the face waking me up from my haze.

Thank you Mr. Lockhart, thank you very much.

I certainly didn’t create this blog to cause any more angst or woe on writers than I normally do in the course of my work day.

Although I understand your acrimony toward Caleb Kane for selfishly taking up two spots in the top ten, I must accept full blame. I guess I could have included more of the list but stuck with ten – since it hearkened back to the “Hollywood Ten.”

If I accommodate you, I might get e-mails from writers who only had one mention requesting that I include their names on my blog.

However, I’ll take the chance and mention that the eleventh title on the 2006 “Black List” is HANNA by Seth Lochhead (a surname similar to mine that “locks” a different body part). The script received ten mentions.


I forget most scripts after “fade out,” so it’s a coup to get ten busy executives to recall your script after everything they’ve read throughout the year.

Seth isn’t the first “Black Listed” writer to contact me. After Christmas, I received a very nice call from Grant Nieporte (thirteen mentions with his script SEVEN POUNDS) asking me to tweak the logline I provided in the blog, which I happily did.

I hope to hear from Caleb Kane soon.

I am a stand-up comic from Vancouver, Canada and I am preparing to send out query letters about my latest completed script. Could you offer any suggestions on how to improve the following pitch?

The Ice Cream Man.

The Ice Cream Man is a fast-paced live-action comedy written in the spirit of the Chuck Jones Warner Bros. Cartoons.

It is the story of a brilliant but bumbling Ice Cream Man named Fred Frost, who creates a delicious new ice cream – Fred’s Frosted Fudgie-budgie bar.

His increasing sales get noticed by Roger Rogers (owner of the evil Ice Cream Empire), who gets angry and releases a new competing product - the Roger’s Red Rocket bar.

The Roger's Red Rocket bar, however, has a (not-so-secret) ingredient – an ADDICTIVE compound that makes it irresistible to children.

Unfortunately, when children eat too much of it – they get “Brain Freeze” and begin to de-evolve - acting first like drooling, farting buffoons, then like various apes, chimpanzees, and monkeys, and finally – reverting into brainless Zombie-like creatures.

The Ice Cream Man has to avoid Roger’s hired goon ‘Guido’, a crazed Meter-maid, and an angst-ridden teenage gang of hooligans if he hopes to survive.

But first, he’s going to have to stop arguing with his new ten-year old assistant, Paul, long enough to figure out how to create an antidote and save his small business… and the world.

I’ll bet the other writer from Vancouver, Seth Lochhead, is experiencing great shame after that pitch.

I appreciate the tone of the project and I love ice cream. (My wife makes it homemade, but chocolate chip mint from Breyers is my favorite.)

The pitch is an assault. There’s a lot of wacky information being thrown at me, causing me to act like a drooling, farting buffoon (prerequisite behavior for a Hollywood exec).

This is way over the top and seems downright silly – which I guess is the point. But it seems too silly. It doesn’t feel rooted in any sort of reality (and no emotional reality).

Look at ELF. It’s a silly premise but manages to root itself in a world we can understand. And it made big money. This reminds me of the film version of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS – a movie that only I seemed to enjoy.

I suspect you’ll have a difficult time marketing this – since it seems like a tough story to place. However, if it’s well written – it might show off your comic writing skills and serve its purpose by launching your writing career in some other unexpected manner – which is often the case.

I am finishing a second re-write of a screenplay with a deep, but not in-your-face religious theme. It has action, romance and a plot line that I've never seen in the movie s- and I've seen most of them. I am a realistic person. I became realistic when my first screenplay basically got a D- after I paid the $395.00. But, what an awesome learning experience.

Since “The Last Temptation,” who's buying? Who's representing? Do I have to walk on water to get someone to read it? AND, is there a religious/secular cross over market? Will a religious movie sell with an R-rating for violence? Will I get an agent to look at script where a semi-religious theme is involved? Your thoughts and suggestions would mean the world to me.

I would avoid using the word “religious.” I prefer the term “spiritual,” which is more digestible. I don’t mean to alienate the religious readers. (I write this as I look out my home office window, which sits in the shadow of a Catholic Church with a bell tower that rings out two hymns every day at noon.)

I think some of the most successful films of all time have strong spiritual content: the HARRY POTTER series and STAR WARS franchise clearly come to mind. The unproduced STEINBECK’S POINT OF VIEW - a spec script with a purported deal worth over five million dollars (the highest ever) – also has a heavy spiritual theme.

In my opinion, the key is to tell a story with religion in its subtext. Clearly, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was an overtly religious tale, but that was a box-office anomaly. (At least that’s the way Hollywood views it.) THE PASSION… had an ingenious marketing campaign and appealed to a crossover crowd. Not only did the faith-based crowd attend, but young people with a predilection for violence also bought tickets. (The film was more violent than anything in HOSTEL.)

But for a new writer trying to break through the spec market, it makes more sense to write some sadistic slaughterhouse movie with sinful teenagers dying torturous deaths - which is actually a metaphor for the Immaculate Conception.

I think big budgeted Cecil B. DeMille religious spectacles are a thing of the past. THE NATIVITY – the other greatest story ever told – was released around Christmas but instead of box-office gold, it found coal in its stocking. Conversely, Charles Randolph has written a remake of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS for Paramount and Mark Gordon called EXODUS. However, his take is a solid and gritty examination of the story – lacking the silly Technicolor pageantry of previous efforts. (But I love the Charlton Heston version. It’s my all-time favorite guilty pleasure.) It remains to be seen if EXODUS will get off the ground.

There are others out there struggling to peddle religious content in the west coast city of Sodom and Gomorrah (which is Biblical). I’m loosely involved with the Damah Film Festival – which celebrates spiritual experiences in film. You can check them out at

Also, Biola University, a private Christian college, will hold a conference on April 21st in La Mirada, California to discuss the opportunities for faith based filmmakers. You can visit their website at

And, of course, there is


I have a script completed that is adapted from a novel.

Before the script was ever started, I found the author (no easy task - he self publishes), got in touch with him, and got him interested in the idea of his book becoming a movie. I also sold him on the idea of an unproduced, still unpaid screenwriter taking the lead on this project and raising the funds independently and producing the movie. He was very intrigued.

Yet, as the option rights were discussed, he kept balking. Kept pushing them off, making semi-ridiculous demands, and cooling on the idea when paperwork came his way. His first novel was made into a TV movie by Kirk Douglas, and apparently they butchered it. I asked him to give me a chance to write the script. If he read it and liked it, then we could move forward. He agreed.

Fast forward three months. Script is in its fourth draft. Very polished, and by several accounts, very well done. Legitimate interest from two different production companies, one without a screen credit yet, the other from a company with both studio and indie work. Yet he continues to balk.

I also have a lot of independent financing interested, so much that the 5 million or so needed to complete this movie, shouldn't be that difficult to tie up. Only the option.

My question - finally - is this: Should I take this script out to people that HE finds acceptable. Big name actors, directors, producers, all of whom could completely cut me out, as I have no legal recourse, or attachment to this project. I'm, quite simply put, a middle man. Do I risk sending the project to someone like Tom Hanks? The author said he'd like to make the movie, and like to have me involved. He just wants someone that this isn't "their first rodeo." (His words...)

What would you do?

I wouldn’t have put myself in this situation to begin with.

You should not have started writing until you had the option. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like you’ve wasted much time – four drafts in three months is very fast writing.

I’m confused by this scenario. You have the written script but didn’t say what the novelist thought of it. You tell us that others thought it was “very well done” but not the author’s reaction. It couldn’t have given him much confidence if he’s still hemming and hawing. If he loved the script, it seems unlikely he would drag his feet.

It’s not in your best interest to share the script with buyers if you do not have an option in place. With an option, you have secured some sort of spot in the project. But without it, an interested party can bypass you, get an option for the project from the author and bring in their own screenwriter to do the adaptation.

You can certainly agree to his demands in exchange for the option. Otherwise, let him go and use the script as a writing sample (which in theory is some sort of copyright infringement).

It is understandable that the author wants to protect his work and wants someone with experience leading the way. (You should want the same thing.) However, once he sells the rights, it isn’t his project anymore.

Unless he’s Clive Cussler.

Although I've written extensively, I now mainly produce and direct my own material. Once in a while, I will shoot someone else's script. I've made mainly shorts and a few spec TV pilots.

I will be making my first feature this summer. Obviously, it's low budget (about $750K). I need one of Ed's clients (a fairly well known actor, but certainly not an A-lister), and would pay the actor.

The question is this: What are the odds Ed would even take my call?

If you have to ask that question, I would expect the odds are low.

However, if you are the real deal who has a real offer with real finances (and not a figment of your imagination), any agent should take your call.

Of course, the priority of your call is based on the offer compared to the actor’s quote.

Many agents work on teams. Since this is a client who’s not an “A” lister, it seems likely that he has another agent who handles his day-to-day business. Targeting the actor’s other agent might be the first step.

Does the title really matter (when it comes to a spec)? I opted for (the provisory title) “4 and ½” to perfectly support the insanely smart hook in my logline (that can be seen at If the logline is as important as you say (and I decided it is before I opened your site) I guess it worth the risk. And I’m saying that cuz I have better titles up my sleeves.

Yes. I think a title really matters. Producers think about how they are going to sell the movie to audiences, and that process begins with the title. Yes, studios change titles all the time, but you want to consider the perfect title for your screenplay.

THE FAMILY STONE, which was released late in 2005, was originally titled THEY F**KING HATE HER and then retitled HATING HER before ending up with the final result. But the original title helped to increase an awareness of the script and prodded people to read it. Of course, the title SNAKES ON A PLANE gave that project a massive amount of attention.

I’m not a fan of your title, because it doesn’t give me a hint as to what the script might be about.

Is 4 and ½ a comedy about an ugly woman?

Or a tragedy about a man with a small penis?

Or a heartwarming MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS with math instead of music?

I have journeyed to your website to check out the “insanely smart hook” in your logline – which is more insane than smart.

The notion of a script that is a “fast-paced fantasy comedy with horror and parody elements set against a background of high adventure” doesn’t help me – in the slightest – to nail down the tone.

Furthermore, you chose a group of protagonists made up of screenwriters, which is an automatic “pass.”

I see a lot of what not to do which is awesome, but it would be great if you could provide some examples of what is good writing from your expertise. I saw your list of log lines that received a pass (which I believe means "next" as in voted off the show) but I did not catch any log lines or other material that you deem good. Or perhaps you can recommend some "must reads." I am currently reading "Story" by Robert McKee, life altering from a writer's stand point.

Robert McKee? Didn't he portray Brian Cox in ADAPTATION?

When the Los Angeles Times did an article on my free writing workshop, the journalist told me she tried to get a comment from McKee in regards to my efforts. All his camp would say was something like, "If it's free, it can't be very good."

Your bestseller list should consist of unproduced screenplays that have recently sold. You should strive to get your hands on them somehow. They will be the best teachers. You can determine from the read if you can see the movie in your head. You can decide if the script works or not and why. And you can try to figure out why the project might have just sold.

Better than any class, teacher or book – reading recently sold scripts can give you an idea of where the marketplace is at.

In the forum, I have kept a list over the years of scripts that I deemed to be very effective (in a thread called GREAT SCRIPTS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T READ).

Coincidentally, James Vanderbilt’s ZODIAC opened this weekend. In future weeks, Scott Frank’s THE LOOKOUT and William Wheeler’s HOAX will be hitting theaters. These are just three scripts that were talked about in that thread.

It is difficult for me to discuss “good.” It’s easier to talk about “bad.” Great scripts appeal to me on an emotional level, which can be difficult to communicate.

There is a ghost in great screenplays that continues to haunt long after the read.

The ghost stays with you, follows you and forces you to contemplate the script over and over.

Most scripts lack this invisible and intangible ghost. Even if the writer gets it textbook perfect – hitting all the plot points with precision – the script might still lack the ghost.

The ghost cannot be taught. It cannot be diagrammed. The ghost cannot be discussed over three days for $575.00, because it exists between the pages and not on them.

Even great writers fail to capture the ghost in every script they write. And, of course, some believe in ghosts and some don’t. I may see a ghost in one script while others cannot. It is an individual experience.

A script like THE BRIGANDS OF RATTLEBORGE (which was #1 on the “Black List”) seemed to possess a ghost, since many who read it were moved by it. This would be a script worth reading.

Go capture the ghost.

Robert McKee @ is giving his seminar this month in Los Angeles and New York.

Was THE INSIDE PITCH ever made available on DVD? If so, where can I purchase it? I've searched Amazon and the usual outlets - but to no avail. I'd love to attend one of your seminars, but I'm up in Vancouver, Canada.

This blog seems to have a big following in Vancouver.

Why should McKee get all the glory?

Yes, THE INSIDE PITCH is on DVD and can be purchased at, where you can also view the trailer.

It'll run you about $25.00, but if it were free, it wouldn't be very good.

I have your THE PLAYER poster next to my signed HAROLD & KUMAR one-sheet. Come and get it next time you're in Melbourne....mate.

Alternatively, I'll return it if you get Mr. Mel Gibson to consider DUST & GLORY, which is the hottest Aussie/US script and perfect for him to direct and star and work back in Oz for awhile. No better action/romance/adventure story around. Full stop. The 'Romancing the Stone' of this era if someone doesn't fuck it up.

I’ll fuck it up for you right now.

The one-sheet was discovered and returned to its new home. Though dazed and confused, it was in good condition.

Let’s not forget those writers who recently passed away. Their contributions to the creative community and our lives are greatly appreciated.

Gian Carlo Menotti (95)
Lothar-Guenther Buchheim (89)
Fons Rademakers (89)
Joe Edwards (85)
Fred Mustard Stewart (74)
Phil Lucas (65)


My LA Valley College class begins next Saturday, so the blog might be a bit neglected. Meanwhile, register at and visit the forum for lots of interactive advice and information.

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