Story analyst for Columbia Pictures. Script analysts work on projects so early in the development process, I can’t name specific assignments. The worry is that story ideas and concepts will get stolen. It’s a funny and very real phenomenon, but the similarity of so-called “competing projects” usually isn’t about stealing ideas. There’s a zeitgeist out there.
Describe your job.
Along with seven other staff analysts, I read and evaluate screenplays, books, manuscripts, treatments, anything submitted to the studio for consideration. The coverage includes a synopsis and comments, plus a call: Pass, Qualified Pass, Maybe or Recommend. We also work on projects the studio has already bought, reading every draft and assessing what’s working or not working and how to make it better.
I live in Weehawken, New Jersey, and work by remote. From the third floor of our house, I can see straight down 42nd Street across the Hudson River — Sully Sullenberger landed his airplane on our stretch of the river! Screenplays and manuscripts are e-mailed and I’m in constant touch with the Story Department in Culver City via computer and telephone. The three-hour time difference is both boon and drawback: It allows flexibility in the work-life balance, but it can mean my workday doesn’t end until 10 p.m. Most important, I get to be here when my son gets home from school.
How did you become interested in your line of work?
Returning to LA after college as an English major, I got a job at Breakdown Services writing character descriptions used for casting. Through a colleague, I landed a job writing theatre blurbs for the LA Reader, a free weekly paper, now defunct, that first published Matt Groening’s cartoon strips. Writers were paid $5 per review. That periodic $25 check always arrived just when I needed it.
Who gave you your first break?
A producer named Andy Karsch got me my first reading job at United Artists, then located in a Beverly Hills office building. I was fired for over-recommending material, but re-hired two weeks later with a better understanding of how the script-sifting process works. My most memorable moment was riding the elevator with Billy Wilder, but I didn’t have the guts to address him.
What was your first union job?
At Universal Pictures, but I was immediately lured away by Fox. Humble as the readers’ trailer was, it was exciting to be on the Fox lot and walk along the famous New York street built for Hello, Dolly and eat in the studio commissary. That was where I passed on Forrest Gump.
Which of your credits have made you the most proud and why?
I’m too low on the totem pole to take credit for specific projects, but I take a certain pride in my approach. I learned an important lesson early on: Always be on the side of the writer. Unless a screenplay is pure pandering, the writer is aiming for something and it’s up to us, even if the script is weak, to recognize and assess it. At the same time, we judge material as potential movies, not on literary or other merits. We often pass on work that may be brilliant but just not a movie. Also, Columbia Pictures makes big-budget mainstream movies, which eliminates a lot of wonderful smaller projects.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Over the years, I’ve read some outstanding screenplays and books by literally the world’s best writers. Those are the times I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I do.
Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I enjoy reading and writing. I love movies. I’m grateful to be able to work at home. I’m hoping none of that changes anytime soon.
What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?
It’s frustrating when I struggle to figure out what’s wrong with a screenplay and my diagnosis isn’t as incisive as I’d like. Also, I occasionally have to force myself to be objective regarding material I don’t personally cotton to. Violence, gory action, near-pornographic “comedy” — sometimes I’m just not the best person to judge these. I am not easily shocked, but being impartial can occasionally take some effort.
Forming a viewpoint can be a challenge. Barry Diller once said that the movie business is driven by “opinions forcibly argued.” The challenge isn’t to negate subjectivity but to decide what to argue for or against and arguing that position persuasively. One wants to encourage creativity and innovation, but the majority of screenplays work best within a pretty rigid format (120 pages, a likable protagonist, a conflict-driven plot, a conclusive ending). The challenge is envisioning what material will best translate into a filmed story. I’ve been wrong many times, but right a few times too. It’s the nature of the business.
As in all jobs, staying fresh and open-minded is a challenge too. A good story editor, like the exemplary Karen Moy at Columbia, knows how to assign material, allow flexibility, and encourage a cohesive working group to minimize burnout.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
Anything that gets me away from the computer screen. Yoga, hiking, attending my son’s baseball or basketball games. We live in a house built in the 1880s, still powered by “knob and tube” electrical wiring from the 1930s — so I spend a lot of time on renovations.
Favorite movie(s)? Why?
Comedies rule. Bridesmaids, The Social Network, Groundhog Day, any Tyler Perry, Jerry Lewis, Marx Brothers movie. We’re a devoutly Adam Sandler-loving household, although Andy Samberg may dethrone him soon. I love girl movies: Easy A, Sense and Sensibility, Thelma and Louise, most Sandra Bullock movies. Old movies: any Bette Davis movie, almost any Alfred Hitchcock movie, and any movie featuring Joan Fontaine or her sister Olivia de Havilland (who my father once dated). With a 12-year-old son, I see a lot of kids’ movies too, favorites include Despicable Me, Rango, How to Train Your Dragon, the Spider-Man movies.
Favorite TV program(s)? Why?
I devour the luscious Downton Abbey, but my work requires reading so much fiction I’m drawn to nonfiction. This means 60 Minutes, Bill Maher, the national news. And comedy: Modern Family, The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.
Do you have an industry mentor?
My colleagues and boss are my mentors. I read other story analysts’ coverage for inspiration, new ideas, new language. The people I work with are extremely smart and plugged into the culture.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
The Guild’s story analysts classification is relatively tiny (only about 180 members) and difficult to break into. Many analysts start as non-union readers working for producers or smaller production companies. It’s a good way to meet people and get experience. Above all, watch movies.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
I’m a staunch supporter of unions in general and IATSE in particular, and am honored, as a former member of the Local 854 Story Analysts union, to be umbrella’d under the Editors Guild. The Guild helps me every day by providing excellent health insurance for me and my family, and by ensuring we’re fairly paid and fairly treated. Love the Guild!
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?
Reading screenplays, at the very beginning of the process, makes one see just how powerfully an editor — sometimes as much as the screenwriter, the director, or the actor — can shape a scene, a character, a story at the other end of the process. I’ve always wanted to tell editors how vital and appreciated their work is.
- Compiled by Edward Landler
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