Where are you currently employed?
Walt Disney Studios. Twenty-five years this April, which is unusual since traditionally story analysts tend to work at multiple studios during their careers.
A tight lip comes with the development/pre-production nature of this job. But one film currently in post that I worked on for several drafts is the musical Into the Woods.
Describe Your Job.
A story analyst has three main functions: 1) Read screenplays, manuscripts, published books and other materials to assess them as potential projects for the studio; 2) read screenplays and occasionally teleplays to evaluate their authors for writing assignments; and 3) read drafts of projects in development to give notes to improve them or to accomplish specified objectives.
The first two functions require a lightly detailed synopsis, plus a critique of the material's potential as a submission or writing sample. Development notes involve a fuller synopsis and constructive comments that analyze characters, plotting, dialogue and other story elements that may need attention.
Analysts also sometimes do comparative reads, legal analyses, foreign-language reads, screenplay breakdowns and other related tasks.
How did you first become interested in this line of work?
I left an advertising writer/producer job with Young & Rubicam in Iowa to pursue screenwriting in LA. Knowing I'd need a day job, I recalled that Jack Kerouac had written book synopses in New York for extra cash. That led me to take a story analyst class. That was about 10,000 coverages ago.
Who gave you your first break?
My story analyst teacher Annie Willette recommended me to the Weintraub Entertainment Group story editor. Later, budding exec and producer Jim Wedaa took over the WEG story department before moving to the newly launched Hollywood Pictures at Disney. He brought me to the Mouse House.
What was your first union job?
Hollywood Pictures/Disney; first and only thus far.
Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?
I read 14 drafts of Sweet Home Alabama and thought it would never happen, but with Reese Witherspoon it finally got made. I read The Princess Diaries as an unfinished manuscript and flagged it as a for-sure Disney movie. It evolved in subsequent drafts but retained its essence. I also worked on The Count of Monte Cristo, a fine retelling of the classic. And I had some interaction with The Straight Story and was pleased we made it. For the only time in any of my coverage, I predicted its lead actor would receive an Oscar nomination — and, sure enough, Richard Farnsworth did.
What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?
A tricky step for a story analyst in the development process is to recognize and communicate when a screenplay has reached its fullest potential, whether after two drafts or 20. You can’t just say, “It’s done.” So you give constructive notes on possible changes while also suggesting that it’s time to let the project move on to production. I do that by trusting my gut and by writing in a kind of good cop/bad cop way.
What was the most fun you’ve had at work?
Armed with my high-school Spanish, I spent a week at home with a VHS copy of an Italian movie about inner-city kids and their exemplary teacher. We had an English-version script by an Italian writer who barely knew syntax. My assignment was to clean it up to read better in English. I’m also in the Writers Guild so it felt kind of odd at first but it turned out I was mostly correcting grammar and making the translation accurate to the movie. I got a lot of OT that week and never had to get out of my pajamas.
Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?
I enjoy the diversity and mental challenge of story analysis work, so I would love to think I’ll still be doing it, along with my other work interests and projects.
What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?
Creative work of one kind or another is my abiding passion. Currently, my writing partner and I (he’s a commercial director with two Super Bowl spots under his belt, one of which I wrote and co-produced) are this close to getting a thriller of ours green lit. And I do freelance advertising: commercials, videos, websites and ads.
I love movies and TV. I enjoy travel. I play a little piano and guitar. I like to chop wood for our fireplace. I get to the gym once in a blue moon. Most of all, I love just hanging out with my wife and our dogs.
Favorite movie(s)? Why?
A cruel and inhumane question… Doctor Zhivago, True Romance, Apocalypse Now, Cutter’s Way, The Last Wave, To Have or Have Not, Charade, 101 Dalmatians (1961), Sunset Boulevard, Jackie Brown, A Hard Day’s Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Trucker, Atlantic City, Betty Blue, The Godfather: Part II, Fargo, Groundhog Day, One False Move, Out of the Past, That Obscure Object of Desire, Sideways… Why? Because they have qualities that make me surrender and transport me into their worlds. I gotta go, the next movie’s starting.
Favorite TV program(s)? Why?
Nurse Jackie, Shameless, Boardwalk Empire, Modern Family, Downton Abbey, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and many more smart ones. A few boneheaded ones too. Why? Because they’re well done and they know how to hypnotize me.
Do you have an industry mentor?
No. But I’ve encountered some gracious, inspiring industry folks and have had my share of help along the way, especially from Kevin Brady, when he headed the Disney Story Department, and earlier from his predecessor, Liz Brown.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?
Know how to think and write critically. Absorb and obsess on as many movies and plays and novels as you can. Do as much freelance reading work as possible. Get close to people who have an in with studio story departments. Accept that you’re never going to be rich but can find career satisfaction and be happy.
Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?
Not really, although the insurance has been a blessing. And I look forward to receiving a long, long string of pension checks.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?
Work hard. Do what you love and love what you do. Be honest. Be confident. Work harder.
- Compiled by Edward Landler
Editor’s Note: To recommend a member (including yourself) to be featured on the home page of the Editors Guild website, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.