Not a Lottery: Michael Ray Brown on Screenwriting

By Brianne Hogan • April 8, 2021

Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, story analyst Michael Ray Brown hunted for crawdads in a creek, and whiled away days reading comic books in a treehouse.

“Going to movies was a rarity in our family,” Brown says. “One of my fondest memories is when we all saw It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World at a drive-in, snacking on popcorn my dad had just popped at home.”

His interest in film grew out of his interest in storytelling, which didn’t reveal itself until Brown was halfway through high school.

“I had been a “D” student, unmotivated and a daydreamer.  But then a remarkable English teacher opened my eyes to story structure: inciting incident, technical climax, dramatic climax, transformational arcs, etc.  And something clicked,” recalls Brown. “It turned my life around.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today as a script consultant if it wasn’t for that English teacher.  He was like the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society. 

I wasn’t particularly interested in film until I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, which really opened my eyes.” After high school, Brown majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska. “They didn’t have a cinema curriculum at that time, and journalism was the closest I could get to filmmaking,” he says.

Having made several short films, he moved to Southern California in hopes of becoming a professional filmmaker, but soon found himself making a living from reading and developing scripts instead. He has since developed the screenplays for films, including City Slickers, Free Willy, While You Were Sleeping, Apollo 13, and Braveheart, among many others. He currently runs his own story consulting firm, Story Sense.

We caught up with Brown to chat about his Screenwriting Structure Checklist, his go-to screenplays that every screenwriter should read, and his biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers.

What was your first job in the industry?

I saw an index card tacked to a jobs bulletin board at UCLA:  “Read Scripts for a Living.”  Wait a minute!  Someone will actually pay you to read scripts?  I soon found myself reading three scripts a day for a company called Breakdown Services.  These were scripts in pre-production, and I wrote cast breakdowns describing each lead, character, and bit part, the page where they were introduced, the number of speeches they had, and the number of scenes in which they appeared.  I also answered the phones, dispatched messengers, ran the copy machine, and handled the accounts, all for the princely sum of $125 a week.

How did you get started with script analysis and consulting?

Everyone seemed to be writing screenplays, and somebody had to read them.  Many producers simply did not have the time.  A director friend showed me a studio reader’s report.  Using that as a model, I wrote some sample coverage of my own, analyzing a novel I had just read.  I would walk onto The Burbank Studios lot (home of Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures), and go around to the producers’ bungalows, introducing myself, handing out my business card and that sample.  My first year I also sent out more than 500 letters, each one individually typed.  (This was before computers.)  I eventually won over more than a dozen producer clients, including Casablanca Filmworks, American Cinema, The Begelman/Fields Co., and John Kemeny, along with several agencies.  I would get a call in the afternoon, drive up to Burbank to pick up a 500-page book, type up a 20-page coverage report, and have it back on the producer’s desk by 10 a.m. the next day.  And for this I would be paid $50.  Considering that half the time I would be hustling to find my next client, this was a very hard way to make a living.

My immediate goal was to land a position as a studio reader.  Story analysts, as they are called, are organized under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the same union that serves below-the-line technicians and craftspersons, such as camera operators, set designers, sound engineers, etc.  The wages and benefits of a Union story analyst are such that it’s possible to actually make a living (and a pretty decent one) as a reader.  I started hanging out at the Universal Studios story department, and became good friends with the story editor.  When he found out that I had been reading scripts for Hanna-Barbera Productions, he called the business manager of the Story Analysts Guild to find out if they were a Union signatory.  Sure enough, they were.  Because I had worked more than 30 days for a signatory, I was eligible for placement on the Producers Availability Roster, and I could join the Union.  At that time, candidates also had to be vetted by a Qualifications Board comprised of story editors from the studios.

Before I had a chance to work for a studio, though, I got hired by Metromedia Producers Corporation as their assistant story editor.  One of the studio readers I’d met had been offered the job, but he turned it down.  A year later I was running the story department, developing movies and miniseries for the networks.  I had an office next to Edgar Scherick, where Scott Rudin was starting to make a name for himself as a producer.  Four years later, the company began a transition that would see much of their assets sold to Fox as part of their then-fledgling network.  Over the next 20 years I worked for nearly every major studio as a story analyst.  When MGM reorganized in 1998, as an 8-year veteran of the studio I had an opportunity to start my own business as a consultant.  When a feature article in Creative Screenwriting magazine “Analyzing the Analysts” rated me third out of 24 and their “Best Buy,” my business really took off.

Who do you usually consult for?  Production companies, individuals, or both?

My clients are mostly individuals.  Many of them have just written their first screenplay, and they want to know if it has merit.  My company also serves as sort of a story department for several small production companies, with my associates covering material submitted to them.  Perhaps a quarter of my clients are independent producers who heard about me through word-of-mouth, such as at a film festival.  I average three to five rewrite assignments a year as a script doctor.  For example, I recently did a dialogue polish for a writer-director in India.  I have clients all over the world.

What do you love about reading scripts?

A script is just a blueprint, but a well-written one can stimulate your imagination, and bring a story to life.  You might as well ask what we love about reading anything.  We love to escape, to discover something new and exciting, to walk a mile in the shoes of another, to be enlightened, to realize some truth about the human condition.  I’m no different than anyone else when it comes to reading a well-told story.  A script has a strict form, though, and it can take a while for a reader to develop the ability to see the movie on the page.  After reading so many, I don’t read for pleasure anymore.  No matter what I read, I’m always trying to figure out how it could be made better.

What makes a great screenplay?

So many elements go into making a great screenplay.  That’s why it’s so hard to write one!  If you take a look at some coverage from a studio, you’ll see a grid where the reader has rated the script excellent, good, fair, or poor in such categories as premise, characterization, dialogue, story line, and production values.  The most critical element, though, is jeopardy.  Whether it is a physical threat to the protagonist’s life (as in thrillers) or a threat to his happiness (as in love stories), danger is what drives the plot.  It’s what keeps us on the edges of our seats, wanting to know what happens next.

What are the most common mistakes that writers make?

A common mistake I see in screenplays by new writers is giving us information that would not be available to someone watching a movie.  They tell us what a character knows, thinks, feels, realizes, etc.  They give us backstory in description.  They tell us what a character is looking for, waiting for, or trying to do.  They describe a character in terms of their profession, or what relationship they have to another character.  Whenever we go to the cinema, no one steps in from the wings to give us that information.  It must all be conveyed through the characters’ actions and/or dialogue.  That’s not to say the characters must wear their hearts on their sleeves, and openly express their thoughts and feelings.  That’s called being “on the nose,” and it’s another common mistake.  In real life (and in the movies) people rarely say what’s on their minds and in their hearts.  The greater a character’s emotional investment in a situation, the more reticent they tend to be.  The best dialogue has layers of subtext.  But perhaps the most common mistake is underestimating the difficulty of writing a workable script.  Screenwriting is all about rewriting.

Tell us a little bit about your Screenwriting Structure Checklist.  What are some of the most important elements that emerging screenwriters need to keep in mind?

Even if you’ve taken all the classes and read all the books, sometimes a script will just stump you.  Something doesn’t quite work, but you can’t put your finger on it.  When I was running the story department for Metromedia Producers Corporation, this occasionally happened to members of my staff.  And so, as an aid to my analysts, I compiled a list of everything that could go wrong in a screenplay.  This list eventually grew to 18 major wrongs, with 110 sub-wrongs under them.  When I started teaching a class on structure, I rewrote it as a toolkit for writers, and posted it on my Web site.  It actually covers much more than just structure.  At the top of the list is theme.  Many writers have no idea what message their script is conveying.  That’s to be expected when writing a first draft, as it’s vital to collect your thoughts and get them down as quickly as possible.  However, an awareness of the theme is essential to refining your script.  It’s your compass.  It informs everything in your story, from the traits of your characters to the decisions they make, and finally how the conflicts are resolved.  A consultant can help you identify the theme of your script, and brainstorm with you ways to express it more coherently, so as to reinforce its power and bring out its dramatic potential.

When should a writer consult a script analyst?

The short answer is whenever the writer feels they need help.  Probably the most productive time to seek out a script consultant is when the writer has exhausted all their creative juices.  When they believe they’ve covered all the bases, when they’re convinced they’ve written the best script (or treatment) they can write, then it’s time to show it to another pair of eyes.  If you hire a consultant before that time, you’re asking the analyst to do your work for you.  On the other hand, getting a consultant’s help in refining your outline or treatment can save you lots of time and effort when it comes to writing the script.  Don’t wait until the week before you plan to send it out before seeking the advice of a consultant.  Allow yourself plenty of time for a rewrite.

The aspiring screenwriter has written her screenplay, she’s consulted you, she re-writes it.  Now what?  How does she get her script “out there”?

It’s getting harder than ever to convince a producer to read your script.  You have to draw upon all your contacts. Some producers respond to a tantalizing query letter or a synopsis.  If the story sounds intriguing, they may agree to read your script, provided you sign a release or submit it through an attorney. Even an “Honorable Mention” in a prestigious screenwriting competition can set your telephone to ringing.  It all starts with writing the most marketable script you can write, which is where a script consultant can be valuable.

Is it imperative for a writer to obtain representation when they’re first starting out?

Any writer who has the chutzpah to contact a producer directly will likely be greeted by a gatekeeper saying they don’t accept unsolicited material.  Thousands of scripts get circulated every year, and nobody can possibly read them all.  Producers rely on reputable agents and managers to help them find the best ones.  Even if a writer manages to convince a producer to read their script, it will likely end up on a slush pile.  Only after the producer has read all the scripts that agents and managers have submitted will he turn to the dreaded slush pile.  To be taken seriously, then, it behooves the writer to get representation.  However, finding an agent who is willing to read your script can be more difficult than finding a producer.

Most agents won’t read anything that doesn’t come recommended to them by a client, a producer, or a studio executive.  Managers tend to be more accessible, partly because they stand to make a greater profit than an agent would.  Managers don’t represent you as a writer; they represent your script.  Unlike agents, they can’t find you work.  Their job is to set up your script with a producer, and they collect a producer’s fee in addition to their manager’s commission, which is usually higher than that of an agent.  You can get access to contact information on representatives, plus a list of their clients and (in the case of managers and producers) their credits, by subscribing to the Internet Movie Database Pro.  The Writers Guild also publishes a list of agents.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you could give to an aspiring screenwriter right now?

Writers seem to be taking less responsibility for their work now.  They tend to read less, prepare less, and proofread less than they used to.  Consequently, there’s much more for an analyst to criticize.  For example, I’m now forced to school writers on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other basics.  I’ve detected less of a desire among writers to carve out a career than to make a quick buck.  This results in work that’s far from professional.  Many writers seem less interested in telling a good story than in crafting a thrill ride.  This results in work that’s devoid of passion, with no coherent theme driving it.  All this makes my job harder.  Before I can begin to offer any solutions, I have to figure out what the writer is trying to say, even if the writer doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.  Think of screenwriting as a craft that requires diligent study and practice to master, not as a lottery ticket.

What are some of the go-to screenplays that you would recommend that screenwriters read?

A well-written script creates in the mind’s eye of the reader the experience of watching a movie.  In other words, the script “picturizes” the action.  Whenever a screenwriter asks me for examples, I usually refer them to the work of John Milius (Red Dawn, Farewell to the King).  They’re not always easy to find, but it’s worth reading Braveheart, My Best Friend’s Wedding, The Shawshank Redemption, Lethal Weapon, American Beauty, To Die For, L.A. Confidential, Donnie Brasco, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard, and Back to the Future.  Smaller films like Swingers, Breaking the Waves, The Opposite of Sex, and Local Hero are all examples of brilliant screenwriting.

What’s your opinion of the movie business now?

The business has changed drastically since I was reading for the studios.  There are fewer script submissions and much less development, as the studios have franchises to fill.  Much of this has been dictated by technology.  Why drive to a theater, find a place to park, and pay $15 apiece for tickets, only to endure a half-hour of commercials, and dim projection on a stained screen while your neighbors are texting and making rude remarks when you can watch a movie in the comfort of your home on a big screen for only $3?  To get us into the theaters, the studios have to offer us an event, and these days that often means some computer-generated spectacle.  Production costs consequently have escalated to the point where every picture has to be a blockbuster, and that is creatively stifling.  Mind you, I love imaginative fantasies and large-scale action-adventure.  And the experience of seeing a film like Avatar or Gravity in 3D is not to be missed.  However, the opportunities for writers to find their voice and get work are much greater now in television than in the movies.

Do you believe that there are too many comic book movies/reboots, and not enough originals?

Part of the problem is the franchises.  Iron Man is not just a movie; it’s part of the Marvel Empire, which is a universe unto itself.  And like the cosmos, that universe is always expanding.  Each movie has to be bigger than the last, packed with more superheroes doing more spectacular stunts, and spawning baby superheroes for spinoffs.  It’s hard to be creative when you’re afraid to fail, but that’s the state of the Industry.  Everything has to be presold.  I don’t know what the solution is, but I get a sense we’ve reached a saturation point.

Is TV surpassing film in terms of storytelling?

Some of the best writing these days is on television, which by many accounts is in its “golden age.”  There has always been a great divide between the strict forms of theatrical films and looser forms of television.  However, the cable networks in their search for breakout programming have nurtured a whole new style of storytelling whose form is more novelistic than cinematic.  Series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, and many others captivate us through the complexity of their characterizations and the multiplicity of their interwoven plotlines that run through entire seasons and beyond.  We now have in television what amounts to a classic saga form, which is unique to the medium and cannot be duplicated in the cinema.  If we talk about superior storytelling in the movies, then the king of the hill has got to be animation.  It’s hard to beat the solid structure and emotional appeal of such films as Ratatouille, Wall•E, Up, and Frozen.

What’s the best-written movie you’ve seen in the past year?

It would have to be a toss-up between Gone Girl and The Imitation Game.  I’ll have to admit Interstellar really blew my mind, though not so much for the writing as the boldness of its vision.

Brianne Hogan