Meet the Reader: Cameron Cubbison
ScreenCraft’s Cameron Cubbison’s love for movies is palpable, to say the least. “I love movies because they’re life without the dullness, anticlimax and disappointment,” he says. “Film as an art form offers the most crystallized, vital and cathartic emotional experience possible. It’s the amalgam of every other form of human expression: ideation, writing, acting, painting, musical composition, editing, architectural design, etc. Movie — even bad movies, and there are far more bad ones than good ones — are transformative. They’re the ultimate emotional delivery system.”
His passion isn’t all that surprising given that he’s always had a “wonderfully unhealthy obsession with film and literature, both highbrow and lowbrow.”
Growing up in Littleton, Colorado and the Washington D.C. area, he was the “stereotypical movie kid and bookworm” from a very young age. He treated his VHS and DVD collections as if “I were curating an art collection at the Louvre or something equally pretentious,” he says. “I organized titles by studio and then sub-organized alphabetically. I watched and coveted movies that should have been way beyond my maturity level. My sophomore year of high school I took a newly-formed film studies class and became that kid, the one who turns eight-paragraph assignments into 60-page research papers.”
He attended Emerson College as an undergrad, double majoring in – what else? — film production and film studies. There, he picked up coverage and development notes in college and started doing coverage for a couple of boutique companies remotely while he was still in school.
Cubbison eventually moved out to L.A. wanting to direct features but soon realized that he didn’t have “the patience or the technical prowess or the political skills needed to really do that job with any kind of traction,” he says. Besides, if his internship at Lionsgate was any indication, he definitely had the skill set for another career: a story analyst.
“We were only required to cover one script a day, but I averaged three to five, and some of the execs there started requesting me specifically and exclusively, and giving me higher-profile and more time sensitive scripts. So I kept at it,” says Cubbison. “I pivoted and came to embrace the fact that story analysis wasn’t just a way station for me; it was what I was actually good at. Or, at least, everyone kept telling me I was good at it.”
Then in 2012, he joined forces with John Rhodes, a creative executive, to form the boutique writing consultancy, ScreenCraft. We caught with Cubbison to discuss what excites him as a reader, what makes a good note, and how a writer becomes a better writer.
What attracted you to screen consulting and script reading?
What I love about story analysis and reading/consulting is that it’s fundamentally an optimistic and imaginative pursuit: your job as a reader is to see what a script is but also what it could be if properly developed and nurtured. And I like the fundamental puzzle aspect of it. Though the vast majority of screenplays suffer from the same shortcomings, every project is at least a little bit different. You have to crack open a script and try to figure out which elements are working and which elements aren’t, and why. Every craft fundamental is interconnected; character affects plot, premise and cast-ability affect market potential, theme affects tone, dialogue affects originality, etc. It’s exciting when you feel like you’ve figured out the key strength(s) or shortcoming(s) of a piece of material, and it’s gratifying when the exec or the producer or the writer that you’re working for responds enthusiastically to your notes and feels like you steered them in the right direction.
Before launching ScreenCraft, what were some of the projects and/or production companies/studios you worked for?
I stayed at Lionsgate for a while after my internship ended as a floater, and then I started covering books for a subsidiary of Penguin—did a couple hundred over roughly a two year period. I also worked for a while as a development temp at Open Road Films, where I met my future ScreenCraft business partner John Rhodes (he was the assistant to the CEO). I wrote coverage for Reel FX and several agencies, including UTA, CAA, Paradigm and the now-defunct Resolution. I also read for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab program and for several screenplay competitions, and for acquisitions and sales companies shopping for projects at festivals like Cannes, Berlin, AFM, Toronto, and Venice. And I frequently punched up or ghostwrote development notes for a number of execs who were overworked and pressed for time, or who by their own admission didn’t have the writing chops to convey what they needed to convey to writers.
What does a screenplay need to have in order to avoid the slush pile?
In my opinion, the two craft elements that are quickest to assess are voice and formatting. Or put another way, a lack of voice—both in general and in terms of not having character-specific dialogue—and a lack of professional formatting and presentation are the two quickest red flags that will handicap a script.
Avoiding the slush pile, I think, isn’t so much about what your screenplay needs to have so much as it’s about what it needs to do. And what it needs to do, skillfully and economically, is orient the reader and convince them that they are about to go on a journey that is organized and poised to deliver a satisfying narrative experience. Regardless of genre or tone, we want to leave every movie we watch feeling satisfied and like we got what we came for.
To get a reader on your side, ideally within the first ten pages you have to establish what the genre and tone is…how we’re supposed to contextualize this story and how we’re supposed to feel as a general baseline. You have to set up whose story is being told and why we should care. And you have to get the ball rolling on the premise and/or key conflict(s), or at least foreshadow what kind of premise and conflicts are soon to come. I always tell writers that, crass and commercialist as it sounds, your job coming out of the gate into Act I is to hard sell. You’re a car salesman and I’ve just wandered onto the lot, but I look like I’m about to change my mind and take off running. You have to jump in front of me, block my egress and convince me why I need to buy this particular car right now. Those first ten to twenty pages have to shout, “this is my story, this is what and who it is about, and this is why you should care.” Hooking a reader isn’t about any one singular element. It isn’t about great dialogue, it isn’t about a great character introduction, it isn’t about an awesome image. It’s about collectively using all of those elements to trap the reader and make them care.
While reading, what are you looking for? What excites you?
I’m a very emotional reader. More than anything else, I want a script to make me feel. And making a reader feel is entirely dependent on writing a great character. We don’t empathize with premises or plot points; we empathize with people. I want to fall in love with a protagonist, I want to see myself in them or want to be his or her friend. I want to root for them, buy them a beer, defend them and take a bullet for them. I want to see a protagonist as a real person and not just as a construct on a page. That’s what excites me: characters that get under my skin. Characters that I find myself feeling protective toward. When that happens it’s totally irrational and totally hypnotic.
A good friend of mine won’t get excited about any script or movie unless she thinks she’s being shown something fresh and original. No matter how many glowing, exultant, genre-elevating reviews Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation gets, she won’t watch it because in her mind she’s already seen Tom Cruise perform acts of derring-do and wear nifty face masks while dodging gunfire from shifty villains. That’s the total opposite of me. I don’t care if you make me think and I don’t care if you offer up something wholly original. I’ve read more than one mind-bendingly original script that made me want to do a Peter Pan off the nearest bridge, and I don’t even think it’s possibly to be utterly original anymore; there are only so many premises out there. Just make me care. If you make me care and think, then I’ll jump on a live grenade to protect your script if need be. But just make me feel like I’m spending time with a real person with conflicts that I can relate to, and if you can do that, I will forgive so many other things. If you make me feel connected to your protagonist in a real way, to turn me off you’ll have to bomb literally everything else—dialogue, structure, plot points, tone, theme, etc.
What makes a good note?
Great question. I think the first requirement for a good note is that it comes from not only a qualified reader but also a reader that has the right mentality when reading a particular script. And that mentality should always be to approach the material as unbiased and magnanimously as possible. I’ve encountered some readers (or read notes from them) over the years that seem to have gotten drunk on this notion of readers being the mythical gatekeepers and arbiters of talent and taste. I understand how that can happen, because people are coming to you for your take on a piece of material, but if that up-on-my-mountaintop impulse isn’t checked or corrected, it can ruin an entire set of notes, particularly if the notes are going to be shared directly with the writer. Even if your notes are spot-on, if they aren’t conveyed humbly and respectfully, they’re not going to be at all helpful.
Tone and intention aside, in my experience a good note recognizes what the writer is trying to do (or needs to be doing) with a particular scene or element, and what actually needs to happen for that intention to be fulfilled. A good note always sees what a particular scene or element is and also what it could be. Good notes are always fundamentally aspirational. They’re about taking what’s already there and elevating it, rather than subverting and editorializing the script to appeal more to the reader’s personal taste and sensibilities.
What is the most common mistake that writers make?
Sending out a script before it’s ready and not building the emotional stakes and core conflicts high enough. There has to be true, sustained urgency in every script that you write, regardless of tone or genre.
From your experience, what makes a writer a better writer?
Besides just continuing to hone craft across the board and working on problem areas, what makes a writer a better writer is finding ways to make every screenplay personal. Whether you’re writing something autobiographical or you’re doing ice cream-loving dinosaurs in space, your conflicts and character arcs have to be personal; they have to have you in them. I don’t care if you’re writing a romantic comedy or a spoof, adapt and inject your blood and heartbreak and crushing disappointments and setbacks into those characters, scenes and scenarios you’re creating. If it’s personal to you, it will feel personal to someone else. That emotional presence is what’s going to give your script the x-factor that will allow it to be packaged.
In addition to writing, what other elements should a writer focus on in her career? Pitching? Networking? Or should she perfect the writing part first?
I’m a firm believer that if a script is strong—and commercial—enough, it will eventually get where it needs to go. But pitching is super important and can get you the opening that you need, that one requested read that could change everything. And practicing pitching actually makes you a better writer because it forces you to strip your story down to its absolute core. If you can’t quickly, comprehensively and passionately pitch your script, it all but guarantees that your script isn’t ready on the page. Conversely, once you’ve perfected your pitch and trimmed it to its purest essence…once you can convey all of the core elements of your story as economically and smoothly as possible…then if your script isn’t ready, you’ll now know how to make it ready.
And yes, networking, the eternal scourge of all of us introverts out there. It really is that important. A great script has to fall into the right hands…many pairs of right hands…and if you aren’t somehow positioning yourself to meet those people or find those opportunities and gateways to get your script out there, you’re going to have a near-impossible time finding any traction.
This might be a biased question, but….do you feel screenplay contests are helpful to the emerging screenwriter?
Clearly I am biased, but I absolutely believe that screenplay contests are helpful to emerging screenwriters. They aren’t magic shortcuts or miracle machines, but contests provide a very real platform for writers to get their projects in front of industry eyes. Great screenplays and great writers do get discovered through contest wins and placements. Everyone knows what the dominant contest brands are—Nicholl, Big Break, Script Pipeline, Sundance Labs, Austin, Page. Contests are incentivized to create success stories for writers because it’s key criterion for legitimacy, and legitimacy drives sales. Again, not to be reductively commercial, but all companies need revenue to keep the lights on, and understanding that reputation—particularly in a market as specific as screenplay contests—is intimately tied to submission numbers and repeat customers. That notion should at least provide some reassurance that screenplay contests are incentivized to be legitimate, if not from a benevolent and well-intentioned perspective, than at least from a financial one.
Screenplay contests are a crowded niche space. Do I think there are mediocre contests out there? Absolutely. Do I think there are contests out there that overpromise and under deliver? Yes. And there is a general air of distrust and suspicion that has built up because of that in recent years. As always, bad apples threaten to ruin it for everyone, and I understand why some writers and potential entrants—not to mention some self-appointed industry mouthpieces—are always ready to cry foul regarding screenplay contests and script consultants and notes services. There are sharks and hucksters out there, and there are incompetent people who don’t really have the stones to be selling what they’re trying to sell, and the same is true in any consumer-driven industry.
Writers and potential entrants need to do their research and figure out what are the contest brands that seem reputable and that make sense for their goals and projects and budgets. In the same way that almost everyone now has to read ten different Yelp reviews before trying a new restaurant, writers should do the same kind of due diligence before entering a contest. Go on forums, talk to previous winners or participants, ask your writer friends. And then make a decision whether or not to commit to entering and then be done with it. If your project places, fantastic. If it doesn’t, try to figure out why and move on to your next initiative. Don’t waste emotional energy getting upset or combative with the contest administrators; just keep moving forward.
You can’t guarantee the results of any competition you enter in any field of endeavor, so it’s a mistake to try. But if you win or if you make the quarter or semifinalists, guess what? Now you have un-coached, unbiased validation of your work. And you can use that to your advantage. Because now you’re no longer just yet another aspiring writer; now you’re an aspiring writer that somebody else said was good. And Hollywood is a groupthink mentality town and loves to take shortcuts and minimize risk. You’re instantly more attractive to managers, agents and producers if you’re a writer who has won or had projects place in a reputable contest, and you should introduce yourself as a winner or finalist every chance you get.
That’s the other piece of advice I would stress: self-generate. I think writers often have a fundamental misconception about screenplay competitions, in that they believe that if they can just walk away with the gold, the heavens will open up and they’ll have done all that they need to do and they can just sit back and follow the breadcrumbs thrown at them. But that isn’t the case. Winning a contest isn’t the be-all and end-all of launching a screenwriting career. It’s a great step and it’ll open some doors and get you some reads, but you have to keep pushing and generating your own heat.
You have to push yourself as a winner or finalist to everyone you talk to. We relentlessly push our contest winners and finalists and in the last year have helped get eight writers signed, but it has been a long, continual process, and those writers got signed not only because they were talented and deserved managers but also because they seized upon the window of opportunity that winning or placing opened and played the game and held their own. And there are plenty of writers, writers I’m in awe of, that we’re still fighting to get signed and have yet to do so. So it’s always going to be a grind and a battle.
Contest placements and wins are great victories and ammunition, but the war rages on. And the same is true about getting a manager and an agent. Getting a manager and an agent shouldn’t be your ultimate goal as a writer, though it is a hugely important step. Why? Because there are myriad writers who have managers and agents who still aren’t selling projects or getting writing assignments. As a writer, you have to always continue to be your own best advocate and generate as much new material and as many new opportunities for yourself as you possibly can. It’s your career, your time, sweat and blood on the pages. So go into entering contests with that in mind: contests can be a great tool and a shortcut, but they probably aren’t going to singlehandedly launch your career. What they can and often do is get the ball rolling in a very direct way.
Why should a screenwriter submit to ScreenCraft?
Well I don’t want to be a shill here and force anyone to drink the ScreenCraft Kool-Aid, but I will say that I think our genre-specific model makes a lot of sense. We work really hard on securing strong, appropriate judges and tailoring the prize packages, and if you submit to one of our competitions, you can at least know that you won’t be facing inherent genre bias you might find elsewhere. Also, we’re a contest brand created and run by working readers. Every member on the team is handpicked and has a minimum of two years of quantifiable, marketable reading experience. And we’re also very accessible and community-oriented. We’re hands on, we care. We try really hard to answer every email, every inquiry, and to be transparent in how we operate. We have as much personal contact with our winners and finalists as possible, in perpetuity. We don’t always get it right but we never phone it in. We’re hungry and passionate, and so far people seem to like what we’re doing.
What is your main piece of advice for aspiring writers who are attempting to get their work noticed?
Always keep creating and generating new material, and understand how vital it is that you find fulfillment in the writing itself. Write for the pure joy of writing. Love your characters and stories, put yourself in them at every possible opportunity. Don’t write something because you think it could be a shrewd career move. Write what you feel compelled to write, then figure out how to best target it. The spec market has eroded, TV is better and more competitive than it has ever been, and Hollywood as an industry is entirely blinded by and drunk on rebooted and repurposed IP. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter—at any level, novice or stunningly brilliant wunderkind—you’re in for a long, long haul without the baked in promise of a feel-good, happy ending. Don’t let that scare you, but be aware of it.
Write because you have to write, because you love it, and challenge yourself to define your brand as a writer and to then diversify it as much as possible. Be a writer that other people can and want to work with. Create a product that has a targeted audience, a script that can make other people money. Movies and series are expensive any way you cut it, so know how to conceptualize and position the stories you’re passionate about telling for the commercial marketplace.
What are your favorite screenplays of all-time that are must-reads for writers?
I think Chinatown will continue to endure as the Great American Screenplay, and it deserves to. It’s an amazingly singular piece of writing and teaches volumes about how to work in a commercial genre while putting a reflective, individualist stamp on it. It also does an amazing job with making revelatory, crucial setups and payoffs feel invisible and totally organic to the story, and it’s just such a cinematic read. It reveals character through action exceptionally well. The fact that Jake Gittes has different tiers of bourbon to offer different tiers of clients in his office on paragraph six of page one tells us everything we need to know about that character. Also, knowing the production history of Chinatown and how the, in retrospect, perfect ending wasn’t originally on the page but evolved and came to be gives you faith that the collaborative process can work optimally.
Also, if you want to write sophisticated, intelligent and impossibly fun and entertaining blockbusters, you can’t do any better than read North By Northwest. It’s one of those scripts that just feels effortless. Die Hard is a great script to study in that it fundamentally reinvented an entire genre. It’s pitch-perfectly structured and balances external and internal conflicts and obstacles with total dexterity, and accomplishes the rare feat of providing an equally dynamic protagonist and antagonist.
Would also highly recommend reading the Rocky scripts—yes, all six of them. There’s no better primer on how to write cinematic poetry for the masses and on how to repurpose and channel autobiographical emotional content into a fictional character and narrative that has universal mythic appeal that can nevertheless be adapted to fit any decade…even the Cold War mania of the mid-1980s. I’m also fascinated by the anomaly of a low-concept, character-driven drama franchise not based on IP and not dependent on special effects that has managed to endure and survive with the same star for 39 years and counting.
And quickly, some random screenplays that have nothing in common except fantastic command of character, genre, tone and voice: The Lookout, Michael Clayton, Tin Cup, As Good As It Gets, and pretty much anything ever written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.