Mark Chandley reads a lot of scripts – good ones – bad ones – and everything in between. As a story analyst for HBO and other organizations, as well as a writer’s assistant for A-list film and TV writer Roger Wolfson, Mark spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about what makes a good script analyst.
What’s the difference between a script reader and a story analyst?
I’ve seen the two titles used interchangeably depending on where the individual works, whether that be as a freelancer for a network (such as myself), a production company, agency, or at a studio. I’ve learned, if you’re a freelancer, you really have the freedom to call yourself whatever you want. It just so happens, “story analyst” has an admittedly more professional ring to it. At the end of the day, the job is to read and analyze stories. I prefer the term story analyst because I’m not just reading scripts. I read novels, manuscripts, and essays. Then I break down the stories.
I know of other story analysts who have had the awesome job of reading comic books for adaptation! In fact, I only read books for HBO. It’s Red Ampersand where I pick up film and TV scripts to read. Story analyst always felt like the most appropriate title for me personally because it’s all-encompassing – I breakdown story across the writing media.
What skills do you need to be a competent story analyst?
I don’t think there is any one skill that you need, I think I had an advantage because I came from an analytical background having studied risk analysis and intelligence analysis in college. Being able to critically think, understand dramatic theory, the ability to remain objective, and having an eye for what kind of stories lend themselves to the screen, this all helps.
I don’t think you need to have gone to school for something like this. The best thing you can do is become a voracious reader! Break down your favorite film and TV show scripts and try your hand at writing sample coverages!
What does your typical workday look like?
As of now, I also work a normal day job in private investigations. I’m also a writer’s assistant for a showrunner, so my days are typically going from the time I wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning until 11 or 12 at night (or later). After I’m done with the day job, I’m either doing coffee/meetings, I’m at various networking events around town, I’m part of three different writer’s groups, I’m assisting the showrunner, and in between all of that I’m reading for HBO, Red Ampersand and doing what I call “favor reads” for friends and those I meet. I’m doing what they call “hustling” if you will.
How is analyzing a book different to a screenplay?
Aside from the obvious fact that books are a longer read than screenplays, there aren’t major differences in terms of analyzing them for story. After all, story is story. No matter what medium it’s being told in it should be following classic dramatic theory such as Aristotle’s Poetics. There should be a beginning, middle and end, and a compelling character who is working towards a goal. There’s should be conflict that stands in the protagonist’s way and stakes for failure and success.
In screenwriting, a writer needs to accomplish all of this much quicker than in a novel. Novels are like Apple Maps, they have time to deviate, explore and ruminate. Screenplays are like Google Maps, straight to the point. Having more experience with the economical craft of screenwriting (I admittedly didn’t read a lot of books as a kid), I find it frustrating when novels take five pages to explain something like a feeling or the character’s inner thoughts. I have to remind myself that this is allowed. If all the after-mentioned story elements are there, I go about analyzing a book in the same way I would a screenplay, but paying special attention to whether or not I feel it would translate well to the screen.
How do you balance your personal taste with HBO’s requirements in your analysis?
This is an important one because as a reader, the moment you lose your objectivity is the moment your credibility goes out the window. That’s not to say that you’re going to like everything you read, you’re just not. For instance, I’m not the biggest fan of Young Adult (YA) novels, but I’ve read some good ones. Script analysis is about seeing past your personal taste and recognizing good story despite the genre.
You can never pass on material simply because you don’t like it. We’re not agents or managers or executives. We don’t get to selectively choose what we read. If you don’t like something, you have to get to the root of why that is. What’s wrong with it from a screenwriting standpoint? That also doesn’t mean if you don’t like something, set out to find something wrong with it. We’re analysts, not critics.
How much material do you read in a week?
I’m reading a book a week typically and maybe a screenplay peppered in there. If I were to be doing this full time, I believe that I would be able to cover a couple of books and more than a couple of screenplays. I’ve heard stories that other readers have their tricks for skimming, but I’m not built like that.
I feel very compelled to read everything out of fear that I’m going to miss something good. I mean, If I were submitting my work to these companies, I would hope that the reader is being respectful by reading my story in its entirety, so that’s how I look at it.
What proportion is exceptional, so-so, and pass?
To put in in perspective, out of all the scripts and books I’ve read that weren’t in active development (I’ve lost count-it’s a lot), I only remember recommending one. I remember this particular script because it was a comedy pilot and I usually don’t find myself enjoying those kinds of scripts. Everything just clicked with it, from the unique concept to the hilarious character dynamics, to a cat and mouse conflict that had the energy to fuel a series. I loved it, I don’t know what became of it. Such is the life of a reader.
The reality of the industry is that at any given moment, there are thousands upon thousands of script and books flowing through the system and 90% of them aren’t up to par. I’ve handed out a few ‘considers,’ but with the reservations that specific changes need to be made. This was all a round-about way of saying the proportion of passes is much higher than the recommends, not just for me, but readers across the board.
What are the current trends in TV today in terms of stories being told?
It seems that the trend of reviving successful IPs will continue, I think shows like Will & Grace and One Day at a Time and Twin Peaks have helped pave the way for this. Next year Jordan Peele’s revival of The Twilight Zone will be hitting CBS All Access. It looks like we’ll bet on getting a new Frasier and recently there’s a bunch of rumors swirling around a Friends reboot.
Given the current political atmosphere, the television industry has strayed away from developing political shows, as many Americans are looking to TV as an escape from the toxicity of the world. The status quo is and has been for the last couple of years for shows to lean lighter or more fantastical. Films, on the other hand, are a different story, there’s still a lot of heady stuff being told on the big screen.
How do you determine if a piece of material is good and worthy of being passed on to your superiors?
If a story is making me feel something (not boredom), then it’s already halfway there, I want an emotional experience. How do you get to that point? I’ll say it over and over again: create the next great character, not the next great plot. I think new screenwriters/writers get lost in creating these cool, complex plots, but if I don’t care about their characters. If I can’t empathize with them, I have no incentive to go on a journey with them. It’s a lot to ask someone to go on a 110-120-page journey (longer for books) with uninteresting people.
I think a lot of writers are emulating archetypes of heroes they see in movies and television. This is not necessarily their fault, because that’s what they see is selling. It’s your job as a new writer to break the mold and create unique characters that we haven’t seen before. Don’t chase trends, you might make a career out of it, but it won’t be a creative one. That’s a big thing that I’m looking for, but really everything else about the book or script needs to be working as well in terms of conflict, obstacles, stakes, dialogue, tension etc., and it needs to be working well together.
How has this role impacted your writing skills?
I think it’s helped tremendously, I believe that script reading is the best education one can get in screenwriting, and it’s totally free! As a reader, you’re seeing first hand what does and doesn’t work in screenplays and you become attuned to what production companies and networks are looking for.
How specific is HBO’s remit in terms of what material it wants to develop?
I’m not privy to what HBO wants to develop at any given moment, I was never instructed that they were looking for any specific genre or type of book. I think I was trusted to remain conscious of the kind of content that’s on their slate now and what’s been on it in the past and judge the books I read in terms of how I see them fitting into that slate and how it meshes with the tone of the network.
If you look what’s on it now, you’ll realize that HBO has been releasing some very socially conscious series and features such as Insecure, The Tale, Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies, and others.
I see HBO as leading the way in that regard, and the network has been attracting many of these prestige shows and projects as a result. Of course, HBO is known for some their big-budget spectacles like Game of Thrones and Westworld, and classics like Band of Brothers, The Wire, The Sopranos, Entourage, Sex And The City, and so many more! HBO is looking for quality, full-stop.
How do you stay vibrant and relevant in the film and TV industry?
I’m actually fairly new to the industry, I came out here in October 2017 and worked as a PA/Executive Assistant and then as an AP for a non-scripted reality/lifestyle production company. I always joke that I really had no business being in this business. My degree from Penn State is in intelligence analysis with a focus on counter-terrorism, so film was a complete-180 from that.
While I was working in unscripted, I really wanted to get my foot in the scripted side of TV and features and I took a job as a reader for Eclectic Pictures. It was there that I developed a passion for creative development, producing and the business side of screenwriting. I realized very early on that nothing happens for you if you just sit around dreaming, you have to go out and network, be proactive.
I go to tons of networking events around town, I offer to read scripts where I can, and try to make myself valuable and of service to others. Whether I’m vibrant or relevant, I don’t know, but I try to be active and helpful in whatever I’m doing.
Any thoughts on how screenwriters can get under HBO’s radar?
I know everyone has heard this a million times, but you need to get your writing on a level that will get you an agent. If you place as a finalist in something like the Nicholls Fellowship, Austin Film Festival or Sundance Lab, you stand a good chance of getting noticed. Getting featured on The Black List is gold as well. If you get into any of those things, you’re going to get noticed by a lot more eyes than HBO. I know the company offers the HBO Access Writing Fellowship where eight writers are paired with development executives for 10 months of mentoring.
How do you read differently for HBO compared to avenues?
Red Ampersand is the parent company that oversees ScreenCraft, WeScreenplay, Coverfly and The Script Lab, so I’m reading scripts that screenwriters submitted for development through Coverfly’s script coverage service, or from any number of the screenwriting competitions that those companies host throughout the year. The main difference between reading for Red Ampersand and HBO is that for Red Ampersand, I’m not providing a recommendation (as in pass, consider or recommend) because Red Ampersand is not in the business of producing material.
Instead, I’m doing more in-depth analysis of specific criteria to help the development of the writer’s script. Sometimes this is a five-page breakdown of criteria such as character, plot, dialogue, structure, marketability, concept and so on. Sometimes it’s a few of these things, sometimes it’s just providing a logline, each project is different. For these coverages, criteria that I do analyze is give a numerical score from 1-10 and an average score is calculated from that.
As I’ve mentioned before, for HBO I’m only reading books, so there’s a lot of emphasis on a good synopsis that captures all the important story beats. Typically, my coverages for them are 2-3 pages of synopsis and a half a page to a page of analysis of the book’s strength and weaknesses and whether I believe it would fit within HBO’s current slate.
Any closing thoughts that might be valuable to screenwriters?
Stop getting caught up about act structure. There are tons of models out there: three-act, five-act, 8-sequence, Blake Snyder’s Beat sheet. Michael Tucker from Lessons from The Screenplay, a fantastic YouTube series, asserts that acts be thought about in terms of asking a dramatic question, having it persist until that question is answered from which point, a decision must be made.
I lived by this ever since I’ve seen this video and it helps tremendously in the creative process. Lastly, this bit of advice comes from my time consulting with Ellen Sandler, the EP of Everyone Loves Raymond, she told me to give myself the permission to write badly. After all, writing is in the rewrite, and you can’t rewrite if you have nothing written!