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12/01/2001 - I?m A What?

"Story Editor" is strange title, really. I looked it up out of curiosity and read that in the publishing world a Story Editor offers in-depth critique and actually restructures material. That sounds like an editor, doesn't it?

In the entertainment industry, it can mean something more like this:

"The story editor supervises several story analysts who work for the studios. The analysts read screenplays, books and other literary efforts looking for potential movies. The analyst then writes "coverage" (a synopsis) of the material. The story editor reviews the coverage and passes on promising prospects to the studio bosses for possible development into a motion picture."

Sounds nice and easy, doesn't it? Don't be fooled. In reality, the title can mean almost anything - like so many other titles in this mystifying business. To clarify I should state that I work in a feature development department. Television production provides a different role for the person with this title. In the feature world, the story editor is the first stop for a project entering a production company. Typically a screenplay, book, article, whatever, is logged into the company's system by the story editor, who then sends it to a reader or to the development executive who originally fielded the submission inquiry. Logging in the material is extremely important, for once a project enters a production company it is crucial to know exactly where it is, who's reviewing it and who's responsible for an official reply.

The company I work for is new and small compared to a major studio, so my job includes much more than simply logging and supervising. I certainly don't have access to a team of analysts. A better title for me would be Librarian/Reader/Director of Development/Whatever-else-needs-doing, but story editor is easier to write. Besides tracking everything that comes in or goes out of our door, it's my job to read as much as possible and report asap to the company president, a/k/a the Development Czar. She is the filter through which almost all submissions pass before reaching the writer/director/founder of our company.

As you can see, this leaves most waking hours for reading. And more reading. And then there's the reading. Naturally we do coverage, but every project is briefly discussed in a story meeting to explain elements that may be difficult to glean from a piece of paper. I know that a great deal of writers feel blocked by readers, but I and most of the readers I know were trained to be as objective as possible. Just because a script seems lacking doesn't mean that we do our best to bury it. We're expected to back up our criticism with sound examples and lay out the nuts and bolts of the story so that a development executive can make up their own mind whether or not a project meets a company need. Additionally, I've done my share of writing and know first hand how difficult screenwriting can be. Being nasty in coverage is just, well...nasty.

So I keep track of what comes in and goes out and review all material. At the same time, any good development department should independently seek out projects. Being that our company centers around a well-known talent, we are certainly shown plenty of great material. Nevertheless, it pays to be aggressive. It's wise to keep tabs on writers and keep your ear to the ground for buzzy spec scripts that a writer is about to finish. But it isn't all about hype. Just because something isn't new doesn't mean that it isn't worth seeking out. Most screenplays don't have an expiration date and don't need to be thrown out after their debut round.

The other source of material for a production company is the personal submission. These are typically known as the scripts and treatments which find their way to a story editor through an assistant's-friend's-personal trainer's-brother's-pool cleaner's friend of a friend. The path isn't always so intricate, but connections can go a long way. If you don't have an agent and you don't have connections, you're left with the Dennis Woodruff method of self-promotion which I don't see working for a writer. Over the years I've met emerging writers and directors who want to step up to the next level, and if they or their friends have a new project, I'll read it. If it has promise I bring it up in a verbal pitch to the Development Czar, running the premise past her and outlining the general plot. If she agrees that it sounds good, she'll either read it or have her assistant give her a second opinion.

So that's the opening rundown. As this column progresses, I'll try to open the window for the development process in ways that might be enlightening and useful to writers, while descending as little as possible into bitter tirades against the industry. Not to imply that I'm unhappy. I remember being a young geek with my head in a book all the time, thinking "I wish I could read books for a living". I think I ended up pretty close to the mark.

Have a great weekend.



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