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?
What are the current trends in TV today in terms of stories being told?
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!