On April 16, 2003, we had the pleasure of welcoming Mr. Keith Lesser, story editor at Reiner/Greisman, to our chat room.
Pre-chat background info on Mr.Lesser – in his own words:
“I used to be Alan Greisman’s assistant immediately prior to our deal with Rob Reiner. When we made the deal with Rob, I took on additional responsibility. Basically I read all the incoming scripts that are submitted, with the exception of those that come in from high levels and are read directly by Alan. If I like it I pass it on to Alan and Rob. I also coordinate our in house development, work with writers to develop their scripts and various esoteric things like keeping a script library. When I read a script it is basically a pass/fail thing. We are a pretty small company (5 people), so I rarely do formal coverage.
Prior to working with Reiner/Greisman, I was a Production Supervisor in TV Animation. I worked for Disney Feature Animation, Nickelodeon (The Ren and Stimpy Show), and DIC Entertainment. I have a degree in screenwriting from CSUN and I also attended UCLA. I have produced and directed a couple of shorts and produced a documentary that no one saw.”
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> Hello Keith, welcome to TwoAdverbs.
[KeithLesser] Hello, everyone.
[HConn] What question should we ask you? What question do you wish people would ask you but never do? I like to find out what info I need but don’t know I need. And thanks for doing this chat.
[KeithLesser] Um… that’s a tough one. It depends on your individual situation as to what you should know. I have no idea what each of you knows or doesn’t know, or what your situation is… Sorry it’s not a better answer.
[HConn] Would you answer it at the end, if you feel there’s some obvious gap in our understanding?
[KeithLesser] Of course.
[HConn] Thanks a ton.
[writer] I would like to know what you do for Rob Reiner.
[KeithLesser] I handle all the submitted screenplays that come in, plus take some pitches and read a lot of query letters.
[Luther] What process should someone who doesn’t have an agent follow in order to get his/her material read by the “right” people?
[KeithLesser] Each company is different as far as their submission procedures are concerned. I will read a query letter and if it is interesting to me I will request the script.
[Stitch] What is the number one quality you look for in a story and what is the most common failing you find in a screenplay?
[KeithLesser] The thing I look for most is interesting characters. Story structure problems are easier to fix and to work on with the writer, but if you don’t know your characters, it is very difficult.
[Ele] What do you look for in a query or a pitch that makes you say send it?
[KeithLesser] It’s a case of you know it when you see it. I have certain guidelines that are too intuitive to really articulate as far as what I know Rob wants to make. But in general, a well-crafted story can usually be synopsized in a page or so.
[toddbatt] I’m aware of the “rule” about keeping scripts devoid of direction and such, but I continually read about actors/producers responding to scripts (from actors/directors I guess) full of specifics and how they loved the “vision” of the story. Would sending a package of a “lean” script and one replete with descriptions/soundtrack etc.. to someone who has requested it be an interesting option for someone like you?
[KeithLesser] No. Music cues and the like are not helpful and can distract from your story. Also, too much direction bogs down the read and often annoys the reader.
[patsyhilbert] Do you still work in animation? If so, what sorts of things?
[KeithLesser] I don’t work in animation any more, but I used to and may again in the future. I worked on the Ren and Stimpy Show and for Disney, as well as for a bunch of other places.
[g-roo] Am I correct to assume that the majority of projects with which your prodco is involved are comedies? Is that part of the niche/or plan?
[KeithLesser] Actually everybody assumes we only are looking for romantic comedies, but that really isn’t accurate. Rob likes to vary his projects. He did A Few Good Men and Story of US, and we have another political drama in development right now.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> What kind of stories would you or him wish to see but don’t often get?
[KeithLesser] Personally, I like historical . Rob – don’t know. He DOESN’T like historical BTW.
Jacinthe> lol – interesting conflict.
[KeithLesser] Makes my job difficult.
[Olga] Keith, what if you are offered a historical romcom?
[KeithLesser] I am always interested. You never know when Rob will change his mind, plus I have other friends who produce films, so sometimes I refer stuff that isn’t right for us – if it’s well written.
[g-roo] What would be a key factor in your convincing RR to read a historical piece (a fictionalized WWII script let’s say)? Where would you find the “meeting of the minds” for you to think he’d like to be aware he has the opportunity for a consideration of the project?
[KeithLesser] Well, my convincing Rob a script is good can be likened to you trying to convince me your script is good. I pitch to him just like you would pitch to me. It would have to have some angle or be about something that peaked his interest. He is always trying to evolve and do new subject matter, so just because something wasn’t done before doesn’t mean it won’t be done in the future.
[HConn] What genres do you definitely *not* want to see?
[KeithLesser] Gross out comedies.
[Stitch] Do you foresee that there will be a “break out” genre this summer as there was with gross-out comedies a couple of years ago? And do trends influence your choices?
[KeithLesser] It’s as hard for me to predict that as it is for you. There are a lot of action films in development right now, so we might see a resurgence.
[R28] Does Hollywood shy away from certain story ideas, like say terrorism, bio-weapons, kids with guns, etc?
[KeithLesser] I think there are times when Hollywood shies away from certain ideas (i.e. terrorism after 9/11) but in general, studios are too greedy – if it will sell, they will make it.
[Luther] Would you suggest a writer write a full treatment as well as a one page synopsis?
[KeithLesser] The treatment is really for your own benefit when you are writing the screenplay (I’m talking about specs here). As far as pitching goes, a one page synopsis is usually sufficient.
[Ele] What’s your reading load like? i.e. scripts per week. And are the 1st ten pages really so important?
[KeithLesser] Let me count the scripts on my desk… 12 right now. You always want to open in a way that catches the readers’ attention and makes them want to keep reading. So, yes, the first 10 pages are important, but it’s not the end all be all – you don’t have to have an explosion by page 5, you just want to capture the reader’s attention.
[Luther] How much stock do you put into coverage from a reader?
[KeithLesser] Depends if I know the reader. In general I like to read a script for myself and make up my own mind.
[R28] Do most of the screenplays you read come from agents or queries?
[KeithLesser] Most from agents, but I would say I read a couple of scripts a week from cold queries.
[Stitch] Are there any screenwriting competitions that you follow as a possible source of material?
[KeithLesser] The major ones: the Nicholl, etc.
[Olga] Did you ever find a script – a contest winner for a serious consideration, from the Nicholl and such?
[KeithLesser] I have read a few contest winners that I sent up the chain of command. None we have made. Part of that stems from the type of material we are looking for isn’t usually what’s being submitted to contests – which is usually edgier and not as mainstream. But I like the contest winners – It’s just not our thing.
[Spud] What is/are the most common error(s) or pet peeves you see in submissions/pitches?
[KeithLesser] Writers not really knowing the story they are pitching. Very often the pitch comes off as vague and not really about anything. The same can be said for query letters.
[metanoia] Have you passed on anything and later regretted having done so (and will admit to)?
[KeithLesser] Um…no comment.
[William] As a percentage how many bad scripts do you read? Or can you discern quality from the query and/or pitch?
[KeithLesser] The query – I am talking about a one-page synopsis, not a log line – can usually separate out the writer who knows their story from those who don’t. After that, if it’s a well thought out story and the idea interests me, I will request the script. So that sorts out a lot of what I get. From the scripts I request, probably 5% I would consider well executed. Sorry to be so harsh.
[William] 5% sounds right.
[writer] Are there certain things about a script that make you reject it quickly? Or better yet, what is the 5% doing right?
[KeithLesser] Well, I will reject quickly a script that isn’t well written from a prose point of view (in other words, something that I can tell the writer doesn’t know their characters or story, or that is poorly formatted and overly bogged down with action and direction.) If it gets beyond that, then I am just looking for a good story. There are a lot of scripts that I reject because they are not right for us, but are well written.
[R28] Who are the low-level staffers new writers should get to know in hopes that someday they’ll be higher ups?
[KeithLesser] Assistants. Get to know anyone you can.
[Pickel] Hello Keith, can I know you?
[HConn] lol. Pickel
[HConn] Keith, what would you like to take as the next step in *your* career? Where would you like to go next?
[KeithLesser] I have a couple of projects that I am trying to get produced. Other than that, I would like to get a job at a company that doesn’t have quite as narrow a focus as we do.
[g-roo] You say that Rob’s prodco has a narrower focus than you’d like. Are you meaning it’s only mainstream, not-too-controversial studio fare? Or do you mean something else? And what is your individual pref (outside of duly noted historical) for your own producing career?
[KeithLesser] We are only making movies that Rob is going to want to direct. Which is an ever-changing thing and yes, tends to be very commercial mainstream stuff. My taste is more eclectic. I like small movies that are about something. I also like big sci-fi, period, and action – none of which we are going to make any time soon. Those are the things I would concentrate on when I end up producing my own projects.
[Ele] Do you consider novels for adaptation?
[William] In your bio, I noticed the insert “produced a documentary that no one saw.” It’s probably ancient history for you, but can you tell us a bit about it?
[KeithLesser] It was about baseball in the 70′s – when free agency came about and how it affected and was affected by the outside world - See why no one saw it?
[R28] Do you look at the postmark on a query? In other words, does someone from out of town have an equal shot at a read?
[KeithLesser] I don’t care where you are - the only problem for you is that if someone likes your script, they may want you to come in for a meeting. If you are not in town it makes it difficult.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> Which aspect of your work do you like best?
[KeithLesser] I guess I would have to say the sense of excitement that comes when you read a script that you just think to yourself “This has to get made” – doesn’t happen very often.
[Jyro] When you refer to a pitch, are you talking of verbal?
[KeithLesser] Verbal or via a query letter. Whatever is your first chance to make an impression.
[Luther1] I currently have a coming of age story featuring 4 black, gay leads. What advice would you give me in trying to sell this piece in Hollywood?
[KeithLesser] I would need more info than that. You can tell a good story about any characters and a movie about 4 black gay characters could be successful. It depends on the execution.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> As the last question, anything you would like to add or any advice you’d like to give us?
[KeithLesser] Advice – no BS – Too many writers get excited about an idea and then don’t fully think it through and know their world (am I sounding redundant yet?). Write your script, put it aside for a while, then come back to it. When you reread it, try to put your ego away – after all, it’s just you in the room – be very self critical.
Jacinthe> Thank you for your time, Keith.
[KeithLesser] Thank you for having me.