What Our Members Do: Susan Avallon

Member Profile: Susan Avallon, Story Analyst

Where are you currently employed?

I work for the story department at Columbia Pictures, under the umbrella of Sony Pictures Entertainment. I also do some work for TriStar Pictures, Sony Pictures International and Screen Gems.

Current Project?

I’ve recently worked on Passengers, Smurfs: The Lost Village, the reboots of Flatliners and Jumanji, and many other projects.

Describe Your Job.

Maybe two-thirds of my job involves reading screenplays, novels, non-fiction books, plays, teleplays and treatments. I evaluate their potential as movie or television projects. I also do “story notes” on projects we have in development. I read each new draft as it comes in and write suggestions on how to make the screenplay as strong as it can possibly be before we start shooting it. Once in a while, I have done some notes on a project for which shooting was already in progress, but usually everything I do happens in the pre-production period.

How did you first become interested in this line of work?

Oh my goodness, I love to read. I spent pretty much my entire childhood with a book in my hands. I have a lifelong fascination with storytelling and how it works, and I’ve only grown more fascinated with it over the years. I was an English major in college and I often tell people that this job is like being an English major forever.

Who gave you your first break?

I moved to Los Angeles after a year of working in publishing in Washington, DC, and, while I was in film school at UCLA, I was offered freelance work at TriStar by Elisa Bell, who was their story editor at the time. Soon I was brought in for a staff job writing story notes, and I just never left. I have worked for Sony for over 25 years.

What was your first union job?

I was working as a creative executive at TriStar when Karen Moy helped me get into the Guild as a story analyst. I’ve never been more grateful for anything in my life. It totally changed my life, because union analysts make a better wage than freelancers and have excellent benefits. I was a new mother, too, and was able to switch over to working at home, which was really important to me.

Which of your credits or projects have made you the most proud and why?

So many projects! As Good As it Gets was in development for years, and it was the kind of odd and quirky but lovely story that you very much want to see reach the screen because the odds against it seem so high. The movie turned out wonderfully and reached a really big audience, it’s still one of my favorites. Passengers was one of the four or five most engrossing screenplays I’ve ever read, out of tens of thousands, and I think Jerry Maguire was the best movie we made during my years at TriStar.

What was your biggest challenge in your job (or on a particular project) and how did you overcome/solve it?

Sometimes — often — a project in development has some kind of structural or logic or character issue that dogs it draft after draft. I try to think of ways to fix what needs fixing. Sometimes I have many more fruitful ideas than other times, which can be frustrating. We never send a perfect draft into production. It’s so interesting to see a movie go into production and come out the other side, because I always want to see how the director and the performers tackle those issues that I struggled with on the page.

What was the most fun you’ve had at work?

I love a really good story, so getting to read something I thoroughly enjoy is the best part of my job. I’ve learned so much from reading so much and it’s often a benefit to read things I wouldn’t have chosen on my own. I once read a non-fiction book about the history of importing bananas into the United States; it was so gripping I couldn’t put it down — seriously! I love seeing a movie story shape up over several drafts. In my creative executive days, I loved meeting with talent and watching a roomful of smart people come up with ideas none of us could have generated on our own. I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking most of all.

Jobwise, what do you hope to be doing five years from now?

I’d like to be right where I am!

What are your outside activities, hobbies, passions?

I love anything creative, from photography to drawing to writing. I have a lifelong love of horses. My not-so-girly side loves watching mixed martial arts fights. My kids are in college, one of them in Australia, and I loved visiting over there with her. I love people. And, even on my days off, I love reading and seeing movies.

Favorite movie(s)? Why?

So many. The long, long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice is completely addictive for me — I always intend to watch an hour or two but end up staying up all night. The Shawshank Redemption has grown on me over the years and is now something I could watch over and over. All the Lord of the Rings movies, Rogue One, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Giant, Life of Brian. I love anything Ken Lonergan does and, weirdly, I have this deep affection for movies that are centrally about masculinity, like Master and Commander and Fight Club.

Favorite TV program(s)?  Why?

Breaking Bad, because it illustrates so beautifully the way our lives are interconnected and our actions affect everyone around us, I am a big Vince Gilligan fan from way back. Game of Thrones, because it’s so damned entertaining. Transparent. We are in a golden age of television and it’s hard to keep up with everything.

Do you have an industry mentor?

My wonderful boss, Karen Moy, has helped me throughout my career and taught me so much about the industry.

What advice would you offer to someone interested in pursuing your line of work?

Read a lot — but if you don’t already do that, it’s probably not the job for you. Write as clearly and as persuasively as you can. Be the movie equivalent of well-read — see every movie you can. Take apart stories as if they were puzzles and try to figure out what makes them work. Be curious. Be teachable. Have respect for the work that went into what you read.

Was there ever a circumstance when you had to rely on the Guild for help or assistance?

Not so far, but I am very grateful that my Guild is there for me.

Is there anything you’d like to say to your fellow Guild members, some words of encouragement?

I feel honored to be part of Local 700. We’re a great group of people.

Compiled by Edward Landler

Editor’s Note: To recommend a member (including yourself) to be featured on the home page of the Editors Guild website contact edlandler@roadrunner.com.

About Edward Landler 113 Articles
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently completing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at edlandler@roadrunner.com.