Charlie Vignola is a unicorn – at least, that’s what his friend John Zaring said about him.
Vignola is a screenwriter and a story analyst who’s worked for 30 years as the director of development for the independent production company Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
“People don’t last in these jobs because they get blown out by crazy producers or they themselves are crazy and work 80 hour weeks, so you either burn out or you quit,” said Zaring, a writer, producer and columnist for The Proclaimer. “Jerry Bruckheimer is not a screamer but I’m astonished that he’s lasted as long in this job as he has; no one does. The most interesting thing I can say about Charlie is that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every movie ever made. It’s uncanny and it’s part of why I think he’s been so successful at his job.”
After graduating with a degree in screenwriting from the University of Miami, Vignola moved to Los Angeles and worked odd jobs for about a year before landing his big break.
“At the time, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were the biggest producers in the world and they had just done ‘Flashdance,’ ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ ‘Top Gun’ and had signed the most lucrative producing deal in Hollywood history, so it was a huge opportunity,” Vignola said. “I wanted to work in film and I knew that one of the entry jobs you could get in the industry with very little experience was as a script reader or story analyst.”
Story analysts and script readers assist production studios by reading submitted scripts and writing “book reports” about them, judging the merit of the story and the strength of the writing. Based on this analysis, producers and studios get a better idea if a script is worth developing into a movie and whether a writer has merit.
“Fledgling screenwriters and even screenwriters who are established need script readers to be advocates for their work,” said Bradley Marcus, a producer of the Saturn Awards and Vignola’s occasional writing partner. “Production companies are usually a revolving door, so for Charlie to work for so long with Bruckheimer whose films are so iconic, he wouldn’t have lasted 10 days much less 30 years if Jerry didn’t have faith in him.”
Vignola attributed landing a job with Simpson and Bruckeheimer to a “fluke.” When he worked at a temp agency that specialized in getting clients jobs with major film studios, he became friends with the assistant to the head of development with Don Simpson/ Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Vignola asked him if the company was looking for readers, and his friend was able to set up a meeting. The head of the company liked Vignola and gave him a stack of scripts to read.
“He loaded me up with six screenplays on a Friday afternoon to turn in on Monday, so on Sunday morning I was like I should probably read these and write them up,” he said. “Not only that, but I had kind of bluffed my way in since I had never done script coverage before and didn’t know the format, so I started calling friends to send me examples.”
Initially when Vignola handed in his completed coverage, the company wanted to hire him but then had to reconsider because he was not part of the Story Analysts Guild and the company was thus required to try to find a candidate within the guild first.
Vignola assumed this meant the studio would opt to hire a more established professional guild member instead of him. The night before Vignola was to start work at a video store, he received a call from the studio that they wanted to hire him. He would be required to join the union, but the company liked his work and offered to double his pay because of the union stipulation.
After a low point in the early 1990s during which the company struggled to produce films and Simpson died, the newly rebranded Jerry Bruckheimer films hit a streak of successes with films like “Bad Boys,” “Crimson Tide” and “Dangerous Minds” as well as hit television programs like “The Amazing Race” and “CSI.”
Vignola’s role in the company was not limited to reading the script submissions and making recommendations to Bruckheimer. During production, both “Dangerous Minds” and “Bad Boys” lost writers and since the producers knew Vignola was also a writer and was trying to sell screenplays of his own, they sent him to the sets of those films to help with daily script rewrites. For example, Vignola had lived in Miami, where the plot of “Bad Boys” is set, and suggested that one scene be set in a hotel where Al Capone stayed as a way to get the characters to use secret bootlegging tunnels as an escape route.
“I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be how this works,” he said. “When they started cutting together the trailer they were using dialogue I had written on the fly in a trailer in Pasadena. Wow, it was amazing getting to see my dialogue on screen. I wrote these scenes and I remember the dailies coming and thinking that they were spending money and hiring stunt people to execute.”
Two of the more recent and enduring successes that Vignola worked on that have secured their places in popular meme culture are “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “National Treasure.” According to Vignola, at the time Walt Disney Studios attempted to create cinematic tie-ins with some of its theme park rides and had just released the unsuccessful “The Country Bears” film. With that in mind, Vignola said that as the studio’s “first line of defense,” he was prepared to hate the “Pirates” script but really enjoyed it. Even though many at the company did not expect the film to do well, Vignola’s recommendation allowed the film to get made.
“National Treasure” was another unexpected hit for Jerry Bruckheimer Films that Vignola had a hand in developing. He had even more influence when Disney asked for a sequel, and he suggested the movie be based on the missing pages of John WIlkes Booth’s diary and what would happen if they resurfaced. This became the springboard for “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”
“Nobody knew that ‘Pirates’ was going to be this ‘Star Wars’ level hit; you try to do the best with every movie you make and you’re frequently surprised by what hits and what doesn’t,” Vignola said. “The irony is that the end result is glorious and red carpet premieres but the day to day is like you’re working at Allstate. You’re in offices, shuffling paper, in meetings with people, writing notes. It’s far less glamorous but that’s what it takes, you just don’t see it in documentaries.”
Currently, Vignola is working on writing and producing his own screenplays and original projects. Marcus described Vignola’s writing style as very focused and analytical with a clear understanding of proper story flow and structure.
“Charlie is very witty with a keen ear for dialogue,” Marcus said. “Having him as a partner gives me so much confidence and it also challenges me because he’s like a safety net or the logic police: I can stretch myself out there and he’s able to tell if there’s something that doesn’t make sense or the audience might question. I mean this is the guy who was paid to put words in Will Smith’s mouth.”
Vignola plans to launch a script consultancy called ScriptGenius (“not because I’m the genius, but because I help find the genius in your work”) reading and providing feedback on scripts. His first client is a previous recipient of the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting which is run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“The first person I give my scripts to is Charlie,” Zaring said. “He gave me eight pages of notes on one script with itemized comments and he tore it apart but in a way that was constructive criticism. I think that’s the key to Charlie’s success. Writers are very defensive and he’s able to convey to writers the hard truths that they need to hear to make their screenplays better without offending them; that’s a skill that very few people possess.”
Throughout his years working in Hollywood, Vignola said that he has seen numerous companies offering similar services but in reality are simply taking advantage of aspiring screenwriters that don’t know the ins and outs of the entertainment industry and who don’t know who is trustworthy.
“There are plenty of contests and festivals out there that are not entirely reputable, and, no, the industry professionals are not looking at these contests,” Vignola said “I’ve always been interested in working with new talent. I always wished there was someone like this when I was coming up in the business, someone who really worked in the entertainment business as opposed to someone who is fronting and didn’t really do it. I was surprised to see the number of script consultants out there in the wild that are charging exorbitant rates, but then you look under the hood they’re not people with any kind of pedigree or have any experience that would justify their fees.”
Both Zaring and Marcus emphasized how unique and rare it is for writers to have someone with Vignola’s experience look over a script. Having both received feedback from him on their work, they attested to his ability to improve scripts with fair but firm comments, and his unfailing ability to spot potential and improve upon it.
“Charlie is the guy you call when you’re stuck,” Zaring said.
To have Vignola review a screenplay, visit script-genius.com. (Editor’s note: We will update this story once ScriptGenius is up and running.)
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