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Mentorship Case Study: Phil Lord & Chris Miller / Emma Dudley

Written By Jennifer Wolfe

Writing: Building Relationships a Pitch at a Time


A writer straddling the worlds of live action and animation, Emma Dudley is paired with powerhouse creative duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

A few months into her first job as a staff writer at DreamWorks Animation TV, Emma Dudley was looking for help refining a pitch she was developing for an adult animated series. A fellow animation writer encouraged her to apply for the Women in Animation Mentorship Program, but the $50 membership fee felt like a gamble to Dudley, who, as a writer straddling both animation and live action, wasn’t even certain she would able to be paired with a mentor. Yet after learning that she had been matched with industry powerhouse and longtime WIA member Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Dudley now calls the fee the single best investment she’s ever made in her career.

Just seeing Lord and Miller’s name on the roster of prospective mentors helped Dudley reframe how she viewed her career. “I had really been struggling with how to pitch myself. As a writer, in meetings, a lot of people ask, ‘Is there anyone whose career you’d like to replicate, or channel?’ and I guess I had never quite been able to put my finger on it before,” she relates. “Seeing their names come up, I was like, ‘Oh, of course, Phil Lord and Chris Miller!’ Because they do everything — animation and live action — but still have such a strong voice and emotional core to all their work. That’s really what drew me to them, and that’s why I picked them as a mentor.”

“We picked each other!” Lord responds. “Emma seemed like someone we knew how to help,” he says, adding, “We have very few skills so we needed a match to be effective.”

Meeting the Team

Lord and his creative partner, Chris Miller, are the Academy Award-winning visionary duo behind blockbuster features like The LEGO Movie, 22 Jump Street and Oscar winner Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They operate as a team, so if you’re meeting with one, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re also meeting with the other. And if they’re feeling extra generous, they might also bring along six or so additional producers to help round out the room.

“We have several women who work at our company. We invited them all to join the sessions, and they all came!” Lord comments about the setup. “They responded to the material and really responded to Emma personally. It was a way for Emma to meet the whole company, and for Emma to get advice from more than just two old men.”

“They have a ton of women on their team, and it’s been so special to be able to interact with them,” enthuses Dudley, who until joining the WIA Mentorship Program had worked primarily only with men. What’s especially invaluable to her is the sense that if she ever has a question or concern about a project she has an array of nearly a dozen women she can reach out to for support.

“Phil and Chris introduced me to all their executives, on both the feature and TV sides,” she recalls. “I’ve also fostered really great relationships with their assistant and the coordinators on their team, all of them women working in the industry.”

For Dudley, these opportunities at relationship-building are “all you can really strive for at any point in a writing career, especially early on, and in such a male-heavy industry,” she notes. “Finding that team of people who will always have something positive and constructive to say is just really incredible. I found a support network filled with people whose work I really admire, and that’s the best feeling ever.”

Led by Lord and Miller, the group scheduled regular meetings and calls with Dudley to give her notes on her pitch for the adult animated project she was developing. “We had lunch and got to know her and just gave our reflections on what she was working on. We helped her develop a pitch and went through several rounds of notes,” Lord recounts. “The pitch got better and better. Throughout the process we just tried to just encourage Emma to be the most Emma she could possibly be in her writing.”

“It wasn’t just one project,” Dudley emphasizes. “I was developing a pitch at the time, but really the mentorship extended beyond that, and it’s still going,” she says. “Since we started, I’ve been doing a lot more feature work. It’s been really cool just to have them as a support system as I’m embarking on new ventures. So to me, I feel like that one adult animated pitch is such a small part of a larger kind of conversation about my career.”

The duo’s production company Lord Miller went on to option Dudley’s feature script, Forever Hold Your Peace. “Working with such talented people has brought out the best in my own abilities, Dudley said about the development process. “I couldn’t believe how fast I stopped feeling intimidated and started feeling like we were just a group of people working towards telling the best possible story together. I think that’s a testament to both their kindness and genius. I look forward to meetings with them for weeks beforehand because I know they’ll bring up something I hadn’t thought of, or push me to look at a character or a story point in a brand new way.”

A Community of Artists

Lord and Miller count a number of mentors from throughout their careers, mentioning names like Bill Lawrence, Will Gluck, Amy Pascal, Lindsay Doran, Hannah Minghella, Neal Moritz and Tom Rothman, in addition to “a lot of help from our peers,” according to Lord. “But we could have used a lot more,” he adds.

“The best thing you can do is hire people. That’s when the actual mentoring begins,” Lord continues. “When you can’t help people [that way], you do everything else you can to help them get hired. As a community we offer help to one another for free all the time. We consider it part of our continued artistic development to give and receive free help form our peers,” he says of the duo’s commitment to serving as mentors.

“Think of it as part of your personal and professional development,” Lord explains. “You’ll get more out of it than they will. Every time you talk to another talented person you learn. We are a community of artists and so we have to communicate to get anywhere.”

WIA Mentors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
WIA Mentee: Emma Dudley
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