McKee's "Story Seminar" runs twice yearly in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, and about once yearly in other major cities worldwide including Amsterdam, Beijing, Mumbai, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. The seminar covers how story fits the human mind, from the philosophical to the structural. McKee's one-day "Genre Seminars", often held 5 days in a row, delve into the conventions of the Thriller, the Comedy, the Love Story, the Action Story, and Television.
Rather than simply handling "mechanical" aspects of fiction technique such as plot or dialogue taken individually, McKee examines the narrative structure of a work and what makes a story compelling or not. This could work equally as well as an analysis of any other genre or form of narrative, whether in screenplay or any other form, and could also encompass nonfiction works as long as they attempt to "tell a story".
After consulting on story-in-business for various multinational companies including Microsoft, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Time Warner, and Siemens, in the fall of 2013 McKee launched a seminar for the business community in Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, and Malta. The "True Talk: Story-in-Business Seminar" instructs leaders and managers on how to use story in strategic management, brand management, and business communications.
Robert McKee began his theater career at the age of 9, playing the title role in a community theater production of 'Martin the Shoemaker'. He continued acting as a teenager in theater productions in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Upon receiving the Evans scholarship, he attended the University of Michigan and earned a Bachelor's degree in English Literature. While an undergraduate, he acted in and directed over thirty productions. McKee's creative writing professor was the noted Kenneth Thorpe Rowe.
After completing his Bachelor of Arts degree, McKee toured with the APA (Association of Producing Artists) Repertory Company, appearing on Broadway alongside Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris and Will Geer. He then received the Professional Theater Fellowship and returned to Ann Arbor, Michigan to earn his Master's degree in Theater Arts.
Upon graduating, McKee directed the Toledo Repertory Company, acted with the American Drama Festival, and became Artistic Director of the Aaron Deroy Theater. From there he traveled to London to accept the position of Artist-in-residence at the National Theatre where he studied Shakespearean production at the Old Vic theatre. He then returned to New York City and spent the next seven years as an actor/director in Broadway.
After deciding to move his career to film, McKee attended Cinema School at the University of Michigan. While there, he directed two short films: A Day Off, which he also wrote, and Talk To Me Like The Rain, adapted from a one-act play by Tennessee Williams. These two films won the Cine Eagle Award, awards at the Brussels and Grenoble Film Festivals, and various prizes at the Delta, Rochester, Chicago and Baltimore Film Festivals.
In 1979, McKee moved to Los Angeles, where he began to write screenplays and work as a story analyst for United Artists and NBC. He sold his first screenplay Dead Files to AVCO/Embassy Films, after which he joined the WGA (Writers Guild of America). His next screenplay, Hard Knocks, won the National Screenwriting Contest, and since then McKee has had eight feature film screenplays purchased or optioned, including the feature film script Trophy for Warner Bros. (Only one of these films, however, was produced). In addition to his screenplays, McKee has had a number of scripts produced for television series such as Quincy, M.E. (starring Jack Klugman), Mrs. Columbo (starring Kate Mulgrew), Spenser: for Hire and Kojak (starring Telly Savalas).
In 1983, as Fulbright Scholar, McKee joined the faculty of the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California (USC), where he began offering his famous STORY Seminar class. A year later, McKee opened the course to the public, giving a 3-day, 30-hour intensive class to sold-out audiences around the world.
Since 1984, more than 50,000 students have taken McKee's course, at various cities around the world: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Toronto, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Helsinki, Oslo, Munich, Tel Aviv, Auckland, Singapore, Barcelona, Stockholm, São Paulo and more. In March 2011 and again in 2012, he taught a four-day seminar in Bogotá, Colombia. In February 2012 he taught another four-day seminar in the Ramoji film city of Hyderabad in India. He did the same in Amsterdam, March 2014.
Robert McKee is among the most widely known screenwriting lecturers. McKee's former students include 63 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 30 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners and 26 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners (all participated in McKee's course before or after winning their award; not all were awarded for writing). He was profiled by Bob Simon of 60 Minutes for CBS News, and CNN recently did a profile and review of McKee and the Story Seminar. The notable writers and actors such as Geoffrey Rush, Paul Haggis, Akiva Goldsman, William Goldman, Joan Rivers, Rob Row, David Bowie, Kirk Douglas, John Cleese, Tony Kaye, Steven Pressfield, among many others have taken his seminar.
In 1990, Robert McKee was brought to New Zealand by the NZ Film Commission, and delivered a three-day seminar on screenplay and story structure in Auckland and Wellington. In the audience were Peter Jackson & Jane Campion. The seminar had a major influence on Jackson, who went on to write and direct Heavenly Creatures, The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong.
In 2000 McKee was a project consultant to major film and television production companies such as 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, MTV, as well as to major software firms (Microsoft, etc.), NASA, and television news departments. In addition, several companies such as ABC, Disney, Miramax, PBS, Nickelodeon and Paramount regularly send their entire creative and writing staffs to his lectures.
In 2000, McKee won the 1999 International Moving Image Book Award for his book Story (Regan Books/HyperCollins). The book, currently in its 19th printing in the United States and its 14th printing in the United Kingdom, has become required reading for film and cinema schools at Harvard, Yale, UCLA, USC and Tulane universities. The book was on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list for 20 weeks. It is translated into over 20 languages.
McKee's other credits include writing and presenting the BBC series Filmworks, the Channel Four series Reel Secrets, the BAFTA Award-winning J'accuse Citizen Kane television program which he wrote and presented, and the writing of Abraham, the four-hour mini-series on Turner Network Television (TNT) that starred Richard Harris, Barbara Hershey and Maximilian Schell.
McKee's current lecture series includes the 4-day "Story Seminar", a 3-day "Genre Seminar" (covering the Love Story, Thriller, and Comedy), and a one-day "True Talk: Story-in-Business Seminar". McKee and his team also run an interactive paid website with daily video lessons and Q&A's called "Storylogue".
McKee has been criticized by writer Joe Eszterhas, for teaching screenwriting without ever having a script of his made into a film. (However, McKee is credited as writer of the 1994 TV movie Abraham.) McKee has responded to such criticisms, saying, "The world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do", while admitting that even though he sold all of his written screenplays, he still lacks their screen credit since they were only optioned and not ever produced by the studios.
While McKee's work might appear to be a fresh approach to story structure, many of the ideas he discusses have been around since Aristotle and notably appear in the work of William Archer, John Howard Lawson and Alexander Mackendrick. Nevertheless, McKee himself tells his students that Aristotle is the basis for much of what he teaches and he often distributes some of John Howard Lawson's writings at his seminar: he acknowledges his forebears and never claims that he is inventing a brand new approach to story telling. Furthermore he claims that much of what he teaches was common knowledge 50 or 60 years ago, but that screenwriters have lost touch with the fundamentals of storytelling. In a CBC interview he said that to give his lecture in the 1930s, 40s or 50s "would have been ludicrous". McKee also appears and is criticized in several works, for example, Missionnaire by French author Joann Sfar.
In the Charlie Kaufman-penned film Adaptation., McKee's character was portrayed by the Emmy Award-winning actor Brian Cox. In the Oscar-winning movie, the desperate screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) reluctantly goes to McKee's course, but then – after being "shaken" by McKee's tough-style response to his claim that "nothing happens in the real world" – Kaufman asks McKee to meet in person to discuss his failure to write the film adaptation he is working on.
Though the story depicts McKee as little more than an amalgam of hack clichés on the subject of screen writing, Charlie's slacker brother Donald uses the knowledge obtained attending the famous seminar to write a spec script he then sells for a large amount of money through his brother's agent. The film then concludes with the very ending that McKee is ridiculed for recommending, as well as a voice-over epilogue in which — by means of voice-over narration — Cage's Kaufman character admonishes himself for disobeying a cardinal rule of McKee's to avoid voice-over narration.
McKee appeared on the Simpsons episode "Caper Chase" as himself.McKee claims in his Seminars that he does not say not to use voice-over narration. There is some truth to the scene in Adaptation however, as he vehemently teaches that using voice-over to substitute for telling the story via action and dialogue is weak, whereas he teaches that voice-over used to counterpoint and enrich the story can be wonderful.
McKee is known to object to the French-originated "auteur theory", which states that the director is the de facto author of a movie. McKee states otherwise, that the writer/screenwriter is in fact the most important creator of the movie.
In a Haaretz article, McKee was quoted as saying in front of a Tel Aviv audience that Israelis have a rough sense of humor, completely different from the known worldwide Jewish one, since Israelis are living in a harsh reality which leads them to lose their sense of humor.