Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: READING BETWEEN THE LINES(Part One)What is Hollywood looking for? Ms. Kathie Fong Yoneda has seen it all in 25+ years of story analysis and development at Paramount, MGM, Columbia, Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Filmways, Inc. and Universal Pictures. An accomplished speaker, author, and international teacher, she shares her views on today's entertainment industry...and what makes a winning script.
CH: Being a script development consultant has to rank as one of life's "dream jobs"! How did you get from the halls of C.K. McClatchy High to the bright lights of Paramount Studios?
KFY: Well, back in high school I worked on the school paper so I was basically in Journalism and Art. Although I majored in English in college, my original plan was to go to California Fashion Institute. It didn't take too long to flounder around and discover that fashion design wasn't exactly what I wanted to do but I still knew I wanted to do something very creative. I know my parents, especially my mother, really preferred that I pursue something more stable and conservative like being a teacher or a pharmacist or a secretary. I actually granted their wish by becoming a secretary but as a secretary in the motion picture industry. As a matter of fact, I was the first Asian female hired on a full-time basis at Universal back in 1969; that was when less than one tenth of one percent of the people who were in the industry were minorities.
CH: Was it even more of an ol' boys club than it is now?
KFY: Oh yes. Very, very traditionally ol' boys. One of the people who really helped me out, though, was my boss, Dick Shepherd, who was the head of production at MGM. He was a production executive at Warner Brothers when we met and I became his assistant. In between that, he became a producer and when he was away on location, the scripts would really start to pile up. I was just so hungry for knowledge about things and I was also very organized, both of which led to my reading all of these scripts. When he came back, he'd start looking over the mail and I'd say, "Oh, you don't have to read that one. It's really not very good."
CH: Never underestimate the power of a good assistant...
KFY: Anyway, I'd proceed to tell him what it was about and why I didn't like it, and he said, "Well, can you do me a favor? Can you write up a couple paragraphs about the story?" To his surprise -- and mine, too, I was very good at it. After all, book reports were one of my favorite things in school, and reading scripts is essentially the same thing.
CH: It's not just about commenting on the story, though, is it?
KFY: It's a lot of different factors, actually. It's the characters and the structure, it's the production value, the dialogue -- it's the whole picture, literally. I tell people that structure is merely a beginning, a middle, and an end and trying to make the whole thing interesting. If you go back to our common ancestors -- cave people sitting around a campfire telling stories -- what those stories have in common with what's being written today is that they all had to have an intriguing set-up. They had to have complications and challenges and you had to have a satisfying ending that entertained everyone and wrapped up all the loose ends.
CH: So how did you transition from secretary to studio reader?
KFY: Well, by the time my boss went to MGM and became head of production, I was really hooked on doing script coverage and he made me a deal. Basically he said that if I set up the office and trained a new secretary -- my replacement -- he'd do whatever he could to get me into the Story Analysts Guild.
CH: And what's that?
KFY: It's a very closed union shop and all the studios have to hire union story analysts. The main distinction is that story analysts read material only for the studios. Then there's a group of freelance readers who read and do coverages for agencies and independent production companies. The freelancers don't belong to the union and make considerably less money.
CH: But back to your career path...
KFY: Well, I made it into the Guild on my first try and started to move around, building on what I had already learned. One of those moves, in fact, led me to become a development executive for Disney for 8 years during the time when Eisner and Katzenberg first moved over there and wanted to get a lot of new movies going.
CH: What are you doing now?
KFY: I've worked for 9 years now for Paramount in their longform division and evaluate books and scripts for TV, cable movies and occasionally mini-series. A lot of the movies you see on Showtime, for instance, are things that Paramount may have done. I've also been doing a number of speaking engagements and workshops around the world and just had a new book released called The Script-Selling Game: A Hollywood Insider's Look at Getting Your Script Sold and Produced. (Michael Wiese, Publisher).
CH: There's a lot to be said about how technology is shrinking the globe. Is it inversely expanding the opportunities for new writers?
KFY: Absolutely! What I find really encouraging is that because there is so much technology, there are so many different ways to pursue storytelling. Unlike some of my associates, I don't view technology as a foe or feel as if it will spell the end of motion pictures because kids are glued to the Internet. What I see is that there are a lot more websites available for people to express themselves and to get critiques of their work. A lot of the studios now, for instance, have people who are assigned to surf the Net and to take a look at some of the projects that are out there. Aspiring filmmakers can get very industrious with their digital camcorders and are producing "mini-trailers" that are getting the attention of these studio execs. Thanks to the Internet, no longer is Hollywood like that big black monolith that no one could figure out in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
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Are movies getting better or worse? What's hot and what's not? In next month's continuation of this interview, you'll learn the particulars of winning the script-selling game. Stay tuned...