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 Two)What is Hollywood looking for? 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. More of the conversation with Ms. Fong:
CH: Based on your experience as a reader and a movie-goer, are films today getting better or worse?
KFY: Well, I do think that movies which have a lot of special effects or action or sci-fi/fantasy are a lot more eye-catching. And, of course, the largest movie-going audiences today are the young adult males. That's probably not going to change. In fact, it's been that way for at least the 30 years I've been in the industry! Remember how every other movie in the 80's and early 90's was some kind of an action film? Well, it seems as if the public-and even all those male adults-finally got a little tired of it and then came the trend of doing scary movies. Horror movies in a way, but still sort of campy. Finally, the trend in the late 90's and into 2001 are movies along the order of SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and AMERICAN PIE. What you notice, though, about scary movies and the latest crop of teen movies is that there aren't a lot of special effects; in both cases, they're mostly about the anticipation of something big happening. That's the irony of these films, which coincidentally is what one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, used to do; it was the anticipation that you knew what was happening or what the danger or risk was, and yet you still couldn't keep your eyes off the screen! But back to the question, I think that audiences have gotten a lot smarter and they're expecting more than just special effects. They watch things because they're different.
CH: What about the copycat syndrome, that insatiable quest for writers to imitate what is currently "hot"?
KFY: I think what happens is that people see a film that's different and that they really like and their reaction is, "Wow! I can write something just like that!" What doesn't sink in their heads, though, is that by the time they write this thing and give it to someone-even if gets snatched up right away-it's going to take at least another 18 months before it gets made and comes out. By the time that happens, you're going to be the third or fourth or eighth person to that theme and it's already old news! By the way, the top grossing movies of all time-the top 10-are almost always family movies. And the one thing that sets them apart is the fact that they all have in common a look at the human condition as told through characters that audiences instantly related to and could believe in. It's something that writers tend to forget because they're concentrating on the high-tech aspects of telling the best possible story instead of looking at how to simply touch the audience in some way and make them say, "Oh my God, I've been there, too!" Whether it's getting them to realize that they have the same fears or the same phobia or the same dream, a movie needs to say something to you and you need to respond to it in such a way-through the heart or through the soul- that you just don't want to leave your theater seat even when the usher says, "Okay, bud, move along. The next group is coming through."
CH: As a studio reader, what are some of the major turn-off's when a new script falls into your lap?
KFY: What overall is really bad is when people try to cram too much into a story...or too little. It's about not having a clear-cut view of what your story is and changing back and forth as far as what the goal is going to be. The second thing is not fully developing the characters. Some people know how a story should start and how it should end but they just don't know how to have the characters carry the story all the way through. Character and dialogue are actually the two most important things for me, probably even more important than the story. Most of the stories that readers at studios read are actually variations of things we've all heard before...but with a twist. What makes those twists unique always has something to do with the characters and how they look at life and, accordingly, react to it.
CH: So what kinds of things really make you sit up and take notice?
KFY: I'd have to say that it's what I just mentioned, only put them in reverse! I also have to add that I like it when I can tell that there's a real sense of passion behind the writing. Sometimes when I feel that level of passion coming through in the words -- a story that's personal and really means everything to the person who wrote it -- this is something that comes from such an honest place, I can't help but be attracted to it and be interested in how it's going to turn out!
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Variety magazine (10/23/02) published an article by Jonathan Bing about the value of Hollywood studios having development offices in the heart of the New York publishing scene. It seems that many producers have closed their NYC offices (notable exceptions include Scott Rudin, Wendy Finerman, and Laura Ziskin). Most studious and independent production companies now use scouts instead of their own hired staff.
Rudin's NYC office has scored some of the most high-profile titles this year, including National Book Award-winner, The Corrections, and they also have the rights to author Charles Frazier's (Cold Mountain) new novel-in-progress. Recent Scott Rudin productions include "The Truman Show" and "Zoolander."
Ziskin ("Pretty Woman;" "To Die For") has recently hired New York playwright Coleman Hough for a film about newspaperwoman Katharine Graham and has commissioned Tony-winning playwright David Auburn to adapt Paul Watkins' thriller, The Forger. Finerman has hired New York-based screenwriter Peter Hedges ("About a Boy") to adapt "The Devil Wears Prada," an as-yet-unpublished satire of a New York fashion magazine by Lauren Weisberger.