In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month - OF GLASS SLIPPERS & GLASS CEILINGS:An Interview with Carolyn MillerWhat Cinderella among us wouldn’t want to dress to the nines and go the castle ball? Though the land knows no shortage of aspiring female screenwriters who long to crash the doors of Hollywood’s gate and be an overnight success, only about 7% will see their names in the credits on feature films. Award-winning screenwriter, Emmy nominee, and New Media specialist Ms. Carolyn Miller shares her views on where the film industry is going and where the hottest break-in opportunities will be in the 21st century.
Q: Having written for virtually every medium that exists—and, most recently, CD-ROMs and the Web—what would you say contributed the most to your current success in New Media?
A: My experience as a screenwriter has definitely been an asset; I've used everything I've ever learned in traditional media and applied it to my work in interactive media. And, in terms of education, my Masters Degree in Journalism (Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern) has been really helpful. When I got my first interactive job as a writer on a CD-ROM project, I relied a lot on my journalism background because, in those days, most CD-ROMs were text-based, and a lot like writing for a paper or magazine. Internet projects still are like that. Journalism school is also a good foundation because it teaches you courage.
Q: Courage? In what way?
A: Well, in the program I was in, they’d try to figure out what you were most leery of or most uncomfortable with and then they’d send you to cover it. You’d learn very quickly that you had the ability to research and write about almost anything.
Q: So when you were 17, was the course you were mapping for yourself primarily targeted to being a reporter?
A: I didn’t even think of becoming a reporter back then. I always wanted to be a writer but was mostly interested in fiction. But graduating from Cornell, I found my English Lit degree was useless in terms of getting paying writing work. I looked at advertising agencies and newspapers but no one would hire me because I didn’t have any background in those fields! Also, at the time, if you were female, all they cared about was how fast you could type—not how well you could write.
Q: Were there any screenwriting programs available?
A: There were some film schools around but they mostly focused on production, not screenwriting. I thought that if I went to journalism school I might be able to study something related to scriptwriting. Unfortunately, Northwestern didn't offer anything like that. So after journalism school, I got a job as a newspaper reporter. While I was still at the paper, a friend gave me a chance to do a moonlighting gig writing a documentary about old-fashioned circus parades. Even though it was a fairly modest project, a high-level executive at CBS saw it, was impressed by my work and hired me to do live specials for CBS. Eventually, that led to a staff job on the Captain Kangaroo Show and then, indirectly, to writing Afterschool Specials, movie of the week projects, and feature film rewrites. That documentary opened a very important door for me!
Q: Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known—or paid more attention to—when you were in high school or college?
A: I wish I had started writing scripts a lot sooner! I also wish there had been some courses to teach me how. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve had to learn the hard way and on my own. I also learned that if you want to get work as a scriptwriter, you need a pile of good writing samples in a variety of different genres so people can see you are capable of doing more than one thing.
Q: Let’s talk about Hollywood’s glass ceiling. What advances or setbacks have you seen regarding women in the industry since you first began?
A: I became Chair of the Women’s Committee of the Writers Guild back in the mid-80s and we were tracking statistics about female writers. The figures were pretty dismal in both television and feature film. Women were very much in the minority: in the overall Writers Guild, it was about 20% female and 80% male. Women writers also made a lot less money than men.
Q: How about today?
A: The ratio of males to females in the Guild hasn’t changed a whole lot; maybe it is up to 25% female now. Things are especially bad in feature films. The number of women who write feature films and get screen credit for them is unspeakably low: about 7%.
Q: That is dismal. What do you think accounts for it?
A: My feeling is that where you have a lot of money and a lot of glamour and a lot of power, plus an “ol’ boys system,” the old boys tend to keep it all to themselves. It’s hard for women to break through that. In fact, when I was Chair of the committee, we had statisticians—professors from the University of Santa Barbara—try to figure out what it was that was keeping women from breaking in. I should also add that it’s not just women having a hard time; it’s also ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, older people.
Q: Speaking of “older people…”
A: There’s a terrible ageism problem in Hollywood. The reality is that the professional life of a writer can be fairly short, sort of like an athlete. People planning to make screenwriting their career need to be prepared for that and have a Plan B. People are really having trouble getting work after a certain age – it starts getting tough when you are in your 40’s.
Q: Yes but unlike an athlete who will eventually have to step down because of physical limitations, it would seem that a writer with brilliant mental capacities could keep going forever.
A: There’s certainly the argument that your expertise and fluidity and your knowledge will increase with age. I think it is true.
A: So I think that this ageism is just stupidity. There’s no other word for it. The network executives and the people at studios tend to be very young and they just feel more comfortable around people who are just like them. In fact, it’s so bad now that there’s a major discrimination lawsuit being brought by older writers against the major studios and talent agencies in Hollywood. They want to make this problem public and try to change this attitude.
Q: But back to the statisticians. Did they come to any conclusions about female screenwriters?
A: Well, they felt, as I mentioned earlier, a large part of it is because of this ol' boys network and their reluctance to let go of any of the best jobs. You'll mostly find women writers in certain "ghettos" - like soap operas, children's programming, documentaries, and programming for public television. These are all areas with less money and less prestige.
Q: Can the next generation of female writers change that?
A: I think they might if they're just persistent and work hard enough and support each other. A lot of success in Hollywood is built on the concept of networking.
Q: So what's the forecast for new writers getting their foot in the door?
A: The number of prime-time programs with story-based content, such as dramas, comedies and movies of the week, is going down. There are more of those reality-based shows all the time and that means fewer opportunities for writers.
Q: Are the reality programs here to stay or just a current, scary trend?
A: Hopefully, just a trend. We need to get back to good storytelling. But unfortunately, there are signs they might be here to stay.
Q: How about the outlook for feature films?
A: The number of feature films being produced is pretty much the same as it always has been; it's not exactly a growth market. It's also not the most sensible profession to get into because of the ageism problem. While it's true that there can be tremendous financial rewards, personal recognition and creative satisfaction, you do need to be aware of the downside.
Q: As wedded as today's young people are to their computers, what's the projected promise for the sort of interactive scripting you do and how would you recommend they go about breaking into this genre of writing?
A: There's going to be a huge amount of opportunity in this field and not that far into the future. In fact, I'm writing a book about this right now. It's called: Digital Storytelling: A Creator's Guide to Interactive Entertainment. It talks about all the new kinds story-based entertainment going on in interactive media; i.e., interactive TV, the video game business, multiplayer games on the Web, even interactive movies and "smart toys." All of these use story content. The trick, though, is that the companies producing these kinds of projects don't necessarily think of using professional writers; sometimes they'll just use the guy who sweeps their floor! But still, lots of young people are getting jobs in this field because they're comfortable with interactive media and already making their own websites and games. If you can combine technological know-how with the writing skills you already have, you really have something special to offer. Staff writing jobs or freelance jobs are easier to get than selling your own material. But one thing you can do is build your own website, maybe working with a few friends who also have creative talents, and creating a great calling-card to show off your work.
Q: Any other advice you'd like to impart to someone whose dream is to write for the movies or television?
A: Be an original! A lot of new writers tend to copy things they've already seen and liked, whether it's a movie or a book they've read. One of the hardest things as a writer is to find your own voice and figure out what you want to tell and how you want to tell it. You can't be afraid of criticism, either. Last of all, you have to stay open to opportunities.
Q: Bottom line?
A: You've gotta be gutsy! And you've got to be persistent, too. And it doesn't hurt to be a little bit lucky, too.
Further information on Carolyn and New Media can be found at her website at www.CarolynMiller.com.
Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is a Pasadena script coverage consultant whose published works include 17 books, 102 plays and musicals, 2 optioned screenplays, and several hundred magazine articles and interviews that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.