Interview with Kathie Fong Yoneda

Reading Between The Lines: An Interview with Kathie Fong Yoneda
By Christina Hamlett

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.

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?

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.

Was it even more of an ol’ boys club than it is now?

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.”

Never underestimate the power of a good assistant!

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.

It’s not just about commenting on the story, though, is it?

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.

So how did you transition from secretary to studio reader?

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.

And what’s that?

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.

But back to your career path—

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.

What are you doing now?

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 even have a book coming out in the summer of 2002 (Michael Wiese, Publisher).

There’s a lot to be said about how technology is shrinking the globe.  Is it inversely expanding the opportunities for new writers?

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.

Based on your experience as a reader and a movie-goer, are films today getting better or worse?

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.

What about the copycat syndrome, that insatiable quest for writers to imitate what is currently “hot”?
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 Cover of Kathie Fong Yoneda's The Script Selling Gameapart 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.”

As a studio reader, what are some of the major turn-offs when a new script falls into your lap?

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.

So what kinds of things really make you sit up and take notice?

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!

Kathie Fong Yoneda is the author of The Script Selling Game: A Hollywood Insider’s Look at Getting Your Script Sold and Produced. You can find her Website kathiefongyoneda.com.

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, health, and how-tos for aspiring authors. You can find her at authorhamlett.com</em>

Interview: Screenwriter Madeline DiMaggio

Follow Your Dream: An Interview with Madeline DiMaggio
By Christina Hamlett

(Excerpted from “ScreenTEENwriters”)

Former actress and published author Ms. Madeline DiMaggio is a successful author and television screenwriter whose trademark wit and imagination have been stamped on such shows as Bob Newhart, Kojak, Three’s Company, as well as documentaries, soaps, animation and movies of the week. Her work as a creative consultant and story editor for Paramount Studios and NBC has given her insight on virtually every aspect of writing for the industry. Back when she was in high school, though, her plan for her life was much different.

So what was the dream when you were 17?

DiMaggio_how_to_write_for_televisionWell, I was a drama major and saw myself as an actress. I was starring in all the school plays, I did summer stock, I went to New York, I got my degree in Drama. It was an incredible major for writing because the strength of my writing has always been my dialogue. But had I known that I would one day become a writer, I would have learned how to type. And how to spell! I never studied writing but every time I was in a three-act play, I was actually studying structure and character development and how people talked. A lot of actors end up being very good writers just for that reason. It was a good background to come from.

Suppose you attend a rural high school that doesn’t offer theater or film classes for learning the creative side of the craft.

Well, the first thing I’d do is to take a class at a college or even a weekend workshop where someone such as myself or Michael Hauge will come in and teach a seminar. High school students, by the way, get an incredible break in the cost of these workshops. These kinds of things are really good for an introductory, crash course in the basics. It also doesn’t cost them a dime to go on the Internet and download screenplays just to get a sense of structure and dialogue and what the formatting looks like.

Speaking of the Internet, do you think it has helped or hurt the newcomers’ accessibility to Hollywood?

It has helped terrifically! It has changed the face of the industry, which I think really needs to be changed. There are young filmmakers, for instance, who are already getting deals as a result of 15-minute movies they’re making. It’s an incredible way to market yourself because people now have access to your work who normally wouldn’t.

So what’s this going to do long-term to the careers of Hollywood agents? After all, if you can access script sites and get yourself known electronically, are you going to need a rep?

The fact is that if you’re recognized on the Internet and you get a movie deal as a result, the first thing you’ll need is an agent. You may not need an agent to sell but you do need one to have a career. And as far as getting an agent, it’s just not something that happens overnight. Agents today only want to represent screenplays that they think they can sell very fast. It used to be that they’d take on a new screenwriter because they thought they were very good and that they could build a long relationship together. What they do now is take on a project that they can sell.

Do you need a degree in film to have a film career? Or is it better to major in something that will pay the bills?

That’s a hard one to call. For one thing, film school is incredibly hard to get into, but what’s marvelous about film school is that you’re meeting all the future filmmakers of Hollywood . . . and the world! What you’re making is a bunch of incredible contacts, plus part of the curriculum is that they put you at the studios where you can make even more contacts and get a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on internship in the very business you want to work in. If you’re absolutely, definitely, passionately certain that you want to do this for a living, then you really do need to make it your focus in college. If you aren’t 100% certain, I think that you should take some classes but also find something that you can make money at while you’re pursuing writing as your second job. It just depends on how focused you are and how confident you are about what you want to do with your life.

What about books? There’s certainly no shortage of them on today’s market. How do you decide which ones to add to your bookshelf?

That’s a very personal thing and as subjective as going to movies themselves. For instance, I can be emotionally struck by a movie that’s may not be great and may not affect someone else at all. The important thing is that there was something about it that really stayed with me. What you do in the case of looking for a book to teach you about screenwriting is find someone whose tone and style and message you resonate with, the one who says it to you in a way that you can really grasp. Personally, I think the best book and the best self-taught instruction you can get is a screenplay written by a writer who has sold. That’s because the greatest teacher a student will ever have comes from reading actual scripts and seeing the writer’s vision in its most pure form, minus all the visuals and the Horner score and how good Brad Pitt looks on a horse . . .

How about screenwriting contests?

Unequivocably, there is not one single thing I know of that gives better access or bigger breaks to new screenwriters than screenwriting competitions and fellowships. The people who are reading the entries are people who are in the industry and will be reviewing your work if you get into the finals. I have an agent, for instance, who once agreed to be a judge in a contest only because it meant a trip to Hawaii and being put up in the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a week. “I’m not going to sign up any new clients,” she insisted. On the way back, she told me on the airplane that from the ten scripts she had judged, she was signing one of the writers. She may not have been looking but she certainly knew what she wanted as soon as she found it.

With all the contests to choose from, though, how do you know which ones are legitimate and which ones are just a scam to make money?

The first thing is that you need to do your homework. Find out what writers have won the contest before, what the parameters are, how many people usually enter, who the judges are. Don’t be afraid to just call up and ask questions. I also don’t think any of them should have excessively expensive fees to enter. The Nicholls, for instance, isn’t that expensive but attracts a lot of attention. The Monterey Film Competition, the Disney, the Columbus Discovery Awards—these are all very legitimate and provide tremendous exposure.

Well, let’s say that someone likes my script and I get invited to a pitch session. Once I get there, though, they seem to have changed their minds. Should I try to convince them that they’re wrong?

No. If you see them not responding—or responding negatively to what you have to say—what you do is move on to another idea. Trust me—they get really mad if you try to change their minds! You need to remember that the whole point of a pitch session isn’t that you’re going in to sell anything; it’s that you’re going in there to get information. That’s what’s absolutely crucial about pitching. It’s most likely that they won’t take anything that you originally went in with but that you’ll come away with a better understanding of what they are looking for. You then use that information as an opportunity to come back with an idea that fits in with their agenda.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing?

The best advice I think they give anyone in Hollywood is what William Goldman said, and that’s “No one knows anything.” For me personally, one that stands out in my mind—and because I write a lot of comedy—was that you should never try to be funny. Hearing that from two well known producers when I was doing Bob Newhart took this incredible weight off my shoulders and I’ve been writing comedy ever since!

You recently co-wrote a script called If the Shoe FIts with Pam Wallace (Witness). Any plug you’d like to give for it?

No. It’s a terrible movie.

What?

It’s a horrible film but a wonderful script. And that’s a good lesson for everyone to learn because it’s an amazing lesson about what can happen between a script and a movie. Sometimes it can be improved and other times—like this—it can just be the worst thing you’ve ever seen! The fact is that Pam and I were paid, we got the money, we got the credit, the movie was made in France on a very low budget, and everything that we spent an incredible amount of time in writing was all taken out. If you read the script and then rent The Stroke of Midnight, which they renamed it, you wouldn’t recognize it.

So you have no control over it once you sell?

That’s true. It’s the luck of the draw—who gets cast, what’s the budget, who directs it, a lot of different factors that can make it better or make it worse. But the end result is that we still got work as a result of that script.

Even if it was a bad film?

Exactly. The point is that in Hollywood, when you sell a film, they don’t ask to see the video; they ask to read the script. Bottom line is that having a bad movie made is better than having no movie made. It doesn’t matter how it turns out as long as the writer gets the money, gets the credit, and can move on to something else. What happens is that you’re marketed on the merit that you sold a script, which they all know is no easy feat to begin with.

What if you just go with a pseudonym for the ones that look like they’re going south

A lot of people do that.

Was that an option for you and Pam?

We actually had the choice of taking our names off of If the Shoe Fits and we chose not to do that. The credits were more important to us.

What do you think is the most valuable thing that the next generation of screenwriters needs to know to be successful?

You have to detach your ego from your material and recognize that the goal is to make that material better. You may not agree with what people are telling you but you still have to listen to it and try to apply what fits the situation. The other thing is that if you’re really passionate, it usually takes about seven scripts before you finally sell something. Consequently, the earlier you start writing, the better. Starting at 17 or 18 puts you right in the ballpark, given the emphasis on youth in Hollywood.

If you were 17 again, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now about this business?

I would have paid more attention in school!

Breaking and Entering

By Michael Allen

There are countless books, seminars and classes out there on “How to Break into Show Biz.” Indeed, breaking into show biz has literally become a business unto itself with people shelling out hundreds and thousands of dollars for the “inside secrets.” What amazes me is how many of these books and seminars provide the same advice—correction, the same useless advice. I ended up writing on five TV shows and two pilots by not following any of this so-called “expert” advice.

Breaking into TV, for most people, is very hard. I’ve tried some crazy schemes that would make terrific sitcom plots. Some of my wild stunts worked, some of them didn’t. But I always felt justified in trying almost anything, because, quite frankly, the system is rigged.

You are competing with the people who are already in show biz, their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends! Did I mention you’re also going up against people who have moms, dads, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles in the biz?

In Hollywood, people hire people that they know and like. Not necessarily the most talented people. Why do you think so many TV shows stink? People hire their untalented friends to write on shows, and when that series runs its course, the untalented friends hire their untalented buddies who once hired them.

So we have this cycle of the same writers going from show to show and every fall season the shows are just as lousy as they were last year. Of course all this nepotism and cronyism is wrong, of course it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. So get to work and start making some cronies!

There’s a simple formula for breaking into Hollywood that I have never seen in any book or heard at any seminar:

Agent Assistant Job = Contacts = Who You Know = Get the Job You REALLY Want.

There is no entry level job where you will meet more people in less time than being an agent assistant at a talent/literary agency. I recommend this for anyone who wants a job in show biz. David Geffen, who has more money than God, is a partner with Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks. He started out as a lowly assistant at the William Morris Agency. I recommend you read, or buy, a book called The Mailroom that chronicles the rise of many of Hollywood’s heavy hitters who started at agencies.

How do you get an agency job?

There are several Web job sites such as ShowBizJobs.com, EntertainmentCareers.net , Mandy.com, and Planet Shark. Also there is a job listing called the UTA list that is generated by the United Talent Agency. Get yourself a copy at of the UTA list here.

When you send your resume out, make sure your computer skills at the very top in bold, that’s the first thing they look for.

Now, when you go for an interview at an agency, here are some tips:

DO tell the people who interview you this: “I want to be an agent!” Now, I know what you’re thinking, “But I don’t want to be an agent.” Well, the fact is agents don’t want to be agents! Nobody wants to be an agent! This job is just to pay the bills and make contacts, but you must make them think you’re in it for the long haul.

DO NOT mention your real interests: acting, writing, or directing. If you do, they will cross you off their list with a big fake smile.

DO read the trades before you go to an interview, know exactly what is happening in Hollywood, or at least be able to fake it. Also be prepared to tell them your favorite movies, directors, writers, actors, etc. … and don’t name some artsy guy that nobody knows or films that don’t make money.

DO tell them you can roll calls, answer heavy phones, write coverage, are very organized, detail-oriented, a team player, are computer literate, don’t mind working long hours, are eager to learn, work well under pressure, etc.

If you get the job, do not expect a lot of money. The pay for an agent assistant is between $400 and $500 a week; so you may need a part-time job. If performing in porn or stripping does not interest you, I would suggest becoming a freelance reader: someone who gets paid to read scripts. You can get these jobs through the connections you make at your agency job and/or call up production companies in the Hollywood Creative Directory .

Michael Allen has written for several TV shows and pilots on MTV, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros, and Fox.