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 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.”
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>