Future of Story Interview Series: Kathie Fong Yoneda

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Kathie Fong Yoneda has over thirty years of successful experience working in film and television. She has held executive positions at Disney, Touchstone, Disney TV Animation, Paramount Pictures Television and Island Pictures, specializing in development and story analysis of both live-action and animation projects. She also was a co-exec producer on the popular cable series Beyond The Break. Kathie is an independent script consultant whose clientele includes several award-winning writers. She is the author of The Script-Selling Game: A Hollywood Insider's Look At Getting Your Script Sold and Produced, 2nd edition.

Ann: What did you find was lacking in the film industry that motivated and inspired you to write your book, The Script-Selling Game?

Kathie: Having worked mostly with writers on the studio side of film/TV, I quickly realized that Hollywood was like the black monolith in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY – it was basically a “mysterious” system that seemingly was built to keep others out. Writers might be talented & many had degrees from film school & had taken several screenwriting classes, but there were no books or classes about Hollywood & how things worked. I was asked to write a monthly column that focused mostly on the “business” side of screenwriting and those columns eventually became the basis of The Script-Selling Game.

Ann: Why is it important for screenwriters to understand what can increase a movie’s budget and what are a few of those things?

Kathie: While I encourage writers to write what they feel works best for them and their story, there is a reason why this industry is called Show “Business”. It’s important to understand that in this roller coaster economy, studios, networks, and production companies have a responsibility to their investors/stockholders to keep a close eye on production costs. Whether you are writing a big-budget action-thriller or a low-budget comedy, I think all writers need to be aware of some of the areas that can expand production costs. Here are a couple of the possible budget-busters:

Certainly projects that are set in the historical past or into the future are going to be more expensive than a story that is set in the present, because they will require specific exterior and interior sets, props, and costumes.

Projects that require an abundance of stuntwork – fights, falls, chase sequences, battle scenes, fires, etc. – are costly. You’ll need highly-paid stunt personnel to “double” for the major stars, plus additional equipment (some which may be specially constructed) will be required. Each action scene requires days of shooting just for one sequence. The set-up, rehearsal, and placement of several cameras to cover the actual shooting is time-consuming and very expensive. Also, special additional “riders” for stunt-heavy projects will add considerably to basic insurance costs.

Ann: What is “The Elevator Pitch” and when might a screenwriter need to use it? Can you give us an example of one?

Kathie: The “Elevator Pitch” is basically an expanded logline of two to three sentences which got its name from an example I have in my book: You’re attending a film festival or at a high-rise hotel and the actor/actress or director who’d be perfect for your project gets in the elevator and punches the tenth floor button, which gives you roughly less than 30 seconds to tell him about your movie. As an example, let’s pretend that you wrote AVATAR and that up-and-coming Aussie actor, Sam Worthington, was in your elevator – this could be the Elevator Pitch that persuaded him to take the lead:

Assigned to infiltrate a potentially dangerous colony of aliens on a foreign moon, a paraplegic Marine is torn between obeying his orders and protecting the spiritual tribe with whom he has bonded. His friendship with a female alien deepens into love, and in a final showdown, he risks all to help the aliens save their homeland.

Ann: Every screenwriter’s goal is to have their project bought by a production company or studio and get a “greenlight” to have it produced. Can you tell us what “redlight” moments are and give us a few examples? What is the good news in regard to these situations for writers now?

Kathie: “Redlight” moments can happen whenever there is a change of personnel at the top or because the studio, network, or production company is undergoing a merger or an economic re-structuring. When a new head of production comes in, he/she may have a totally different outlook on what is needed to move the company ahead. Usually it’s a “thinning-out” of projects which may not fit into the new regime’s program. In truth, many of the projects that are taken off the development slate are usually those which may have been favorites of their predecessor & therefore, they want to make room for projects of their own choosing. Also, projects which are economically unreasonable, or, in the opinion of the new head, may no longer be as commercially viable, are often “axed”. And occasionally, projects in which the producer, director, or major star has had a film or TV series that has recently “tanked” or whose “star power” has waned because of negative popularity have also been “abandoned”.

Several years ago, however, The Writers Guild of America added a “Reacquisition clause” to their agreement to help writers whose projects were put on the shelf or abandoned. It would take much too long to explain in detail, but if any writers have a script which they would like to reacquire so it can be re-marketed to other production companies, networks, or studios.

Ann: What are some of the things writers can do to keep productive and challenged?

Kathie: In addition to continually working on new projects, other productive things which can help a writer move forward include things like updating your marketing list, researching, entering screenwriting competitions and fellowships, which have been known to help lucky finalists obtain an option/purchase of their script or an agent/manager for representation, and volunteering at film festivals or screenwriting events.

Ann: Tell us about networking, who does it, and why it’s so important.

Kathie: Networking is all about building a community of colleagues who are willing to share and support one another with their knowledge, skills, contacts, resources, and feedback. In reality, everyone “networks” – from the PTA mom to the dad who coaches his kid’s sports team to the members of a non-profit organization to your local realtor, banker, and insurance man. In film/TV/entertainment, all of us network to keep up with the ever-changing demands of the audience, to find the talented new writers, actors, and directors, to make sense of the ever-revolving door of personnel changes at the studios, networks, and agencies. All of the information helps us to not only stay current, but to help us (and others) with our career path and in making the best choices in our jobs. It’s still true that “who you know” can be important, but building a community always works best when it’s mostly “give” than “take”. You never know when a grateful colleague may turn around and do you a favor, because you helped her out!

Ann: What is your favorite room in your home and outside environment? Can you describe them and tell us why you like them?

Kathie: Have never been asked that, but whether you’re a writer, student, CEO, or parent, I do believe it’s important to have a place where you can unwind, find peace, & relax, even if it’s for a few minutes. In the winter, I love curling up on a comfy sofa in my family room next to our fireplace, with my cat snuggled up next to me. If the weather is nice, I love reading & relaxing on a loveseat in our patio. On one side of our backyard my husband planted beautiful Japanese maples next to a small stone temple. On the other side of the patio is a soothing European-style fountain surrounded by azaleas and other flowering plants.

Ann: Do you have any special quotes or sayings that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire, motivate, and encourage you?

Kathie: There are so many quotes that I find inspirational, but here are three of them that come from three rather diverse sources:

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” – Jimi Hendrix

“…You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think…” – Winnie the Pooh

And in my office, I have a bumper sticker on my cork board that I often turn to when I’m going through a stressful situation, which lifts me spiritually:

“What would Buddha do?”

Ann: What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?

Kathie: I’ll be doing a talk on Family Entertainment for the Torrance Children’s Book Authors at their local Border’s store on August 24. On August 25, I have the pleasure of co-teaching a special class on Your Career in Television: A View From Both Sides Of The Table with my dear colleague, Ellen Sandler, at The Writers Store in Burbank. This fall I’ll be teaching a workshop in France for the Marseille Festival du Web. In late January, I’ll be traveling to the Jaipur International Film Festival to do a 3-day workshop, and in February, it looks like I’ll be co-teaching a 5-day workshop on Writing for Television with my friend Pam Wallace in Singapore. I’ll also be giving my 4 week online class on PITCH & PRESENTATION through Writers University a few times throughout the year and I am also working on a book proposal with a couple of other writers.

Ann: Can you tell us about The Future of Story conference coming up in Los Angeles on August 27th and what your role is?

Kathie: I’m very excited about participating in THE FUTURE OF STORY conference. I’ll be one of the panelists in the segment on Pitching Your Story. I plan to discuss such subjects as using the Internet to pitch your project and other opportunities that are available to writers who want to get their work noticed. I’m also planning to sit in on the other two segments (Developing The Story and Writing/Rewriting the Story), because I know I’ll be hearing new ways of looking at storytelling which will help me and which I can hopefully pass on to my writing clientele and students.

Ann: What do you think attendees will find most useful?

Kathie: Writers who attend will certainly gain a fuller, more expansive outlook on the complete process of screenwriting, with information, advice, and suggestions from more than a dozen industry specialists whose clients include several award-winning writers, producers, and agents.

Ann: Tell us about the unique opportunities for and value of networking at this upcoming conference.

Kathie: This may sound a little crazy, but in-between the panels and the special screening of Talking To Spirits, the organizers have arranged for everyone – writers, speakers, specialists, alike – to have an informal dinner from several of LA’s famous gourmet food trucks. It’s a great, unstructured opportunity to talk with over two dozen authors as well as fellow screenwriters/directors – what a fantastic way to “build” and “expand” that screenwriting community I just mentioned! I’m really looking forward to meeting the writers and answering any questions they may have.

Ann: Thank you, Kathie, for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights with us.

Kathie: It's my pleasure -- hope to meet more writers at upcoming events! Aloha to all and wishing you the very best with your projects! 

To learn more about how you can meet Kathie Fong Yoneda and over 30 other MWP authors of some of the best-selling books on screenwriting and filmmaking in the industry, sign-up today to attend The Future of Story Conference in Los Angeles.

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