A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

What was the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-
written?

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius
writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of this year’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

No one will be offended by them and they won’t trigger anyone. When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these rules in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written down these guidelines. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we learned the protagonists needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like several dozen. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. This year Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.

Shakin’ things up so much it registers on the Richter Scale

richter scale
Brace yourself

I recently took part in a group conversation with some other writers, and naturally, the topic came around to “So what else are you working on?” I always enjoy this sort of thing. So many great ideas out there.

When it was my turn, I mentioned some of what’s been occupying my time, which included the Christmas-themed mystery-comedy.

“A Christmas mystery-comedy? What’s that about?”

I launched into my 30-second elevator pitch. “LA Confidential with an all-elf cast.” The seedy underbelly of the world of Santa’s workshop. Guns. Sassy dames. Tough-talking gangsters. Intrigue. Double-crossings. The whole gin-soaked ball of wax.

While most thought it sounded like a lot of fun, one person looked absolutely horrified.

“Oh no!” they exclaimed. “My kids and I love Christmas. It’s supposed to be sweet and wonderful! I can’t believe you’d want to write something like that.” (All that was missing was them sprawled on a fainting couch, claiming to have the vapors while frantically fanning themselves.)

How could I not want to write this? Sweet and wonderful doesn’t make for good storytelling. I love this kind of story, and think it would make a great script.

This person makes it sound like trying something new is a bad idea because it messes with the comfort of the familiar. Yet one of the most common tenets is “Familiar, but different.” A story you’ve seen before, but told in an entirely new way. It’s what we should all work towards.

Everybody’s looking for something truly original and unique. Why in the world would you want to write something that doesn’t offer up anything new?

Every script you write is a golden opportunity to push your creativity to the limit so you really catch ’em off-guard. You know the story you want to tell, but it’s on you to truly surprise your reader/audience. Take things in an entirely different direction. They may think they know what’s coming, but you know better and look forward to how they’re going to react.

No matter what genre your story falls into, there will be certain expectations that come with it. The challenge of every writer is to not just meet those expectations, but toss them out the window and offer up a totally new and unexpected way of telling that story. Some people may not like it, but it’s most likely they’re in the minority, and therefore not your target audience.

Think about it. What kind of script are you more likely to take notice of and remember? One that goes for new and original, or one that plays it safe with the tried, true and predictable?

I know which one I’d pick, and will be waiting over by the window for your answer.

Reduce heat; let simmer for 2-3 months

I look exactly like that after finishing each draft, flour and all
Exactly how I look after finishing a draft, even though the flour wreaks havoc with my keyboard

It took a little longer than expected, but the revamped outline for the pulpy adventure spec is finally done.

As is my usual practice, I won’t take another stab at it for at least a couple of months partly because I’m feeling a little burned-out on it. This has been my primary focus for the past couple of months, and I just need a short break from it.

The other reason is I’m getting ready to jump into rewriting the Christmas-themed mystery-comedy. Notes are in place, so hopefully it won’t take too long.

But getting back to the outline, my original thought upon finishing it was the standard “It’s better than it was, but still needs a lot of work,” but experience has taught me that this may not necessarily be the case anymore.

I like to think I’m a stronger writer compared to a few years ago, so while I would never consider the material as it reads now as perfect, it may surprise me when I return to it as to how much better it is than I remember.

At least that’s what I’m hoping for.

On the other hand, I could read it and think “Where did that come from?”, “Well, that’s not going to work,” or even “Hmm. How much wine did I have that day?”

Taking it another step further, taking this break will enable me to pretty much forget a lot about the story, so I’ll be able to read it with fresh eyes and potentially come up with fresh ideas about how to improve it.

All things being equal, I like the way it turned out and am looking forward to getting back to it.

But first things first. Time to shift from the fight against monsters wreaking havoc to seeking out answers behind seedy goings-on in a holiday metropolis.

As always, watch this space for updates.

All wrapped up with a bow and everything

Nothing like a gift from a nice Jewish boy on Christmas
Nothing like a gift from a nice Jewish boy on Christmas

This being Christmas Eve, the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

I’m very grateful for my ever-growing legion of readers, and try to show my appreciation when I can. And today is no exception.

You know if I could, I’d give each and every one of you much success with whatever project or projects you’re working on. And a piece of pie, just to make this festive occasion that much more festive.

But since neither is actually doable, I hope you’ll enjoy a gift of a more hypothetical nature.

Don’t worry. Size, color and the usual details do not factor into this. It’s actually pretty simple.

Here’s how it works: You can have anything connected with the making of any movie ever made. Prop, costume, vehicle, director’s chair, animation cel, script.

Whatever you want, it’s yours with my compliments. Again, hypothetically.

What’s it going to be?

But remember – just one.

(And once you’ve made your decision, maybe reconsider the pie option)