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 of nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of 2020’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. 

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 guidelines 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 them down. 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 protagonist for that project needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

These specific guidelines change from year to year, but it’s helpful to know the basic framework for these movies.

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 hundreds. 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. In 2020, 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.

Opportunity’s knockin’ once again. You ready?

A few months ago, I presented an extensive list of film & TV scripts as part of an effort to help each of those writers spread the word about their work.

It offered up an amazing assortment of scripts, and some of the writers asked if there were any plans to do it again. Which brings us to today.

A post just like the last one is in the works, and slated to go up on Oct 30. If you missed out last time, or have a new script you’d like to submit, this is your chance to be included.

Here’s how it works.

Email the following info about your script here with the subject line “Maximum Z Script Showcase”:

Film or TV

Title

Author(s)

Genre

Logline

Awards (if applicable)

Your email (in case somebody would like to contact you about reading your script)

Two very important details to keep in mind:

ONE SCRIPT PER PERSON. Sorry. No exceptions.

and

DO NOT SEND THE SCRIPT!

Submissions will be accepted until Thursday, Oct 29.

So don’t delay, send it today! Or at least reasonably soon.

Knew this wasn’t going to be easy

wile e coyote

Many, many years ago, while attending the Screenwriting Expo in the City of Angels, one of the seminars I went to featured an “industry professional” as a speaker. I put that term in quotes because I couldn’t tell you who it was or what they did. Maybe a writer-producer or something like that. It was good enough for the folks running the Expo.

There were probably 20 or 25 of us in the audience. This guy walked to the front of the room, and the first thing he said was, if you’ll pardon my paraphrasing:

“I don’t know who any of you are, how experienced you are, or how may scripts you’ve written, but I can guarantee that just about all of you will fail at this.”

Well, ain’t that an encouraging lead-in. Everything he said after that is pretty much a blur, because I found it to be…

Shocking? Most definitely.

Disheartening? Pretty much.

Accurate? Maybe. But he was speaking from his experience. No doubt he’d seen an endless stream of writers come through, give it their all, and despite their efforts, subsequently crash and burn.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that this was well before you could make a movie with your phone and a laptop. Resources and DIY filmmaking opportunities were much more limited than they are now.

His comments really struck a nerve. Is this what I, along with everybody else in the room, should think? Were we just wasting our time? Were our chances THAT small? Should we just give up and go home?

I couldn’t speak for anybody else, but I had a little more faith in myself than he did.

Like I said, I forgot everything after his opening – the sooner I got him out of my head the better – and gradually replaced it with a few thoughts of my own:

-Yes, this is a HUGE mountain to climb, let alone get to the top. Is that intimidating? Hell yes. Is it going to stop me from trying? Hell no. Much as it sucks, it’s better to try and fail than to give up entirely, so I’ll keep trying. As long as it takes.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to do so: I really like doing this, and even though I’ve endured my fair share of disappointments, I keep going – because I like the process of writing.

It’s taken me a long time to develop my skills just to get to this level, and I know there’s  room to keep improving. The challenge to myself and my writing abilities is one most welcome.

-Do I have a chance of eventually being able to call myself a professional writer? Hard to say. Some might say I already am, but that might be an individual matter of perspective. For me, until I see my name onscreen accompanied by “Story By…” or “Screenplay By…”, it doesn’t apply. my efforts will continue undaunted, unabated and undeterred.

Count me among the writers who are content to just be working. Sure, a huge paycheck would be great, but I’m also cool with writing a low-budget horror, or taking on an assignment, or doing an uncredited rewrite. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORK. The more I get to do it, the more I’ll enjoy it.

-For a long time, it was always “I need to find that somebody who says ‘yes’; somebody to open that door for me”, and to a certain extent, that still rings true. Getting representation, meeting with REAL industry people, and so forth.

But in the meantime, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from making my own stuff. For the past few months, I’ve been dabbling with writing short scripts. Five to 10 pages, a handful of characters, one to two locations. Something that presents not only my writing skills, but also that I know how to tell a story in the most visual way possible.

Added bonus – a ridiculously short production time. It could be made over a few days (or a long weekend) with a minimal crew.

Feedback and notes from writing colleagues who’ve also made their own short films have been helpful and encouraging.

All of this, of course, will be a little more feasible once society slowly returns to “normal”. Until then, I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Why not start creating our own opportunities?

-As much as I dream about all of these great things happening, I’m also a realist. I know that the journey to achieve this kind of success is a very, very long and tortuous one. Disappointment abounds.

I’ve no intention of giving up, no matter how frustrating things get. And there will be A LOT of frustration.

This is what I want to do, and despite all the negatives, I still enjoy doing it.

Thus the soldiering forward continues. Shoulder to the grindstone and all that…

Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Just made it tougher for myself (which is a very good thing)

hipster writer
Coffee – check. Notes – check. Fresh typewriter ribbon (took a real effort to find one) – check. Ready to go!

A most interesting development has presented itself for the horror-comedy outline, and you can accurately label me as “immensely grateful”.

Although I’m still working my way through the story, somehow that certain pizzazz that was part of the appeal when I first came up with it had slowly faded away. That’s a problem that needed some immediate fixing or this thing would never work.

I went through what I already had. It’s taken a while just to get to this point in the story, so I’d forgotten about some of it. This made for a nice reminder that I had a lot more material to work with than I remembered.

The basics were there, but what was it that was missing? Since this is at its heart a horror story, some of the standard elements had already been used, but it needed more. Something to really hammer the concept home. My protagonists were already in a pretty dicey situation, and I wanted to up the stakes.

Hence my dilemma.

Have you ever suddenly have a solution just present itself, right out of the blue? One that feels like the light bulb actually popped into existence right there above your head? One that caused the muse to do backflips and handsprings while screaming for joy at the top of her lungs?

Inspiration didn’t just strike; it walloped me upside the head.

This new idea feels like such a perfect match for the story. It creates a ticking clock that really ramps up the stakes to the nth degree, and what might be the best aspect – it gives the whole thing the original approach it so desperately needs.

So now that I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with this, the next step is to go back and reorganize a majority of the outline in order to incorporate it. Pretty daunting at first, but I’m not too concerned. I know exactly what I want to happen. It’ll just require a little more of an effort.