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.

A slight course correction

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For the most part, my involvement with this year’s big contests is more or less over. Top 15 percent for Nicholl – not too bad. Total whiff for PAGE again, which makes me 0 for 4. Not expecting much out of Austin.

Results from some of the smaller contests are about the same. Semifinalist in one, quarterfinalist in another, and a few not-at-alls.

A bit on the disappointing side, but all is not lost. On the contrary. It’s actually helped force me into making a pretty important decision.

After much self-evaluating, I’ve opted to drastically cut back on contests for next year and ongoing. Most likely, I’ll keep it limited to just the big three mentioned above. And even entering those isn’t a certainty. They’re the ones that hold the most potential for getting the ball rolling on a career – not guaranteed, of course – but the most potential.

No delusions of grandeur. I’ll continue to take my chances and see how things go. If I do well, great. If not, no big deal.

And just for the hell of it, maybe one or two smaller ones every once in a while. Might as well have a little fun.

Moving forward, the focus now shifts to improving my writing skills and making my material better. Reading a lot of professional scripts, especially those in the same genres as the ones I’m writing, shows me my level of expertise isn’t where I need it to be.

If I want to make this work, I need to get better. No other way to put it.

It’ll be tough, but I’ve come this far and the final objective continues to feel a little bit closer with each new draft.

I’m fortunate enough to know a lot of savvy writers, along with more than a few quality consultants, so getting constructive feedback and guidance can only work to my advantage.

As a colleague once told me, “It’s not about contests. It’s about Hollywood.” Sure, contests are fun and all (especially when you win, or at least place highly), but I’d rather focus on writing quality material and getting them in the hands of people who can actually make something happen with them. Representation. Assignments. Rewrites. A sale. I’m not picky.

My long-term goal has always been to become a working writer, and I think I can still do it. It may not happen as soon as I’d like, but hopefully by really buckling down and pushing myself to keep at it, I’ll have a better shot at turning that goal from a dream into a reality.

Wish me luck.

A few important reminders (for me and anybody else)

high school classroom
“I know you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped, so look at this as a learning experience.”

Yet another busy week around Maximum Z HQ, including quite a bit of doing script notes, polishing the latest draft of the comedy spec and punching forward on the horror-comedy outline.

Fun stuff all around.

It also included my western placing in the top 15 percent of this year’s Nicholl, which is the second time for this script, and third overall. Not bad, but still not enough to get to the quarterfinals. At first I was feeling kind of down about it, but realized (and was reminded by more than a few colleagues) that a much larger number of scripts didn’t even make it that far, so I should still regard this as a positive.

Suffice to say, it looks like there’s a little more tweaking in store so as to get this script and at least one other ready for next year (along with a few other top-tier contests).

Since this blog recently hit the 9-year mark, of course there are some previous posts of relevant content.

A screenwriter’s 5 stages of grief (contest edition)

A little-post comp analysis

My race, my pace

Fall back. Regroup. Hit ’em again.

In it for the long haul

To all of you who had a script advance in PAGE and/or the Nicholl, my heartiest of congratulations. Steps are already being taken to reinforce the notion of me being among that group next year.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Don’t let it get you down

introspection
A little introspection can do wonders

Results are slowly trickling out for some of the big writing contests, and while hopes were high for my revised western, it once again failed to make the quarterfinals for PAGE.

My immediate reaction – that’s it. I’m done. No longer will I subject myself to that kind of humiliation!

And of course, later the same day, I was figuring out whether or not I should look into  any further tweaking so as to get it ready for next year.

More than a few writing colleagues and connections voiced similar comments, ranging from the frustration of their lack of advancing in this contest, to the murkiness regarding the quality of contest readers overall, to the subjectiveness of it all, and whether contests are even worth it.

As you’d imagine, there’s a wide spectrum of opinions about all of these.

I dug up this post from last year which I believe sums things up quite nicely.

Contests aren’t the only way to break in, but a win or very high placement can help, or at least potentially open a door or two. It’s just one of the many routes a writer can take. Some writers are even fortunate enough to not even have to do them. I am not one of them.

A key component of all of this is persistence. There’ll be lots of disappointments, which can be…disappointing. And frustrating. Oh so frustrating. But learning to overcome those is just as important as learning how to tell a good story.

All you can do is send your script out there, hope for the best, and move on to whatever’s next. If things work out, great. If not, yeah, it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. It might feel like it, but it’s not.

Try to look at it as a learning experience – “How can I make this better?” Also a question with no easy answer, but how willing are you to put in the time and effort necessary to accomplish that?

That’s what I’m doing. On several fronts.

See you next year, PAGE.

Looking back, glimpsing ahead, and a minor adjustment

new year's eve
Just one more glass of champagne, then it’s back to work. Promise.

As 2017 wraps up, it’s only natural to engage in a little self-evaluation.

How many of your writing goals were you able to check off this year? Most of them? Some? A small-but-decent fraction? Hopefully you don’t need to mark the box labeled “None”.

One of mine was to complete at least three scripts. I managed two drafts, a revised outline, and one and a half rewrite/polishes (one still a WIP). Pretty solid results. A very hearty thanks to everybody who devoted the time and effort to give me notes. I hope my notes for yours were just as helpful.

Using those notes and the results of a few conversations, I think I’ve been able to up the quality of my writing a few notches. It still has a few levels to go, but it definitely seems better than it was. The next round of drafts should be really interesting,  both in terms of working on them and how the end results turn out.

I wanted to read more scripts, which actually happened, but not entirely in the way I expected. I didn’t do as much reading of scripts for the purpose of entertainment or gleaning some helpful guidance because I ended up reading over 100 scripts for several contests. Don’t know if I’ll do it again, but still glad I did it.

On the gaining representation front, lots of query emails were sent. Maybe one response out of ten expressed interest in reading the script, with each ending with a “thanks but no thanks” or “just not what I’m looking for”. A bit disappointing, but not totally unexpected. Along the way, I also worked on being more strategic about the process, researching potential recipients and re-drafting the query to (in theory) really sell the concept of the script.

And what would an ambitious screenwriter’s year be without contests? My western made it to the seminfinals of a few smaller contests and the top 20 percent for the Nicholl (not too shabby), but once again whiffed it for PAGE. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned regarding contests, so will most likely really cut back on them. Maybe just stick to the big three.

There was the most pleasant experience of going to Los Angeles to attend a table read for one of my scripts. I like the idea of doing one or two of them locally, so looking into that for 2018.

I hosted two screenwriting networking events, which connected me with some very talented writers from right here in the Bay Area. Definitely plan on doing that again at least once this year. Highly recommended, especially if you’re not in Los Angeles and want to expand your own personal network.

On the half-marathon front, I ran five races this year – the most ever in one year for me. Still averaging about two hours, which isn’t bad – for me, but the quest for 1:55 continues. Already signed up for three next year, with maybe one or two more expected to be added into the mix. Like with screenwriting, improvement takes time, effort and dedication. A good pair of socks and strong knees also come in handy, and that applies to both.

Finally, this blog. As always, a great experience doing what I can to offer advice to help other writers, recounting my experiences and the lessons I got out of it, and presenting some interviews with some truly interesting and amazing creative folks. I am truly grateful to everybody who’s stopped by to take a look, like a post and make a comment.

But it’s also been exhausting. Producing posts twice a week on top of dedicating time to write and make a career out of it has simply gotten to be too much. I still enjoy doing the blog, but want to refocus my energies. So as of January 1st, I’ll be reducing my weekly output to Fridays only, and sometimes even that might be iffy. It’ll most likely be on a week-by-week basis.

I hope you had a most productive 2017 and wish you all the best for an even better 2018.

See you in seven.