Faced with a changing industry landscape, TV vet Gary Goldstein remade his career in an unexpected way. Here, he discusses how, his advice to writers looking to carve a niche in an emerging genre, and his latest project, Hitched for the Holidays.
Written by Shira Gotshalk
(December 14, 2012)
Gary Goldstein has written a lot of transformation stories in more than 20 years as a screenwriter. But he never expected that the biggest transformation he’d face would be reinventing his own career to stay fresh in an industry that was increasingly riddled with budget cutbacks that affected what scripts get the green light. For a writer who’s had success with TV series, pilots and teleplays (Saved by the Bell, the original Beverly Hills, 90210, The Wish List, The Cabin), as well as features, the indie film Politics of Love, and numerous stage plays, the need to shift focus created a new set of challenges, and with them, untold opportunities.
As big studios have tightened budgets for features and seen increasing competition from Video On Demand and DVRs, the once mainstay spec script market has become a place where good scripts often go to sit on the backburner, rarely getting sold. Stuck in development loops, Goldstein saw an opportunity to adapt some of his spec scripts into teleplays for TV movies –holiday movies in particular.
With plenty of primetime airplay on channels like Hallmark, ABC Family, and Lifetime, the made-for-TV holiday movie has been quietly gaining prominence with writers who have shifted their focus to a medium where their work is being produced with more frequency. And so Hitched for the Holidays, a New York-set movie that celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas, was reborn from a feature script and is now airing throughout the month on the Hallmark Channel.
Goldstein recently spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the importance of a high concept in holiday movies, why romantic comedies work, and how to carve out a niche in this emerging genre.
Have holiday movies become a bit of a mini-genre?
They have. They’re perennials, obviously. There will always be the holidays, so they’ll always need them. It’s a very successful time of the year, for Hallmark anyway, and they put a lot behind these movies.
Photo: © 2012 Hallmark Channel
Joey Lawrence and Emily Hampshire in Hitched for the Holidays.
Did you see yourself getting in this genre?
Well, it’s funny. I started off writing for television. I started off in episodic TV writing, and then I segued into writing features and also wrote stage plays along the way. Basically, the business changed; it changes all the time. There was a point where you could write a medium-budget, high-concept, romantic comedy and much more easily get it made as a feature. And now, short of ones that have big stars attached, there is much less of a market for them.
At the same time, the TV movie world has picked up a lot of spec screenplays and ended up doing a lot of these romantic comedies. They get a real high quality script that can be converted into the TV movie format. It’s become a real win-win for them, and also for writers. The whole point of a writer is that you want to see your material made. Hopefully made well, but you do want to see it made. It’s really opened up a lot of opportunities for screenwriters.
Do you see more growth in this direction, let’s say as Netflix and other video on demand services start to do more original programming?
Yes. Well, I’d like to think so. It’s really about can you justify the budget, even if it’s a lower budget? Can you find an outlet for it? Is there a way to make money off of it? Everything doesn’t have to make a $300-$400 million dollar profit. Beyond the studios, movies are made for a price, and they make a nice, relative profit. So, yeah, obviously the way movies are being watched has really changed over the last 10 years, but you have to go with the change.
As a writer, I’ve always kind of reinvented myself as necessary and tried new things and looked into different avenues to get movies made, TV shows made, pilots made. I’ve done a lot of pitching and I feel like I pitch ideas that are worth doing. Hopefully, one piece of work begets another and one success in one genre begets a success elsewhere.
So how did your script end up at Hallmark?
I have to say, I’ve written many, many, many spec screenplays and of everything I’ve ever written, including the ones that have sold, [Hitched for the Holidays] got the most attention. In fact, there were companies that said, “We wouldn’t make a movie like this, but we really want to read it because we really want to try to find someplace to bring it, because we know it’s going to be made somewhere.” It was just the kind of thing that that everybody loved and the producers were crazy about it. And little by little, the studios ended up passing, although coming very close a couple times.
After some redevelopment, we took it back to the studios, and, ultimately, it didn’t sell. At that point, we said, “Well, people love the script. Maybe there’s a place for it as a TV movie.” It took a couple of years, but eventually the time became right for it last year – it works for them at a given time based upon their current mandate or based upon what’s available or what they haven’t done. These holiday movies are about finding a unique take on the holiday concept. After so many of them are made, there are just so many iterations on Santa Claus and Christmas and Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and all that.
Everybody has to work a little harder to come up with newer ideas, but they’re out there. It’s just about how you put the twist on it. And this one did have the Hanukkah-Christmas twist – and I think it’s the first TV movie to ever be about Hanukkah and Christmas.
That’s kind of incredible.
It really is.
Is that your advice for writers looking to break into this mini-genre?
Absolutely. It’s funny, if somebody asked me, “I want to write a spec screenplay. What should I do?” I would say, “Write a great holiday movie. Write it in a way that it could be done as a feature or as a TV movie.” Again, it’s finding that high concept, really going through the titles and seeing what maybe hasn’t been done or what really works.
What kind of considerations do you need to have for a TV movie versus a feature?
The parameters are different. You write a feature script, it generally doesn’t have to be a certain length. The budgetary concerns are often different. The original [Hitched for the Holidays] was written as a big studio New York comedy. So the whole idea is to compress it or condense it as necessary for the budget, for the location, for the shooting schedule. The shooting schedule on these films tends to be shorter than a feature film.
Sometimes it’s content. TV movies tend to be a little more family friendly than features. Most of the feature scripts I’ve written as PG-13 to satisfy that marketplace and make them seem bigger or more cinematic. They turn into PG or G for TV. But [the networks] are not stodgy. These movies are made as smart and hip as possible. You trim back some of the sexual innuendo and tone down any bad language.
What’s interesting is that so often in features, you’re asked to make things more outrageous, bigger, dirtier, crazier. It’s been very refreshing to be asked to pull back on it. It forces you as a writer to become more creative. What words still get the point across and are colorful, but are fun? That’s been challenging as a writer – and I’ve found it really fun – finding smart ways of writing good dialogue and character, but staying within the boundaries of the TV movie world.
With a romantic comedy, audiences are savvy enough to know that the leads will fall in love.
How do you keep your story fresh and new?
Well, it’s two things. One is, you do know that the couple will likely get together at the end, so it’s all about how they get there. What are the twists and turns along the way that can make the journey as rocky, as complicated as possible, so that when they do get together, it’s really well-earned? If it’s inevitable, you want it to be a well-earned journey that brings them together.
Second, there’s a high concept. In a romantic comedy, if you can put characters in a higher concept situation, like Hitched for the Holidays where a couple pretends to be dating to satisfy their meddling families, but fall for each other in the process – that’s its own kind of high concept. If you can find the kind of concept that sounds entertaining, exciting, relatable, unique – that certainly helps in the creation of the characters.
Talk more about the characters…
It’s about creating real characters. Sometimes in romantic comedies – where you’ve got common characters – they can become a little stereotypical. They can become a little broad, and the key for me is always to try to make them as real and accessible and relatable, but as funny, as possible.
To make a character funny, you need to give them enough flaws, enough misbehavior, enough things that they have to learn along the way. And of course, the whole point is the odd couple being put together to go on this journey that they find themselves on, is ultimately for them both to improve as people and get past some of their issues.
We think the reason is for them to fall in love, but in fact, each character brings out the missing side of the other character, the suppressed side of the other character, or the thing that is preventing them from achieving their goal as a human being. Even in the When Harry Met Sally universe, yes it was all about can a man and a woman be friends, but in the end, those two really helped bring out the best in each other and change each other, which is what actually happens in real life. It’s why people are brought together in real life; to become the best version of themselves.
They always say in comedy you should put people where they would least like to be. So in this particular case, when you put somebody who’s Catholic into a Hanukkah celebration where he has to pretend to be Jewish, you create enough stress and conflict to bring out the upside or downside of the character. So often when characters are put in these stressful, comedic situations, it really tests their mettle and shows what they’re made of and makes the other character realize why the character they’re with is so special in a way that they didn’t realize. It gives everybody a chance to be a hero.