The Secrets to Writing Successful Movies for the Whole Family

by Ken Miyamoto on November 18, 2015

Four-Quadrant scripts and movies are Hollywood's bread and butter. These are the projects that have the most reach.. In the case of Four-quadrant projects, they appeal to the young, the old, men, women, and everyone in between. For a more detailed breakdown, read What Makes a Four-Quadrant Film.  

The most highly regarded family and animated movies — critically and through box office success — have something for everyone. Look no further than the resurgence of Disney animation from 1989 through the 1990s, with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin.

In the mid-1990s, along came a company called Pixar, which was quickly acquired by Disney. Their Four-Quadrant movies pioneered a wonderful combination of poignant storytelling with new CG animation technology — Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E, Inside Out, etc. 

What then followed was Disney Animation's second resurgence with the likes of Wreck It Ralph and Big Hero 6.

These were Four-Quadrant movies that appealed to everyone. There was action, adventure, romance, hijinks, laughs, pratfalls, etc. The audience, often consisting of families, could laugh, cry, and scream in delight while on the edge of their seats. Wide-appeal, universal emotional resonance is the essence of the four quadrant movie experience. 

Four-quadrant movies are nothing new - in fact they always were the ideal of commercial cinema with such beloved films as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Indiana JonesHarry Potter, Night at the MuseumThe Avengers, etc. 

And the concept of Four-Quadrants has even expanded to projects that skew a little older, but still fall under the umbrella of young (teens in this case), old, men, and women. Meet the Parents, Forrest Gump, Avatar, Titanic, etc. 

But what's the secret behind such movies? How do screenwriters, producers, and filmmakers tap into those universal themes?

We turn to Part II of Disney Animation Producer Kristina Reed's exclusive one-on-one with ScreenCraft. Part I focused on the aspect of the short film. Kristina is an Oscar-winner through her work on the Disney Animated Short films Paperman and Feast.  She's also the co-producer behind Disney's Big Hero 6 animated feature, and an associate producer of DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda. So needless to say, she knows a thing or two about Four-Quadrant, family, and animated movies. 

ScreenCraft: Are there certain character types and themes that best fit within a film geared towards the whole family?

Kristina Reed: In general, yes. Focus on themes that are universal and fundamental parts of life. Think about some of the great family films and where they have found these very elemental quests: characters who want to be loved/played with (Toy Story), heroic rebels trying to fend off the evil overlords (Star Wars), a family who learns the value of play (Mary Poppins).

Whats interesting is that the high level summaries can apply to many films but the great ones are the ones who told their stories well. They started with central characters that were flawed yet relatable and appealing. And took you on a journey wherein you were with the character emotionally, all the time.

So at the start of Kung Fu Panda, the story team knew that Po would be heavy, because pandas are just built that way, but they also knew it wasnt right for our character to defeat the villain and save the town by turning into some kind of muscle-bound hero. So what journey would he take to become the hero?

Eventually, they pinpointed that Pos central flaw was not his weight but the lack of confidence his weight caused. This was a breakthrough of sorts, because it meant that all the films training moments (and ultimately the films journey) would not be about getting better shape but finding the thing in himself that would make him victorious. In Pos case, it was his resilience, literally his ability to take a blow and get back up, over and over, that defeated the villain. It was a beautiful resolution of the challenge because it allowed us to say that becoming the hero of your own story is not about losing weight or building muscles or fundamentally altering your body, but instead, determination and grit. And thats a message in which all family members can find truth.

ScreenCraft: What are the dynamics of finding and developing a "Four Quadrant" feature film?

Kristina Reed: The concept of a Four-Quadrant film really speaks to how to make the film appeal to as many people as possible. The biggest challenge with animation is to make sure were never pigeon-holing ourselves into making a film that will only entertain kids. At its core, what every audience member wants, regardless of age and gender, is to go on a journey that is fun and emotionally resonant.   

The approach that John Lasseter takes at Pixar and Disney Animation is to have each director begin the development process by identifying a world and broad theme about which he/she would like to tell a story. The initial sketch of the main characters will often be part of this first pitch, but they get additional shaping and fleshing-out, along with the details of the world and specifics of the themes as the story starts to evolve.

The brilliance of this approach lies in the fact that the director will spend upwards of four years working on this film and it should be something that resonates deeply since s/hell be pitching it over and over during that time.

If youre making a big film, you want the films world to be big.

Think Pandora in Avatar, San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6,or in the Harry Potter series, an entire complex world of wizards overlaid onto our own world. It doesnt have to be an actually-big world (think Forrest Gump or Wreck-it-Ralph) but it has to bring you into a place or point of view thats different from your daily existence.  

The world and the themes should resonate off of each other. Going back to the Wreck-it-Ralph example, the main character — Ralph — wants to break out of the one-dimensional role hes had  for decades. No one in his current world will to support this change so he literally has to break out of his current world. Setting this story in a video arcade, seeing Ralphs world as one free-standing game, with a power strip that represents Game Central Station, where characters can travel to other free-standing games, uses the actual world of the film to crystallize the themes.

The theme of wanting to be different from who you really are is a perfect example of a fundamental and universal theme: weve all experienced this, no matter our age or gender. Now to add the fun and the humor, without ever straying from the authenticity of each characters feelings, and you have the makings of a movie for all audiences.

ScreenCraft: What are some of your favorite family-oriented films, both in live action and animation? What works so well in those films?

Kristina Reed: Im a huge fan of The Incredibles. It has everything weve been talking about: relatable characters, each with a flaw to overcome and a journey to take, along with smart production design, great action set pieces and wonderful, entirely character-driven humor. 

But going one step further, for me personally, I think Elastigirl is one of the greatest mom characters to ever grace the screen (live action or animation). Speaking as a mom and a career woman, I think that family is a testament to Brad Birds brilliance with that film. And that character in particular I believe and relate to: a woman who can stretch in any direction, who loves her husband and her kids, who literally contorts herself to save them every day in a variety of ways, and every word that comes out of her mouth is entirely true to who she is and what shes about.  

I mean what mom doesnt see herself right there?

On the live-action side, one favorite is Elf. If you had told me that you were going to show me a film about a human accidentally raised as an elf who now needs to leave the North Pole to find his true self, I would have begged you not to. But because Jon Favreau tells the story with complete emotional truth as to who this character is and what hes going through every step of the way — finding the real resonance in each scene of this charactersjourney — hes created a story for all of us whove ever felt out of place.  


ScreenCraft: For screenwriters, how difficult is it to sell or be hired for animation vs. live action?

Kristina Reed: I can only speak to the process at Dreamworks and Disney Animation, where we are largely looking for writers to ride along through the process with the film director(s). Samples generally come to us through agents, and were looking for the following skills (in varying priorities, depending on the project): structure, humor, character.  

Additionally, those studios, as well as Pixar and many others, hammer out creative in the story room which generally means with a team of story artists and the director(s). This way of creating the story requires a writer who is flexible and collaborative. This is not saying that many writers arent those things, but that the story process requires those qualities to be highly developed.  

In particular, making an animated film generally takes years which gives us some bandwidth to keep reviewing the film in pieces and as a whole and keep polishing. Is the character arc right? Is the scene too long? Is the line the funniest one possible? Ultimately, we want to make a film and a story that is so strong and so enjoyable that families watch them for decades. Thats a high bar.

ScreenCraft: Are there any secrets to writing humor that both adults and children can appreciate and laugh at?

Kristina Reed: I don’t know if it’s a secret as much as a real skill, but I can offer two tips:

  1. Think about the characters and situations physically. Is there natural humor there to be mined? Physical humor somehow never gets old. (Bonus points because it plays well globally too!)

In Kung Fu Panda, there’s a moment where Shifu runs in to the kitchen with horrible news that the master turtle has died and Po is caught standing there with two round wooden bowls on his chest, like breasts. The directors had made the decision to take the gag out right before we screened for a test audience of fifth graders. When this moment came on, the theater exploded with laughter. It stayed in.

  1. Make the character emotionally true in everything he says, whether its meant to be funny or not. That way — step by step, line by line — the audience believes this character.  

One of my favorite moments that made me buy a character entirely was in Tangled. As Rapunzel is setting foot outside her tower for the first time in her life, she pauses just before she lets her toes touch the grass. It made me understand what a big moment this was for her and that she knew it and it made me root for her.

When the audience can feel what the characters are feeling, then the story can take them anywhere.  

ScreenCraft: What types of things in screenplays turn you off or disengage you as a producer?

Kristina Reed: In a nutshell, Im turned off when I cant tell what the characters are feeling. Or if their emotions seem false or shortchanged. If you think back about movies that didnt engage you, I suspect its because the protagonist didnt ring true. Looking at the other side, for the stories that did engage you, its because the character made you feel.

As you write, take a moment after finishing each scene and make sure you know what your main character is feeling. And then ask yourself if the audience needs to see what shes feeling. Give them a line or an expression or a mannerism or small action to bring me into her head. These moments — done right — wont bog down your film; they will only bond your audience to your protagonist, and when you get to your final third-act set piece, you will have earned the emotion.

ScreenCraft: What's the best advice you can offer for those wanting to get into animation? (Producing, Writing, Animating, etc.).

Kristina Reed: Ha, this is a little like asking how to break into entertainment. There is no one right approach. For starters, there are many animation studios, creating all different types of animation for a huge global animation market. The work experience can range from highly collaborative multi-national productions to the proverbial independent artist working in their garage. Spend some time understanding the work. Figure out who does work you like and learn about their processes. Animation needs all sorts of talents, from artistic to technical to strategic to financial and so on, so always I encourage people to explore and network.    

Kristina Reed is one of the judges for ScreenCraft’s Family-Friendly Screenplay Contest. If you have a family-oriented script of your own, submit it here

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