It’s been 25 years since the release of AFF alum Linda Woolverton’s animated classic The Lion King, and with the recent release of Disney’s 2019 remake leading at the box office, it’s clear that family films are more popular than ever.
So what is the process behind writing a family film? How do you tell a captivating story while staying family-friendly and keeping both children and adults engaged? We’re turning to past panelists behind some of our favorite childhood films for advice on writing a story that resonates with an audience of all ages.
Here are six tips for writing family films from past AFF panelists who have made a living telling stories for the whole family:
1. DON’T TALK DOWN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
What I have done in family films that I think is key, is not to condescend to your audience. I think where a lot of family films fall down is…the powers at be, whoever may be, think that to talk down to children is going to appeal to children, but they are so much smarter than what we think of them, as ponies or puppies. They smell dishonesty, and they smell authenticity.
-Caroline Thompson (writer Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey) at AFF 2011
2. TELL A STORY WE CAN ALL RELATE TO
The idea needs to be obviously appealing to kids, but there has to be a story and a world that adults would sit through as well… the two things that when you are working on your idea you need to think about are world and story, because that’s ultimately what any of these movie studios are looking for…they’re all looking for a good story to tell.
-Jason Eaton (writer Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) at AFF 2011
3. ROOT YOUR IDEA IN SOMETHING REAL
If you start out with just a purely comic idea, by the time five years later when the movie is being released, that idea might not even be funny anymore, so you want something that’s a stronger, more timeless backbone for your story, which tends to be dramatic issues that we all have to deal with.
-Jessica Julius (Vice President, Creative Affairs for Walt Disney Animation Studios) at AFF 2009
4. CATER TO A BROAD AUDIENCE
The best movies are the ones where whatever the emotional journey is…all the units of the family can be invested in and be moved by it, so that it won’t be moments where the kids have nothing of interest and then moments with the parents. You want everyone involved all the time.
-Glenn Berger (writer/producer King of the Hill, Kung Fu Panda, Trolls) at AFF 2011
5. GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS DEPTH
we want them to feel like people. When we look at our movies, even though it is a rat, even though it is a sloth, even though it is a chair, whatever it is, these chairs need to be real, complexed, layered people with an adult perspective.
-Lisa Fragner (Vice President, Film Development at 20th Century Fox Animation) at AFF 2011
6. TELL A STORY CHILDREN CAN LEARN FROM
If you couch it in fairy tale stories, you actually give them an opportunity to see how someone faces a challenge and survives it. These are real things that are really going to happen…let’s face these things. Let’s take it on and show how somebody overcomes it, faces it, learns something, grows…it’s a moral and psychological education.
-Linda Woolverton (writer Maleficent, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) at AFF 2018
Visit onstory.tv for a closer look inside the creative process from today’s leading writers and filmmakers.
Want to hear these tips first hand? Join us at this year’s Writers Conference (Oct. 22 – 29, 2020) for a weekend of insider tips and writing advice from the leading voices of film and television. For more information on how to attend, click here.