Spelling Counts

Sure. Friends, relatives, even Gail, my mail carrier, are always telling me what a thoroughly talented individual I am at this words-on-paper thing, but imagine my surprise when I opened a big manila envelope last week and pulled out a letter from Spelling Television Inc.!

As in Aaron Spelling. As in Aaron Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place Spelling.

Anyway, this letter was from a woman named Lynda Johnson, Director of Movies and Miniseries for Aaron Spelling's Los Angeles company. She wrote:

Dear Peter,
I've read your work in the Phoenix New Times and would like to introduce myself. . . . It is my job to find talented writers and producers to work with to bring intriguing and interesting stories to the company, for potential TV movies.

As a member of the media, I am sure you are tapped into the latest breaking stories, and may have in your files past stories that would translate well to the screen.

Can you believe it? The man who is responsible for not only Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island and Starsky and Hutch, but The Colbys--shows that have deeply affected my life (and yours, too, I'll bet)--was contacting me! Needless to say, it sure made me feel good that a power player like Lynda Johnson, Director of Movies and Miniseries for Mr. Aaron Spelling, had read my work.

And not only that, she'd liked it so much that she wanted me to come up with material for network television! And get this--I noticed that a lot of other people at New Times had the same manila envelopes bearing the same Spelling Television return address in their mailboxes. Including the food critic. While some might think that this was a mass mailing--even some of my co-workers scoffed at Lynda's package as they dropped it into the trash--to me it's obvious that Spelling's people recognized the wealth of TV-ready talent that is simply overflowing here at New Times.

A thoughtful touch on Lynda's part was the inclusion of an Aaron Spelling bio in the package. Mr. S is a person whose reputation precedes him, yet I still learned a few things about this extraordinary gentleman. For example, we've all heard of his talented daughter Tori, but how many of you out there knew that Aaron has a son named Randy? Not me. And also, he has produced more than 3,000 hours of television programming. It'd take you 125 days to watch all that. His film Mr. Mom grossed $64 million, quite a lot of money. And, along with Gregory Peck, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Hope, Aaron Spelling is a recipient of the Winston Churchill Medal of Wisdom.

Needless to say, I liked the cut of his jib.
Lynda also sent along a list titled "Elements That Make a Good Story"; here are a few important tidbits I gleaned from this TV insider's tip sheet:

1. A HERO: Without someone to cheer for, there really is no story.
2. CONFLICT: Inner and outer conflicts--outer conflicts are physical challenges or obstacles that have to be overcome to reach a goal. These kinds of conflict translate to the screen well and make for good drama.

3. TENSION: Twists and turns in a story help to add suspense and tension.
4. MORAL DILEMMA: This is the essence, the pulse of the story and the springboard to the hero's character growth.

5. STRUCTURED PLOT: All stories have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

6. EMOTION: A story needs to elicit emotion from an audience, whether it's humor, anger, fear, sadness or joy. Without emotion, a viewer will tune out.

After I read this, I started thinking back to some of my favorite Spelling episodes . . . sure enough, the Six Commandments were always there, ensuring a Good Story for American viewers: the morality lessons that played out as the Angels did Charlie's bidding in the name of Good. The mesmerizing structural counterpoint of multilayered plot twists on The Love Boat. The gripping compassion beneath the street-scum veneer of Huggy Bear, as Hutch played his weekly game of wits with the complex character. And the humor, anger, fear, sadness and joy--the emotion--that I experienced during every viewing of T.J. Hooker.

Demanding standards, to be sure, but I knew that I'd covered many fascinating stories right here on the streets of Phoenix. Stories that perhaps had what it might take to make it to the small screen and earn the Spelling logo after the credits rolled.

I couldn't get over it when Lynda picked up the phone on the first ring. I thought Hollywood people were always out power lunching, or screwing their chiropractors, or something. Not at Spelling Entertainment Inc.

Before I gave up my valuable miniseries ideas, I decided to find out exactly what the company was after.

"Mostly things that are female-driven," Lynda offered in an open, perky voice. "NBC really likes things that they can put all the girls from Friends, Melrose Place and 90210 in. They really don't want to do anything with stars over 30. When you see a movie on their network like that, it's because it was some big favor, or some big, big star they wanted. I know they greenlit something of Billy Crystal's, and it's not anything like what they would normally do, but they wanted to be in bed with Billy Crystal."

I could have made jokes about being in bed in any sense with Billy Crystal, but I may have to be working with the guy once this Hollywood thing takes off for me. So I let Lynda continue, throwing out a few sample stories Aaron had recently purchased.

"They look for unusual, kinda true stories. One was, a daughter is accused of killing her father because he was sexually abusing her, but it turns out she was really having a lesbian romance with her stepmother," said Lynda. "Or an abusive husband and father murders his wife when she tries to get custody of their three sons. A father cheats on his wife by ordering a call girl who turns out to be his daughter."

And are all of these things based on true stories?
"Some are, some aren't. They'll do something that's fictional if it's a really high concept." High concept. I liked that. Even though I didn't know what she meant. "Like the father that cheats on his wife, and his daughter's a call girl, they would consider that really high concept," Lynda explained, "'cause everyone gets what that movie is in one line."

At this point in our phone conversation, I felt that Lynda and I had developed a relationship. It was time to move in with a pitch, see if she would bite. Or at least nibble.

I wondered if Aaron could get Tori to star in anything he wants.
"Nope," said Lynda. "We have her attached to one thing now 'cause it's a really classy project."

"But I've got a great stripper vehicle," I said, thinking of a lady I'd written about last December named Candy Cantaloupes. Candy was enormous of chest--she'd been forced to get implants by an evil, manipulative boyfriend--yet she was a kindly person who was quitting the strip clubs to go to school and become a biochemist, I think it was. I was imagining Tori as Candy, with Anthony Edwards cast effectively out of type as the boyfriend; maybe JM J. Bullock as the sympathetic but ultimately greedy surgeon. And Courteney Cox and Tisha Campbell as the insouciant, somewhat-drug-addled stripper friends.

"I think he's kind of off of his daughter being a call girl or a stripper," Lynda hinted.

"This is a classy, touching story," I purred, propping my feet up on my desk. "It's heartwarming, but there's still sex and greed and bizarre interpersonal relationship patterns and things of that nature."

Apparently, Lynda was not bowled over by my idea and didn't think I understood exactly what she was looking for.

"One thing to keep in mind when you're looking for a story--the networks keep pounding this over and over to us--they want relatable stories that the general public can look at and say, 'You know what? That could be me. Or that could be my daughter.' Like, doctors and lawyers and scientists are not that relatable to them.

"Also, there should be a relatable situation. They just did a movie that is basically Die Hard on a roller coaster, but it's very relatable because it's a family. And Gregory Harrison's the father. They stop at an amusement park 'cause they're on this great summer vacation, and this amusement park is their worst nightmare. I think people would go, 'You know what? That could happen. We could go to an amusement park and some crazy guy could take people hostage, and we'd end up in this horrible situation.'

"That's what I mean by relatable."

Sex. Violence. More sex. Family problems. Stuff you can get in a sentence.
What was the big deal?
Lynda cautioned me:

"It's so narrow, what the networks'll buy. Things that sound like a good thing don't always play out in seven acts. Or, lots of people think it's an original idea but the truth is, I've heard it 50 times. It's really, really hard."

All right. I figured I'd lay a foolproof one on her.
"What about a guy who's a journalist who gets a mailer from a major entertainment company, he calls back somebody such as yourself, hears something like what you're saying, then goes on a crime spree in order to have something to write about, then pitches that? Then he gets turned down, and starts stalking you. What do you think--has it got legs?"

"It's a movie.

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