A Cathartic Interview with Vicki Peterson

A recent analysis about female scriptwriters reminds us that the global film industry is out of balance. It skims the surface of issues surrounding women in front of and behind film–writing scripts, directing projects. In May, headline stories from Cannes to Hollywood, regurgitated topics that’ll take generations before there is any significant change to how the film business is run.

However, as part of this process, there are thousands of people, men and women, diligently imparting their wisdom, creating a network of thought, hoping to reframe the questions asked in the media. Through the magic of Twitter, I stumbled on one such person, Vicki Peterson.

Vicki lower res

Vicki spoke to me in June from her offices in Los Angeles. She is a businesswoman, author, scriptwriter, soon-to-graduate MFA student, mother to three children, wife, plus many other roles we didn’t have time to discuss. Vicki and Barbara Nicolosi, her business and writing partner, also recently published a book about screenwriting while they continue to run their company, Catharsis, together.

A Refreshing Combination

I am not well-versed about Hollywood or the film industry, but I’m experienced at spotting quality content. The Catharsis website made me want to move back to Vancouver so I could pop down to LA and learn from these women. Their trio of services bridges the spectrum of what making movies should be all about, connecting raw and aspiring talent to experienced business people. Click the image below to go to their website.

Vicki spoke to me about family, starting your own business, working in Hollywood, and how incorporating the female perspective into stories became a driving force for her. Note that anything in [square brackets] is added for flow or is my own comment.

Catharsis Website

How long has Catharsis been in business?

About three years. Barbara and I worked together in other capacities and already had a strong working relationship. She founded a nonprofit, Act One, which I ran for several years. There is an active alumni [and impressive faculty]; about ⅔ of the graduates are still working in the industry.

What are some of the reasons you started your own business?

From a gender point of view, we believe that story is broken. We want to get people to move towards traditional story principles, principles that have worked for thousands of years, to move away from Hollywood stereotypes, to re-examine what people [studio executives] think will sell and what they think people want to watch. There is a need to take a look at the data and then deliver content that reaches more people.

You can read an excellent interview here about Catharsis’ idea about storytelling.

Side Note

This echoes precisely what Salma Hayek said at the Cannes Women in Motion panel. Check out her passionate interview with the Hollywood Reporter, where she speaks about why she thinks female audiences, half the box-office attendees, are ignoring the mass-produced content:

The movie is industry is in trouble because we don’t care about their movies, and they’re trying to figure out why,” she said. “What would happen if there was an open door, and somebody started doing movies that we want to see? … [The studio executives] think, ‘Chick flicks, romantic comedies. Guess what? We’re smarter than that (Salma Hayek, 2015).

I hope that Vicki and Salma work together one day. I also hope I can work with both of them one day. 


Traditional vs Hollywood Storytelling

Vicki, what kinds of stories do you like to tell?

My own stories have a strong female character and include more lead female roles. My characters naturally lean towards the things I’m trying to figure out about the world. I have two daughters [and a son], so it’s extremely important to me to write female characters outside the Hollywood norm, to make sure they have conversations other than just about men.

Do you think men and women fundamentally tell stories differently?

Yes and no. I think there are more common areas than differences, that universally, a good writer writes characters with an inner and outer arc. Generally, and in my experience as a consultant, men seem drawn to plot-based stories whereas women are drawn to character-based ones. One type is not better than the other, both are necessary to storytelling.

Do you get more men or women who apply to that fabulous looking Prequel course? [check it out]

Interestingly, for screenwriters starting out, both at Catharsis and at Act One, the classes are about 50/50. Writing classes sometimes skew to more women. However, as opportunities arise and people advance, more men are succeeding in the industry than women.

Why do you think that is?

Women often take themselves out of the equation more quickly than men. Women also generally want to infuse meaning into content [the character-based storytelling]. In general, and at first, there are more women interested in that, but the difference is that men interested in creating content like that go really far, really fast [in their careers].

Hollywood is full of double-standards. Men I’ve worked with have the confidence to show you something of “first draft” quality whereas women struggle to make something 100% perfect before they ask for feedback. I understand that the stakes are higher for women, but in my opinion, this impedes growth [in your writing]. For men it is understood [and expected] that there is room to grow. Men have more opportunities to work their way up, whereas from the start women have to prove they are at the top of their game before they even get a chance to walk in the door.

Unfortunately, women also buy into that. Women need to learn to be more confident and claim their status in the way that men do.

How do you balance family and your business?

The first thing they tell you if you want to work in TV? You’ll never see your family again.

That sounds like a bad line from a movie.

The idea of family is a big issue for women working in Hollywood. Although it’s changing a little, for many years it was taboo to even say you had a family. There is a fear that you’ll automatically be dismissed as not being 110% dedicated. For women with families, the larger companies, the ones with benefits, tend to be better about this compared to smaller companies. It’s hard to deal with the prejudice that other people place on you.

It’s also a reason why I started my own company. As a working professional with kids it’s easier to be my own boss than it is to find a good boss and job.

Imagine that one of your children decide they want to be a screenwriter. What advice would you give?

Including my family in what I do is how I’ve maintained my sanity in this industry. The last couple of projects I wrote were for my kids, something they could act in and something they’d be interested in. That has helped me a lot as a writer. There is no guarantee of success, but if I can make my kids happy, at least I have one or two audience members I’ve pleased.

Children need exposure to the arts as young as possible, especially if they want an arts career.

All three of my kids are professional actors. My two daughters are flying to New Hampshire to participate in a stage reading of my screenplay [part of Vick’s MFA]. My children are already exposed to what it’s like to try and carve out a career in this business, and my daughters have both shown great interest and writing talent. When they say “I want to be a writer when I grow up” there’s a part of me that wants to say “NOOO! It’s too hard…” but of course I’d support them and give them the tools to build any career.

And for the rest of us, here is one such set of tools, the book written by Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi

14-0506 Notes to Screenwriters

Contact Vicki

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