Screenwriter Pamela Gray talks cynicism and optimism on writing female-driven screenplays

Screenwriter Pamela Gray hit the audience with sobering statistics, ruins of reality and continual cynicism in her discussion on writing and selling the female-centered screenplay. Then she really got to the negative side of the industry.

Gray kept this blunt outlook going, with bits of optimism sprinkled in, as she spoke to students Thursday, March 6, in Coppola Theatre, marking the conclusion of the cinema department’s three-part series on screenwriting. The series previously featured screenwriters Michael Grais and Sam Hamm.

“It’s a despicable business,” Gray said, as she told students interested in screenwriting that if they can’t handle the despair that comes with waiting for a screenplay to get produced, then they shouldn’t be in the profession.

Gray is best known for 2010’s “Conviction,” starring Hilary Swank, 1999’s “Music of the Heart,” starring Meryl Streep and “A Walk on the Moon,” with Diane Lane.

Her love of writing has been evident since first writing musicals and poetry in high school. She went on to receive her master’s in poetry at Boston University and later moved to California, where she had her first job at SF State teaching writing classes in the Women and Gender Studies Department.

“At that point in time, I wasn’t even thinking about film,” Gray said. “I was a poet.”

Gray said she transitioned to screenwriting when she began to feel limited in her poetry. She needed to figure out how to make a living as a writer, but being a playwright was not a viable option. So she decided to try something new. Turns out, it was just what she needed.

“On a whim, I took a sitcom writing class that was being offered at Fort Mason,” Gray said. “I loved the class and realized within the first couple of classes that if you want to make a living as a writer, writing for Hollywood is one option if you can break in.”

Living in Oakland at the time, she gave herself five years to do that. At first she received encouragement from others and even hired an agent. She later realized she wasn’t nearly as close to the opportunities and success she could be having in L.A., so she eventually made the decision to relocate and now lives in Santa Barbara.

Gray’s focus in female-centered screenplays arose from her first script that became “A Walk on the Moon,” based on her own life. Following the attention that this film and “Music of the Heart” received, Gray said she began being considered more for specific projects.

“I was officially on the road to being someone seen as a screenwriter who could write female-driven stories and attract big actresses to those stories,” Gray said.

Gray also said that what she really writes are character-driven screenplays, and that most of hers just happen to involve female leads. She said the challenge is not writing for these women, but instead lies in the sexism of the industry.

“What’s more difficult is getting those movies made (and) finding assignments with good females roles,” she said. “There are fewer and fewer of those assignments now.”

Scott Sublett, a screenwriting professor at San Jose State University, who had heard about the screenwriting series and decided to attend Gray’s talk, said he was amazed to hear this bounty of information.

“I thought it was really interesting the way she backed that up with statistics,” Sublett said. “I didn’t write down the statistics but I just remember being bowled over by number after number proving what most people know or think they do, which is that Hollywood is a boy’s club.”

Screenwriting assistant professor Julian Hoxter, who hosted the series, said a masterclass series on cinematography may already be in the works for next semester, but for now, he is satisfied with the turnout of this one.

“I was very pleased with the fact that we were able to get very different writers with very different perspectives to come in and give our students a different way of thinking about the challenges of writing for the screen.”

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