Tough climb for family scripts

"Toy Story 3," True Grit," buck Oscar history

Can a family film win a screenplay Oscar?

That depends on how you define a family film.

“For many years, what we would call ‘family’ was an issue of censorship,” said Tom Sito, a storyboard artist on films including best picture nominee “Beauty in the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” and a professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “A family film was about what it didn’t have … in terms of sex and violence.”

Among this season’s adapted screenplay nominees, a handful reach across the demographic aisle to attract fans of all ages.

In addition to “Toy Story 3,” both “True Grit” and “Inception” made good movie-night choices for a family, especially those with slightly older kids. Both pics, while they do contain violence and sophisticated subject matter, are virtually sex-free and play on youth-friendly themes.

“Inception,” helmed by Chris Nolan, is heavy on guns and philosophy. But since the majority of its violence occurs in artificial dreamscapes, its profanity is limited and its visuals are stunning, it became a solid PG-13 pick for families with teens. This was one mind-bender high schoolers wanted to try to wrap their heads around.

“True Grit,” also rated PG-13, draws from the plot playbook of “Treasure Island” and other young-adult adventure stories. Pic was bolstered by the presence of 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, whose breakthrough performance brought interest from the teen (and tween) set.

In the past half-century, only two family films have taken home gold for screenwriting: 1964’s WWII-set romantic comedy “Father Goose” and 1979’s PG-rated coming-of-ager “Breaking Away.”

After “Mary Poppins” and post-sexual revolution, a film without profanity is a film greenlit for children. But to appeal to the whole clan? It’s the writing, stupid.

“It never even entered my mind that I was writing something that was supposed to be for children,” says Michael Arndt, scribbler for “Toy Story 3,” which is up for best pic and animated feature honors as well as adapted screenplay.

This is only the second time an animated feature has been nominated for adapted screenplay; “Shrek” earned a nom in 2001.

Sito believes the technological advances of the past few decades are irrelevant when it comes to good cross-generational fare. “Toy Story 3″‘s animation may have contributed to its whammo opening weekend, but what kept the theaters packed was that its production team never forgot the basics.

For Sito, the secret to the success of “TS3” its universality. “(Toy Story 3) hit on some very base emotions,” he says. “Some very primal emotions of youth and putting away childhood which I think really resonated.”

And that’s exactly what Arndt was going for. “It actually caught me by surprise when I’d been working on ‘TS3’ for a while when I would hear someone outside of Pixar inadvertently refer to it as a children’s film,” Arndt says.

“I don’t think you ever start off a project thinking about trying to appeal to a certain demographic. You always just start thinking ‘How can I make the best movie I can possibly make or tell the best story I can possibly tell?’ ”

The best family films speak to themes that touch every generation. “If you go back to films like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Black Stallion,’ there’s this elemental, almost mythical quality to the storytelling that feels timeless,” Arndt says. “That’s the best thing that something that would be called a family film can do … seep into the collective unconscious and remain embedded there.”

Although it’s been three decades since a family film’s script took the prize, “Hollywood still do(es) lovely family films,” says Leslie Caron, who starred in “Father Goose” opposite Cary Grant. “It’s often the actors who make the script good!”

More on Eye on the Oscars: The Writer:
Heroes make their own rules | Family ties bind originals | Tough climb for family scripts | Arndt brought ‘Story’ home

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