What screenwriting lessons can screenwriters learn from one of the most coveted cinematic subgenres — Reunion Movies?
Everyone loves a great reunion movie. A majority of them are high school class reunion flicks — which everyone can easily identify with — but the subgenre also offers films that reunite characters and relationship dynamics from school sports teams, college friend groups, and even youth summer camp.
Hollywood loves to find the next staple classics. Studios and significant production companies love the familiar but search for new takes to keep the material fresh. They do this not because of outright laziness and lack of originality (well, at least most of the time), but because audiences flock to the theaters and streaming channels to watch them.
Reunion movies are perhaps second only to holiday movies (Christmas being the dominant holiday theme among them) in popularity among niche subgenres.
Hollywood is always looking for the next generation’s versions of these staple classics. And audiences are eagerly awaiting them.
Here we feature some of the best reunion movies and share screenwriting tips found within the films that screenwriters can apply to their own reunion stories, as well as any genre that they tackle.
Indian Summer (1993)
We start with one of the more underappreciated reunion movies that may have been lost in time to many. Regardless, it’s a fun classic that deserves to be featured.
Eight friends reunite for a week-long reunion at a summer camp in Ontario that they used to attend as children. The camp is now on the verge of possibly being closed down.
As a child, Writer/Director Mike Binder went to summer camp at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada a total of ten times. He based the film on those experiences, and the film is actually shot within the original Camp Tamakwa grounds. One of the founders of the real camp is “Unca” Lou Handler, whom the character in the movie is named after (portrayed onscreen by Alan Alda).
The screenplay does a fantastic job of taking the class reunion film and putting a spin on it by featuring a summer camp group, as opposed to a group of classmates from a school.
The story offers a cathartic experience for those audience members that attended summer camps in their youth. While summer camps aren’t as prevalent as they were in the 20th century, they still hold a special place in the hearts of key female and male demographics ages 35 and up.
While there are indeed moments of humor throughout the script, the story follows somewhat of a more The Big Chill vibe (see below), focusing on the dramatic elements of the characters dealing with middle age and relationship issues. They are also mourning the loss of their childhood, with the story arc of the camp possibly shutting down.
Overall, this film offered the subgenre something different and new. And it managed to blend the reunion subgenre with the summer camp subgenre that had seen some success with the likes of the1979 sleeper hit Meatballs (starring Bill Murray) and its many clones. Crossing genres and subgenres is an excellent way of getting noticed in Hollywood because the demographics and audience bases are already set, not to mention the fact that the hybrid elements of crossing those types of films offer a fresh new take on each of them.
The Big Chill (1983)
One of the most celebrated reunion movies, which garnered three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Glenn Close).
A group of seven former college friends gathers for a weekend reunion at a South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.
Co-Writer/Director Lawrence Kasdan based the characters and story on people he lived with within the Eugene V. Debs co-op in Michigan while attending the University of Michigan. “Co-ops” were co-ed housing in which the residents shared household duties like cooking.
The film is remembered as a tour-de-force of acting, elements which stemmed from the excellent characterization of the script that Kasdan and his co-writer crafted.
Lawrence Kasdan says the title The Big Chill “… is about a cooling process that takes place for every generation when they move from the outward-directed, more idealistic concerns of their youth to a kind of self-absorption, a self-interest which places their personal desires above those of the society or even an ideal.”
Tom Berenger, who played movie star Sam in the film, described this story as being “… about that period in life when you’re beginning to realize you have limitations, that you will never accomplish certain goals and dreams… suddenly, you know you’re not a kid anymore.”
There is little plot involved within this script. The sole conflict that the characters are undertaking is the death of one of their own. They are all dealing with that death in different ways.
The story focuses on characters and dialogue rather than traditional story and plot. The film’s editor, Carol Littleton, stated that “It was really all about nuance and tone and constantly weighing the dramatic value. Looking for the small moments, the little remarks, that made the story.”
While such scripts are a difficult sell in the spec market, they do have their place. When you’re dealing with a story that is more about relationships and less about a driving plot, the key is to find those cinematic moments that explore nuances, remarks, and emotions that audiences can relate to.
You have to explore those characters and find universal themes that offer cathartic moments within the story and character arcs. That’s what makes such scripts stand out.
Most everyone has lost someone close to them in their lives. Most everyone has had to deal with such deaths alongside their friends and family. And those problematic life situations often lead to reflections about life and our own mortalities and unfulfilled dreams and goals.
Co-writers Kasdan and Barbara Benedek did a masterful job of connecting the audience with those universal themes. That is the true secret of great screenwriting.
Beautiful Girls (1996)
Another underappreciated classic of the subgenre.
A piano player at a crossroads in his life returns home to his friends and their own problems with life and love.
The script was inspired by the experiences of screenwriter Scott Rosenberg when he returned home to Needham, Massachusetts. He was waiting to see if his script Con Air (1997) was going to be produced and was growing tired of writing action movies. Rosenberg stated that there was more “action” happening with his friends not wanting to accept that they were turning 30 — or had commitment issues — all of which became the basis for Beautiful Girls.
Rosenberg wrote the first draft of the script in just five days.
This film, which is another reunion movie that features drama over comedy, focuses primarily on a sole protagonist, with all of his other classmates as supporting characters. This makes the film more unique compared to the others we’ve featured thus far.
However, the writer manages to take a single character story arc and apply it the reunion subgenre, complete with an actual class reunion in the mix. Which offers screenwriters a compelling lesson to learn — you can take an otherwise small character study and wrap it into a more desirable genre or subgenre.
Disguising smaller character pieces as larger genres or subgenres that Hollywood — and audiences — embrace more is a crucial way to get those types of screenplays noticed.
Again, it’s about finding ways to connect with audiences. And script readers are included within that group. When you offer cathartic moments and universal themes, you’re bettering your script’s chances of getting noticed.
This script doesn’t just cover coming-of-age elements either. It focuses on love and relationships. And even offers the charming B story of young Marty (Natalie Portman), her first crush, and how that crush affects the main character.
Overall, the script is an excellent lesson in characterization and a perfect example of how you can disguise your small character studies as something bigger.
Gross Pointe Blank (1997)
And now we feature one of the more unique of the bunch.
Martin Blank is a professional assassin. He is sent on a mission to a small Detroit suburb, Grosse Pointe, and, by coincidence, his ten-year high school reunion party is taking place there at the same time.
Screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz wrote the initial script in 1991 after receiving an invitation to his 10th high school reunion. He based many of the film’s characters on real-life friends from Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights, Michigan. It was rumored that the film’s script was based on an actual high school student from Jankiewicz’s past who became a professional hitman. However, that story proved to be a fabrication.
While the script was shopped, several production companies liked the concept, but it took a while for Jankiewicz to sell his script. Kiefer Sutherland wanted to make it in the early Nineties, but, in the words of one columnist, “the mix of comedy and violence proved to be a tough sell.”
That element of the screenplay managed to be its calling card to success. This celebrated cult classic blended the two very different genres and subgenres masterfully.
There was the subgenre of a high school reunion movie. Then the broad comedy genre. All crossed with the action genre. An unlikely pairing to say the least. But that is what screenwriters need to do to stand out. Sure, it took half a decade for the script to be sold and later produced, but what stands out about the film the most is that unique hybrid of genres and subgenres.
And what works even more is that each element of that hybrid delivers. Each element (action, comedy, and reunion theme) stands alone so well. The action and assassin-for-hire elements are excellent, the comedy is hilarious, and the themes often found in class reunion movies are delivered.
Is this an action movie disguised as a comedic reunion movie or is this a comedic reunion movie disguised as an action flick? It doesn’t matter because it delivers so well on both sides.
Hybrids are excellent ways to get noticed in Hollywood. If you can balance the blends of genres and subgenres well, you can offer a spec script that’s fresh, unique, and special
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Yet another masterful blend of genres and subgenres.
A woman on the verge of a divorce from her high school sweetheart finds herself transported back to the days of her senior year in high school in 1960.
Written by Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, the script was initially envisioned as a Broadway musical until they sold it to the studio. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola was then attached.
Debuting a year after the breakout hit Back to the Future, the film explores the concept of time travel, this time focusing on the year 1960 instead of Back to the Future‘s setting of 1955.
So we have another excellent hybrid approach to the reunion movie subgenre, pairing it with time travel. The story opens on the title character preparing for her high school reunion. She’s in her early 40s and on the verge of divorcing her husband that was also her high school sweetheart (played strangely, or perhaps brilliantly, by Nic Cage). She attends her reunion amidst her emotional breakdown and faints, only to wake up in her high school circa 1960, her senior year.
The story allows her to review the choices she originally made, offering her the chance to explore the different options that she never took — and regretted not taking.
That element alone offers a universal theme that audiences connect with. What if we could go back to our high school days and make better, or different, choices?
The story takes a more literal take on the reunion subgenre theme by actually reuniting Peggy with her friends in the very same time frame when they were first graduating high school and moving on in life.
This fantasy element offers something new to the subgenre and makes the script more compelling.
There’s mystery (How did she go back in time and how will she get back?), nostalgia (a desirable element for reunion movies), comedy, and romance. It’s not only a reunion movie with a twist. It’s also a high school coming-of-age movie about those types of friendships, courtships, and growing up.
All of these movies not only teach screenwriters about how to write within the subgenre of reunion movies — but they also offer important lessons of the benefits to blending popular genres and subgenres and using them to disguise otherwise smaller character studies that may not initially attract the attention of Hollywood.
These are just our top five reunion movie picks. Which ones did we not feature and what lessons can be learned from them?
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies