Sunday, September 26, 2021

Right place, write time

Hollywood screenwriter Bennett Yellin authors a new future in themed entertainment

Photo: Bennett Yellin (center) with “Dumb and Dumber” stars Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey
By Martin Palicki

It’s a scene many industry pros might relate to. A young boy visits Disneyland, and while the rest of his family enjoys a ride, the child diligently tries to figure out how it was created. Bennett Yellin was one of those kids. Growing up in Southern California, Bennett was fascinated with the innovative attractions being created for the theme park industry, as well as the excitement and theatrics of Hollywood. Yellin was something of a child magician and this gave him the perspective to see that both film and theme parks were ultimately doing the same thing: creating a magical “experience” for their audiences.

“I was enthralled with Disneyland and movies and knew early on that I wanted to work behind-the-scenes on both,” says Yellin. The realization gave birth to two crazy dreams: to write motion pictures and create theme park attractions.

Yellin had heard the term ‘Imagineer’ on The Wonderful World of Disney but wasn’t sure how to become one, so he turned his attention to a more achievable goal, teaching writing.  This led him to receive a Bachelor’s in Fiction from UCLA and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 

Bennett never made it to that teaching job, though, as early in grad school he met Peter Farrelly, another student in the MFA program. The two co-authored a script and managed to get it to Eddie Murphy (credit goes to Peter’s date, who told him the actor lived next door to her parents). Murphy passed it on to execs at Paramount Studios, who brought the duo in, kicking off their writing careers.

Their partnership (with the inclusion of Peter’s brother Bobby) resulted in Bennett’s most notable credit: the 1994 hit “Dumb and Dumber.” The film has become a classic, and has earned a spot in pop culture’s collective conscience.

Yellin spent the next 30 years writing for Hollywood, working with the likes of the Zucker Brothers (creators of Airplane!), John Hughes, Madonna, Jim Carrey, Paul Reiser, Matt Damon, Gregg Kinnear, Cher, Kate Hudson, John C. Reilly, and Patrick Stewart.

The next step

Fast forward to 2017, when Yellin realized he had successfully achieved his childhood dream. “I’d done a bit of everything in my screenwriting career, and I was ready for a new challenge even though I wasn’t quite sure what that would be,” says Yellin. “I’d completely forgotten about the idea of creating attractions for theme parks.”

Around this time, one of Yellin’s acquaintances had been posting on social media about the opening of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, where he’d served as senior art director.  “I asked him if it was feasible to pivot from writing for films and television to theme parks.  His response was ‘Absolutely!  People do it all the time.’”  Just like that, Bennett’s long-dormant dream was re-ignited.

After some research, Yellin discovered the Themed Entertainment Association. He joined in late 2018 and decided to attend the TEA Western Division’s annual holiday party. Yellin “didn’t know a soul” at the event, so while waiting to get in, he nervously struck up a conversation with the woman in front of him, who took him around and introduced him to guests. That led to a conversation with Co-Founder, CEO and Executive Producer at Super 78 Dina Benadon, herself a successful navigator between themed entertainment, film and television. 

A few months later, Super 78 brought Yellin in to do some work on their project ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: An Interactive Adventure,’ the company’s newest Geppetto-powered interactive character attraction at Moody Gardens [See “Geppetto Grows,” InPark issue #80, November 2019]. While the script had largely been written, Yellin was asked to bring more comedic elements into the story. 

“20,000 Leagues was the perfect project to allow me to apply all of my screenwriting strengths,” says Yellin. “I had an absolute blast!”

“We were so thrilled to have Bennett work with us on ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: An Interactive Adventure,’” said Benadon. “We’re all huge fans of his fantastic movies and he’s just an incredibly fun and talented guy. His comic instincts added tremendously to the final product. We can’t wait to work with him again!” 

20,000 Leagues has been well-received since opening in November 2019. It was even nominated for the inaugural Innovation Award by the Producers Guild of America, which recognizes projects that are advancing media technology and creativity across a variety of disciplines.

Although comedy is Yellin’s specialty, he has experience in other genres too, having authored thrillers and sci-fi during his Hollywood days. “It’s always about creating an experience in the envelope of a story and I don’t think that’s ever really going to change,” says Yellin. “I’m a storyteller at heart – give me a premise and ideas will start popping from my head.”

Yellin likes to say he thinks outside the box, but always keeps one toe in it. That’s a good match for theme parks and museums, which frequently are looking for the next great thing, but still can be a little risk-averse. It’s also an industry that values experience and accomplishment, which Yellin offers.

“I’ve created original characters for studios as well as written for existing characters, ensuring they remained on brand and within strict guidelines,” explains Yellin. With IP oftentimes being the central element of a project, it’s critical to get that component right, especially early in the process.

Writing the future

One year later at the 2019 TEA Western Division holiday party, Yellin already had a successful project under his belt and walked into the event knowing dozens of people he had met and worked with over the past twelve months. “There is a warmth and commonality to this industry that I really appreciate,” says Yellin. “The shared enthusiasm and passion for wanting to provide guests with a wonderful memory really speaks to me.”

“Part of my career success is thanks to being in the right place at the right time, but it’s really about the relationships I have made and nurtured through events at TEA and IAAPA that have made the difference.”

What’s next for Bennett? “Flexibility is the name of the game,” he says. Yellin welcomes freelance gigs but would consider a full-time opportunity as well.

“In hindsight, my career progression seems entirely natural, even though I didn’t realize it at the time,” says Yellin. “I’m truly lucky to be able to be ‘living the dream’ – both of them!”

[UPDATE: This profile was authored before the pandemic. Bennett Yellin is continuing to pursue opportunities in themed entertainment and is looking forward to the safe resumption of industry events and conferences.]

Bennett Yellin, President of Really Important Guy, Inc. can be reached at [email protected]

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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