Austin Film Festival: Day 2 (Panels)

This morning I got up early and went down to attend a panel I'd pre-registered for titled "The Hart Chart." Screenwriter James V. Hart (Dracula, Contact) has a unique way of charting the "heartbeat" of films by tracking the characters' ups and downs. It was actually pretty neat. I've taken my share of screenwriting courses, and to be honest I don't know that good writing can really be taught so much as absorbed, but this was at least far better than the typical three-act structure stuff instructors like to lob at screenwriting students. While Hart typically devotes an entire day to deconstructing Dracula for his chart, this morning we only had an hour and a half and were taking apart The Dark Knight Rises. (I haven't seen the movie yet, but now I know what happens and what to look for.)

Hart and [the far right side of] his chart.

After that, I had signed up for a Roundtable event titled "Breaking Into the Business." This was the place I'd most hoped to get the information I'm seeking, and while informative in some ways, it ultimately failed to get me where I want to be.

For the roundtable, there were, well, several round tables in the room with a few people seated at each. Panelists then circulated; each table was visited by three (like ghosts in A Christmas Carol—and they did it all in just over an hour, so take that, Christmas Past!) The visitors to my table were Lee Shipman, Will Staples, and Bryan Brucks. Shipman said the best path was to enter contests. Staples said you should get a job fetching coffee and work your way up. And Brucks . . . He said a lot of stuff, really, and was the closest thing to helpful short of agreeing to read something and/or sign me. (He invited me to a "Finding Representation" panel that he was going to be on, but it was for semifinalists in the AFF writing competition, and I couldn't find him to ask him to get them to let me in. You owe me a drink, Brucks!)

Honestly, Brucks said that you have to write what a manager or producer can sell, which is kind of common sense. Thing is, the stuff that wins competitions isn't always the stuff studios want because it's not what audiences pay to see. Like, comps love historical dramas or whatever. But how many historical dramas open in cinemas each year? I mean, really? He also said in some ways television is easier if only because it has a more regular path, but . . . I don't know. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said, "Television." Because I had always wanted to be a television writer. I like exploring characters at length the way TV shows allow. But at the same time, I'm not 100% convinced I'd be up for the whole writers' room life. There's something nice about writing a movie and then being done. I'll have to think about it.

Finally, I was also pre-registered for "Revisions with Terry Rossio." (He's known for writing Shrek and working on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among many other things.) Rossio's panel was very much like a writing class or lecture, and he also said one can't teach writing, though one can learn to write. I do feel like learning writing is an organic thing; it's not something you can break into steps. Well, you can and people have done, but the end result when writing this way tends to be stilted and, yes, formulaic.

What Rossio said that was pretty cool was: no matter how satisfied you are with something you've written, remain open to the idea that it can be made better. This seems like a small thing, but writers tend to get defensive about their "babies." Being open to [constructive] criticism is important. Of course, knowing when to tell someone to STFU is also good. ::shrug::

Rossio also promoted the idea of using developmental art as a pitching tool. It can be a mock trailer or comic book, but it needn't be so elaborate; the idea is to give them something visual to help communicate the idea of the story and get them excited about it. Writers are word people, after all, and studio folk think in pictures.

He then did some rewriting on a couple scenes submitted by conference attendees. He didn't get around to mine, though he said he'd do all of them eventually and e-mail them back. Well, I know it'll be a while before that happens, but I look forward to his notes.

I had the fun of being recognized by a couple different people today, too, which was sort of novel. Could my star be on the rise?

(Or maybe I'm just obnoxious enough that word is getting around. Hrm.)

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