SWCW 13: Recap

So the Screenwriters World Conference West has just wrapped here in L.A. It's been a good time; I met a lot of interesting people, I learned a few things and heard (again) many things that writers need to hear but, because we are solitary creatures, often do not hear nearly enough. We hear it and think, Duh. I know that. But knowing and being reminded are not the same thing.

I've also had more soda and candy bars than are good for me.

I arrived Friday afternoon. I'd say "just in time for traffic" but every time is "just in time for traffic" in L.A. Still, Friday afternoons can be worse than most. So I missed the keynote but was able to jump in with Pilar Alessandra's Pitch talk, wherein she gave us templates to help work out our pitches. Very helpful, though when I moved on to Danny Manus' talk on Loglines & Queries, I of course got some contradictory information. One has to remember that every studio, every production company, every agent and manager is different and has a different idea about how best to do things. Going to conferences like this one only underscores how subjective it all is.

This is NOT an excuse, however, for writers to say, "Oh, they didn't like my script because they didn't understand it" or whatever. If you're getting the same response everywhere, if it's all "no," then go back to your script and figure out where the problem(s) is (are). If you're lucky enough to get feedback (or have enough money to pay for a consultant to give you feedback, which can be invaluable), see if what they say makes sense. Sometimes it's crap advice, and it really is just that a person didn't like the script. But sometimes—and this is especially true if you're hearing the same thing from a lot of different places—there's still more work to be done before anyone can really hope to sell the script. And when you send that baby out there into the world, you do really want it to be as good as you feel you can get it. It won't be perfect, but it needs to be (as they say in the medical world) "viable."

[slightly blurry] snap of one of Manus' visual aids

I ended my first night with a panel on Tips & Tricks of the Trade. It was moderated by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman and featured Robbie Fox, Doug Richardson, and Tom Schulman. (Yes, that Tom Schulman, the one who wrote Dead Poet's Society.) Honestly, this panel was a lot of remembrances and anecdotes, but it was fun. Fox stated that short films are the way in these days, that writers should make shorts and get them out there because studio and production people would rather watch something than read a script.

A lot of what we heard over the weekend is the emphasis on the business being a relationship biz. This goes to the whole "who you know" aspect, but it also goes beyond. Because first people have to get to know you. So you want to stand out . . . And yet not be weird and creepy . . . Being confident is good, but being cocky is not . . . You want to be someone other people want to work with.

More that we learned: That studios are making fewer and fewer movies, meaning there's less work for writers. Studios don't want original content because they aren't "building from the ground up" any more. They want to grab properties that already have fans (comic books, popular novels, etc.). This is in large part because 2/3 of ticket sales are now overseas, and the audiences over there (especially China) eat up the epic blockbusters.

And by the way, did you know the studios keep databases and exchange info regarding scripts and writers circulating through town? Speaking of being creepy . . .

On Saturday morning I attended the panel on getting an agent or manager. If you're wondering what the difference is (at least in California), an agent can solicit work and negotiate on his/her client's behalf and a manager cannot. Managers more guide, counsel, promote the writer's career. They can help the writer prioritize projects, tell them whether an idea is salable. Managers usually work in conjunction with agents.

This panel also said that specs for existing shows are a dying animal; nowadays writers need two original television pilot specs instead. (Well, but again I got contradicting info from one of the managers in the pitching session, so . . .)

Here's what's true: There is a constant need for fresh, original material in the television writing market. But the agents and managers are also (again!) looking for personalities that are not high maintenance, people who are reasonable and flexible, who are professional.

I pitched on Saturday to six managers and production companies. One passed. Four asked for contact info and/or business cards. One requested a script. I don't know if that's successful? It's a start, I guess. And it was good experience anyway.

This morning I started with the Getting Past the Reader panel that featured Brian McDonald, Kathie Fong Yoneda, Richard Botto (of Stage 32, which is a site that's done me solid this past year or so), and Karl Iglesias. This one was also moderated by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman.

When asked what they look for when reading a script, some sample responses included:
  • Roughly 50/50 ratio of dialogue to description (when simply flipping through the pages)
  • Dialogue that "plays" rather than big blocks of speech
  • Proper formatting and no typos
  • That the script isn't too long
  • Writing that is visual and meant for the screen
  • Action
  • Characters with emotional connection to the audience
They of course told us we should read [successful] scripts to see how it's done (but try to keep in mind many scripts online are shooting scripts, which are written differently). They pointed out that it's confusing to have characters with names that are too similar. They pointed out how important it is to pull the reader through the script by having a great story, never giving the reader a reason to stop and think too hard.

(After this panel I had the chance to chat with Mr. McDonald, who was very encouraging as I bemoaned my struggles with a current screenwriting project.)

At the Breaking Into Hollywood panel (Lee Jessup, Michael Tabb, Chris Soth, Barri Evins, moderated by Adam Finer) much the same kinds of things were said. There is no magic formula; every writer's journey is different. But here are some things they said to do:
  1. Constantly be generating content
  2. Expose that content (i.e., get feedback)
  3. Network
Do it all simultaneously. Be doing it all the time. Don't write, then stop and take time off from writing to network. Keep all those balls in the air.

Remember that, until you have a huge hit movie, you're always breaking in. You're only as good as your last script. Build relationships and think about what you can give rather than what you can get. And know who you are—create a writing identity, a personal brand—because that's what you're really selling.

(Also, shop at Trader Joe's.)

The closing keynote was with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. You may know them as the guys who have written Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World. But they came a long way before getting to do those kinds of cool scripts. It was fun to listen to their story and think about where I am on the curve of my own writing journey. (Sort of entering the "talking dog movies" part of my professional arc.)

Which reminds me. I have a couple rewrites to do and an outline to finish . . . And a dinner date with an old friend, too . . .

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