By Saul Anton
The Independent Feature Project‘s annual screenwriting conference (April 9-11) is a three-day whirlwind of writers, producers, agents, readers, editors, filmmakers and other industry types that aims to give screenwriters at all levels of experience a terrain map to the film industry. If you’ve committed the sin of screenwriting, this is a great opportunity to see and hear professionals in the industry who read, buy, produce and, most importantly, reject scripts. In the course of three days, they talk about what they do, what they like, what they hate, and tell war stories from their own experiences, good, bad, and ugly. Last but not least, it gives people a chance to get some “Face Time” with the mythical beings who control the keys to their future.
The conference opened with a panel on the TV series, “Law & Order.” Executive producer and head writer Rene Balcer and producer/writer Richard Swerin, an ex-attorney who was hired onto the show after submitting a spec script for “Homicide,” spoke about the daily grind of L&O. Marc Levin of “Slam” fame moderated. Along with useful nuts-and-bolts info — for example, that the show is structured in 4 acts with 12 beats each — they dropped the following bomb: only one spec script has been bought in the show’s history. Thus: if you want to write for TV, write a spec for another show and submit it as a sample. This seems to be a rule of thumb for aspiring television writers. A spec script can demonstrate your knowledge and talent to a producer looking for a new writer.
Everyone started to perk up somewhere into the second panel, “Navigating your Options for Representation.” Four agents and an entertainment lawyer — among them the well-known Ruth Pomerance, who has joined Mike Ovitz’ new management company, American Management Group, as head of its New York office — were posed thoughtful questions by Steven Starr, a filmmaker moderating the panel. Starr focused the discussion on the importance of the “language of the pitch” as a vehicle for career success. “It is the language that producers, directors and agents use to speak about screenplays,” he noted as he suggested ways to hone the skill. Practice in front of a mirror, tell the story to your grandmother, your best friend, and have several project ideas on deck if and when you do get that meeting. That way, the agent knows you’re a serious contender for the long haul.
When I asked the panel whether or not and to what extent they were seeking material more indie than studio, all of them gave unequivocal yeses. Other questions followed, ranging from the ridiculous to the obscenely practical: “I’ve been writing a script and a novel. Is that a good idea?” “Should I mention all my projects in a letter?” What slowly unfolded, occasionally, was a theme that would be echoed again and again. To paraphrase slick Willy: “It’s the Story Stupid!” But it came in tandem with the following important dictate: do not send your script unsolicited. Instead, write a query letter to pique curiosity and stimulate the mental salivary glands of the agent. We also heard the audience comment of the day: “I write stories that people find hard to bear.”
During lunch, I stalked participants and polled their opinions. Responses were unanimously positive. One person told me he’d realized that New York was the place to be for a beginning writer. “It offers,” he said, “accessibility, something you don’t get in L.A., where everyone is so spread out.” Another participant, a recent graduate of Columbia Film School, told me it was an excellent networking environment. Jose Colon, a young man who grew up in the South Bronx told me he’d learned not “to get too sophisticated” and tell a “simple story.” In the meantime, people buzzed and schmoozed all around me. Eddy Gilbert-Herch, the story editor and dramaturge for Fifth Night, the reading series at the Nuyorican poet’s cafe, milled around the crowd talking about Lalos Egri and Aristotle, whom he considered unsurpassed as a screenwriting teacher. “In three thousand years, no one’s improved on the art of dramatic writing.”
The afternoon panels were called “Taking Control of Your Career” and “The Producer’s Vision.” The former had several development executives speaking about their needs and responsibilities, including Anne Carey of Good Machine, Caroline Kaplan of the Independent Film Channel and Joana Vicente of Open City films, who was bullish on the prospects of digital filmmaking. “We’re seeing a lot of very interesting, personal work coming in.” Afterwards, I spoke with one panelist, Nichole Graham, an agent at Writers & Artists, and asked her what her thoughts were about the audience. “Most writers don’t know enough about the industry. If you don’t own the Hollywood Creative Directory, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Graham explained, “We get query letters at our agency for agents who haven’t worked with us for years.” But she admitted signing one young writer who had relentlessly cold-called her, and he’s now wrapping his first feature. Graham was clearly open to the prospects at the conference, “If I get 20 great query letters and sign 5 great writers, I’ll be very excited.”
By the end of the Saturday morning panel, “Behind the Scenes with Script Readers and Story Editors,” it became clear that most people in the business of cinema live in an obscenely contradictory state of scarcity and plenty, at least as far as scripts go. They are desperately looking for material, despite the fact that they’re all swimming in slug lines and dialogue. But when someone asked “What’s a slush pile?” I remembered why it wasn’t so paradoxical. The panel had two script readers, a story editor, and a couple of development executives. The big word here was “Proactive.” We heard several stories of people shoving scripts at them in elevators, festivals, and cafes. Another important theme touched on was the importance of “Script Notes.” Like death and taxes, script notes came off sounding like absolutes. And they are. So adjust your attitude if you want your masterpiece to get made.
Resonant through the conference: a script should differentiate itself from the mountains of soon-to-be recycling. This need to stand out seems to be the basis of the truer paradox governing the mysterious process from script-to-screen: a screenplay needs to be totally original and totally familiar at the same time. Heidi Herman, a script reader for Miramax, summed up this philosophy of screenwriting very ably: “A good screenplay is a universal experience told in a specific, charming way.” Indeed. That could very well describe the philosophy of a Miramax picture. If only some of the audience members also possessed such pithy eloquence.
When the panel broke up, the crowd lost whatever shame had restrained it in the morning, and surrounded the panelists in a heavy swell. I was surprised and pleased, however, with how much good will the panelists showed. All of them were very open to questions and responses. Ross Martin, story editor at Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and Mule, spent considerable time fielding questions, pitches and passing out his business card. When I asked him if he was bothered by being bum rushed, I soon felt like the callous media dog I am: “I like it, actually,” he told me, “There’s so much they need to learn and some of them are so helpless.” But he offered a piece of advice. “I think people should be reminded that people on the other side of the wall have a lot of integrity who want to make good movies, not just a lot of money.”
Sunday consisted of a number of workshops with lawyers, more development execs and well-known indie producers like Anthony Bregman at Good Machine, Gill Holland of Cineblast!, Eva Kolodner of Killer Films and Eric Watson, who produced Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi.” At Watson’s session I came in to discover he was warning people to forget the notion of getting rich in indie film. (Despite the $3.5 million gross of “Pi,” he’s only taken home $8,000. And the cast and crew are still owned a portion of salaries.)
The last two panels, however, got everyone feeling good. The panel with GreeneStreet Films was genuinely useful, since the writer-star, director and producer, along with two readers, read through several drafts of their forthcoming “Company Man,” starring Sigourney Weaver, Douglas McGrath (who also wrote it), John Turturro and Woody Allen. The audience appreciated seeing how a single scene can warp and woof according to the needs of different aspects of filmmaking, from financiers who were looking for a longer car-chase to an idea arrived at while location scouting.
It was the charming and very forthright director Allison Anders, director of “Gas Food Lodging” and “Mi Vida Loca,” who made the grand finale. She quickly struck chords with the audience as she spoke very frankly about her difficult life growing up. We heard about her alcoholic stepfather, her rape, two children, welfare, her passion for Paul McCartney, and how, after running away from home, Anders eventually made it through film school. One participant, who’d flown to the conference from San Francisco, stood up and told Anders she was her hero. At the reception, several people told me that Anders was the best thing about the conference. She spent at least an hour fielding questions and talking to her admirers. It was clear that these people identified with Anders, and were moved by the attention she gave to those not normally shown on the big screen.
When I spoke to Anders, she wanted to speak out about how critics treated women filmmakers, regularly trashing first time women filmmakers while letting go “shitty boy movies.” She told me that for her, using the kind of painful personal experience she’d had was part and parcel of her creative process. “There’s no way that you’ve got a crisis that no one else has had.” For this very reason, it seemed, the audience had powerfully identified with her and her personal story. Her message was compact. “It allows you to see that you’re not alone, and that gives you hope.”
As I walked out into the rainy afternoon, I thought about what Anders had said and about all those aspiring writers eagerly listening to her every word. She understood that hope was a high concept. And that was what the conference was really all about.
[Saul Anton is a freelance writer and critic, who’s written for Artforum and FEED and has just finished his first feature-length screenplay.]