This year I attended the Austin Film Festival to represent a short film I directed as well as a one-hour TV pilot which was a Second Rounder in the script competition. I felt very fortunate to attend such an exciting festival and to learn from so many accomplished writers.
The Austin Film Festival was founded in 1994 with the goal of celebrating the craft of screenwriting in particular, which is sometimes overlooked in entertainment. Since then, it has become one of the premiere screenwriting competitions in the United States and the accompanying conference is a hub for both aspiring and professional screenwriters.
Here are some things I learned listening to the many excellent panels on offer this year at the conference.
Opening Remarks with VJ Boyd
VJ Boyd is a writer for S.W.A.T, JUSTIFIED and LINCOLN RHYME. He also writes the comic books NIGHT MOVES and GHOST COP.
Boyd’s Advice: This is a relationship driven business. It is also a feat of endurance. You should maybe wait to shove your script into someone’s face until you know them a bit.
How should writers approach the revision process? How should we think about receiving feedback from others on our work?
On the panel: Nicole Perlman (Co-writer GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, CAPTAIN MARVEL, POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU), Nkechi Okoro Carroll (ALL AMERICAN, THE FED, FOUND) David Self (ARABIA, THIRTEEN DAYS, ROAD TO PERDITION), Bill Collage (RANSOM, NEW YORK MINUTE, ASSASIN’S CREED, DIVERGENT)
Advice from Nicole Perlman: Some writers use a “soup method” where they write too much and boil down the script to the essential elements and others use a sandwich method, where they outline extensively before adding anything to draft, so that not much material is taken out with revisions. She uses the soup method.
Nicole mentors at the Sundance Labs, and she has noticed that her mentees often incorporate all the notes they receive in one draft, which usually doesn’t work. But then following this draft, the script often improves significantly from both the original draft and the second draft.
For studio notes, sometimes you may not like the notes, but if you don’t address it, the film won’t go forward, and no one wins in that scenario.
Nkechi says that it is important to have a positive, constructive attitude about receiving script notes. If someone has a note, they may be wrong, but you will have to address it eventually.
David Self says some notes a related to budget or internal politics at the studio or network. You still have to address these.
Bill Collage says it is important when writing to study past masters of the genre you are working in. As you go through many versions of a script, you can also play with when to reveal information and build in more irony.
Building a Successful Writing Group
Who – Alisha Brophy, Nick Fituri Scown, Cesar Vitale, Scott Miles
This panel is about the writing group that all of the panelists participate in which has been notably successful in producing scripts which have either won or become finalists in the Nicholl Fellowship.
Their writing group “auditioned” many people before settling on four writing entities. There are two writing teams in the group. For each weekly meeting, they focus notes and feedback on just one group.
Alisha said that to create a small, dedicated writers' group, you may need to send out 50 solicitations. Many people will never respond, and some people will not be committed enough to provide the structure and support it takes to succeed as a group.
When the group is giving notes on a script, the writer is not allowed to speak for the first pass of notes. Only after everyone in the group has given their notes is the writer allowed to ask questions. This will avoid the writer attempting to defend or explain their script to the group.
Other principles discussed in the panel:
Remember lateral networking. You want to make connections with people at your level who will come up in the business with you. It is a business of attrition, so you’ll have to stick with it a long time before big things happen for you.
Don’t be too judgmental about people’s writing skills yet. People usually develop good taste before they develop creative skills.
If someone in your group doesn’t read what they are supposed to or gives shallow and vague notes, you should remove them from the group. Set clear expectations about the level of commitment you need from group members.
Who – Jill Chamberlain, Alex Chew, Herschel Weingrod
Jill Chamberlain – author of The Nutshell Technique (Screenwriting Guide)
Jill’s Advice: Nobody wants your unsolicited script. Of her students who have really built careers, they all started their own creative work without waiting for permission. Instead, they build their own audience and waited for industry people to come to them rather than the reverse.
When most people have an idea for a script, what they really have is a situation, not a story. Irony is the glue that holds the story together. Your script has to have something unexpected in the setup.
Alex Chew – writer The Unborn, Little Blessing
Alex’s Advice: For representation, you aren’t necessarily looking for the fanciest “name brand” reps, but instead someone who understands what you are trying to do and understands your voice.
Fail fast. Do more messy first drafts. Always go into a general meeting with at least three scripts you are proud of.
Herschel Weingrod (Writer Trading Places, Brewster’s Millions)
A script is an invitation to make a film. Think of it like an act of seduction.
Find out what your hero wants and follow them.
Universal TV Execs Panel (Marc Velez, Vivian Cannon, Monica Rodman, Kelsey Balance, Jim Donnelly)
Ideally, the relationship between a writer and a studio is mutually advantageous. When a writer is invited to a general or a pitch with a studio or network, the company is already on their side. For these meetings, you should give a sense of who you are and the perspective you bring to entertainment.
Because the market is in flux right now, people want things that feel safe. But you can package creative ideas as safe if you are strategic.
As a writer, it is important to have a life and fully realized hobbies. In a general meeting, the executives are trying to figure out who you are. They want to see someone who has an interesting biography, a perspective on life and creativity, and a coherent brand. You can’t be everything to everyone, so don’t try to be.
State of the Union – Features
Who – Christina Hodson (Writer BUMBLEBEE, BIRDS OF PREY, THE FLASH, BATGIRL), Vanessa Taylor (Co-Writer SHAPE OF WATER, writer/producer GAME OF THRONES), Adam Weinstein (Partner at Verve Talent and Literary Agency), Alex Lerner (Literary Manager at Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment)
Adam Weinstein: The state of feature film is in flux. Wall Street is watching viewership much more closely than before. They are targeting higher returns on a metric called “Average Revenue Per User.”
Some films have performed really well in the past year relative to their budgets, like MINIONS, EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, and TOP GUN MAVERICK.
Christina Hodson: As a writer, it is critical to know how to pitch your projects and yourself. You don’t have to like public speaking, but you have to be good enough at it to get opportunities.
Vanessa Taylor: When you are pitching a feature you need to know the Second Act Out. You should know your story inside and out, but don’t explain the entire film in the pitch.
Christina’s Advice – Read Everyday. Writer Everyday. Save your money so that you can continue to read and write everyday.
Vanessa’s Advice – Look for people will help you become a better writer. There aren’t enough great screenplays.
Alex Werner – Success comes in many forms. Don’t be so dead set on a particular outcome that you make yourself miserable for years. Keep your life pleasant and don’t suffer needlessly as an artist.