Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival 2009 Part 1

03/11/2009

This is part 1 of reports from the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival (26-29 Oct). The event brought together hundreds of screenwriters, and agents, producers and film-makers.  Over the four busy exciting days there were talks and discussions, networking and mingling, and speed dating between writers and agents/producers. Among the speakers there were Simon Beaufoy, Armando Iannucci, Tony Grisoni, James Schamus, Jonathan Darby, Julian Friedmann, Simon van der Borgh, good people form the BBC, Channel 4, and many others.

First, the first speakers of the first day – Chris Jones and Doug Chamberlain.

Chris Jones

The Call to Adventure

The first day started with Chris Jones’s inspirational talk on why we write, how we’re the descendants of cavemen who gathered around the camp fire to tell others about their experience (we look like them as well, I should add, stooping over the desk, grunting, fiddling on the keyboard like looking for fleas…), and how big stories need courage and a brave storyteller (with a sledge hammer!). A while ago Chris Jones (the co-author of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook) promised everyone that he’s going to make a film that would win an Oscar. And that’s what he did – he made a film called Gone Fishing that got short-listed for an Oscar in 2009. He aimed high and got close.  He told everyone that he’s going to do it and that made him push harder because people were watching. A call to arms it is.

Chris also compared a screenwriter’s career to the hero’s journey: first you have an ordinary world – you’ve got a frustrating day job, and you want to write a script – a call to adventure – but you don’t know where to start, how to make a living, so at first you reject the call. Then you meet your mentor (at a festival maybe), answer the call and cross the first threshold into the underworld – you quit your day job and start working on the script. (Underworld is the symbolic death of something – death/absence of love, courage, etc.) Then you meet your allies – the crew, the cast, you get some funding. Then you’re in the cave – that’s where you shoot the film (not as in a location, so I guess that’s where you hide while they shoot it!), and your reward is the completed film. Post-production is the return home, and the premiere of the film is your rebirth – the birth of a new film-maker. The film itself is the elixir – what you’ve learned while making it, which is going to help you when you take on a new project/adventure. I take it his mentor was Joseph Campbell. But are we then all heroes with a thousand faces, or one of the thousand faces of a hero? Or are we the ones who create more faces? (I wouldn’t put that on my business card! Getting too meta…)

Doug Chamberlain

Hollywood or Bust

Doug wrote Toy Story 2.  He talked about how to get to Hollywood and stay there. For that you need to be aware of the myths and preconceptions about Hollywood:

No one knows anything. That doesn’t mean they’re all idiots. It actually means that you can’t tell what’s going to be the next hit. The community and the market is in a constant change and predictions are hard to make.  “Perception is reality and vice versa,” Doug said, comparing Hollywood to a high school: first, someone is ignored and no one wants to be friends with them; then someone discovers them and becomes their champion, and then suddenly everyone realises that this guy is cool and everyone wants to be their friend! So you need a champion – someone who likes you, and that person (producer, agent, director…) will open doors for you. And when pitching a project to a producers – you need to sell it to them the same way they sell a film to you. Why did you go see a particular film? What made you interested in it? You need to send your scripts to competitions, send query letters, network, make contacts, create relationships. Perception is reality, and perception is something that you can control.

Everyone just hires friends and family. Actually, very few of them. The fact is that Hollywood is based on relationships. You don’t work with companies but with people. So if you start a project with Mr. B from Studio D and the next week he’s fired and you’re out of a job as well. You should build a network of contacts. Contacts open doors, talent will keep you in.

Everyone’s crazy. Not true. The fact is that you have to think in terms of Hollywood logic, not in terms of real world logic (which sounds like a verdict to me!). Everyone is scared – scared of failure, scared of getting fired… so they act by a different criteria. Also, you never send an episode of an existing series to the company that produces it – they know the show inside out and they’ll find a million mistakes in it! Instead, you send it to someone else who will see what you can do and hire you to write something else.

Dress badly! True. Wear a shitty T-shirt and a baseball cap! Producers don’t want to hire a producer or a businessman, they want an artist. So look like one! Doug told an anecdote about the Marx brothers who set a fire in Irving Thalberg’s office (in the fireplace, of course), took off their clothes and started grilling marshmallows. Did they get fired? No. But Thalberg had a great story to tell about his wacky writers for the next three years! So you’re advised not to act rationally. Be an eccentric genius!

Young writers who cheat their way into Hollywood will be thrown out (like fixing exam results, etc) – no, they won’t. Once they’re in, they’re in.

Don’t show them how hard you work. For producers, magic is more important than your hard work. They don’t care about how much research you did and what sources you used, they just want to think the story works by magic! (which makes me question the point about being crazy) They want to be proud of having discovered you.

They’re all lazy. Not true. They go to events, network, look for clients, work overtime.  Studios wait for the talent to come to them only because they haven’t got the resources to look for them. You should be easily available, so that they can contact and meet you whenever.

They’re ruled by the lowest common denominator. Not true. There’s a difference between simple and simplistic. When pitching, you need to use simple terms, and know what the story is about in order to describe it clearly. Don’t describe the plot, you need to have a clear premise.

There was a question from the audience about how stupid films get made to which Doug replied that they might not be rubbish, just made with a specific audience in mind which might not have been you.  You didn’t have to like Dude, Where’s My Car because you weren’t the target audience.
Also, there’s a herd mentality – often studios want to make films another studio had a success with (i.e. Bug’s Life and Antz), and if some film with some particular theme or subject becomes a flop then that subject will be considered dead for a while, and no one will accept scripts dealing with it.  If there’s a film with bugs that flops don’t go offering a bug script to anyone. Wait. According to Simon van der Borgh in another session there are trends that come and go – for example there’s psychological horror, slasher/torture porn, and vampire films – one type of horror film fades out, the other is rediscovered, and so they keep circling. And we have to catch the right wave.

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Have a look at other notes from the Screenwriters Festival:
Part 2: Making a Living as a Writer
Part 3: Armando Iannucci and Kevin Loader on In the Loop
Part 4: Screenwriter as Diplomat with Simon Beaufoy

Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival website

More notes from the Screenwriters Festival 2009 here on Vera Mark’s inkblog.

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One Response to “Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival 2009 Part 1”

  1. Lauri said

    Nice sum up :)

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