10 Things About The Screenwriter's Festival

This report has been a while coming... and by God, it's far from exhaustive. The likes of Danny Stack, Stuart Perry and Blogful Martin (The Artist Formerly Known As Blogless Martin) have written in-depth pieces about the recent four-day Screenwriter's Festival, from their different points of view, so I'll try not to tread too much familiar ground. Here, then, are 10 Things About The Cheltenham Screenwriter's Festival. Often broken down into several other things...

Cheltenham was, for me, 65 per cent about networking and making new friends. Sure, there were some truly great sessions, Q&As and talks in the other 35 per cent, but the opportunities to schmooze were legion. And networking, when you’re in the right mood, is tremendous fun. I consider myself way better at writing than talking, but hey, even I can do it. Yet over the four days, I met the odd person who was terrified of the very concept. One local writer assured me that he was fine once the ice was broken – it was the idea of introducing himself to strangers which made his stomach cartwheel.

Thing is, though, in a closed environment like a screenwriter’s festival, everyone is more-or-less in the same boat. You can network in a knowing kind of way, even joking about the very process. It all becomes much easier than, say, chatting up a stranger in a pub. I met one agent within minutes of arriving in Cheltenham, by the simple act of sharing a cab to the Travelodge with her. I found that even when you approach someone and get blanked, positive things can come of it. During a Spanish-themed networking party thrown by the Film Council (I think), for instance, I approached one of three women who were bantering away. Turned out I picked the wrong one, as she and another of the ladies were only interested in talking to the one who was a producer. Unable to get anything out of them, I stood there like a tool for a minute or two, then pretended to check my phone for texts and wandered off. A little while later, the producer came up to me at the bar and apologised for not saying hello. We had a conversation which led to me sending her a rom-com pitch and synopsis. See? With networking in this kind of environment, you can’t really lose. The worst thing that can happen is someone's eyes fading disinterestedly when they realise you're 'only' another writer, as opposed to a big producer. And would you really want to know that kind of person?

I came away from Cheltenham carrying something in the region of 40 business cards from people with whom I fully intend to maintain some kind of contact. People like Shooting People’s brilliantly tireless Andy Conway, writer/blogger Paul Campbell, writer/script-reader Evan Leighton-Davis, unstoppable film-maker Fiona Maher, writer William Gallagher, actress/writer Julie Hoult, writer Christine Patton, writer/director Alexis Van Hurkman, writer/director Julian Golding, Swiss screenwriter Daniel Eckhart, script editor Valeria Richter, director Adrian Tanner, novelist/screenwriter Betsy Speer, director Nasir Butt, script consultant Sarah Olley, writer/director Julie A. Gribble (aka Ann of Cleves, often seen in this here Scribosphere) and Michelle Wilbye (whose business card brilliantly has ‘Bedding & Container Plants – Hanging Baskets a Speciality’ crossed-out in pen and replaced with ‘Writing’).


Anything wrong with the fest, you say? Very little. In fact, the whole thing was so efficiently run, with such a friendly atmosphere and against such a beautiful backdrop that it almost seems petty to point the few defects out. So let get them out of the way now: they're the same things most people commented on. Namely: (a) £9.90 for a main meal in the cafĂ©’s canteen was way too expensive; (b) there was little noticeable division between the ‘newbie’ and ‘professional’ days, apart from the latter attracting slightly fewer attendees, who in turn had a slightly more cynical, dissatisfied outlook; and (c) one of the rooms was too small, leading you to hang around outside as early as possible, in a near-desperate bid to avoid being denied entry. I soon learnt this lesson after failing to get into Tony Jordan’s Red Planet Prize announcement. Being a diamond geezer and consummate pro, however, Tony subsequently perched himself on a bench outside and enjoyed a cigarette while giving a small group of people like me the lowdown, all over again. Which was actually better than having been in the room.

My favourite festival speaker was William ‘Bill’ Nicholson, the man who wrote Gladiator but generally seems to specialise in adapting true-life stories for the screen. It’s a testament to the man’s speaking prowess that, while I have limited interest in the films on which he works, or indeed in adapting true-life stories for the screen myself, he had me enthralled for an hour. In fact, I dare say Bill could read me his shopping list and I’d resemble a rabbit/headlights interface. Without the fear. Then again, depends what's on his shopping list.

Anyway, the man’s hilariously eloquent and eloquently hilarious, smoothly dishing out the anecdotes while managing to rise above a mere exercise in name-dropping and making us chortle. No – in both his Reel Life At The Movies talk (two audio-chunks of which you can hear here and here, thanks to my rudimentary digital recording device) and Keynote Speech (kicking off the ‘professional’ days - you can hear this here) he also inspired us. Made us want to write and take just a little more pride in doing so. For that alone, I salute him. Really meant to grab the man for 15 seconds and tell him so, but never got around to it. Shame.

That Helen Smith is far foxier than her current profile picture suggests. She’s patently hiding her light under a bushell, so as not to alienate other ladies of the female gender. Oh, and she’s very amusing, in an intentional kind of way, both before and after consumption of booze. Same goes for the excellent and insanely personable Stuart Perry, who comes out with some gloriously random stuff after a few liveners - mostly in Piers Beckley's Travelodge Room Of Doom. Incidentally, it was in this very den of inequity that I pulled off my most impressive social coup of the four days: I managed to conduct an hour-long discussion of whether or not John Barrowman is gay. In a feat akin to running a debate entitled Is The Pope Catholic?, I insisted that John is die-straight, while a young lady seemingly took me at face value and fervently argued the opposite. This went on for some time. How we all laughed. Well, I did.

My second favourite speaker at the festival was, unexpectedly, David Hare, who wrote Damage and The Hours. During his ‘Input & Where To Put It’ session (hear large chunks of it here and here, why don'tcha?), he spoke amusingly about the testing process of receiving suggestions from outside sources. Perhaps the funniest moment of the whole event came when he recalled Damage actor Jeremy Irons doggedly insisting on giving him script-input over a period of five days. As David told us, with a brilliantly bemused tone: “I don’t tell Jeremy Irons, ‘I think I can act this scene better than you, so I’ll act this one and you can do the one after that’…”. Marvellous stuff. Sadly, that anecdote's not on my recordings. Boo, and indeed, hiss.

For me, the fest’s biggest excitement was generated by my journo-pal Nigel Floyd’s onstage Q&A with Simon Oakes, the new guv’nor at Hammer Films. As I consider my ‘specialised screenwriting subject’ to be horror, it’s rather thrilling to have a ‘new’ production company devoted solely to the genre. What’s more, they have funding. While it’s still very early days, Simon revealed that he doesn’t plan to continue Hammer’s trademark gothic-horror style. The company may exploit the odd old character and “re-imagine” them in a modern way, but the new emphasis will be on contemporary and largely psychological horror.

Simon gave us a few examples of movies he likes: The Others, The Ring, 28 Days Later, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining. As he did so, I saw colour draining from the face of an attendee I’d earlier spoken to, who’d long laboured over a sequel script to one of Hammer’s classic flicks.

While emulating the likes of Saw and Hostel is not on Hammer’s agenda, their Sledgehammer label will produce around five low-budget (under £4m) horror movies per year, “designed for DVD”. Simon added that Hammer in general won’t stick to British movies with British actors – those will, in fact, comprise “30 to 40 per cent” of their output. As he put it, “I’m conscious of the iconic nature of the brand, but this is a global industry”.

Perhaps the best thing about Hammer is that they’re hungry for scripts. While they’ll only accept commissions from an agent (or lawyer), Oakes mentioned that he’d recently commissioned a four-page outline from a first-time writer. And last month, he’d “bought three screenplays, all set in the States”.

After the Q&A, Piers and I sacrificed the chance to see Stephen Frears interviewed in the main Marquee tent, in order to hang out and drink with Simon, his script-reader Nic Ransome and the likes of amiable producer Phil Parker. I asked Simon if I could send him my optioned horror script as a calling-card, to which he agreed. Which meant I could write ‘requested material’ on the envelope. Really hope he likes it, as Hammer’s resurrection is shaping up as one of the best things to happen to British film in quite some time.

Cheltenham was only the second time I’d met Piers Beckley. The man has a brilliant laugh, like a grenade going off. His face goes worrying red as he guffaws. He loves tea and is obsessed with the phrase “preying on the weak and foolish”. As, indeed, am I after four days in his company. Piers also has BALLS OF STEEL, as I discovered after attending a readthrough for his Decaying Orbit script, which he staged at his underground Clapham base. After the actors read through the script, Piers stated that he didn’t care what they liked about it – he only wanted to hear what was wrong with it. As we told him - some of us very frankly - he sat calmly making notes. Then made everyone some grub. Balls. Of. Steel.

I attended a session called Dealing With Hollywood, in which lawyer Charles Moore spoke with Casarotto Ramsay agent Rachel Holroyd about the titular subject. The main thing I learnt here is that UK agents will recommend you to US agents and create a kind of partnership, taking a commission. Interesting stuff. Afterwards, I decided to randomly ask Rachel what she thought of Adrian Mead’s Model Of Assembling A Pack Of Three Scripts For Agents. While Danny Stack found that several agents were up for it, Rachel doesn’t follow suit. She wants to read “as little as possible”, and ideally suggested sending in one pilot script for a series. Clearly, then, it comes down to each agency’s needs and tastes – and arguably those of each agent within each agency.

Danny Stack, then: a very nice man indeed. In some ways different to the Danny Stack I expected from his essential blog (maybe it’s the way that blogs don’t have Irish accents, or that his blog-photo is rather cryptic), he’s every bit as generous as his info-heavy blog might suggest. For instance, at one point I overheard him talking to a couple of industry folk about me and a couple of other writers. In a good way, I hasten to add: he wasn't, as far as I could tell, suggesting that we were shysters and not to be trusted. Just one example of how Danny clearly doesn’t see all this as a big competition. He’s not the kinda guy to pull the rope-ladder up once he’s through the door in the ceiling. A gentleman, great company and a right old laugh to boot.

The Film4 session was very useful. Hosted by Peter Carlton, the company’s perfectly approachable Commissioning Executive, it was a handy crash-course in what the 25-year-old Film4’s all about. Of course, there were things we already knew, such as their films being generally edgy, rather than broad – although Peter did stress that the idea of being shocking felt really old now. He used the expression “fucked-up genre films” as an example of his taste: movies which seem like genre entries, but are hiding something different/deeper, like some kind of cinematic Trojan horse.

Some random facts: Film4 generally makes about eight movies a year, although in 2007 it’s turned out to be 15. Everything Film4 makes also has to be able to play on Channel 4. They like spending £1m to £1.5m on films, because it means they can take risks. Their staff is predominantly female. They consider themselves “director-led”, although Peter stressed that this isn’t as scary for writers as it might seem. They operate an online submissions system and aim to reply in six weeks – not bad, considering they receive 50 submissions a week and don’t have a massive staff. They look at their audience demographic as being “student to mid-30s”.

Yes, this blog-post goes up to eleven. And you had no idea. So there we have it. Loads I've missed out I'm sure - such as the fact that psychologist Raj Persaud's hour-long talk on the psychology of the writer was unexpectedly fascinating and funny (hear my recording here if you like, although in a nutshell, we're all mad and mostly destined to go madder. Oh, and people who win Academy Awards live for, on average, four years LESS than those who don't... which will be good news for most of us). Cheltenham was a blast and I will return next year, for sure. But this post is now rivalling Lucy Vee's recent epic about Different Types Of Writer, and my eyelids are drooping like tulips in a microwave. So I shall bid you a good day. Good day.


Lucy said...

Script Readers there! And I wasn't!!! So going next year, damn your hide.

Jason Arnopp said...

Yes, and they were all slagging you off. Saying you're rubbish and spoil movie-endings for people. :-D

Danny Stack said...

Ah, I still needed your tenner, and I could see you out of the corner of my eye... Plus, obviously, you're a man not to be messed with.

Robin Kelly said...

Extremely useful post, Jase. I'm really appreciating the audio.

Oli said...

Very excited about Hammer being back in business, and with the direction they seem to be taking. Once I wangle an agent, I've got something for them...

Great post, but now I feel like I missed out on an awful lot...

Lianne said...

Thanks Jason!

Still gutted to have missed out on it all. Sigh. Next year.

Piers said...

Start saving, y'all.

It was well worth the money.

Lara said...

Sounds like you had a great time - I particularly liked hearing about your "John Barrowman: is-he-or-isn't-he" discussion...

All being well, I'll most definitely be heading there next year too. The festival that is - not the John Barrowman discussion.

Helen Smith said...

Foxy and amusing? I'm so thrilled by these observations that I've done a frenzy of clicks on your Google Ads. So if you should find yourself $1.38 richer at the end of the month you'll know why. And let it be a lesson to others - kindness really does pay.

Helen Smith said...

Someone pointed out to me that you shouldn't click loads of times on other people's Google Ads cause it gets them disqualified. Now I must admit, I was only making a cheap joke. You know I'm cheap, right, Jason? But even so, I'd hate anyone to get any silly ideas...

Stuart Perry said...

Many thanks for the kind words, sir - you're pretty damn insanely personable yourself.

Rob Stickler said...

Excellent post. Especially the promised Hammer update - most interesting. The talk of re-imagining Dracula had scared me (in the wrong way) as it's so obviously the wrong way to go. This sunds much more promising - although I kind of think the Britishness of Hammer should be emphasised as a selling point.

Wish I had an agent, I could pitch my remake of 'Fear in the Night'.

You've sort of picked out the stuff everyone left out. I'm gutted I was stupid enough to miss this - especially as I was off work that week. I'll definitely be attending next year.

Oh, and yes I'm a Cardiff-dweller. Though I'm soon to relocate to the Midlands due to work commitments.