Screenwriters' Fest: Who Dares Wins

Last week's Screenwriters' Festival was tremendous. A whirlwind of opportunity, education, friendly faces and achievement. All wonderful and all very tiring indeed - think I'm only just recovering now.

After SWF 2008, I rolled out a whole load of journalist-style coverage on this blog. I'm very sorry, but that won't be the case this year, because I didn't approach the SWF like a journalist. I approached it like a screenwriter, which I hope you'll agree is right and proper, given the festival's name and my chosen career direction. There just wasn't time to approach the SWF properly and be able report at length. The only session during which I took actual notes was How To Be Better, hosted by story editor Kate Leys and agent Rob Kraitt - and I'll share those wisdom pearls in a bit.

Tackling the SWF in a more focused fashion meant I often sacrificed social time with friends - although there were some great evening meals, at which I tried to let my brain wind down a tad (see above for mirthful evidence - those chuckle-smiths are Phill Barron and Michelle Lipton). I didn't drink booze and even went to a gym near my hotel on a couple of mornings, to stoke those handy endorphines. I also attended fewer sessions this year. Not because I felt I had little to learn or gain - far from it - but because so much preparation was needed for other goals. For one thing, I had several 'speed date' meetings with prospective agents and wanted to fully prepare for those. How could I best sum up my CV from the last few years in five minutes? This was the first time I'd really engaged with agents, with a view to finding the right representation (until now I've deliberately been pro-active, building my own credits and contacts) and I rather fancied getting it right.

There was also the little matter of having two Doctor Who sessions to moderate. I'd never moderated a live session before and once again, wanted to get it right. Taking good advice from the likes of heat's Boyd Hilton, Doctors writer David Bishop (how'd you like that soundbite description, eh Bishop?) and script guru Adrian Mead, I over-prepared for both the Classic and Further Adventures sessions, treating both like military operations, while allowing for a fair degree of spontaneity on the day. The Classic session, in the festival's main hall, needed an especially large amount of pre-planning. On top of forming sentences aloud (when I'd much rather be writing them, frankly) and interviewing Philip Hinchcliffe, Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Andrew Cartmel in an entertaining and balanced fashion, I had to find relatively even-spaced moments during the hour-session (which ended up as more like 90 minutes) which provided neat segues into a video-clip on the big screen.

Thankfully, both sessions went really well. I was very pleased and also received some great feedback. Thank God for that.

Aside from posing its own personal-development challenges, being a speaker at the festival was useful in two ways. For one thing, it raised my profile - I was listed in the festival programme alongside producers, directors and heads of drama. Secondly, I was able to access the fabled green room, whenever I liked. Unsurprisingly, I made full use of that access.

The green room caused a certain degree of botheration among a few festival-goers who couldn't enter it. To some, it created an 'us' and 'them' divide - why couldn't the various agents and producers mingle freely? I'd say the answer is that they're human beings and they mightn't especially want to. Some of them do, some don't. A fair few of them probably want to do their bit, speak to a handful of people, then hang out in the green room and catch up with each other.

Most times in that very staff-room-like space (almost certainly because it was a staff-room - the festival's new venue being the delightful Cheltenham Ladies' College), I saw industry folk asking each other what they'd been working on, swapping notes and generally chewing fat. Fair enough, surely - and a green-room person's need to mingle with delegates is dependent on their own needs. If they're an agent, looking to build their client list, then perhaps they'd be out there more, doing the rounds and chatting to writers. If they're a producer with a slate sorted until 2012, then they understandably have less motivation. Either way, there was nothing to stop anyone grabbing them when they did emerge blinking into the sunlight. One of my good friends at SWF stood for an hour outside the speed-dating sessions, determined to talk to someone they didn't have a scheduled speed-date with. It worked. Bingo. Polite persistence pays off.

Plenty of guests/speakers were highly available: a fair few - like Armando Iannucci, James Moran, Phil Collinson, Ashley Pharoah, Kate Harwood and Steven Volk - took part in impromptu Scriptbites sessions, which involved them chatting quite informally to a circle of delegates in one of the two cafes. Very useful and more intimate affairs (see my accounts of such sessions with Tony Jordan, Julian Fellowes and Barbara Machin from last year). Interestingly, on the two occasions when I managed to hand DVDs of our Splendid sketch-show pilot to attendees like the amiable Iannucci and BBC drama-lord Ben Stephenson (once again eminently listenable at SWF), it was outside of the green-room. So it can absolutely be done.

Now then: here are some useful snippets from Kate and Rob's session, which was so well-attended that various people sat on the floor throughout.

1) Everyone in the TV and film industries is afraid. Assume that they're afraid and try to deal with them appropriately. Try to calm them - be confident. It might help.

2) It's worth remembering that the UK and US have come to use the term "development hell" in different ways. The UK describes "development hell" as something in development, whereas the US uses the term to describe something which isn't in development at all.

3) If a script note isn't working for you, call your script-editor/director/whoever and discuss it, well up front. They're paying for you to do this and you must fulfil their notes. It'll be easy for them to call your agent and say you're off the project.

4) When you get a good script-note (as in accurate), a bit of you will recognise it. Look out for that feeling.

5) You need to be able to translate some script-notes. "Of course, the ending doesn't work" probably means "I don't understand how the ending can work that way". So in actual fact, the beginning might be the problem, because it's not setting up the ending well enough, or at all.

6) It's good to start a meeting by asking "What do we need to achieve in this meeting? What needs to get done today?".

7) If someone pays you to write a script, it's not yours any more. It's theirs.

Marvellous stuff. What a festival. I'm still in the process of determining what direct knock-on effects will come from it, but as I mentioned in my last post, there's no way of predicting some of networking's slow-burn benefits.

Other Blog-Posts On SWF 2009...

Elinor Perry-Smith on Chris Jones' opening speech and Doug 'Toy Story 2' Chamberlin

Phill Barron on his personal experience of the event

Lucy Vee with an overview and several session-notes

Adaddinsane blogged throughout the festival itself, starting here

Elinor Perry-Smith with more notes on Kate and Rob's How To Be Better session.

David Melkevik: 50 Things I Learnt At SWF

Laura Anderson on her Day Three arrival (includes handy notes on agent Julian Friedmann's How To Negotiate Your Contract session)


Sal said...

Nice report Jason. As ever. Thanks for that. x

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for the round-up, Jase. Much appreciated.

Lucy V said...

Thanks for the round up and the linkage sir! x