Screenwriters' Festival 2009 - The Launch

At one point during the launch event for The Screenwriters’ Festival 2009, board member Kevin Loader (above, with Simon Relph) mentions that he and the rest of the board would love the SWF to become “a landmark event” for everyone involved with film, TV and the arts. It has already achieved this for me, and hundreds of others I’m sure. After the 2007 and 2008 events (which I covered on this very blog, here and here respectively), SWF is firmly ensconced as a vital part of my year. I’d go so far as to say it’s a bonus Christmas.

Perhaps the key to its magic lies in the fact that writers tend to be naturally sociable with each other. We gel. Why wouldn't we, when given the chance to talk to someone who actually understands the screaming madness? Of course, despite its name, the SWF is also for directors, producers, agents and anyone else involved with, or who aspires to be involved with, the industry.

A January launch for an October jamboree has struck some as a tad odd, but it makes sense strategically, psychologically and indeed financially. Branding the festival’s name into people’s minds as a major event for 2009, in the first month of the year, can be no bad thing. Also, as Kevin Loader points out, the sooner attendees buy their tickets, the easier it is to keep the festival an ongoing, solvent concern. Fellow board member Simon Relph admits that the SWF has “had trouble in balancing its books”, and so keeping the ship afloat is of primary concern. We can, of course, help by nabbing tickets upfront at an early bird rate – and ganging up into groups of ten, for a 10 per cent discount.

The event’s doors open at 7pm, although a few of us bloggers have already visited a nearby pub, as bloggers tend to do. We settle into a pre-event welcome drink, noting that the likes of Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes (a longtime friend and supporter of the event – see my report on his roundtable SWF ’08 session here) and actor Nigel Planer are mingling among the throng. In this photograph, you can view the lovely Michelle Lipton, the sweary Phill Barron (holding a fairy-glass of magic moonbeams), Stuart ‘Dark Arrow’ Perry and the right honourable Piers Beckley. Splendid.

By 7.30pm, we’re all seated and applauding Festival Director David Pearson, as he introduces the launch. He explains the main reasons for the shift of venue and month – the new location, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, will enable the SWF to handle more attendees (admittedly, the previous venue at Manor By The Lake did suffer from some fairly small event rooms, lending certain sessions a slightly frenzied get-there-first feel). Furthermore, the organisers are hoping to attract more in the way of international guests. “Strangely enough,” says David, “a lot of people from outside the UK couldn’t make it on July 4.”

Julian Fellowes (above) pops up onstage to very briefly extol the virtues of the SWF – always a pleasure to see the man talk. He gives way to a 20-minute talk on Getting Your Script Made by David Thompson, who formerly ran BBC Films and now spearheads Origin Films. Admirably frank, David (below) concedes that getting films made in this country is notably difficult, for various reasons. Here are a few of his points:

  • Film’s a collaborative process. If you don’t want to be a part of it, you’re probably better off sticking with novels.
  • In film, you have to be on the edge. Whereas the centre, and the familiar, works well for television.
  • Film thrives when people take risks, and don’t follow fashion.
  • It’s “an alchemical process” and “a very inexact science”, in which it’s hard to be 100% sure about the choices you make (David recalls working at BBC Films and spreading six prospective scripts out on his coffee table at home, then wondering if he make the choice by letting his cat Poppy randomly sit on one).
  • Most films take seven years to make. Revolutionary Road, BBC Films' DiCaprio/Winslet tale currently hitting cinemas, was “a quickie” at three-and-a-half years. Films are delayed by various combinations of incompetence, fear and a reluctance to commit.
  • Timing is of the essence – capturing the country’s mood. It’s also about striking a balance between being aware of the marketplace and writing something which you know about.
  • British film tends to have a "miserablist" tradition, when most cinema-goers want something uplifting.
  • British writers have never been so valued in Hollywood. David has recently heard of occasions where producers specifically request a British writer.
At 8pm, David Pearson settles down for a chat with two of the finalists in last year’s A Pitch In Time competition – Simon Sayce and Elena Fuller, who came in Second and Third respectively. An interesting session, in which the pair describe their terror at facing the assembled SWF ’08 audience and having to pitch to the likes of Tony Jordan and Barbara Machin (see my report on that competition here). Simon reveals that, literally yesterday, he signed a deal with Red Planet Pictures for the film he pitched at the event, which is proof positive that the festival’s pitch competition can really pay dividends for writers with balls of steel.

Next up on stage is celebrated writer Olivia Hetreed (above), who wrote the film adaptation of the novel The Girl With A Pearl Earring. Endearingly nervous about speaking to the 200-or-so attendees, Olivia praises the festival and David Pearson’s courage for founding it. She talks about the various reasons why writers and directors can often be uneasy bedfellows.

Directors, she admits, can often be seen to take ownership of films. As an example, she lists a few writers like Joseph Stefano, whose names mightn’t be familiar until you realise that they all wrote Alfred Hitchcock films (Stefano wrote Psycho, the subversive madman). Hitchcock knew the value of writers, notes Olivia, although of course Psycho, Rear Window and the rest mainly go down in history as “Hitchcock films”.

Olivia discusses other potential writer/director problems, such as conflicts of ownership, dispute over the provision of credit and, of course, money. Amusingly, Olivia admits that money can cause problems because everyone on a film assumes that everyone else is secretly making all the loot.

At 8.40pm, film veteran Simon Relph and Kevin Loader take to the stage. This year will see “a seamless passing of the baton” from Simon to Kevin, in terms of hands-on work on SWF, although it seems that Simon will retain a godfatherly presence. The pair discuss the kind of things I opened this piece with, plus Simon’s hope that the SWF is progressing from being a new thing to being an ongoing tradition.

David Pearson and tireless behind-the-scenes festival genius Kenny MacDonald (above) conduct a prize raffle draw for a free ticket to SWF ’09, before the crowd breaks up and reconvenes in the bar for an hour of chat, booze, networking and peanuts. It’s good to catch up with the likes of fellow blogger and gentleman Jez Freedman, David Lemon and his good lady Rachel, Tim Clague, writer/actor Anthony Keetch, Danny ‘Stackman Crothers’ Stack, agent/ leader Julian Friedmann and writer/ stalwart Caroline Ferguson.

After the event ends at 10pm, several people end up back in the pub, where various topics are discussed, including Doctor Who, Spooks, Mormons (not a TV series – the actual religious folk), scripts and loads of stuff I’ve clearly forgotten. A tremendous evening all ‘round, which has surely whetted countless appetites for the full-blown four-day joy-fest which will be The Screenwriters’ Festival 2009.

If you’d like to grab an Early Bird ticket for this year’s event, then click here. As the event’s website points out, “Local screen agencies, such as South West Screen, Film London, Scottish Screen, and other organisations e.g. Skillset, often have grants and bursaries available to anyone in their catchment area for support to attend events like the Screenwriters’ Festival.” See you in October.


Piers said...

Grants and bursaries! Of course.

Yes. They shall be mine...

John said...

Excellent post, Mr Arnopp! Sounded like fun. Wish I cudda been there.

But will be in October!

Phill Barron said...

I'm still not convinced Postman Pat is a mormon.

Lucy V said...

Damn it, you appear to have left me out of this as well you git!

Oh no wait that was circumstance and my evil husband breaking the car, meaning I had to stay in with kids while he pushed it off a cliff-- I mean took it to get mended.

So I'll let you off this one.

Lucy V said...

Oh btw - where is everyone staying this year now the event has moved? Is it still Travelodge?

Piers said...

Whatever's closest and cheapest to the event site, I guess. I suspect the travelodge will be too far away this year.

Anonymous said...

It's a forty-minute walk from the Travelodge to the new venue (Google Maps says this, so it must be true...).

Has everyone gathered into groups of ten, for the discount, already? (If anyone needs an extra person... hi!)

Lara said...

Great post, Sir Arnopp, just sorry I couldn't make it. Ten percenters, form an orderly queue...we need to start a list I think. Does anyone know nearby places to stay? Any thoughts on that yet? x

Lee said...

I suspect we'll all be staying at different hostelries this year. Won't matter though, with everything, including late night drinking dens, being right in the centre of town.

I simply cannot wait. In fact, I'm going tomorrow.

rob said...

I really, really want to go this year but fuck that's a lot of money.

Good lord, word verification is handsh, is that some sort of dodgy subliminal advertising or have I got a filthy mind?

Mr Simon Allen... said...

Jason - it made me want to go!

One thing though, I notice how you seem to dispense titles to all and sundry and, as a result, there are far too many Lords and Sirs out there.

Is there any chance you could make me a Duke?

I should be much obliged.

Anonymous said...

Sir, you have the memory of an elephant!

I watched you make about four notes and yet you've gone and summed up the whole lot marvellously.

Phill: I hope the Monster Munch soaked up enough magic moonbeams to allow you to make it home in one piece. Those fairy glasses hold more than people think.

Tim Clague said...

good write up dude!

Anonymous said...

Get ready for the launch. So if we don't want miserabilist,can we all do Mama Mia II, III, and IV?

Yes we can!

Sorry about that.