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theartsdesk in Cheltenham: Screenwriters gather | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Cheltenham: Screenwriters gather

theartsdesk in Cheltenham: Screenwriters gather

theartsdesk visits the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival

Unlike the Cheltenham Literary Festival, which is about readers seeing their favourite authors in the flesh, the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival (26–29 October) was only open to the public for four evening events, with crowd-pleasers like Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It) on comedy, Catherine Johnson (Mamma Mia!) on musicals, and Stephen Moffat discussing taking over Doctor Who. The SWF’s primary purpose is to be a practitioners’ schmoozefest, a chance for emerging screenwriters perchance to brush shoulders with producers, commissioners, agents or development executives – all people in a position to move a script towards production – and, in theory, to strike up a warm and deep relationship that will ultimately lead to a contract involving actual money. Consequently, the air is as thick with longing glances, coded approaches and polite rebuffs as a Jane Austen ball.

More realistically, the SWF offers writers the chance to bond with their peers, to share war stories and to be reassured that they’re not the only person lunatic enough to pursue success in a field with such dim prospects. As audio-visual industry training organisation Skillset puts it, “only a very few top UK screenwriters make enough money to sustain themselves entirely through writing screenplays,” and that’s an understatement. To provide inspiration, there were sessions with writers such as Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Iannucci, Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy) and Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars) who have made it into this elite group but who seem to have remained perceptive, funny and un-up-themselves.

Armando_Iannucci_and_Kevin_Loader_Chair_at_Screenwriters_Festival_2009In discussion with producer Kevin Loader (picture right with Iannucci), who is currently having a very good year with Nowhere Boy and In the Loop, Iannucci compared writing scripts to making a good chicken stock – “add stuff, reduce, then add more, then reduce” – while Beaufoy’s top tip on handling the development process diplomatically was “avoid words like ‘no’, ‘can’t’ and ‘fucking idiot’.” He also revealed that Slumdog Millionaire’s initial script meetings almost ended in disaster when Celador, the project’s principal financier and coincidentally producers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, insisted that the script couldn’t say anything bad about the show and weren’t delighted with the programme’s host being depicted as unpleasant. “I pointed out that two people being nice to each other for 20 minutes is death to drama,” Beaufoy recalled, and after some ACAS-like negotiations a solution was found.

Similarly, writer Stephen Volk (Afterlife) revealed on a panel about working in the US that he had encountered creative differences with director William Friedkin in the course of making The Guardian (the film, not the newspaper). Resistant to negotiation, these left a legacy of “mad dreams that involved Friedkin flying over my house in a helicopter yelling, ‘You haven’t finished the script’ over a loudhailer". His co-panellist Pharoah, meanwhile, compared the making of the US version of Life on Mars with the UK original. “They shut bits of Manhattan,” he said. “We had two period cars.”

Another insight into transatlantic industry comparisons was provided by Doug Chamberlin (Toy Story 2), an LA-based writer currently taking a cooling UK break from shovelling scripts into the Hollywood movie furnace. “The quality of writing is better here,” he asserted, “but British writers have a more pessimistic attitude toward opportunity. They feel they probably won’t be able to make a living. This may be justified when it comes to film, but not TV.”

To help combat this pessimism, the emphasis in the nuts-and-bolts sessions – averaging 12 a day – was firmly on Industry rather than Art. While some sessions were devoted to issues of craft – such as how to create narratives for a multi-platform world, how to portray a world where relationships are increasingly conducted virtually, without making the audience watch a lot of text on screens – and solving TV-drama problems, many more were about professional development – how to find an agent, how to get along with an agent once you’ve found one, how to be the kind of writer that producers want to work with, what financiers look for in a script, how to market yourself, how to network, and basically anything that might help people who are inclined to creating imaginary worlds get a grip on reality.

A cold shower of such reality was provided by Channel 4’s Drama Controller, Tessa Ross, who observed that, even though Film Four does not take any unsolicited scripts, they are still inundated with 50 to 60 a week, and of those only four will get funding in any given year. Other UK industry major players who turned up for Q&As included the BBC’s Head of Film, its Head of Series and Serials, and its Head of Drama. These offered little in the way of the hard information writers wanted to hear (ie, “Here’s what we’re looking for and here’s my personal email”) and lots in the way of mission statements. Nevertheless, at least the Q&As provided a rare opportunity for writers to put a face to an exalted name and see these Big Beasts flushed out into the open, where they proved to be not at all beastly.

The festival’s USP, and what persuades for the most part hard-up writers to part with £389 for a four-day pass, is the prospect of such access to power. At the same time, backing dignitaries into a corner and pressing your immortal work into their hands is severely frowned-upon. Instead, the festival offers two schemes that provide controlled access: registrants can sign up for Speed Dating sessions, five minutes to pitch to assorted agents and production company executives; they can also submit scripts to be accepted into the Script Market programme, which gets them longer sessions to pitch to a production executive, as well as training in how to pitch.

Whether these provide the magic key is another story. It is highly unlikely that a project will be accepted or an agent take on a client on the basis of a short meeting. What the schemes might do is open the door to a further discussion. Fortified by several cups of coffee in the Green Room, the agents and producers go to these sessions in the spirit of a Manchester United scout attending a school match: not expecting much but hoping on the off-chance they might spot a blazing undiscovered talent.

The majority (though not all) of the high-powered agents and executives, and all the Big Beasts, escaped as soon as their sessions were over before they could be trapped into a conversation about a biopic of the writer’s cat. But some, notably Iannucci and Loader, came to the end-of-day evening drinks at the Queen’s Hotel. In previous years, delegates' wining-and-dining opportunities were limited as the festival was sited on the outskirts of town beyond the GCHQ headquarters. However, its current location in the heart of the elegant Regency Montpellier neighbourhood (spookily traffic-free at night) meant that the relaxed socialising so essential to any conference experience was greatly enhanced.

It was here, trying to attract the attention of one over-worked barman, that delegates really got to know each other, and an extremely interesting group they were. The high ticket price meant that most have serious professional aspirations, even if they haven’t yet obtained an agent or a commission. Several have already worked in the industry as script-readers or personal assistants. And some are more than aspiring. Chris Boyle was primarily an actor but has been assisting Simon Beaufoy with script development through improvisation for five years. Something must have rubbed off because Boyle has written his first script and obtained a leading agent. He first hooked up with Beaufoy by just happening to be at the National Film and Television School when the writer was looking for an actor to work with.

Similarly, Em Muslin, with a background in theatrical project development and script-editing, has her first project going into production this winter. Once again, coincidence played a role. She got to know her producer, whom she had previously approached, when they both happened to be holidaying at the same place in Cornwall.

Finally, Tiffany Freiberg, still in her early twenties, already has a television commission and a film script optioned by a producer of The Virgin Suicides. Her script came to the producer’s attention only because she sent it to a friend in LA for feedback and the friend, who happened to know the producer, sent it along to him with a rave.

Clearly the role of chance cannot be underestimated, but all these writers made their own luck by networking, professionalism, hard work and, of course, the talent to back up the opportunities. Such stories are what give so many trying to break in the will to persist despite the daunting odds. Like the Lottery, it could be you.

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Nice blog but this doesn't really indicate what the point of the event actually is?? There's nothing here I didn't know already. Plus it's far-far-far too much money for what is on offer: a 3day talk-fest and all the guests appear on panels in London for a fraction of the price anyway. I don't know a single writer who could afford to go which is a shame cos some of them are serious working writers who should have been there.

Jeff, your deliberately simplistic and incorrect summary of the event indicates more about you than you may realise. The article is clear, plus it links to the SWF website for further info, so to say the article doesn’t indicate the point of the event is a lazy response. You also claim it costs too much money. How much should it cost? What price should be charged for a four-day event set up purely for screenwriters, the biggest of its kind in Europe, set up and attended by some of the industry’s leading professionals, and covering all aspects of screenwriting from TV to film, from drama to comedy, from marketing to business, from traditional storytelling to multi-platform strategies; not to mention the doors opened to all attendees with the producer/agent speed dating events, where writers normally faced with an industry firewall of blanket refusal suddenly found themselves face-to-face with BAFTA & Oscar winning producers who were there specifically to be pitched to. What price on that? What price of a four-day event surrounded by hundreds of your peers, many of whom will become friends & future collaborators? It’s not the über producers or award-winning writers that will be your networking route to success; it’s those very peers, all in similar situations to yourself that will become your allies and support structure throughout your career. Although the experienced and successful speakers are there to learn from, it’s those attending the classes with you that are the ones most relevant to you. What price? You say you don’t know a single writer who could afford to go; well my response is that you obviously don’t know that many writers. You say it’s a shame because some are serious working writers. My response is if they really are serious writers and did want to go, then they would have gone. How many of them tried to get a grant/subsidy from their regional film agency? The ‘early bird’ ticket discount made available to everyone meant a 4-day festival ticket, if spread over the year, was equal to £1 a day. How many of those serious writers spend more than that on a cappuccino, a pint of beer or a glass of wine? It’s a lazy response and a lazy attitude, which in the present climate does not bode well for anyone aspiring to be taken seriously as a writer.

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