by Amy Foster Myer
If you felt anything like I did over the London Screenwriter’s Festival weekend (Oct. 23-25), then whirling dervish sounds about right. I have just started to get back to “normal” life (though seriously, is anyone really normal after such an inspiring and motivating weekend?!), and so I want to share some gems of what I learned at the festival.
Thursday – Oct. 22
The festival proper begins on Friday, but the week leading up to the festival is full of writer-oriented events. The only one I could attend since I was flying in from the US was Pitching Thursday with Pilar Alessandra. Pilar is a US film executive who leads conferences and seminars for screenwriters across the world. She is also incredibly personable, warm, funny, and energetic.
Nuts and Bolts: Pitching Thursday is designed for festival attendees who have either never pitched before or want to gather Pilar’s wisdom. The pitch begins with a log-line, which is basically a one-sentence plot summary. As Pilar says, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Thus, the log-line needs to identify:
- the main character
- the focal point of tension
The pitch starts with the log-line and then based on the producer/executive’s response, you might continue the conversation with a more detailed explanation of the feature or TV series. Now, the truth is that Pilar can explain things much better than I, so I recommend visiting Pilar’s website here: On the Page.
9:00 am: My Friday began with attending the festival opening ceremonies. Chris Jones, the festival director, is wonderfully warm, vibrant, and motivating. He began the festival with many words of encouragement and some activities to set our minds and hearts in the right direction. Want to get a little taste of Chris’s mentality? Stand up, put your feet shoulder width apart, place your hands on your hips, stick out your chest – and assume the Wonder Woman pose. Stand like this for a moment and envision the success of whatever project you’re working on now. For novelists, memoirists, and poets, imagine yourself at the podium in a crowded bookstore or at a desk signing copies of your book. For screenwriters, imagine yourself on set, headphones round your neck, watching a brilliant set of actors bringing your script to life. Stand that way and just breathe. I truly believe in this kind of self-actualizing imagining. And it worked for me because the next thing on my slate was to go pitch my idea, and what had been a terrifying prospect just a few hours before was suddenly completely manageable.
10:30 am: Pitching. The idea of pitching had me terrified for weeks leading up to the festival. After Chris’s motivating opening program, I was ready to go! After the first session ended, I went straight to the pitching location. This year, the festival used a number ticket system so pitchees could go to the desk to check in and get a number. Then, at 10:15, we all lined up in accordance with our number. When the doors opened, I went straight for an executive on the top of my list. I managed to meet nearly all the executives I had wanted to, and the only ones I missed were because they had not been at the session after all.
What I learned from this pitching session was to enter into each conversation with an open spirit. Just start a conversation. I asked each person I met with how their day was going. I found that it was easy to deliver my log-line and then let the conversation unfold organically from there. In the preceding weeks, I had spent hours and hours in preparation – delivering my log-line to my wall, the dog, and my wife; and also thinking over the questions an exec might ask and practicing the most concise and precise answers I could develop. My advice (beginner’s advice, mind you) is to come prepared. Know your log-line and your pitch forwards and backwards. Anticipate the questions they may ask and develop succinct answers. Remember, you only have 5 minutes – no time for rambling! The more prepared you are (for anything, actually), the easier it will be.
I hesitate to list any names or production companies here, simply because everyone’s experience will be so varied.
2:00pm: Meet the Super Agent Duncan Heath
This seminar was an interview and Q&A session with Duncan Heath, moderated by Julian Friedmann. I have to be honest here, folks, the jet lag of my trans-continental flight hit me really hard in this panel and I was struggling to maintain my attention. This is in no way reflective of the discussion. Duncan Heath was engaging and funny, as was Julian Friedmann. What I took away from this seminar was that the industry does have room for some rogue agents, but probably not that many.
Also, the main note I took on this was Heath’s words: “it’s more difficult to get a film made than a book published.” Being in fiction, I already know how difficult it is to get creative writing published, so this was disheartening – though, frankly, not surprising. We all know that the numbers are approaching lottery range when it comes to submitting our work. Just today I was reviewing information about the Script Pipeline’s upcoming contest and the numbers are daunting – 1 winner out of over 5,000 entries. But this is the business, so there’s no point trying to evade it or worry about it. Keep at your work and don’t fret about the rest. (Because worrying and wringing hands never got anyone anywhere.)
3:30 pm: Getting Under the Skin and Into the Minds of Your Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican
In this seminar, we explored how to develop rounded characters that reflect the true complexity of the human experience. How you engage with character development may come in many forms, but Pelican’s approach is a psychological one. She suggested that we build characters based on The Big Five personality traits:
- Openness to Experience
- Activity (this is a recent addition to The Big Five, so we can assume that at some point it will be renamed The Big Six)
Pelican reminds us that memorable characters have at least one or two extreme traits. A good exercise here is to go through your own favorite television series and movies. Identify where your favorite, or most memorable, character stands in relation to each of these.
An important thing to consider is how you will use these character traits to motivate the activity of your characters. As Pelican noted, characters who are high in Neuroticism are active and reactive. They are excitable and perceive ordinary situations as threatening. Thus, a broken antique tea cup may be enough to send your neurotic character on an adventure to replace it. On the flip side, a character low in neuroticism, a laid-back personality, is less driven by conscious goals. Something very big must happen to energize these characters into action. Think about The Pineapple Express. This film needed something major to motivate these dead-beats off their couches. In the end, a series of high-stakes events keeps the action unfolding and forces these sedentary, low neuroticism characters to take action.
Another key point from this seminar was to make good use of your secondary characters. Secondary characters act as mirrors to our protagonists, so give them differing traits that hold up well under contrast. For instance, in love matches, people are often drawn together by one shared trait, but then differ in many others. Where we differ is where the tension and conflict arises, and where we are similar is where we are pulled back together.
Pelican also identified six universal emotions, those that transcend culture or time:
A few others include:
In addition, here are the universal motivations Pelican shared in her seminar:
- sex or dating
- physical skills
- mental skills
- caring for loved ones
- forming a coalition
- building a legacy for the future; finding meaning
Lastly, what human would be human without some connection to a belief system? Whether we agree, disagree, or are indifferent to religion and spirituality, it is nonetheless something that each of us has had to grapple with at some point in our lives. Thus, belief systems are critical to developing your characters. And here, it can also be helpful to think of belief system as synonymous with value system. We’re not talking solely about religion, though that is part of it. More importantly, we’re talking about the values, principles, and beliefs that guide your characters’ actions. Therefore, consider your character’s code of conduct – is it a moral or amoral code? Does his/her code coincide with society’s law and values? (Point of tension!!) How do the events of the film change or transform his/her belief systems? As always, the #1 question we should be asking is: what does the character believe at the beginning? –> What does the character believe at the end? –> How do the events instigate the change?
All of the above – personality traits, emotions, motivations, and belief systems- come out of psychological research, but we don’t have to look far to see how these are all part of successful television series and films. In the end, we are attempting to recreate “real” life on film, even if we’re in the middle of a fantastical universe or two thousand years in the future. In the end, human beings, whether in life or on screen, are motivated and driven by the same things. By understanding the fundamentals of human nature and psychology, we can bring a deeper resonance of meaning to our own characters.
5:00 pm: In Treatment: Document Therapy – Ludo Smolski
In this seminar, Ludo Smolski guides us through creating development documents. Smolski identified that the main difference between a development document and a selling document is the end goal. How we write these documents depends upon where we are in the process and what the goal for that document is. A development document is designed to give the work-in-progress shape, guidance, direction, etc. A selling document is, rather obviously, designed to highlight the points of the film or series that make it sellable; the goal is to sell the work and thus the language and design will be geared toward that purpose.
What I found most interesting – and a little exasperating – about this seminar was that there is no set definition for what a treatment is or how it should look. For someone like myself who thrives within boundaries, guidelines, and specific rules, I find this difficult. However, for people who prefer a little more freedom and struggle to follow rules exactly, I’m sure this was quite a relief! Smolski shared many examples of treatments to help us envision what these may include and how to format them. Many of these are available via a simple google search for “screenplay treatments.”
Overall, it appears that most treatments are in the 7-10 page range. Another key point is to write the treatment in the same tone as the script itself. Thus, a treatment for a comedy film should be…funny! A treatment for a drama should be serious. Etc. Above all, anything you write should be written well.
6:30 pm: Manifesting Success: Chris Jones and Jonathan Newman
This seminar was a lovely wrap-up to my first day. As with the opening ceremonies, this seminar focused on our minds and imaginations, but where we switched lanes was to explore how we often allow the voice in our heads to prevent us from doing or pursuing the things we want to do. Rather than restate points from this seminar, I’m going to point here to the blog post up on the LSF website, which I wrote as a response to this seminar:How I found success by recognizing my own fear of rejection
What I also recommend is that whenever the voice in your head says, “yeah, but….” that is the moment to explore what the voice is “really” saying and what the motivations are behind it. Chances are, the voice of dissent arises because of fear. It can be a fearful thing to dedicate hours and hours, years and years to a project that you know may never go anywhere beyond your computer. So many authors write about how the books or screenplays which end up in the bottom drawer, never to see the light. This is just part of the process. The sooner we stop saying “yeah, but…”, the sooner we can get down to the business of making things happen and manifesting success.
Saturday and Sunday to follow….
Amy Foster Myer
Read my blog here…