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Screenwriters’ Festival 2009 reflections

October 31, 2009

A few brief thoughts in no particular order about the Screenwriters’ Festival for people curious about the experience and as a reminder to myself.

SWF companies

Total cost: £698 (of which 4-day ticket £389, flight to Gatwick £65, return train from Gatwick £14 (!!), cheap accommodation £100, food and drink £130). I doubt there is a similar event in the world where you can get so much exposure to so many important and/or interesting figures within the industry for a comparable sum. Could have been cheaper still if I’d bought a ticket early or as part of a group, and there are also several avenues to win a ticket.

Cheltenham and the event: lovely town, privileged setting at the Lady’s College (bit short on men’s toilets), very professionally organised with a large army of volunteers many of whom are on the fringes of the business and interesting people in their own right. A few quibbles about the scheduling, but the quality and variety of the speakers was excellent. Thursday was a bit of a write-off if you weren’t into Doctor Who.

Content: The festival is more about the business than about the craft – and all the better for it. There are all sorts of avenues to improve your craft, but few opportunities to hear from the horse’s mouth about how things work.

That was a good fit with my personal goal. Family circumstances meant I was poorly prepared for the festival and had little expectation or ambition in terms of trying to sell or advance any of my current projects. What I was hoping to gain was some direction about which of my slate of ideas I should work on next (my goal for 2010 is that the next project I start is of such a calibre that it either sells itself or sells me and leads to paid work: there, I’ve said it). In general I have come away better equipped to make that judgement myself, but I have also received some direct and very encouraging feedback, and invitations to send loglines with paragraphs to some industry people whose opinion I would value and whom I would never normally be able to pitch to. I’m not kidding myself that they will say anything more than what they like and what they don’t like, but that is still very useful.

The theme which I found running through my personal version of the festival was about the tension between commerce and creativity, about how important it is to have the audience in mind and how the film will be sold before you even start writing, but at the same time to not let that limit your imagination or curb your ambition. People want stories with scope, budget particulars can be addressed later, although you should be mindful of them from the outset.

There was an emphasis on DIY film-making which is not really applicable to me, but that energy is infectious and encapsulates the festival experience. Especially for me, living in Spain, being at the festival is a statement of intent: this is not a hobby and you are part of a profession, even if unpaid, and the key is to make sure you use that energy to keep motivated when returning to normal life.

The numbers in red badges (paying delegates) ran into the hundreds, the numbers in yellow badges (the speakers, producers, agents etc. — the ‘targets’) ran into the tens. Some red badges were pretty ruthless in tracking down yellow badges to hand out cards, initiate discussions etc., and, understandably, the yellow badges spent a lot of time hiding out in the green room.

I think you have to be fairly targeted in how you approach people, not simply pounce on anyone with a yellow badge but approach people where from prior knowledge/research you know something about them and can have an interesting discussion with them for its own sake – before you feel them up for a business card. I heard from someone who was given a business card from a producer at Big Talk productions that she was interested in his pitch and was giving him a business card with her real email address rather than the one she was giving out to people who willy-nilly tapped her up. That’s the kind of world you’re in. Basically, don’t be cynical and don’t bullshit.

And you never know who you might stumble into: I found myself at the back of an empty hall chatting with Ben Stephenson for a few minutes.

There was a small vocal core who turned the subject whenever possible to the position of women within the industry and I think the festival organisers were a little taken aback but recognised it as an important issue that should have a formal place on the agenda next year. While everyone made a lot of sympathetic noises, even at Cheltenham the reality was depressing. I heard from one young female student whose experience was spoiled by the predatory sexual behaviour of a senior well-known figure at the festival one night after hours in the bar.

On a more positive note, the days for the most part were pretty full-on and intense, and so escaping to eat and drink, and then drink a bit more, with like-minded people was great fun. I finally got to put faces to names of people I’ve only ever ‘met’ online, as well as meeting lots of new people. Given that we are effectively in competition with each other, it is a very mutually supportive community which I now feel that much more a part of.

Will I be going next year? Yes. But I’ll be trying really hard in the schemes which have a free ticket as a prize.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 2:04 pm

    Ah yes, women in film — not enough focus on that, way too much on Dr. Who. I lost count of the number of ppl I ran into who lamented thursday – NOT because they think Dr. Who is crap, it’s far from that, but end of the day whilst it’s nice to hear *stuff* about a programme, we want the business stuff, like you said.

    As for the yellow badges “understandably” going to the green room – why was there a green room at all? It made little sense in an environment that was ABOUT networking and the fact your contact had that experience re: cards and “real” email addresses speaks volumes: screenwriters are apparently considered a nuisance by the industry. Cheers! We can feel smug we’re somehow not part of the “nuisance” or actually, band together and say “what the hell, why is this happening?” No one should apologise for trying to TALK to people FFS – especially in a setting like this where we’re told it’s BUILT FOR IT.

    There was of course a hardcore of industry peeps who kept to the front line, but the fact so many ran away was very disappointing. But then, the reason for this was clear: those that DID keep to the front line were slagged off for putting it about. WTF?? Writers really need to decide what they want and keep their slagging-off instincts to themselves.

    For me, it was a somewhat mixed bag of highs and lows. Luckily more highs than lows. And very, very useful in places.

    • terraling permalink*
      October 31, 2009 2:23 pm

      I think it’s “understandable” in the sense that it is fairly overwhelming the number of people that a producer might have to speak to if they put themselves out there, and I think if there was someone you were really determined to catch a word with you probably could if you were canny. But not everyone can be, and there is almost a sense that the passive types were ‘subsidising’ the active ones, and that the idea that it’s almost open-access to producers is a bit misleading.

      If people were complaining about those that did make themselves available, then WTF? I was surprised by a few people who weren’t doing themselves any favours with their attitude and the questions they asked at the round tables etc.

      And when I say that I would go next year, I won’t be a festival virgin then and I’ll have much more concrete goals.

  2. Vera Mark permalink
    October 31, 2009 8:57 pm

    Hi terraling – we met very briefly at the script bites with Amelia Granger, Jared introduced us.

    I couldn’t agree more – took away exactly the same impressions and lessons from this festival. (My flight ticket cost 30 quid more, though ;-). And I do understand the need for a green room – yes, it would have been great to see more of the speakers around and accessible but they also need a chance to get away. I found the ones I approached more than happy to talk (and I did not witness any of the bullying incidents…)

    Good luck with your newly focused writing, see you next year!

  3. terraling permalink*
    October 31, 2009 11:13 pm

    Hi Vera

    thanks for the comments. Yes, it was a very brief meeting, but then I remembered that we’d been exchanging recommendations about books not days before on twelvepoint. Hope to keep in touch, and, yes, see you next year.

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