Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » CineStory III Chicago -- 1998

Usually in Hollywood, the sequel to a successful production is always worse than the original. If producers should dare to go to the well three times, it can prove a real disaster.

But, the brains behind Chicago's Third Annual Cinestory Script Sessions managed to pull of their best gathering thus far.

Attended by scores of aspiring writers from the far-flung corners of the English speaking world, Cinestory gave screenwriters access to some of the most talented and new-writer friendly minds in the movie game. On March 27-29, big screen scribes got a chance to listen in on educational seminars, practice their pitches, receive notes on treatments or their script's opening pages, and commiserate with other writers on the rigors of breaking into the industry.

The conference was held again at the stately Union League Club in the shadow of downtown Chicago's Sears Tower. By day, guests attended lectures, pitch sessions and screenings. By night, they ventured into the City of Big Shoulders to sample the nightlife of red meat, beer and blues.

The event kicked off Friday afternoon with a screening of the new film, The Baby Dance. Attended by its producer and Cinestory fixture, Meg Le Fauve (of Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures) and Jane Anderson (the film's writer/director), the screening gave early attendees a great way to kick off the weekend after registration.

Later Friday evening, the Script Sessions key notes assembly introduced the winners of the Cinestory screenwriting competition. In addition, the event gave the featured attendees a chance to feature their most memorable movie moments -- demonstrating what inspired them to get into show business.

Friday ended with the casual "CineSoiree," an opportunity for writers and featured guests to get to know each other away from the business-oriented atmosphere of pitches and script evaluations.

As in previous years, Cinestory provided The Union League Club's Heritage Room as an all-purpose, casual meeting place for attendees and featured guests alike. Some of the most enjoyable and most informative chats of the weekend happened here over bottomless cups of tea and coffee.

The rest of the weekend was dedicated to the business of writing. A series of seminars scheduled throughout Saturday and Sunday gave every writer in attendance something to think about -- regardless of their favorite genre or individual career goal.

The Saturday presentations included "Agents and Producer's Notes: The Giving, The Getting, The Taking, The Rejecting." Presented by John Miranda (Vice President in Charge of Production of Ken Lipper Productions) and Jonathan Westover (literary agent with The Gage Group), the seminar focused on the delicate function of story notes. Such notes can hit a writer from many sides (a collaborator, an agent, a producer or studio exec). Miranda and Westover skillfully discussed the dilemma of rewriting your script to make it better opposed to working it over to improve its appeal.

Later Saturday afternoon, Le Fauve (a Cinestory favorite known affectionately throughout the Script Sessions as "Meg from Egg") gave an excellent overview of the script development process in her seminar, "Project Overview: Charting a Script through the System." In 90 minutes, Le Fauve gave the kind of writer-friendly, film industry overview that it took this reporter three years of graduate film school to absorb! She also managed to explain effectively the list of everything a film producer does!

The Saturday sessions also featured an important, beginner-friendly seminar by Theresa Welty (Vice President of Wind Dancer Films). Welty helped writers analyze their story ideas to determine if they are theatrical films, movies of the week, cable movies or (Gasp!) just a lowly novel or stage play! Welty used the time to explain how many scripts hit her desk that should have been written for another story-telling medium.

After her seminar, Welty took a few minutes to discuss why she attended her second Cinestory. She stressed that she came this year with the intention of giving the writers a valuable dose of showbiz facts.

"From my experiences here last year, I realized that these writers really needed more information on how the business works," Welty said. "I think I came here wanting to talk about the development of scripts. I felt strongly that what these writers needed was a dose of reality and some information on how the business really works."

Welty explained that the 1997 Cinestory Script Sessions offered many hungry writers begging permission to send her their scripts. While Welty agreed to read the work in some cases, she felt that writers in attendance this year would benefit more from learning how to make their scripts more competitive in the Hollywood marketplace.

Welty added that she thought the conference's attendees were improved over previous years due to their patience and willingness to learn over the course of the Script Sessions weekend.

"Part of why I returned this year was to tell people that they need to realize how tough the business is and where you stand in the scheme of things at this point in their careers," she said. "They need to be realistic about it."

"For example, last year, writers from Cinestory would get very upset when I passed on their scripts. Well, one of the lessons they need to learn is that people will pass, and they have to be able to take that! If they can't, they won't be able to survive!"

Finally, Welty detailed a question from her seminar in which one writer asked, "Is there anything easy about this business?"

According to Welty, the response was, "No...because if it was easy, everybody would be doing it! It should be tough, and you should have the passion to see it through!" Welty made sure to encourage that passion at her various talks throughout the weekend.

After a night on the town in unseasonably warm Chicago weather imported from Hollywood, Sunday opened with a well-attended presentation, "Comedy Shop Talk - A Comedy Coffee Klatsch." Presented by on-site comedy writers such as Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day) and Jane Anderson (The Incrediblely True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and It Could Happen to You), the chat offered as many laughs as useful pointers.

Meanwhile, Miranda and Jim Powers (Director of Development for The Shooting Gallery) handed out pointers on "The Art -- and the Heart -- of the Pitch." The session used the writers' own pitches as fodder for analysis as Miranda and Powers detailed what makes a good storyline. Writers received excellent pointers on pitching, the most essential, yet mysterious art forms of Hollywood business.

Powers offered his take on Cinestory following the presentation: "I came last year and had such a great time. I really like what Cinestory is doing."

"Too often these conferences become writers asking, 'How do I get my script done?' or 'How do I get an agent?.' Those are questions that impossible to answer in every case. Plus, writers are asked not to pitch here. That makes the Script Sessions more of a nuts and bolts weekend."

Powers said Cinestory offered writers a rare glimpse into how establish writers and directors got their start. By seeing the journeys of others, Powers thinks writers can get more out of Cinestory than simply learning how or when to send their script to an agent or producer.

"This sort of a conference can be a lot more helpful to writers than just some story structure class. I hope the writers are full of questions and ready to learn as much as they can about the business."

One of the last seminars of the successful weekend centered on script coverage and analysis. Melissa Chesman (Director of Development for Redeemable Features) gave writers insight into what happens to their scripts once they're in the hands of producers and their readers. Writer got an excellent taste of showbiz reality as they heard just what their work has to go through before it's purchased or produced.

After the lively presentation, Chesman discussed the hard facts some writers need to consider as they get into the entertainment industry: "I don't think some writers really understand what a development office goes through on a daily basis. I didn't anticipate having to go into that, but I think it's useful for writers to hear that kind of thing."

Chesman agreed with earlier sentiments expressed by Welty that some writers need to realize the odds and the obstacles facing any aspiring screenwriter.

"If you want to get yourself off the ground, you may have to do a lot more work than what you expected," Chesman explained. "You need to think how a development executive thinks so you cover all the bases."

Chesman applauded the atmosphere at the 1998 Script Sessions for revealing some tougher aspects of showbiz to writers.

"It's a tough industry," she said. "What's shown to the rest of the world is not all the pain and suffering but the fruit of everyone's toil!"

Above all, Chesman stressed that she had an enjoyable time at Cinestory and appreciated those writers who came forward to thank her for helping them.

"I hope I was helpful to those who don't have direct access to the industry," she said. "I'm learning in this business all the time and I hope I can bring some of that to the writers, as well. I hope writers continue their work from the heart and keep up their passionate persistence because it is going to pay off in one way or another."

Perhaps one of the most insightful looks at the Third Annual Script Sessions came from Eric Miller, Head of Acquisitions for Kingman Films and Script Sessions first-time attendee. Miller offered his observations on Cinestory as it buzzed around him.

"I feel very positive about Cinestory because it's small and the writers seem to get a lot of individual attention," Miller said. "There's never any feel of people not getting an opportunity to talk to the attending professionals."

Miller explained, "Just by keeping their eyes and ears open, the aspiring creative people here can get a lot out of this. But, they also need to see the big picture and understand that a conference like this is a piece of the puzzle and not an answer to all of their aspirations."

Miller added that writer can use Cinestory to learn how to better present their material, improve their pitching skills and learn now not to "blow their chances early on."

"Cinestory can really help writers realize they need to be professional about this work," he said. "While writing can seem like a very bohemian life, it is a business. So, professionalism goes a long, long way. You don't have to be stuffy about it, but you need realize that it is work."

However, even while stressing the need to be business-like and realistic, Miller praised the conference and its featured guests for the overwhelming sense of hope presented to the writers.

"Everyone here ends their speeches with, 'good luck and get out there!' I think that can be very uplifting, and it's great to see that running through the entire Cinestory event."

This attendee can only agree. By combining real professional insight with creative encouragement and a new sense of realistic expectations, the 1998 Cinestory Script Sessions eclipsed the achievements of previous years.

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