Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » CineStory IV San Francisco -- 1999

San Francisco!

You think sourdough. Cable cars and Chinatown. Steve McQueen and his cool Mustang in "Bullitt." The 49ers and Giants. Joe Montana and Steve Young. Pacific Heights and Haight Asbury. Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. Rice-a-Roni. Willie Maze and Barry Bonds. The Cinestory Script Sessions Screenwriting Conference.

Based at the downtown Chicago Union League Club for 1997 and 1998, the Cinestory crew packed up their covered wagons and headed west, searching for screenwriting gold in the rolling hills of the Fog City.

Scores of writers gathered on the small SFSU campus. While the class had more West Coast natives than the previous year's midwestern crop, the San Francisco Cinestory guests received every benefit and insight of past years' attendees. At times, the gathered writers seemed fewer than in recent years, but this was an illusion. The attendees were just as plentiful but more spread out across the SFSU campus.

The comparative proximity to Los Angeles made it easy to attract Cinestory's traditional enclave of outstanding and talented experts to this year's conference, including screenwriter and novelist Richard Price, the author behind "Sea of Love," Spike Lee's "Clockers" and the Academy-Award winning "The Color of Money."

Following Price's key note address, the think-tank of literary agents, producers, development executives and working writers set to their tasks of harvesting an acre of questions and swimming through a sea of stories. In 90 minutes group seminars and occasional 20-minute one-one-one meetings, the featured guests discussed commercial narrative concepts, effective pitching, the development process, adaptations and the writer's personal journey and lifestyle.

Few classrooms held an empty seat during most of the seminars. Between sessions, featured guests and writers gathered in the University Club Lounge to down lattes and talk shop. As in past Script Sessions, such informal time offered aspiring scriptwriters an invaluable opportunity to meet industry professionals as human beings, rather than as intimidating pantheons of the film industry.

As in past years, Meg Le Fauve, President of Jodi Foster's Egg Pictures, was in the eye of an eager writer hurricane, sometimes giving up lunch or break periods to help aspiring screenwriters develop their stories into viable motion pictures. She also took time to sit with individual attendees in the lounge area to discuss their projects and their career plans.

Lisa Callamaro, a successful literary agent in charge of her own boutique firm, enjoyed her Cinestory premiere at this year's conference.

"I have attended other screenwriting conferences," Callamaro said from her Beverly Hills' office, "At my first Cinestory, I enjoyed the fact that the seminar speakers stuck to the issues of improving the writing craft."

"The sessions didn't deal just with 'how to sell your script' or 'how to get an agent. Cinestory is all about becoming a better writer!"

Callamaro made herself available during those University Club informal sessions to share war stories of slugging out deals for her dedicated stable of screenwriters and novelists.

"I found that instead of just hearing from panels of experts," Callamaro said, "writers had more hands-on sessions. They could look at the essential mechanics of a script going through the development process. They could get those insights from all different sides with producers, executives, writers, directors and agents all combining their experience. I was impressed by what the other featured guests accomplished and what they were able to share."

If Callamaro could change anything, she would have enjoyed more time to sit in on seminars given by other experts.

"I found that I had things to learn there as well!" she said.

As for the writers in attendance, Callamaro urged them to come prepared: "If you're going to go, you should have already written a script, so it's not just theory for you. Then, you've performed the craft in practice. Too many of the writers at Cinestory really hadn't thought their stories all the way through. So, if you're coming next year, do your homework before you go to these seminars. You'll learn so much more by applying it to something you've written!"

Marcy Drogin, Vice President of Creative Affairs for Furthur Films (Michael Douglas' production company), was also a Cinestory rookie this year. She said the Script Sessions' purpose fell in line with her company's goal of developing relationships with young, fresh writing talent.

During an interview on the SFSU campus, Drogin said she encouraged writers at the conference to value their individual ideas: "Cinestory gave me the opportunity to urge the attendees here to write from their heart and create their own original concepts, rather than trying to target an individual genre that they think might be successful down the road."

Drogin added that it was most important for her to make sure Cinestory attendees got what they wanted out of the conference.

"I think most of the writers here think they're getting a lot out of this," she said. "They certainly don't think it's a waste of money!"

"Attendees here should attend as many conferences as they can to get as much information as possible out of their time here," Drogin urged. "Don't just attend the workshops you think you might be interested in because you really have an outstanding opportunity to gain a great deal of knowledge on cinema and filmmaking at a conference like this."

"Also, use the informal atmosphere and surroundings of Cinestory because there is a wealth of experience and information here. Come into the informal chat room and sign up for the one-on-ones. Utilize every opportunities to meet with the professionals because that's why we're here."

Finally, Drogin reminded attendees that the professionals like agents and producers tend to get inundated with material at a conference like Cinestory, so it's not the best place to put your screenplay in as many hands as possible. She urged writers to use the time to build relationships so they might find themselves welcome to pitch good material in the future.

Paige Simpson, successful independent producer and one of the creative forces behind the Academy Award winning "Leaving Las Vegas" also made her first appearance at the 1999 Script Sessions. She liked the idea that writers outside New York and Los Angeles got the opportunity to get their script ideas heard.

"I want to help promote writers who come from those states between the coasts," she said. "I think Cinestory does a great job giving those writers an opportunity because all the talent is not just in those two cities!"

Simpson explained that the challenge for both writers and featured speakers at the conference was judging how best to divide their time: "I wish the sessions were a little longer. Also, I think you can get more accomplished in a one-on-one or small group environment. Cinestory deserves credit for avoiding those 200 audience member seminars."

Finally, Simpson urged writers to ask as many questions as they can over the course of the annual Cinestory weekend. Rather than pitch their stories to a producer in a rushed, pressured environment, screenwriters could better use the time to get to know the professionals before them, what they're looking for, and how they can best be reached.

Brooks Ferguson, an independent producer also speaking at her first Script Sessions, came to San Francisco with an impressive list of credits. She helped to develop such hits as "Little Women," "Ed Wood," "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and the reigning box-office champion, "Titanic."

"I'd done a couple other conferences," Ferguson said, "but the focus of Cinestory seemed really effective. I'd done seminars in the past where there would be 500 people sitting and listening to five or six speakers up on a stage before microphones where the point was to tell everyone how to get an agent."

"Well, I can't tell everyone how to do that," she said. "I have to know you and understand your work before I can help you as an individual. I have to be able to put my name and reputation on the line. It's all based on personal connection -- meeting someone and wanting to help them."

"Cinestory is more centered on that positive kind of interaction. It's based on relationships, thankfully, because it's about time people understand that conversations and interaction is where most good advice shows.

Ferguson also liked the idea that Cinestory let her decide what she wanted to discuss, versus assigning her to pre-arranged seminars: "The Cinestory organizers asked me what I wanted to do, what I wanted to talk about, who I wanted to speak with, so I was able to pick all my topics."

According to Ferguson, that process of choice allowed her to offer what she thought would be of best use to attendees, in addition to presenting what she feels passionate about as a professional.

To get the most out of Cinestory, Ferguson suggested, "Bring as much of your work as you can. Bring all of your works in progress, and don't just bring the last thing you wrote or what you're working on now to hand out to every person you see. Cinestory is not the best environment to sell your completed work. It's an opportunity to look at the writing process."

Ferguson said it's not a bad idea to bring notes or basic ideas to the conference to run by professionals. Writers can check out the viability and appeal of projects firsthand and better determine where their careers could go in the future.

"Bring all your questions, instead of a box of your finished scripts!' she added. "You're never going to get enough time for someone at a conference like this to rush back to his or her room and read your script in time to really give you good comments on it! Give out your script for a read later, if you can, but make arrangements to send it after Cinestory."

Finally, Ferguson urged writers to take notes at Cinestory and collect business cards to make contacts later.

"That's the best opportunities Cinestory provides," she concluded. "It's not that the material at Cinestory wasn't strong, but the conference offers a chance to know who these professionals are, to develop relationships with them, and to reconnect them in the future!"

While all of the featured speakers and the attendees seemed to enjoy themselves as in past years, they echoed one refrain as to how organizers might improve next year's event.

While careful and thoughtful organizers made every effort to insure the safe transportation and comfort of their guests, speakers stayed in a downtown hotel after hours and were shuttled across town to the conference site in the morning. The camaraderie and togetherness generated by past Cinestory sites never had as good a chance to develop with speakers and writers moving around the campus by day and scattering across the city by night.

The returning Cinestory stars bemoaned the loss of intimacy and convenience provided by the Union League Club. While they enjoyed San Francisco's ambiance and weren't necessarily lobbying for a return to Chicago, they each hoped future Script Sessions would be entirely contained in one facility, no matter in what city organizers pitched their tents.

Even with this minor glitch of logistics, the 1999 Cinestory sent writers home happy, inspired and more skilled. Wherever the Script Sessions wash ashore, if it's anywhere near your home port, make sure to attend.

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