Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » IFP/West Screenwriting Conference -- 1998

The Independent Features Project - West actively supports the production and presentation of indie films.

Throughout the year, the IFP - West sponsors special events and screenings to educate, inspire and fund hard-working indie moviemakers. Its annual Independent Spirits Awards, honoring the best non-studio films of the year, have become a popular, star-studded predecessor to the Oscars every spring.

However, on April 25 and 26, the IFP - West opened its arms to aspiring screenwriters at its 1998 IFP - West Screenwriters Conference. Held in the meeting rooms at the Writers Guild of America, West's headquarters on Los Angeles' west side, the intimate setting gave writers in attendance an opportunity to learn from the industry's best working scribes and some of the most writer-friendly producers and agents working today.

The members-only conference presented a series of seminars to screenwriters in the IFP - West. Much like other successful conferences like Chicago's Cinestory Script Sessions or Glendale, CA's Selling to Hollywood, industry experts took center stage while eager writers in the audience offered questions and took notes.

The event kicked off with a keynote address by three-time Academy Award winning writer/director/producer, James L.. Brooks. Hot off his WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay and another Oscar nomination for AS GOOD AS IT GETS, Brooks presented an excellent address, summoning all the benefits of experience he gained in television (while producing such shows as TAXI, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and THE SIMPSONS) and in film (while writing TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and BROADCAST NEWS).

Brooks held the attention of both aspiring writers and experienced producers as he inspired all in attendance to pursue their visions, inside or outside the studio system.

After Brooks' address, the highlight of Saturday's schedule was a presentation on The Business of Writing by Adam Shulman, Vice President of the Motion Picture Literary Department of LA's prestigious literary agency, APA. An agent with some of the most successful indie screenwriters in Hollywood, Shulman was recently named one of the top 10 "independent friendly" agents by Filmmaker Magazine.

Before starting his agenting career in the mailroom at United Talent Agency, Shulman practiced corporate law and litigation in New York and Boston. A member of the California, New York and Massachusetts Bars, he is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, Shulman serves on the board of directors for OUTFEST, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Following the conference, Shulman shared some of his thoughts on the IFP - West Writing Event.

"I was approached by the IFP to participate in the conference, and I was happy to do so," Shulman said. "They run superb programs, and I saw a good list of people assembled for this conference."

"There's a slim chance for me to add to my client basis at such a gathering because I need to remain loyal to the clients I have, but I pass along whatever bits of wisdom I have."

Shulman explained that he enjoys opportunities to help writers and learns a great deal himself while trying to impart some insider's advice.

"I learn what's on people's minds," Shulman said. "It gives me a chance to talk through issues effecting writers and think about issues I haven't thought of before."

"I thought it was a very impressive list of participants at this conference," Shulman added. "IFP got together a list of genuine experts. I thought the gathering was well organized, and the participants were smart. The writers in attendance asked the right questions, and they seemed to care about their work."

Other topics for discussion during the conference included looks at comedy writing theory, story structure, period piece scripts and modern film noir stories. Specific scripts discussed in depth during the weekend included DONNIE BRASCO and BOOGIE NIGHTS.

Chris Hanley, producer of TWO GIRLS AND A GUY and Steven Buscemi's TREES LOUNGE, (along with fellow producers Patricia Charbonnet and Stephen Nemeth) gave an entertaining and insightful look at how producers view writers.

Hanley said he flew in from London just before the conference, but was glad he made the show.

"I had a great time," Hanley said. "It's always interesting to be around writers and filmmakers."

Hanley added that he'd done a panel before for an IFP event and didn't hesitate to join in this time.

"The conference attracted good people," Hanley said, "both among the speakers and the writers in the audience. The screenwriters seemed to ask smart questions, and they are genuinely committed to their work."

In general, the conference was well run and offered a very solid collection of industry professionals. However, in future outings, the IFP - West should consider providing moderators and precisely listed questions to keep the momentum going in the various seminars when the writers run out of things to say.

It's often said that those who can't, teach. Sometimes, those who can't teach, write. Some speakers seemed ill prepared. Just because a writer can execute an excellent story on paper doesn't mean he or she can effectively communicate how they did it before a live audience. Every single guest in attendance deserves credit for the time and effort they put at the Conference. But, the IFP might give the speakers a stronger safety net next year.

Also, the guest speakers might wish to consider exactly why the writers paid their money to attend the weekend event. Yes, some writers sought simple education and an opportunity to hear professionals share war stories. But, writers in the audience really want a how-to lesson on writing a successful comedy or the systematic details in making the transition from writer to director. The writers are eager to learn how they can make their dreams reality, just as the experts before them did.

That constructive criticism aside, 1998 IFP - West Screenwriters Conference was a welcome addition to the yearly movie scribe festival circuit and a strong argument for independently minded screenwriters to joining the IFP - West.

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