Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » IFP/West Screenwriting Conference -- 1999

The Second Annual Independent Features Project, West Screenwriter's Conference continued the IFP's fledgling tradition of providing one of the most intimate and polished screenwriting conferences across the country. However, its size and location promise to keep it a predominantly west coast-attended gathering.

The Independent Features Project - West actively supports the production and presentation of indie films. It also lends a helping hand to aspiring filmmakers trying to turn their visions into reality outside the cookie-cutter studio system.

Held again this March at the west Los Angeles home of the Writer's Guild of America, West, the IFP, West Screenwriter's Conference offered a comparatively small gathering of aspiring writers the opportunity to hear addresses by successful silver screen scribes and to ask questions of their more accomplished brothers and sisters.

The conference got off to an impressive start with an inspiring and informative introductory, keynote address by writer/director Lawrence Kasdan. The writer, producer and director of the upcoming "Mumford," Kasdan wrote and directed some of the most successful and popular films of the last 20 years, including: "The Bodyguard," "Grand Canyon," "Silverado," "Return of the Jedi," "The Big Chill," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Body Heat" and "The Empire Strikes Back."

Immediately following Kasdan's presentation, writers had the incredible opportunity to hear the insights of "Gods and Monsters" writer/director, Bill Condon. Condon would win his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay later that month. Writers will rarely get a better opportunity to learn about the writing experience as related to the directorial process.

Condon also enlightened those in attendance with his insights on effective and successful script adaptation from book to screen.

Additional opening day IFP Conference activities included a seminar on Building Story Structure with "The Peacemaker" writer, Michael Schiffer (moderated by Karen Kaufman, the vice president of development at Monarch Pictures). Also , Scott Alexander, one of the top biopic writers in Hollywood and co-writer of "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" and "Ed Wood," offered his insights into Writing and Researching True Life Stories.

Perhaps Saturday's most successful and most useful seminar featured a Practice Pitch Session. Barry Mendel, the producer of "Rushmore," David Jordan, director of production and development at Dimension Films, Bryan Hickel, creative executive at New Line and Max Wong, director of development at Beacon all sat in and offered their pointers on real-life pitching situations that could make or break a writer's project.

At last year's IFP Conference, I was admittedly disappointed in the lack of interactivity and one-on-one experience. This seminar on successful pitching was a distinct step in the right direction, and I applaud the organizers of the IFP's second go around to adding it to the list of attractions.

The second day of the conference opened with Meg Le Fauve, a popular face at many screenwriting festivals, hosting an outstanding discussion of the Development Process. David Gale, senior vice president of MTV Films; Carla Hacken, executive vice president of Fox 2000; Michael Nuzik, president of South Fork Pictures; and Stacey Sher, co-chairman of Jersey Films, joined Le Fauve in a discussion of one of Hollywood most understood processes -- the procedure of taking a story or script and pushing and shaping it into a movie.

The closing day also featured a discussion on The Future of Science Fiction. Dan Clark, writer and director of "The Item," Philip Eisner, writer of "Event Horizon" and "Scanners," David Goyer, writer of "Blade" and "Dark City" and Gregory Widen looked at the recent resurrection of the sci-fi genre and its continued popularity -- especially in the face of the upcoming "Star Wars" prequels.

The top attraction of the Sunday session was probably WRITING COMEDY, a look at the process involved in writing perhaps Hollywood's most popular and lucrative genre. Moderated by Helena Echegoyan of Motor City Films, the seminar offered Bootsie, co-writer of "Booty Call," Takashi Bufford, writer of "Booty Call" and "Set It Off," Steve Oedekerk, writer of the recent "Patch Adams" and Dan Rosen, writer of "The Last Supper" and writer/director of "Dead Man's Curve."

Since Hollywood seems forever desperate for skilled comedy writers and their high-concept pitches, these experienced writers gave the audience every insight they could, in addition to a few laughs along the way.

Staying true to their roots, the IFP organizers featured a series of seminars offering the top indie filmmakers from the last year or so. In addition to Condon's presentation on Adaptation, Sherman Alexie, writer of "Smoke Signals," discussed successful character creation, while Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor took a case study look at the development of the film, "Election."

On Sunday, Rana Joy, producer of "God Said Ha," Scott King, writer and director of "Treasure Island," Chris Chan Lee, writer and director of "Yellow," Lance Mungia, writer and director of "Six-String Samurai," Tommy O'Haver, writer and director of "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" and Valerie Red-Horse, writer and director of "Natural Native" examined the limitations and challenges of writing for low-budget, independent films.

Also, the writer/directors of "Thick as Thieves" (Scott Sanders), "Caught Up" (Darin Scott) and "Permanent Midnight" and "Natural Born Killers" (David Veloz) examined the journey from screenwriter to director.

IFP deserves credit for giving aspiring writers access to indie writers and directors. These men and women were outsiders looking in, artists with a dream, not too long ago. By hearing what they had to say, writers still working for their first break can see light at the end of the tunnel. Many of these expert professionals were also up for IFP Spirit Awards just a couple weeks later.

While the Second Annual IFP Screenwriters Conference improved over 1998's good effort, its intimate surroundings and limited attendance opportunities will keep it a west coast and LA phenomena for a few years to come.

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