Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Indiefest -- 1997

The whole event turned into a sort of Film Camp.

A handful of filmmakers and screenwriters came to a mountain resort to enjoy a weekend in the thin, fresh air while discussing their work in supportive environments. As the weekend worn down and the artists gathered around the ski lodge fireplaces, all that was missing were the marshmallows on sticks.

These independent filmmakers and screenwriters came from across the United States and gathered in "picture-postcard perfect" Telluride, Colorado, recently to enjoy the view -- out on the slopes and in the screening room. After a weekend spent examining and discussing each other's work in this old mining town turned ski resort hideaway, most of the artists agreed on one thing: there are worse ways to spend a weekend.

The new Telluride Indiefest promises to be an enjoyable and productive festival on the national scene for years to come. While not widely attended by studio executives, top agents or Hollywood stars, the intimate atmosphere of the festival gave serious, dedicated filmmakers and screenwriters a chance to show their work to an audience before unleashing it on Hollywood.

Indiefest is to the larger, more-widely attended Telluride Film Festival as Slamdance is to the now world-famous Sundance Film Festival. Sundance was originally conceived to give the aspiring visionary an environment to share and improve his or her work away from LA's rat race. When this Utah festival began attracting overwhelming (yet welcome) industry attention, independent filmmakers developed their own sub-festival (Slamdance) to serve the original Sundance's purpose.

Every August, the Telluride Film Festival invites top young directors and their work so top industry executives and producers can sample the new meat amongst the sun-soaked peaks of the San Juan Mountains.

Telluride Indiefest takes place during the peak ski-season (late January or early February) and gives less-established filmmakers and screenwriters an opportunity to show off their efforts in small group sessions and larger public screenings.

While the larger, summer festival focuses exclusively on filmmakers, Indiefest welcomes selected screenwriters to present their best scripts in interactive, staged readings. This year, six screenwriters brought their tomes to Telluride. Local actors and media personalities joined with the writers and other festival attendees to read the scripts straight through as if presenting them as a play or radio drama.

While the end result of these readings in no way truly resembled the movies these scripts will become, the presentations gave the writers an invaluable opportunity to hear the product of their imaginations performed by others. The read-throughs proved very valuable in some cases as writers could see and hear the strengths and weaknesses of their scripts vibrantly demonstrated.

Also, after the readings, the actors, audience members and fellow writers joined together to discuss the fine points of each script. These lively discussions often poured over into after-hour sessions at the resort's bars and restaurants.

Meanwhile, Telluride's old Sheridan Opera House became a movie theater for the festival's duration as screenings of independent features, fictional short films, and short and long form documentaries ran day and night.

Festival entrants paid an application fee of $30 for an opportunity to attend the festival. The creators of the films and scripts selected by the Indiefest judges for exhibition won a free four-day pass to the festival, along with comp'd accommodations at various hotels, inns and ski lodges around the resort. An entrant who accepted an invitation to Indiefest was responsible for transportation to and from the event (and for meals).

Finally, all the accepted entrants enjoyed one complimentary recreational activity during the festival. They could enjoy a horseback ride, snowmobile excursion, sleigh ride, or a day flying down any one the of resorts world-class ski runs.

While the first Indiefest's various events promised a successful future for the festival, there remained opportunities for improvement. For example, Indiefest was not widely publicized outside the Internet (where most entrants learned of the event). Also, its scheduled weekend fell less than four days after Sundance. Most industry professionals who attended that established film festival would have a hard time justifying a second long weekend off to attend another fest so soon after the big Utah event.

The script readings were consistently scheduled opposite film screenings. This probably kept the attendance at the readings down. After all, which would the movie lover rather do...attend a film screening or listen to the reading of a script that will one day become a movie? Screenwriters know that script format doesn't make for the most scintillating read when compared to a novel or short story. Script readings can't really compete for attention with finished films.

Finally, festival event passes sold for a steep $10 a shot. By charging more to see a screening than the average moviegoer would pay to see a finished feature film, Indiefest may have kept many of the Telluride locals away.

In the end, while most attendees certainly enjoyed the various readings and screenings, something much more important came out of Indiefest, 1997. Sure, the screenwriters took home useful notes on improving their scripts. Yes, the filmmakers picked up ideas they can use in their next movies. However, during its best moments, the first Indiefest created something much more important than films or scripts. The festival forged new friendships and professional relationships between artists that could lead to any number of outstanding projects down the road.

If a screenwriter only wants a top agent to read his or her script, don't bring it to Telluride Indiefest. If a filmmaker is looking to sign that big studio distribution deal on the spot, he or she should save their money. There are other excellent festivals that serve those purposes.

Indiefest gives the artists a few days to interact with each other in hope of making their work better forever.

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