Screenwriting needn't be a lonely business (or what we learnt at LSF)
By Tim Berry (Script Editor, Script Reader, Screenwriter, Director)
Screenwriting can be a lonely business, but if there’s one thing the annual London Screenwriters Festival demonstrates, it’s that it needn’t be. This is a festival so overwhelmingly packed with events, staff training apparently requires volunteers to ‘firewalk’ over 700 degree hot coals in preparation for the amount of ushering and running that they do over the weekend.
The festival allows writers at every level to network, inspire and connect with each other. Delegates leave with something more valuable than just a handful of business cards; the confidence to finally finish that script. If you are a writer considering going to the 2016 festival (tickets for which are already on sale, for the super-keen), here are a few things we learnt this year...
How to write
Whether you are a writer with a treatment or you are polishing your seventh draft, you can never receive enough feedback. LA-based script consultant Pilar Alessandra’s energetic seminars offer an experienced guide to approaching or re-approaching your story; from breaking into your script to overcoming writer’s block. Pilar makes her audience work hard, giving deadlines and soliciting contributions. In Character Camp, she made the audience create a character and story from scratch, and injected some welcome (and often sorely missing) feminist film theory into story development in Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay.
Delegates were also able to benefit from first-hand advice from established screenwriters who were able to provide insight into their ideas, the obstacles faced when writing and the decision-making process. Screenwriters from Hollywood heavyweight Carl Gottlieb (Jaws) to UK indie Stephen Beresford (Pride) provided inspirational and encouraging advice for writers whatever their genre.
What to write
Should a writer chase the market or write for themselves? Britain is Great: Patterns of Success offered a sobering but thoughtful session. For better or worse, the British film industry, sharing a common language with America, is in direct competition with Hollywood. “We are both empowered and imprisoned by the language we speak,” observed Iain Smith (Mad Max: Fury Road, Children of Men), who contributed the quote of the festival. “America is success orientated, whereas Europe is failure adjusted.”
So what should writers be creating to compete with the demands of the industry, based on most recent success stories? The panel pointed to comedy as the biggest box office draw, but agreed that adaptations of contemporary and classic literature are also worth pursuing. Bevan Jones offered some reassurance that at least Britain allows its writers to have their own vision. Olivia Hetreed, writer of Girl with a Pearl Earring and Wuthering Heights, built on this optimism: “Our job (as writers) is to tell the market what it doesn’t know it wants.” The overall consensus was that writers should understand the importance of developing a distinctive voice. “You will always get resistance,” added Hetreed, “but you need to have confidence in your own ideas.”
WHY to write
How to Fast Track Your Way into TV Drama offered the important advice that a script doesn’t have to get produced in order to open doors. Channel 4’s talent scheme 4Screenwriting, led by script consultant Philip Shelley, offers twelve writers the opportunity to develop a new project under the mentorship of a script editor. While the resulting pilot script might not be commissioned by Channel 4, the experience and prestige gained by writers on the scheme can lead to further commissions and other writing work. Anna Symon, who graduated from the scheme in 2013 with her screenplay Blood Money, has since gone on to write for acclaimed Channel 4 drama Indian Summers and has numerous other projects in development. This is another example of why developing a voice is just as important as writing a marketable story.
Writing a screenplay as a calling card, on the understanding that it won’t get produced, could give you the freedom you need to take risks with your writing and explore less conventional ideas."
How to know when you have finished writing
The answer appears to be that you might never know… Stephen Frears admitted that a film’s meaning can come to him late on in the directing process, or occasionally even in the editing suite; while Stephen Poliakoff told of how on-set rewrites of his own work are not uncommon. Knowing when to collaborate and seek the feedback to further develop your work and when to push forward with your screenplay is a difficult balance. Bang2Write's script consultant, Lucy Hay gave a brilliant demonstration on how filmmakers pull apart a screenplay ahead of production, providing writers with the skills to spot potential issues and to explore every possible avenue of a story before declaring it ready.
What to do once you have written
For any writers adamant on producing their screenplays themselves, Paul Ashton and Richard Holmes were on hand to advise how a project finds its way through Creative England’s production and development programmes iFeatures and iShorts (both funded by Creative Skillset). In the seminar Why Writing an Indie Means You Are More Likely to Get Produced, screenwriters Amit Gupta and Leon Butler, director Rebecca Johnson and producer Christine Hartland offered their advice on writing specifically for a low budget, rather than in spite of it, and how to package a project to attract independent investment. Samatha Horley’s How to Position your Screenplay...Even Before it’s a Film allowed writers to consider the ways in which their film can be marketed later down the line; to cater for international demographics. Knowing the audience can help a writer clarify tone, and help understand what the story is really about.
An essential gathering for screenwriters
The London Screenwriters Festival teaches a huge range of skills with which all writers should equip themselves. The sense of community the festival helps foster is one that sees writers returning year after year. An aspiring screenwriter can leave the festival with enough knowledge and contacts to get a real sense they may finally have one foot in the door.
Are you an aspiring or established film screenwriter?
Take a look at these current training programmes funded by Creative Skillset: London Calling, Intl. Screenwriter Workshops, iFeatures, iShorts, EIFF Network, Berlinale Talents, and Equinoxe (Germany).
Want to explore the key concepts and fundamental principles involved in the process of screenwriting? Check out our free online course An Introduction to Screenwriting developed with UEA's famed School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing.