Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Austin Film Festival Notes

Greetings! I had two scripts in the second round of this year's Austin Film Festival (including Are You With Me) and so I traveled to the sunny Lone Star State to meet and greet as many fellow writing geeks as I could. I encountered some great folks and attended bucketfuls of panels. Here's the lowdown:

The first panel I attended was with the talented folks behind Internet series behemoth Rooster Teeth. Panelists included Burnie Burns (Chief Creative Officer/Co-Founder), Doreen Copeland (Supervising Producer), Chris Demarais (Head Writer Live Action), Andrew Disney (writer/director Crunch Time), and Matt Hullum (CEO/Co-Founder).

Some of the best tenets they shared regarded the value of engaging with your audience as a content creator. "Learn a lot from what the community has to say. Have it inform the process. Not dictate it." Further, "Lots of online content is personality driven. vs. brand driven. Audiences respond to personality over brand."

Regarding the "release the entire season at once" model of Netflix, Rooster Teeth said, "There are more opportunities to engage your audience when all the episodes are not released at once."

Then I attended a panel on how to take a meeting. The panelists included the insightful Morgan Long (International Consultant for The Gersh Agency), Amanda Verdon (Manager of Scripted Programming AMC, SundanceTV), and Perrin Chiles (CEO/co-founder Adaptive Studios; executive producer Project Greenlight, The Runner, Coin Heist).

Perrin advised, "During a meeting, I'm asking myself, 'Can we work together?' It's less about the ideas and more about if we like the person pitching."

Morgan suggested, "Know who you're pitching to: what they've done, what they're looking for, what they're developing."

Amanda said, "When pitching a series, how do you see the show sustaining itself? How sustainable will the series be?" She went on to advise, "You'd live ideally in NY or LA but be flexible in ability to move should a job become available."

I then attended a panel on showrunners that included Carter Bays (co-creator/executive producer How I Met Your Mother; writer American Dad!, Late Show with David Letterman), Stephen Falk (creator/executive producer/showrunner You're The Worst co-executive producer Orange is the New Black, co-executive producer Weeds), Phil Rosenthal (creator/executive producer/host I'll Have What Phil's Having, Everybody Loves Raymond; writer/director Exporting Raymond), and James Wong (writer/executive producer American Horror Story, The Others, Rosemary's Baby (2014); writer/director/co-executive producer The X-Files; writer/director Final Destination).

Phil recommended, "Get a writing partner. That's like two for one. It's a good way in. You don't feel so stupid and alone. Plus, if something's bad it's his fault!"

Stephen mentioned, "No one will read you unless there's evidence that others like you. Competitions are important."

Carter said, "Get over the preciousness of your work. Be ruthless about whether or not a joke works. How I Met Your Mother became a sustainable series because we had to hold ourselves to the standard: can we write 100 of these? What's episode three? 50? Do you have a long page of story ideas?" He went on to say, "Approach every decision like you're just making something you'll be happy with three years from now. Don't make the show you think they want to see. Make something you'd be excited to show people even if the rest of America doesn't get to see it."

James Hart! Writer of Hook,
Contact, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
During a roundtable with writers, producers, agents, and managers, the wise Adam Kolbrenner at Madhouse Entertainment said, "The industry has a filtration system. The great material finds its way to the top. The includes competitions like the Blacklist and the Austin Film Festival. Develop your network of people you know. Put your material out there. If it makes it to us we'll read the idea and tell you if it's something we can work with. We're looking for super-unique voices."

Rick Dugdale from Enderby Entertainment said, "I want to hear images. Tease. Visual. Compare your premise to two other films (i.e., Memento meets Mrs. Doubtfire). If it works that way."

I then visited a panel about research and development at Disney and Pixar. The panelists were Erika Schmidt (Creative Development Associate Pixar Animation Studios) and Bryan Davidson (Creative Executive for Walt Disney Animation Studios). Some clever tidbits include:

"Plot out character development with eight key scenes. Where does the scene start and where does it end? Trace the character's inner journey in every key scene."

"A world is a dynamic environment that puts your character into conflict."

"Do you have the right main character? Whose arc is the most compelling?"

"Establish a complex world with rules. 1. Set up the rules of the world. 2. Introduce a character. 3. Where are the cracks in that world? Dominant values of the world? These need to be stated. Pressure and antagonism presses the character into conflict."

With regards to stakes, "There are the internal: feelings, emotions, the intangible. A character's emotional journey. All about healing. Then there are the external - something tangible that the character wants, something achievable. The plot stakes/goal. Then there are the philosophical - a worldview in a universe that is dominant vs an underdog value. A character changes their own world and the world around them."

As a background performer in Ghostbusters (2016), I was thrilled to attend a Ghostbusters panel with Katie Dippold (writer The Heat, Ghostbusters (2016), Parks and Recreation) and director Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, Spy, Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks). Insights included:

"What's the emotional core of the story for these characters?"

"We shoot as many jokes as we can, try them all out. Put together the funniest script, get alternate jokes when necessary. You never know what an audience will like."

"Casting is so important. If the actor brings a personality to it, we'd rather change the script to fit that person. Improv sessions help. We want them completely comfortable to slip into who they are."

The next panel included Lindsay Doran (producer Stranger Than Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, Dead Again; executive producer The Firm, Sabrina; former president/COO of United Artists), Jennifer Howell (Head of Feature Development at Dreamworks Animation), Mark Johnson (Gran Via Productions; executive producer Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Halt & Catch Fire, Rectify; producer Downsizing, Rain Man, A Little Princess, Galaxy Quest, The Notebook, The Chronicles of Narnia franchise).

Jennifer said, "Writers must be persistent: write and write and write some more. That same persistence has to go into finding representation. Be willing to give it to people who will give you honest feedback until it's really great. Rewrite rewrite rewrite. Take the criticism."

Lindsey advised, "The advice in What Color Is Your Parachute? is resonant: your vocation should be the place where your gladness meets the world's deep hunger. The something you love should have something to do with something people tell you you're good at and something you can make money from."

Mark said, "Producing has everything to do with writers. Read everything you can, as a producer. Find the good writers, befriend them, help them develop their script, help their work be seen, become indispensable to that writer. If you find a really good script that someone wants to make then you are already the producer of that. You can learn producing as you go. Experience doesn't count for much. Every film is different. Actors, equipment, crew, all different - be resourceful and imaginative. Be able to identify good scripts, work with good writers, be indispensable. Read read read."

I then attended a panel about using social media as a screenwriter. Panelists included Stephen Falk, Tess Morris (writer Man Up), and Marianne Wibberley (writer National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle).

Stephen said, "When you reach out to us, be original or funny. Say something specific. A specific line or something like that. We just want to be loved. We're easy to flatter. Quote what we've written. We definitely look at social media profiles before we hire."

"Be sane and normal," Tess advised, "It's a relationship."

Marianne (from whom I won a bottle of Proseco for correctly answering a trivia question) said, "Take acting and improv classes. Learn to roll with things and don't overthink. Read every script you can."

My friend (and fellow second-rounder) Nick took notes at the panel on turning failure into success. The panelists included Malcolm Spellman (writer/producer Empire; writer Our Family Wedding), John Turman (Writer Hulk, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ben 10: Alien Swarm, Crow; Stairway to Heaven (TV) Macgyver (TV)), Cormac Wibberley (writer National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), and Marianne Wibberley. Insights shared included:

"The career does not carry you: you must carry it."

"It will be nothing but failure/success/failure/success. The only way out is to keep writing."

"At some point, let the old story go. Start working on the next."

Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud, Loving) said, "Have an emotionally palpable base. What can you keep referring to that the audience can relate to? Further, know what your emotional, gut-wrenching moment is going to be before you start writing. That's what the movie will ultimately be about. Build everything up to that moment."

In the panel on writing the script that producers want, it was advised, "There are four key things producers look for: character, theme, tone, and voice."

And finally, in the panel on contracts and options, it was said that, "If you're getting paid, your work will be changing. Nobody changes a poet's work but the poet gets paid nothing. No matter the collaboration, get the agreement in writing."

I hope this gives you even a small fraction of the creative recharge that Austin gave me. Keep up the great work. Write on!


Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at

No comments:

Post a Comment