So, you wanna be a screenwriter?

This was my first year to participate in the AFF. First, as a judge for the screenplay competition, a volunteer service for which all judges had to be seriously vetted, as well as recommended by an existing reader/judge. The AFF received a record-setting number of entries this year (a hair under 6000), and over 100 first-round readers worked hard to narrow down the entries for the semi-finalist and finalist judges. Our work entailed reading over 100 screenplays each, and writing coverage notes on 70 of them, explaining why we were sending the work on or why we passed. These notes covered Concept, Plot, Structure, Characters and Dialogue. It was a lot of work! But resulted in an all-access Producer’s Badge, and a more refined understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – in the highly-specific form of screenplay storytelling.

Interestingly enough, the winner of this year’s AFF screenwriting competition also won the highly esteemed and coveted AIF Nichol award! This says a lot about the work of the winner, as well as the quality of the judges here in Austin. 

New articles will cover some panels I attended, offering highlights of what I considered to be the choice gems of wisdom offered by Hollywood icons and newcomers who write, direct and produce for both film and television, such as:

Michael Arndt (The Incredibles/Little Miss Sunshine), Alec Berg (Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/Lethal Weapon), Pen Densham (Moll Flanders/Robin Hood/Twilight Zone), Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart), Elizabeth Hunter (Apollo 13/Twelve Monkeys/Jumping the Broom), Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat/The Big Chill/Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete), Juliet Snowden (Knowing), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands/Adams Family/Corpse Bride) and Jim Uhls (Fight Club) – to name just a few of their accomplishments.

What are these professionals saying that might be of interest to aspiring screenwriters? What tips can help a writer navigate and break into this highly competitive and rewarding field? This is the information I look to pass on to you, dear reader, within the articles on this page.

There were so many panels offered that attendees were wishing for clones. Some of the panels I chose were more helpful than others, but overall, the presenters seemed to offer both inspiration and a warning (repeated often): If there is any other work you can do in your life (other than writing for Hollywood) – DO IT! Horror stories abounded about precious screenplays gathering dust in the garage due to one political reason or another, and about the constant fight to preserve the spine of their stories from the malingering influence of studio executives who think they understand storytelling because they know on what page something should occur (structure), and what people will go see in the theater. If you’ve read any of the books written by those indoctrinated into the Hollywood system (and you should if you take a screenwriting career seriously), you know what I’m talking about. If you take your efforts seriously, you should also watch every movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, and know what/who Film Noir, Werner Herzog, Fellini and Kurosawa are – a lacking I noticed in many of the younger conference attendees.

It has been my experience that any and all creative souls will struggle with ignorance and resistance regardless of the medium they pursue. So I offer the other repeated message from the panelists: If this is what you really want to do – DON’T EVER GIVE UP! Keep pushing and writing until something breaks open. It takes fierce determination to succeed as a screenwriter, and a willingness to keep learning and to cultivate the ability to brush off insults, resistance and a myriad of other dream-killers, including self-doubt. If you’re still interested; if you want to write movies no matter what anyone says, well, okay then.