Gulp! (or…putting my money where my mouth is)

Btifp
A month or so ago, I got a surprise email from Reilly Tillman at IFP Minnesota.  He said the buzz around town was that Dean and I were the hot ticket when it came to training people how to pitch movies.  I was flattered and a little taken aback.  I had been sought out!  Wow…

We agreed that Dean and I would present the same pitch training we did in Seattle and LA, as well as for MNWIFT, through IFP on January 31 from 10 AM – 3 PM.  I am quite excited about this, as I continue to get email after email from people who have either been trained by us or heard one or both of us speak, saying they’re getting meetings and reads and options and sales…and attributing a good portion of that success to our teaching.

This, of course, brings me great joy.

Bringing that value home to the TCs brings me even greater joy.

Okay…that means if you’re a screenwriter or filmmaker in or around (or passing through or flying into) the Minneapolis/St. Paul area on that day (January 31), click here if you’re interested in participating in our workshop.  IFP is capping the attendees at 20.  There’s already been a lot of interest expressed, so you might wanna sign up sooner versus later.

Anyway…as if that’s not enough, a couple of weeks later, I get this email:

Hi Bill,
My current beginning screenwriting instructor just informed me he won't be able to teach our beginning class this winter due to a major schedule conflict with MCTC, where he also teaches. Would you be interested in taking on this class?

I was double flattered and double taken aback.  And a little scared.

“Yes!” is what I wanted to say, but my stomach was a jumble.  I mean, it’s not as if I’m not…umm…busy.  Just slightly.  But I love teaching, and it’s been a dream of mine to teach a screenwriting class someday.

I didn’t, however, think that “someday” would arrive on my doorstep quite so quickly.

Robbye and I talked it over.  Or rather, Robbye told me to calm the hell down.

“This is a dream of yours.  Obviously, these people trust in your writing ability and your teaching ability.  You’re ready, and you want to do it.  Just do it.”

So…a deep breath later, and I was typing this:

Reilly,
I talked to Robbye about this.   She said, "You've been talking about doing something like this for years.  Go for it!"  So I am.  I would be happy to teach the class, and I am honored you asked.

I am truly honored.  See, unlike some others, I don’t subscribe to the old “those who can’t…teach” adage.  My take is that those who “can” make the best teachers.  Moreover, it’s my firm belief that those who “can” have a responsibility to share their knowledge with and lend a hand to the folks following in their footsteps.

I know that I have something valuable to offer these students.  That's that, I guess.

On a side note, I have selfish reasons for accepting IFP's invitation, too.  Because I also believe this: through teaching I learn.  I know that teaching this class will make me a better screenwriter.

Yet, I gotta tell ya…it feels a little like one of those dreams where you show up for school or work and all of a sudden you realize you don’t have any pants on.  It's certainly a more exposed and vulnerable feeling than when someone's reading or watching my work.

Time to put my money where my mouth is how it most feels.

On that note…if you’re in the Twin Cities on Thursday nights from January 22-March 12, and if you wanna join me on (what I think will be) a fun and enlightening adventure, head on over to the IFP website and register today.  They’re limiting the class size at 12, so hurry before it closes.

Yowsa.

Gulp!

Cool…

One moment, please…

Tpad
There are moments these days when I glance at the Typepad bookmark button and sigh.  I wanna click on it.  I wanna post something.  But I am on the run.  Not a whole lotta time to think, much less put together a coherent post.

Just wanted to touch base with all of my OLU friends, though, and let you know that all is well.  Busy, but well.

We're making some big announcements at SagePresence right now, which is exceedingly cool.  And I need to pay attention to them and make them work because in both cases I kinda got us into these fine messes in the first place.

INCARNATION is going equally well.  It's hard to talk about progress at present because so much is still in the air and loose lips could quickly sink this particular ship.  I can say what I've already told the Facebook crowd, there is a faint glow of green on the horizon. The script is getting a great reception, with one production company exec stating, "The writing is *excellent*. Great characters, great story…reminiscent of an Arriaga movie."  And we're in the process of attaching cast.  I hesitate to write the words that I am about to write because I am superstitious about such things…but here goes: it's starting to feel kinda real.

But keep your fingers crossed anyway.

Trying to keep up with my writing schedule for MANIACAL ENGINEERING, but it's been tough.  I am a little behind, but still up for completing the first draft sometime in January.  It's been amazing.  Never before have I gotten so much buzz and interest on a title.  Me…the guy who sucks at titles!  (Case in point: MICHAELS LETTERS=I loved, everyone hated and it became RUNAWAY; THE ANGEL ON THE HORSE=I loved, everyone hated and it became INCARNATION)  One screenwriter friend of mine, who's just finishing up an assignment at Disney, wrote to me, "You know how I know that MANIACAL ENGINEERING is a *great* title? Because I'm mad I didn't think of it first!"  We'll see if I can follow through and live up to the excitement with…you know…the actual script.

All that said, bear with me over the next few days.  I will return.

A special message from “Meesus Beell”

Dear Friends:

I wanted to make you aware of an Art Fair I am participating in this weekend. The event should be a very well-attended and a lot of fun.

Tell your friends! Hope to see you there!

(I’ll be the one selling the photo cards and prints)

Robbye

Fresia

Kitty_2

Orchidgroup

Jump start your holiday

shopping at the
Arts & Craft Fair
located at
Excelsior and Grand in
St. Louis Park.

Over 30 local artists will be
showcased.

Where: Excelsior and Grand Clubroom
3820 Grand Way
St. Louis Park, MN 55416
(Next to Panera Bread)

When: Saturday, November 8
11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

This event is free to the public!!!
Free parking available in the parking ramps.

#4–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Affblog
Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s
AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To conclude our journey, here are #s 7-10.

Enjoy!

– – – – –

7. Caught the preview screening of “W.” – Austin, TX was, of course, THE place in the country to see this flick.

Strange…I mean, I realize that Bush spent a lot of time in this city.  Duh, right?  I had, in fact, my own brush with the man as his motorcade blocked in (and blocked from view) my rental car when I was in town for the ’05 festival.  So I walked around the downtown for hours thinking I was going insane.  On the phone with Robbye trying to explain why this joker she’d just started dating was missing his flight home, praying she didn’t hang up thinking I was an absolute loser.  FINALLY!  Three hours later, the multitude of black SUVs pulled away, and there was my little car—two blocks away from the coffee shop where I’d met my friend, Troy.

If I haven’t officially said it before, let me say it now.  Thanks, George W. Bush.  For nothin’.

Bush has always been kind of a "Big Brother" character for me.  Larger than life, looming above.  Like a movie star or a fictional character, except that his impact on all our lives and safety and pocketbooks is far from stellar or fictional.  So I knew he was real.  Quite real.  And yet…with the distance between us, it was hard to think of Bush as a real person.

It wasn’t the movie, itself, that changed this perspective for me.  It was the conversation after the movie that did.  In the Driskill, later, talking to the several Austinites with whom Robbye and I befriended, I was suddenly cognizant of how many of these people actually KNEW George Bush or knew someone who knew the guy.  People who had interacted with him before he was President or Governor.  When he was a mere mortal.

I’m not gonna dish any dirt here about the guy.  Buy your own ticket to Austin; you’ll get plenty.  My point is that it was a little freaky hearing about this man, who had basically ruled my world (and tried to rule the world) for the last eight years—someone whom I hold in righteous contempt—like he was Joe the Plumber down the street.  Weird.

Anyway, the movie was fine.  Not Oliver Stone at his best.  The whole affair felt a little slapdash, which it was, apparently.  The script was the biggest problem, as it was pretty uneven.

It was the cast that made this movie.  Josh Brolin did about the best Bush impersonation I think I’ve ever seen.  Richard Dreyfus was bang-on for Cheney.  And though she’s taken some potshots for being too much a caricature, I think Thandi Newton was an absolute treat as Condi Rice.  Yeah…she played it for laughs, but that was the intent of her character.  She performed, I believe, exactly as Stone wanted her to.  And every time the woman opened her mouth or gave one of those goofy looks, I laughed out loud.

The highlight for me, though, was James Cromwell as Bush Sr.  More on that in the next highlight.

8. Sat in on a talk by James Cromwell – The morning after the “W.” screening, James Cromwell graciously offered up an ad hoc panel to talk about—well, I presumed his amazing career and a little about his work on “W.”  I’m not quite sure where the moderator’s wires got crossed, but the questions on her list were such that virtually the entire talk I felt like I was back in junior high.  “So…what did Oliver and Josh do?  What were they saying?  And why did they do this and that?”

It was odd.  I felt for Mr. Cromwell.

Especially since, given the tenor of some of his answers, it seemed that he and Stone might not have had the best working relationship on the film.  You could hear the tension in his voice.  If it was me, I woulda left it well enough alone, much less forced the guy to second guess a guy with whom he’d obviously struggled.

Cromwell, however, performed admirably.

And even when the talk kept straying from movies to politics, Cromwell stepped up to the plate in grand fashion.  It was quite amazing, in fact.  Every question for him was an opening for a grand soliloquy.  He’s quite articulate and passionate and poetic—far more so than the characters he plays.  As he spoke about everything from getting out the vote to saving the planet to why he turned vegan, the entire room was captivated.  His talk really inspired me.  To vote and to save the planet, that is.  I’m sorry…I tried the vegan thang once.  ‘Nuff said.

I did get a chance to ask him one question.  Everyone was wandering aimlessly with their questions, and no one was asking him about how he prepared for his part.  Because he was brilliant.

The night before, in the brief Q&A post-film, he’d mentioned that he had tried to mimic Bush Sr. early on in the shooting, but Stone had pulled him away from that.  I was shocked to hear it.  Then I realized, oh my god, the guy didn’t sound like Bush Sr.  Rather, he was simply (and so thoroughly) Bush Sr. that I never questioned it.  The voice, which was such a distinctive thing about Bush Sr., didn’t matter.  Cromwell had inhabited his character so well; I bought him as the person hook, line, and sinker.

Needless to say, my opinion of James Crowell—which was already pretty high—bumped up several notches as a result of my 2008 Austin experience.

9. Met my new friend, writer Scott Richter –
Not a whole lot to say here, except that Scott’s a really cool guy.  I talked before about how we were one panel together and had a great time of it.

I was tickled and grateful when Scott offered to take some time out of his Saturday morning to have breakfast with Robbye and me, and help me prepare for moderating my “Know Your Rights” panel.  Of course, little did I know that we’d hit it off so well that the “discussing the panel” portion of our breakfast would be shoved into the 15 minutes before we said our good-byes.  After all, we’d already been sitting there for over two hours.  Oops!

It’s a good thing to meet good people who are not only in the business, but also live in the LA area.  The prospect of moving there can be a scary one, the conventional wisdom being that the place is a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah on blow, and the industry chews people up and spits people out in little, broken pieces.  Robbye and I have been fortunate that we’ve had the exact opposite experience.  Everyone we’ve met out there is really cool and really supportive and really decent.  We’re amazed at how many friends—and what a great support system—we’re amassing in CA.  In fact, two of Robbye’s bestest girlfriends, Lisa and Miriam, live out there.  Who’da thunk?

10. Met the “Dr. Evil” of the ISS – The other big treat of the AFF was meeting our new friend, Bill Frank.  I am reading one of Bill’s scripts right now, but that’s not the only interesting thing about him.  He works for NASA and he is one of the leads that helps train astronauts how to handle problems on the ISS.  In his own words, he “breaks the space station” so astronauts can figure out how to fix them.  How cool is that?

We met him in the line for “W.” and were virtually inseparable after that.  I am amazed when I meet old friends for the first time.  That’s what it felt like…like we went to high school together and were getting back together decades later.

Bill said that if we find ourselves in Houston, that he’d take us for a tour of the ISS simulator.  That’s great, but what do we have to offer in return should he and his family come to pay us a visit?  The Mall of America..?  Whatever.  How “terrestrial”.

#3–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Affblog
Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s
AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To continue our journey, here are #s 5 & 6.

Enjoy!

– – – – –

5. Analyzed movies with Robbye – I think this was the highest highlight of the entire trip.  We were driving home, and it was kinda quiet.  Robbye was napping.  I decided to use the time to try to work out beats in this new spec script I’m writing, based on a short script I’d written a few years back called MANIACAL ENGINEERING.

After miles of silence, this from the backseat: “Can I read your ‘Cat’ book?”

“Huh?”

“Your ‘Cat’ book.  The writing one.”

“You mean ‘Save the Cat’?”

“Yeah.  That one.  You keep talking about it, and that Blake Snyder guy was nice.”  (she’d met him at the Great American Pitchfest…like she met Syd Field, and I didn’t.  Go figure)

She climbed into the front passenger seat.

“I think I’m learning something about the screenwriting thing.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “You’ve picked up quite a bit.  But that doesn’t surprise me.  You’re pretty sharp.”

She went on to explain that she’d been listening to me as I judged the pitch competition and in conversations, and she noticed I was using categorical phrases like “fish out of water” and “man in a box” to describe the types of stories that people were talking about.  And she remembered me talking about INCARNATION as a “quest” story.

“I’ve been thinking about that movie, BLINDNESS, that we saw.  That was a ‘man in a box’ story, wasn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“But something like CHILDREN OF MEN—even though people are comparing the two—isn’t the same kind of movie.  Because that’s a ‘quest’ plot.”

“You’re right.”

Next thing, she gets out her bumblebee notebook and a pen.  She’s poised.

“What other types of stories are there?”

I rattle them off, and she jots then down.

For the next couple of hours, we found ourselves dissecting dozens of movies—what their A plots were, what their B plots were.  What kinds of story structure they employed and how that structure was evident as the plot unfolded.

Every time she got a little stuck, I’d say, “Look at the inciting incident.  The best clue to the type of story it is right there.”

To this, she said something that was cute as hell.  “That inciting incident.  It plagues me.”

I thought I was gonna drive off the road, I was laughing so hard.

We live busy, full lives.  We find ourselves on the run most days, my beloved and me.  The road trip down to Austin was supposed to be a time where we could slow things down a little and just be together.  To reconnect.

As I’ve previously documented, the way to Austin was not exactly conducive to this reconnection.  For my part, I found myself a little worse for wear having missed out on that experience.  This moment, though…this was exactly what we were hoping for.  Just what the doctor ordered.

It’s really cool when your friends are interested in what you’re passionate about.  Even better when it’s your best friend.

I can’t adequately express my gratitude or my enjoyment of that small moment in time.  All I can tell you is that I will treasure it as long I live.

And then…  Robbye got that look on her face.  The one where I know she’s committing to do something.  The one where I know said commitment WILL be fulfilled.

“I was thinking that I might write a screenplay.”

“Really?”

“Is that dumb?”

“Are you kidding?!?  No way, it’s not dumb.  I think it’s a great idea.  You’re a great writer.  Better than me.”

It’s true.  She’s got about the best natural voice I’ve ever read.  I think she’d write a great screenplay, and I, for one, look forward to reading it.

6. Kicked ass at judging the pitch competition –
Robbye and I got in the night before the conference began and decided to stay in and rest up.  The AFF, after all, is a marathon, not a sprint.  Plus, we were celebrating having met each other three year ago to the day.  Champagne, jalapeño pretzels, beef jerky, and PROJECT RUNWAY.  What else did we need?

Well, over the course of the evening, we got no fewer than four calls from people asking if we were coming out meet up at the Driskill Bar.  One of the calls came from Monica Jones, who is the director of the AFF Pitch Competition.

“You’re a celebrity, Bill True,” was how she greeted me.

“Why thank you,” I replied.  “But to what do I owe this proclamation?”

“You’re judging the first round of the competition tomorrow, and it’s sold out.  And it’s the first session that sold out.  We’ve never sold out the first round before, much less it selling out before other ones.  I think it’s you.  People have been talking about your feedback during past years, and other people want to hear you give critique.”

Wow.  I was kind of speechless.  And kind of tickled.

Then, the next morning, as I stared ahead at the standing room only crowd in the small pitch competition room, I was a little nervous.  These people were there to hear what I had to say..?  And though I was flattered when Monica introduced me, I was also a little anxious when she referred to me as the “favorite pitch competition judge from the past two years.”  Ikes!

I was on the verge of psyching myself out, hoping I wouldn’t fall on my face or say something stupid or embarrass myself.  Or worse…that I wouldn’t disappoint these good folks who’d put their money on the line to participate in this competition and relying on me to be on my best game. I decided to use a little SagePresence connection exercise to get out of the little feedback loop I was generating.  As always, worked like a charm.  Thank you, Dean Hyers.

In the end, the round went great.  We all had a lot of fun, and people seemed to respond really well to the feedback.  In fact, if I can brag just a little, one of the co-winners of the competition, Jim Macak, wrote to me afterward with this really nice testimonial:

I’ve written episodes for a number of TV shows including “NYPD Blue” but pitching was always a huge problem for me.  The only reason I got the writing jobs that I did was because some producers like David Milch were forgiving enough to let me submit a written pitch.  But those producers are extremely rare and I inevitably lost out on numerous others jobs.  This year, I decided to give the Pitch Competition at the Austin Film Festival a shot.  I was fortunate enough to go second-to-last in a session judged by Bill True.  As I listened to his criticism of other pitches, I realized that what and how I intended to pitch that day would have left me in last place.  I chucked that pitch and improvised one on the spot.  And, yes, that’s scary as hell and I stumbled over some words.  But it was enough to get me into the finals.  Bill gave me additional some additional criticism after that – and I took every single note he gave me.   There were 120 contestants in the pitch competition – and I ended up tying for first place.   To say I would not have won without Bill’s advice would be a gross understatement.   He’s got to be the best coach in the business.

Cool, huh?

Honestly, I am just glad that I can help.  And it’s damned fun!  I mean, how cool is it to be able to sit with your kind and dissect movies for an hour-and-a-half?  And be a part of other people maybe getting their scripts sold or movies made, and seeing their dreams and all their hard work maybe come to fruition?

Twist my arm.

The feedback, however, is nice.  And affirming.  It tells me that I am on the right path.  That, though it rarely be easy, it is truly worth it.

BTW – my good and talented friend, Troy Miller, took second place with his pitch for THE WOODS.  In my humble opinion, the competition should have been a three-way tie, because Troy rocked the freakin’ casbah.  Way to go, Miller!

#2–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Affblog
Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s
AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To continue our journey, here are #s 3 & 4.

Enjoy!

– – – – –

3. Had a writing epiphany – About two hours after our run-in with the deer, both Robbye and I were understandably a little shaky.  We’d done our best to soldier on through the night, but the wind was definitely out of our sails.  Even worse, everywhere I looked in front of me I saw deer.  Whether they were real or imagined made no difference.  My freaked out meter was near redline.

We needed to stop.

We pulled off the Interstate in the middle of nowhere.  This tiny oasis of light was the only thing we’d seen for over an hour.  There was a gas station and there was a small café.  Good enough for us.

We went inside the café, The Plainsman, and instantly felt like we’d stepped onto the set of some kitschy indie Americana drama.  As we walked in, we were greeted by—no kidding—a huge stuffed deer head nailed to the paneled wall.  Aside from the waitresses, who wore matching smocks (of course), the only other people in the place were two regulars, Bill and Carl, both of whom were members of the bib overall brigade.

Okay…I realize I need to take a sec to say this.  So hold on the story, please.

A common mistake by many new writers (yours truly included) is to write dialogue where characters are constantly calling or referring to each other by name.  It looks like this:

John: Martha, would you like a martini?

Martha:  If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, John.  I don’t like martinis.

Now…yes…people do, indeed, call each other by name at times.  What seems to be a universal problem with folks at the starting line of their writerly journey, however, is that they tend to overuse character names in dialogue.  Basically, you can spot a newbie a mile away this way.  And when you become attuned to it, it becomes absolutely glaring.

Because this has been an issue for me in the past, I am very cognizant of how many times I use character names in dialogue.  Of the several passes (i.e., editing reads) I give a script before I call it done, I always do a names once over.  It’s critical.

Okay…now I can return to the story.

Robbye and I are sitting in a booth, bleary-eyed and out-of-whack, sipping the colored water the place was trying to pass of as coffee.  During this time, something was working its way through the veil between my unconscious and conscious minds.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I heard this exchange:

Kathy: You need more coffee, Bill (customer, not me)?

Bill: No, thanks, Kathy.

Kathy: How ‘bout you, Carl?

Carl:  I dunno.  Hmm…Sure, Kathy.  I’ll take some.

Bill: Well, Kathy, if Carl’s takin’ some, I’ll have one more cup.

Kathy: Sure thang, Bill.

I kid you not.  It sounded exactly like that.  Almost word-for-word.

Through the rest of our Plainsman dining experience, I had a hard time focusing on the conversation between Robbye and me because me ear kept drifting back to the conversations of the indigenous peoples.  Every time I tuned into one, it was a virtual replay of the Bill/Kathy/Carl exchange.

By the time we walked out, my writer’s mind was officially blown.  All of a sudden, my hard-and-fast rule wasn’t so hard-and-fast anymore.  I realized that there was at least one small pocket in the world where real-life people spoke like characters in a newbie script.  If there was one place, there were bound to be others.

I’d had an epiphany.  Though I will remain vigilant about my name usage in dialogue, I will relax a little.  Especially if I am writing characters who hail from small towns in the southern part of Kansas.

4. Kicked ass at moderating three panels – I mentioned in an earlier post that I had asked the AFF if I could try my hand at moderating a few panels this year.  I was very excited when they assigned my to three of them over the course of the conference.

I printed off pages of research materials, determined to be the sharpest, most engaging moderator the AFF had ever seen. My plan was to use the drive down to Austin to go through my research and notes and formulate a plan for each panel.  And even though I wasn’t exactly sure what angle of approach I was going to take for the “Know Your Rights” panel, I was feeling pretty damn skippy about the rest of them. 

That is…

Until we hit a deer.

CRAP!

And then I realized that I’d forgotten all my research and notes on my desk.

DOUBLE CRAP!

Luckily, there was a computer and printer at the Driskill Hotel.  Friday was a light day for me, so I had time to squirrel away and re-research.  I was able to re-print most of the stuff I’d left at home.  It was difficult, but also I managed to extract myself from the collective for an hour or so between Friday and Saturday and do my preparation work.

Also, I’d met a really cool guy by the name of Scott Richter on my Competitions panel.  Scott’s not only a writer, but he’s also a lawyer…and he won the 2007 AFF teleplay competition with his GREY’S ANATOMY spec.  He was a great co-panelist, and he and I had a rapport from the very beginning.  Felt very easy and very conversational, and we were able to build on each other’s points in ways that I think made the panel far more valuable for participants than it’s been in other years.  Anyway…he was slated to be one of the panelists on the Rights panel, so I asked him if he would have breakfast with Robbye and me beforehand and help me figure out how to make the most it.

Well, to make a long story er…not quite as long…the all three panels went swimmingly. Robbye had heard people talking about my Competitions panel and the Pitch Competition rounds I’d judged, and apparently the word on the street was that I was a guy whose panels you wanted to catch.  So all three were packed.  Standing room only, actually. 

I got a lot of great compliments from the folks that attended the panels, many of whom (and many of the panelist, too) said they were the best-moderated panels they’d ever seen at the AFF.  In fact, several people who were in attendance at my first Sunday panel showed up at the second one because they enjoyed the first one so much.

It was cool and humbling at the same time.

When all was said and done, I was just glad that I had delivered some value for the participants.  I was glad that I could bring a writer’s perspective—their perspective—the panel topics, and ask the questions they were burning to ask.  And I was glad people had fun.  That there was laughter at the same time as there was learning.

My two favorite moments:

–In the “Online World” panel, Brad Neely got defective instructions and showed up 30 minutes late.  TO make things worse, there was no chair for him.  We tried to get a standard AFF-issue high director’s chair for him, but all the volunteers could rustle up was a plain old chair.  As a result, poor Brad, though he’s kind of a big guy, sat a full 24 inches lower than the rest of us.

The first time I directed a question to him, I said, “Brad, I think you might want to weigh in on this.  What’s the perspective from the Shire?”

The place was in stitches for nearly a minute.  Brad, who was obviously feeling a little discombobulated and not quite sure why he was there in the first place got a big, ole smile on his face.

“That’s a good one.”

The ice was broken for Brad, and the conversation finally kicked into high gear.

–In the “Niche Projects” panel, Turk Pipkin brought in a twelver of Shiner Bock.  Everyone on the panel cracked one open, and we all swilled beer as we tried to talk smart.  During the Q&A, we rewarded the best questions with a beer.  So…okay…as much as I’d like to believe every panel was a favorite because of me, I have to admit that the beer was definitely the star here.

During the panel, we were talking a lot of about securing financing, in particular through getting sponsorships from companies.  At the end of the panel, I raised my bottle and said, “I’d like to thank you all for coming to the ‘Niche Projects’ panel, brought to you by Shiner Bock.”

People got a kick out of that.

#1–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Affblog
Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To kick things off, here are numbers 1 & 2.

Enjoy!

– – – – –

1. Hit a deer – Okay…I don’t know whether this qualifies as a “highlight”, per se.  More like a “lowlight”.  But it was a major event associated with this year’s trek to Austin.  A defining one, if fact.  That means it makes the list.  Hell, if anything, to honor the poor deer that gave its life in the name of getting our butts down there to participate in the conference.

First off, any illusions Robbye and I had of this year’s road trip being a replay of last year’s breezy cakewalk were pretty much killed by the time we got to Des Moines.  It started raining 30 miles into Iowa and continued the entire night—through every state—and didn’t stop until we pulled into the hotel parking lot.  The deer, however, was a little “adding insult to injury” the Universe tossed in for good measure.

It was 2:45 AM.  I’d taken over driving duties a few miles outside of said Iowan town, and we were about 10 miles south of Emporia, KS.  Robbye was sound asleep in the backseat.  The choices for the time being were heavy mist or fog.  It was a toss up which one I preferred.  They both sucked.  I had just passed though a patch of fog, when…

“SHIT!”

Right in front of me, a beefy buck, not more than five feet off the driver’s side front fender.  Saucer-eyed and doing the death-dash across I-35.  Thank god my reflexes were working.  I locked up the brakes for a second, slowing a bit, and turned with the deer.  That, if I say so myself, is what saved us from a much worse situation.  Well, for us, that is.

The deer, I’m sure, went instantly into the next world.  His head bounced off the fender and then took the mirror.  He spun around, I think, and hit the backdoor, where Robbye’s head was resting, and then he was gone.

The humans involved in the incident were, needless to say, a tad shaken.  We stopped a few miles up the road at an all-night gas ‘n sip and called the sheriff’s office.

“Yep.  That kinda thang happens ‘round these parts.”

The car, which was a rental, looked a little crunched, but it worked fine.  We’d bought the damage waiver, so we decided to keep going and call the rental company later when it was open.  See what they said.  They said, “Dang.”  But other than that they said go on with your trip.  So we did.

The good news, if there is any, is that it only added to our celebrity at the conference.  People we didn’t even know were grabbing us in the Driskill lobby and party venues.

“Aren’t you the people who hit a deer?”

“Umm…yes.  Thank you for reminding me.”

2. Chatted up Lawrence Kasdan – For nearly 30 years, Lawrence Kasdan has been one of my heros.  It all started with a little movie he wrote called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  You mighta heard of it.  He was cool.  HE wore a fedora, just like Indy.  And he wrote the coolest, snappiest dialogue I’d ever heard.

Then he wrote the script for a movie called THE EMPIRE STRIKES back (and, I learned later, basically wrote the production draft of STAR WARS…suddenly things made sense).  Stick a fork in me.  I was done—a fan for life.

I don’t think there’s a Lawrence Kasdan movie I haven’t seen.  But more important, as I got older, and my journey to a career in the movies took some unexpected detours, Kasdan’s story gave me hope.  He was a working guy.  He had a family.  He didn’t live in Hollywood.  He came into the game a little later than conventional wisdom suggests.  Yet, he wrote and taught himself the screenwriting craft, and when he thought he was ready, he went for it.

My good friend Carol, whom I met somewhat serendipitously 5-6 years back, turns out is one of Kasdan’s best friends.  She edits nearly all of his movies, and her husband has been DP for many of Kasdan’s films, too.  And every time we would get together, she would tell me, “You have to meet Larry.  The two of you would get along so well.  You come from such similar backgrounds, and your sensibilities are similar, too.”

Uh…let’s see.  Meet my screenwriting hero.  Okay…sign me up.

Unfortunately, schedules and the like never quite lined up.  And then…

It’s Friday night at the AFF, and Robbye and I are waiting for the bus to take us to the Texas Film Commission BBQ.  Who do you think is standing five feet away?  Yep.

Robbye was nudging me.

“Say hi to him.”

“No.”

“If you don’t, I will.”

That worked.  I hate it when she calls my bluff.

I’d sat in on a panel he’d done earlier in the day, so I opened up the conversation on that…seemed like a decent opening.

“I enjoyed your panel.”

Sheer genius, in fact.

Well, maybe not, but it got the ball rolling.

I got to tell him about our mutual friend, and he perked up immediately.  And that’s how I got to talk to Lawrence Kasdan the entire bus ride.  He asked me about what I was doing there, and I got to tell him about winning the AFF in ’05 with RUNAWAY.  And he congratulated me.

Lawrence Kasdan.  Congratulating me.

When I said good-bye to him, we were talking about possibly making the get-together Carol had been talking about happen sometime when we were all in LA.

And as I walked off the bus, my only concern was whether or not I’d wet myself.  After our very pleasant conversation, that woulda been…you know…awkward.

The skinny on Austin

Man!  Tempus really does fugit, don’t it?

I can’t believe it’s just a week till the start of the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference.  It seems like the last one was, like, a month ago.

I am truly looking forward to this year’s conference.  When the AFF contacted me about being a panelist this year, I told them that I would love to and that I would also be happy (and in some respects more happy) moderating some panels.  They really took that message to heart, and I am involved in some really cool panel discussions.

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I think it’s a really good idea, having actual screenwriters moderating some of the panels.  Being that the participants are, you know, screenwriters, guys like me know the questions they’re burning to get answered.  Because they’re same same one I want answered.

I notice there are a number of other screenwriters moderating panels this year (one of them being my good friend, Karl Williams, who is one of the most intelligent, articulate, AND funny guys I know.  And the guy can write, too).  It’s a good thing.  I believe it will make for a fuller, more engaging, and educational experience for the participants.

Okay…enough babbling.  Here’s the lowdown on the panels I’m on during the conference:

THURS. 10/16, 1:00 PMGETTING THE MOST OUT OF COMPETITIONS: What can competitions do for writers? Attending the Austin Film
Festival is only the first step in having your work progress in the
industry. Learn how to make your work stand out from the rest and get
the best experience possible from the festival.

This is the third year I have served on this panel, and I have to say I absolutely love it.  For one thing, the room is always packed, and the energy and excitement from the audience is palpable.  It’s great being in a room with so many passionate people, and it’s an honor to be a part of their writerly journey.  Another cool aspect is, though we do talk about competitions, we can’t help but speak to the whole picture–the entire spectrum of things serious amateurs should do to help make their first break.

And it’s always a pleasure to serve on a panel with Greg Beal of the Nicholl Fellowship.  That guy…he’s not only very bright and always has some entertaining and pertinent story that perfectly models the point we’re trying to make, but I swear he remembers every script that funnels through the competition.  In a contest, by the way, that receives upward of 6,000 entries each year.  It’s uncanny.

SAT. 10/18, 3:45 PMKNOW YOUR RIGHTS: POST PRODUCTION: You have the right to know if you are getting a fair deal on your
screenplay or film. From distribution and financial responsibilities to
maintaining the rights to your own work, How do you get your film seen
by its audience while protecting your own future? Come hear from
lawyers and filmmakers in the know about how to preserve your own
intellectual property.

Funny…I was checking this one out because I thought it sounded kinda interesting.  As a guy who’s been there AND who’s also been dipping his toes into the producing pond, I wanted to hear what the Hollywood brain trust had to say on the subject.  Then I noticed my name in the moderator spot.  Cool!  I guess it’s a lock, then.  I’m goin’!

Seriously, especially considering the current state of the industry, understanding the rights game and distinguishing fact from fiction is of paramount importance to fledgling writers.  It’s the first step to avoiding being the main character in a cautionary tale people talk about at future screenwriting conferences.

SUN. 10/19, 11:30 AMTHE ONLINE WORLD: Writing, creating and exploring content for the web. The interweb
provides infinite options for reaching new audiences. How does that
access translate into making a living from producing content for the
web?

One needs to look any further than this very articulate and more-than-slightly disturbing commentary by Mark Gill in IndieWire to know at the very least the Internets are THE (to use a little Presidential campaignspeak) game-changer in out industry.  It’s the new talkies, the new color, new TV, the new cable, the new VHS, and the new DVD.  In some respects, it’s all of those all rolled up in one.

In fact, when I talk about its impact on the movies, I equate its significance to the invention of movies, themselves, and how that impacted legit theatre.  I believe it’s going to fundamentally change the way people look at entertainment.  And, oh yeah…it already has.

Sun. 10/19, 2:30 PMNICHE PROJECTS — With an ever-expanding landscape of independent film, how you get your
film seen by its demographic? Learn from independent filmmakers who
have successfully found their audience and had an impact.

First off, what I just said about Mark Gill’s commentary in IndieWire.

Second, this is such an intriguing concept for a panel.  I have to admit, at first blush I would’ve been tempted to pass over it.  I didn’t really get it until I read the description.  But think about it.  In today’s world, the distribution channels are favoring movies that can find a niche–over mainstream ones, even. 

In reality, this is probably one of the most important panels that anyone could attend at this year’s conference, and I feel quite fortunate to be trusted to moderate it.  As evidence of its importance, I will refer to Peter Broderick’s excellent article in the 9/15/08 issue of IndieWire, titled "Welcome to the New World of Distribution".  In it, he outlined 10 things filmmakers and distributors need to realize in today’s movie marketplace.  Here are the two that I think apply here:

"4. CORE AUDIENCES – Filmmakers target core audiences. Their
priority is to reach them effectively, and then hopefully cross over to
a wider public. They reach core audiences directly both online and
offline, through websites, mailing lists, organizations, and
publications. In the OW, many distributors market to a general
audience, which is highly inefficient and more and more expensive."

and…

"10. TRUE FANS – Filmmakers connect with viewers online and at
screenings, establish direct relationships with them, and build core
personal audiences. They ask for their support, making it clear that
DVD purchases from the website will help them break even and make more
movies. Every filmmaker with a website has the chance to turn visitors
into subscribers, subscribers into purchasers, and purchasers into true
fans who can contribute to new productions. In the OW, filmmakers do
not have direct access to viewers."

Okay…  So there you have it.  Very exciting.  I am happy that they’re using me so much this year and that I am going to be quite the busy boy next week.

I am also, by the way, going to be judging the pitch competition again this year.  That’s always a blast and a real highlight for me.

Not certain what’s going to happen with the Filmcatcher commentary.  The project kind of fell through, which was a bummer.  The Filmcatcher folks really wanted to do it, but they have tons of festivals they’re trying to cover this year.  In the end, they felt like they simply couldn’t put the resources into covering the AFF they would need to in order to do it justice.  They’re hoping next year…We’ll see what happens.

I may still do some blogging for Filmcatcher on the AFF.  With the lack of a laptop, I am not certain how feasible that will be.  I am trying to figure that out this week.

Meanwhile, I am also excited because Robbye and I will be road-tripping it down there like we did last year.  We had such a blast.  I’m quite psyched for the sequel.  Sans our car getting towed, that is.

Knock! Knock! Knock! Housekeeping..!

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I know everyone’s been waiting with bated breath, and I can finally speak up and officially announce that I will once again be a panelist and pitch competition judge at this year’s Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference.

I am not certain in which panels I will be participating.  The conference folk have told me that I will be getting an email about that shortly.  I did, however, express my interest in moderating a panel or two again this year, since I had a lot of fun doing that last year.  Apparently that’s gonna happen, too.

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Another thing I know is that I will be covering the conference on behalf of filmcatcher.com.  The Filmcatcher folks, AFF folks, and I are having a conversation tomorrow about what exactly that means.  Filmcatcher would like to have me doing some on-camera interviews with festival luminaries, panelists, and participants.  If that’s not in the cards, I will at least be blogging again this year.

Which, I learned, (re: the AFF blogging last year) was quite the popular thing at ol’ Filmcatcher.  I was talking to my friend, Al Klingenstein (President of Filmcatcher and RUNAWAY producer), and he said my blog entries got a lot of hits.  He also said that they got a lot of comments that people thought my entries were both highly entertaining and informative.  That’s kinda cool.  I certainly had a lot of fun doing that as well.

I’ll let y’all know when I hear more details on Austin.  For now, mark your calendars for October 16-19.

As for the missus and me, I am hoping we’re in a position to repeat our road trip adventure of last year, sans having our car towed for bogus reasons.  We had an absolute blast driving down there and back last year.

In the meantime, Aadip Desai, President of the Northwest Screenwriters Guild (and fellow AFF panelist) asked me to respond to a few questions about the AFF for an FAQ his organization is putting together.  I don’t know exactly what he’s doing with this info yet, but here is how I responded.  Hopefully it helps some other folks considering attending the conference.

– – – – –

Why should I go?

You should go to the AFF conference because it is simply the event for screenwriters…hands down.  You’re going to learn more and meet more industry people in four days than you ever thought possible.  You’re going to gain insight and knowledge—particularly in the realm of how to move from serious amateur to professional screenwriter.  And you’re going to have access to Hollywood types that can help you move your career forward.  Some of the best professional relationships I have were begun at the AFF.

And you’re gonna spend four days with your people.  AFF is like the mothership from Planet Screenwriter.  It lands once a year to call its people home.

Which badge should I get? How much are they?

I know money’s always tight—especially for writers—and the “big badges” come with a hefty price tag.  But if you’re attending the AFF, there is no question that you should purchase the producer’s badge.

Yes…it’s $585 ($650 after Sept. 22).  But it gets you into EVERYTHING.  Most significantly, it gets you into the parties, where all the panelists and industry guests are hanging out.  It’s where all the networking is happening.  Not to denigrate the importance of the panels, but that’s where the industry talks at you.  The parties are where the industry talks to you…and they’re friendly (read: liquored up).

Which days should I attend?

You should arrive Wednesday night, get a good night’s sleep, and be prepared to do everything though the Hair of the Dog Brunch on Sunday morning.  Just assume you’re not going to get much sleep.

How do guests get into events without having to pay for a conference badge? I.e. how can our spouses/partners/friends go to parties with us?

I believe spouses need to purchase a producers badge to attend all the parties.  And I would encourage that.  Having my wife with me at networking events is like having another me promoting me.  And she’s much easier on the eyes.

If you don’t want to/can’t spend that much, I would suggest purchasing a weekend pass for them, which gets them into a few of the key parties and all the rest of the stuff.  Here’s where you go to get info on all the badge options.

Bottom line, though..?  You’re spouse is gonna be pretty bored (and a little ticked) if their stuck in some hotel room and you’re out mixing it up every night till 3-4 in the AM.

Where does all the action happen? Where should I stay?

Here’s where I defy conventional wisdom.

A lot of people stay at the Driskill (where all the action is) or the Stephen F. Austin.  That’s fine…if you never need to sleep and you want to overpay for your hotel room (upwards of $300).

Me..?  I’m a cheapskate.  And I think, why should I spend a ton of dough on a room when all I care about is a bed and a shower?  I can rent a car (which is a smart investment, anyway…I’ve made some great contacts just because of the words “Can I give you a ride?”) and a cheap room up I35 for less than half of what the downtown hotels cost.  AND have an honest shot at a few winks.

Plus, it’s out of the fray.  I’m an introvert (as I guess some of my fellow writers are, too), and I need that quiet every once in awhile to recharge my batteries.  It feels more healthy.

Do I need to rent a car to get around?

No…but see above.  I recommend having one.

Which events are a "must attend"?

As I mentioned above, all of the parties.  And hang out in the Driskill bar every night.  That’s where you meet people.

The other thing I would encourage everyone to try is the pitch competition.  It’s not expensive, and you get a chance to pitch your script in front of real, live production company folk.  The feedback you get alone is worth the price of admission.  But I’ve also seen writers get requests for scripts out of both preliminary and final rounds.  And the winner gets lots of cool stuff (including a producers badge for next year) and a national award for their resume.  Hmmm…

Oh yeah…and any panel where Bill True is speaking.

How does the pitch competition work? How should I prepare?

You should practice your pitch, if anything, to hone it to 90 seconds or under (which is the pitch competition time limit).  You’d be amazed at how many people have trouble with that.

I did an article for the Great American Pitchfest newsletter last November that speaks to some things I think can help pitch competition participants.

At AFF, each round consists of about 15 people delivering their 90-second pitch to two judges, who are industry folk (screenwriters like me or production company execs).  Each pitch is scored, and the top two from each round move on to the next round.  The winners of that next round (about 6-10 in total) go on to the final round, which is a really cool event unto itself.

How do the roundtables work? How should I prepare?

At the roundtables, you sit at a table with six other participants and the each panelist spends 15-20 minutes at your table.  When time is up, the panelist moves to a new table, and another one takes his/her place at your table.  The idea behind the roundtable is that it’s a conversation between the participants and the panelist.

The only preparation you need is to come armed with the burning questions you want answered.  Here’s your chance to ask them.

They’re well worth the time.

One tip, though…questions to NOT ask include: Can I give you my script?  Can I get your email address?  Can I give you my card/get your card?  These roundtables aren’t an appropriate place for you to hawk yourself.

You will sell yourself best by maintaining a position of poise, asking intelligent questions, allowing other people to talk, and really listening to what the panelist has to say.  Then, at a party later on, when you run into that panelist, you will impress them by saying that following: “Thanks for the great roundtable conversation today.  I really appreciated what you had to say about [insert favorite point here].”  Instant conversation starter.

What should I bring with me to the conference (business cards, leave-behinds, etc.)?

Bring business cards.  If you get in a conversation with someone, you want to be able to give them your contact information.

I wouldn’t schlep anything else around with you.  No scripts (if someone’s interested, you can email a pdf to them later), no one-sheets, no DVDs…no nothin’.  I can’t tell you how much stuff I get handed to me at these conferences, and (as much as I hate to admit) it all goes in the circular file.

Make it easy on yourself and the panelists.  They don’t want to be sold.  They just want to be people.  And they already are inclined to help you if they can.

What can our guests do while we’re in panels?

Sit next to you.  Or save a barstool for you at the Driskill.  Movies start at 5 PM, so that’s no an option.

What’s the weather like that time of year?

70s daytime.  Jacket weather in the evening.  It’s a beautiful time of year in Austin.  Perfect weather.

How do people dress?

Standard screenwriter attire.  I wear jeans and a collared shirt.  Always.  It’s casual, but I wouldn’t wear shorts.