LA Diary: Weekend at a Screenwriter's Conference
By Randy A. Riddle
Dear Stuart -- I got up at four this morning for the trek to the airport. It was uneventful, except for being pulled aside, once again, for the security checkpoint. I'm beginning to wonder just what kind of list I'm on. Or, maybe it's just my magnetic personality setting off the x-ray machine. For reading material on the flight, I brought along that new book about Eustace Conway, "The Last American Man" by Elizabeth Gilbert.
He's the modern-day mountain-man in Boone, North Carolina that I recalled seeing around town when I was in college. The book, if you'll recall, is about a guy who moved out of his parent's house when he was seventeen to live in a teepee. He hiked the Appalachian Trail when he was twenty, living only on the plants and animals he found there. He's also done a million other things, like set a world's record for the fastest trip across the US on horseback.
It's not the perfect book to read if you're male, in your thirties, and stuck in airport terminals and a seemingly endless flight to that temple to concrete and asphalt, Los Angeles. Reading about Eustace eating roadkill while hiking on the Appalachian Trail makes you feel guilty about that little bag of salty peanuts you get on the airplane. Eustace makes you feel, well, like you really haven't really done anything interesting with your life.
You know, over the past couple of months, this trip to LA has been constantly on my mind as some kind of vague event on my calendar. When I signed up for the conference, I was genuinely excited about it -- I'd have the opportunity to learn about screenwriting, maybe even to pitch my script.
Now that I'm sitting in my hotel room a day before the conference, I've come to the realization that, over the past few weeks, I hadn't even thought about the conference -- I had no inclination to prepare any kind of notes to pitch my script, I only gave a cursory glance to the workshop schedule. It's almost like a non-event for me, in a sense. I sat here this evening with my script in hand, trying to make notes for a pitching session, where I'd have to give my schpeil about the script in five minutes to a producer at the conference, and I can
barely look at the thing.
Nope -- that book about Eustace Conway isn't a good choice if you're flying to Los Angeles ... especially when you're going to a screenwriter's conference. Eustace can make you feel like such a wimp. By the way -- I hear that Ron Howard has an option on the book about Eustace. I just can't imagine what he'd do with it as a movie. How does a successful A-list Hollywood director really get into the mindset of a man who regularly eats squirrels?
Stuart -- Well, I got to the conference about an hour early. They had tickets available to 1200 slots, five minutes each, so that you could pitch your script to one of several reps from different studios. In LA, if you don't know, a "pitch" is a two minute opportunity to sell some kind of studio exec, director or star on your script. Everyone who wants to be a screenwriter has to be able to pitch -- remember the guys who were pitching scripts in Altman's "The Player"? Well, that's exactly what it's like.
The booth to sell the pitching tickets opened at 8:00; when I arrived at 7:00, there was already a line that snaked its way through the huge lobby of the exhibit hall. While waiting in line, I had an interesting conversation with a few fellow surferers. One was a freelance writer from Texas; another is a corporate type about my age who is screenwriting in his spare time; the other a 19 year old student trying to break into the biz. I asked the kid where he was from.
"New York," he said.
"New York City?" I asked.
"No. Fredonia," he said.
"Oh, like that Marx Brothers movie," I said.
Blank stare from the 19 year old kid.
Had a long talk with the corporate-type. He attended another screenwriter's conference a few weeks ago in Sante Fe. I asked him how he found time for writing, with his job and family responsibilities. "I moved one mile away for work," he said. "I have a hard time getting feedback from my family," he said. "They read my script and said, 'That's nice'. I don't know if they're honest or just trying to humor me."
The nineteen year old kid shared one of his scripts with his mother. "That sucks!" she constructively said.
The New Jersey corporate type said his main problem with the writing is dialogue -- he just can't figure out how to get his characters to sound realistic.
What's he writing? Romantic comedies, sort of like "Sleepless in Seattle".
I waited until 8:45, just before my first session, and they sold out -- there was about 80 people in line in front of me for the tickets. In all, I think there was about six or seven hundred people that will get to pitch, I believe.
When I arrived for my first session, which I had dutifully purchased a specific ticket for, the room was already full. I wound up listening from the hallway. That seemed to be the pattern for the day -- it's the early bird who gets the worm, even if they took the trouble to register early and get their tickets. And that seems to be the whole "thing" about the biz here -- preserverence and suffering. If you wanna make it in Hollywood, you need to get in line for pitching tickets by at least 6:00 am. Heck, you might as well camp out there overnight because if you don't, there's someone else that will. I think that's why the LA press just loves those kids that camp out for weeks to see the opening of the latest "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings". Preserverence, suffering -- yeah, that's what this biz is all about.
Well, it was off to the sessions. "The Four Act Structure" was about disregarding the three act and simply regarding the mid-point of Act Two as the beginning of a new act. (Been there, done that, with my first script; that's the little trick I used to finally write the middle of the thing.) The next session looked at writing authentic characters. I didn't see much there I hadn't gone through already with my writing, except that he did have a few good things to say about the way secondary characters should work in a script.
The guy running the workshop did get the biggest laugh of the day.
"What is a character?" he asked. "A character is a person who has an unfullfilled need and we spend the movie watching how he or she fills that need. Except in a French movie ..."
A session on "Selling Yourself and Your Screenplay" dealt with how to break into the biz by becoming a freelance writer on the film industry to give you access to people who will eventually read your script. I wasn't clear on whether he had actually sold a screenplay from these contacts, but the crowd seemed to enjoy his talk and he was rather goofy and entertaining.
The attendees wanted all this inside info on people this guy had interviewed and palled around with, like Joe Dante. (Remember Joe Dante? He did "Gremlins"; then he did this other movie, "Small Soldiers" that's sort of like "Gremlins" with toys instead of gremlins.) I guess if you can't have a real-life big-name star or director in the room, you make the best of the situation. In that session, I picked up on a new bit of lingo.
"I'm gonna bank that," the presenter said at one point. You see, he was on the set of a movie one day and one of the guys said, "Let's hang out in Arnold's trailer." They did, and were talking about the presenters work with the promo stuff for the anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz" when in walks Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Arnold, it seems, really likes "The Wizard of Oz" and was engaging in lively conversation about the movie and this guy's work with the articles he was writing. So, if you make that elusive star contact, and you impress them -- even in the smallest way -- it's an experience that you can "bank" for use at a later time.
The attendees mobbed this guy with questions. "How can I contact ?" "How can I get director here> to read my script?" "Do you know ?"
I thought for a moment that some in the crowd wanted to touch the hem of his garment. "He ... he ... he talked to Arnold!! He ... he ... he has Billy Joe Bob Thornton's cell phone number!!"
About half of the attendees at this thing were from California, some were from New York, but they came from everywhere for this thing. Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Georgia. Interesting that I didn't see anyone else from North Carolina. I imagine there had to be someone else from Jesse Helms country, but, with this many people, I can understand why you wouldn't just casually bump into them.
I only ran into a couple of people who were talking about screenwriting as a profession, a way to make a living, rather than a scratch and win lottery. One was a gentleman from LA who has worked in the biz for a number of years as a technician; he got tired of doing other people's work and formed a small production company (or "prodco" in the local lingo) to make films with some others in the city in a similar position.
This guy was prepared -- he brought a small handheld cooler containing sodas, apples, and sandwiches.
"I've been to the LA Convention Center before," he said. "I really don't like enchiladas."
Smart move. The food at the Center consisted of $6 sandwiches or hot meals of Mexican food. I wondered if they usually had that kind of menu or if it was being offered for the Latino religious revival, which was being held concurrently with the screenwriter's convention. In some of the sessions, the speakers competed with loud religious music -- sung in Spanish -- bleeding through the walls from the main hall of the Convention Center. The revival looked something like a game-show, by the way, with a large video screen, a live band, and prizes next to the stage, including a new car and a washer-dryer set, all wrapped up with bright red ribbons.
Yep, that's what LA is all about. A conference for screenwriters peacefully coexisting with a Latino religious revival in the same building. Decadence and salvation; complete with successful speakers from the "biz", a live band and prizes; all under the same roof.
I exchanged business cards with the producer/writer from LA. He really liked my business cards and seemed impressed that I had made some documentaries and had a web site.
Perhaps I'm better off than I think -- at least I'm not handing out flyers listing only a "hotmail.com" email address as my Internet presence. And my business cards are printed in color.
I went down to the hotel bar to hang out for awhile. I was sitting on the patio and an Asian-American guy from Irvine came up and sat down at my table. He's another one of those who's married, has kids, has a steady job as an accountant and dreams of breaking into the biz. He got in line at 5:30 am on Saturday morning for a pitch ticket and, indeed, has a pitch session Sunday.
What's he writing? Romantic comedies -- you know, sorta like "Sleepless in Seattle".
Before I realized it, and without asking, "Can I practice my pitch on you?", he was pitching his script to me.
"It's about this taxidriver and this ballerina, see? They both go to this convention in Melbourne and wind up falling in love. And their parents are connected to each other through this big corporation, see? ...."
I started to drift off after only a minute or two and suddenly realized how these studio execs must feel. I don't think I could listen to one of these every five minutes for four hours, which is what they're doing today.
Well, he's got three scripts he's trying to find buyers for. He also paid to have a 30 minute film shot of a sit-com pilot. ("It's about this used car dealer, see? He gets hired by this guy to sell cars in the slums, see? .... ") His sitcom pilot didn't really go anywhere because, well, he directed it himself and it didn't have enough closeups in it. (He had just seen "Pulp Fiction" with all those close ups in it, see? And, like, he really hated it, see? ...)
He's been knocking around Hollywood for a few years, not really getting anywhere. Just published his first novel, but he really sees himself as a screenwriter.
"I could really make it in this town if I could just pick up and move here, live in a tiny apartment and work in a car wash or something," he said.
"I almost did it a few years ago. I took out all my savings, thought I could live on it for a year while I'd write and get something going. I came down here and tried to get a place. The apartment was like a little birdcage. I just couldn't do that. Just like a birdcage."
"You know," he said, "the one thing you can't be in this town is desperate. They hate that here. You just can't look like you're desperate, see? You gotta act cool, you know."
I gave him my business card. He liked the way it looked and seemed impressed that I had made some documentaries and had a web site.
Stuart -- "Have I given you a Rotcop flyer?" the unassuming lady at the bottom of the escalator asked.
"A what?" I said, somewhat confused.
"Ken Rotcop," she said, in a voice quiet and low like a librarian, as she stuffed a green sheet of paper in my hand. "He's my mentor. I took his workshop and just optioned a script for $100 K," she said in a kind of robotic monotone as I drifted away. "Wanna buy a pitch ticket?" another woman said with a loud voice in the lobby. "Just a hundred dollars! Pitch ticket. Hundred dollars. VP in Charge of Production! Pitch ticket, hundred dollars! It could be your one big chance! VP in Charge of Production! Hundred dollars!"
You can't seem to get away from people stuffing flyers and cards at you in this place. One older guy from Vermont has been carrying around a sachtel full of flyers for his little business critiquing scripts. "Oh, I already got you," he says, when he spots me, waiting for prey just outside a workshop. First off this morning was "What's Your Mythic Motivation?" I came into it thinking I would get some tips on using mythology for
characters in scripts. Instead, it was a lecture on the chakras, complete with a chart showing the energy centers of the body and the movies and characters that use those centers.
"The biggest criticism I've heard of most scripts," she says, "is that all of the characters are just alike. Do you know what's happening? The author is writing from only from their own experience and spiritual center -- it's no wonder the characters are all just the same!"
The point of all this was to get us to meditate on our engergy centers to find the inner motivation for our characters. Maybe I'm just an amateur, but I just don't need a chakra diagram next to my computer to write a unique character that has his or her own motivation. Sure, it's a neat and tidy little system, but it just seems like a crutch. Haven't these people ever heard of, like, going out and talking to other people? Reading a good novel? Hiking the Appalachian Trail? Eating squirrels?
This woman handed out a fancy little flyer for his consulting biz -- she consults with screenwriters and studios on this stuff. A software company tapped her as an advisor for a computer game they were releasing.
Mythology must be the big game this year. Another woman did a seminar on "Using Mythology and Archetypes". She entered the room and set up her laptop and flyers. The presenter was a perky, intellectual blonde, really in touch with her feelings, wearing a stylish dark burgundy suit, her hair up in a kind of "I Dream of Jeannie" kind of thing.
She lit a large block aromatherapy candle at the front table and put on a CD of droning synthesized New Age music in the laptop. Then, she turned out the lights. The candles and incense were supposed to help us in "getting to our own beautiful sacred space". "This seminar," she began, "is all about getting you into your own mythic space. When you leave here, you'll know that you are a gift to this business. It's all about getting in touch with the depths in your own inner self.
"Is that okay?" she asked the room, "Is it okay if it's all about you?"
Of course, everyone thought it was just great that it was all about me.
(As an aside here, I'll tell you that I'm not making this up -- this is exactly how this thing went. I took notes, Stuart! I can prove it! I always heard you, the San Francisco snob, talking about seeing people like this in LA and I thought you were joking. My God! It's not a myth!)
At one point in the seminar, she asked everyone the methods they used to get in touch with their inner mythic space. Candles, incense, meditation were all suggested.
One older writer, probably in his fifties, a professorial guy with glasses that looked like he had been doing this for awhile, raised his hand.
"Couldn't you just do this by reading Homer?" he asked, a little skeptical.
Bad screenwriter! Bad! Bad! Down, boy, down!
"Why, yes!" she gushed, perkiness uncontrolled. "If that's what works for you!!" she exclaimed, eagerly moving on to the next person who was dying to tell about her experiences getting deep inside her characters in a bubble bath.
The workshop leader runs a consultancy business, advising you about mythological symbols and "inner meaning" in your scripts. Only $325 an hour. (One of the lower priced consultants for this type of service, I understand.)
Well, for the noon hour, I had a choice between a couple of workshops. After my experience with the candles and incense, I decided to skip "The Anti-Hero's Journey" and headed for "The Screenwriter's Journey - Is It Right for Me?" (It must have been the "Journey" hour at the conference.)
(Did I mention that all of the writers I've met from Southern Cal are tan? I feel like some kind of albino subterranean hermit alligator in this town ...)
In this session, the speaker took you through a multi-page handout of questions of self-examination about your personal feelings and fears about pursuing screenwriting. Even though I've gone through some exercises like this before, she had some really good things to say.
"I used to have a Mac," a gentleman noticing my computer says as I sit down, waiting for the next session to begin. "I went through six of the Powerbooks and never could find one that worked."
"Oh," I said, slightly amused. "My ultra-cheap iBook has been great," I said with glee.
"I own a chiropractic office and we used to spend five minutes with the paperwork with each patient," he said. "Now, we spend three hours on the computer after the office closes everyday just to make it easy for the accountants.
"I hate computers," he said. "I had a Powerbook in my office and it drove everyone crazy with that energetic smog. They were sick for days.
"I have to leave my computer on the other side of the wall in my office. All that smog ..." He examined my computer as I booted it up.
"Hmm...that's pretty good. I'm not really feeling alot of energetic smog from it."
I hastily looked for another place to sit in the room.
Day Three (Postscript)
Stuart -- Well, I'm sitting on a patio at the LA Convention Center, dog-tired from the past couple of days. There's a guy over in the corner there, in a dark suit and sunglasses with a goatee and long hair in a ponytail, trying to put the make on a young dark-haired lady about half his age.
"Hmm...'Naked Screenwriting'", she says, rather coyly, examing a flyer on a book available from one of the exhibitors. "Now that's something I could get into."
I guess I'm coming away from this thing with a feeling that it's not too different from other professions. This conference is much like the education and art school confabs I've been to in the past. Lots of people trying to sell you things, ideas that aren't really that revolutionary, and lots of networking.
The young dark-haired lady has made a retreat, shaking hands and saying, "Nice to meet you. Let's do lunch sometime." I suddenly realize that I'd never actually heard someone say that ... except in the movies.
Shortly, a slightly older blonde sits down at the next table. The guy is already making his moves after only a half-minute or so. "Oh, what will I do with my free day in LA?" she says.
On the way out of the Convention Center, I saw the accountant from Irvine. I think he had just gotten out of his pitching session. He looked rather sad and dejected. I didn't really have the heart to ask him how it went.
They're already taking registrations for next year's convention. Three days next November, rather than two -- they were expecting about 1,200 screenwriters to show up for this thing and got over 3,000 attending, some as far away as Tokyo.
Perhaps I should register and get my pitches ready. I've got this great script, see ....
Stuart -- Today, I did a lot of nothing. It was nice doing nothing. I bopped around downtown, took some photos and took in the sun. And did some writing, of course. It was nice just thinking about me.
Spent a little while at the hotel bar this evening. One guy was talking about his pitching session the previous day, which seemed to go well. Of course, they said, "We'll get back to you," but he seemed quite happy that it was just over and done with. He noted that one of the pitches he heard from one of the other attendees went like this:
"There's this young kid. He's in third grade. He thinks he's popular ... but ... he really isn't."
That was it.
The person that gave the pitch, just sat there, staring at the execs. The execs were a little taken aback, glanced at each other nervously. "We'll get back to you," they said.
Stuart -- Miracle of miracles! I wasn't searched at the security checkpoint at LAX!
It must be that California sunshine beaming off my being. Or maybe I found my inner peace or have things flowing from the right energy center. Then again, perhaps I've cleansed myself of all that energetic smog in my life ... or something.
On my flight to Chicago, there was a woman in her mid-fifties sitting next to me and another twenty-something lady sitting in the row in front of me.
Both were (aspiring) screenwriters from Chicago that were visiting LA. I'm becoming convinced that every other person visiting or living in LA is a screenwriter. Or actor.
The woman next to me didn't even know about the conference. She's been writing screenplays for ten years and has an agent that's getting really close to having a deal worked out for her to publish a children's book. (After ten years, if that's all she can get, she needs a better agent, IMHO.) Her husband's retiring and wants to move to Arizona; she, of course, wants to move to LA. Her husband thinks she's nuts.
Her son lives in LA and works in the music business. He encourages her, but keeps telling her she needs to loose a little weight.
"You need to blend, Ma," he says.
The younger lady in front of me is trying to break in by taking as many courses as she can on writing and pitching her stuff. I think she has one script she's finished and feels comfortable pitching.
They just loved all the excitement of LA and Hollywood and were really hoping for their "big" deal.
What were they writing? Romantic comedies. You know, sorta like "Sleepless in Seattle".
Whadda crazy, crazy town sometimes.
We all exchanged business cards. The young lady's card was nice, but I recogized the generic graphics on it from some templates at Kinko's. They really liked my business card. And a nice business card can take you a long way in this town.