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By J. Freedman,
Nov 22, 2004, 16:40

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Screenwriting Expo 3

You really haven’t lived until you have seen 4,000 aspiring screenwriters invade the Los Angeles Convention Center. And you really, really haven’t lived until you’ve had a hardy vegan breakfast at The Pantry across the Convention Center. One of the oldest diners in Los Angeles diners chow down at one of those old fashioned greasy spoon bars, white folks next to African Americans next to Mexican Americans… one of the remaining great equalizers in SoCal.

It was evident from my first look at the masses of scribes milling about the main hall of the center, trying to negotiate their way to the next lecture meeting room, gabbing about the current magnum opus they brought with, the one that is destined to be “the one!” that this was going to be an event of a few dreams realized, many dreams compromised and most dreams delayed.

Although the din is decibels above what it is at the front row of most movie theaters, there is also a hushed, almost tacit air of expectation if not apprehension in these opening hours of Screenwriting Expo 3. Everyone came here with dreams of getting closer to the big prize we all dream of, the first crack at serious consideration of a script, a script sale, production. That we all have in common. But the palpable air of desire and desperation also belies something else. Almost everyone at Expo 3, you can be sure, knows what the odds are of realizing any of those goals. They probably wouldn’t be here at all if the odds were clearly in favor of making a sale let alone getting produced.

Probably everyone here knows, or certainly will know by Sunday, that approximately 35,000 screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America every year. A tiny fraction of those purchased and/or produced every year and a fraction of a fraction by first-time screenwriters (at least in terms of the big bucks and significant recognition we all pine for). This makes Expo 3 an even more desperate, exciting, compulsive, nerve-wracking affair. It’s a great opportunity for screenwriters who work in isolation and long for the camaraderie and guidance and encouragement we all seek.

But it is also affirmation of what the odds are of ever getting anywhere in this industry. Four thousand screenwriters represent a little over 10 percent of the writers we compete with every year. In one convention center, that’s a lot of screenwriters. It really drives home the necessity to work every angle, get every break, make every connection and turn out the best material you can.

Screenwriting Expo 3

This is why a number of this first day’s lectures, covering topics such as emotional pattern of plot, writing the three minute pitch, killer endings, exploding the myths of screenwriting, character and the nature of conflict, developing emotional components of character, securing an agent, writing a great query letter and several other topics make this such an invaluable event. A lot of what I’m hearing, I’ve heard before. You can get most of it from the most popular screenwriting books on the market. But there is something about hearing it from a real, live, working screenwriter, producer, director, actor that makes it mean more. It’s one thing to get your information unilaterally, as in from a book. No chance for dialogue, questioning, probing deeper than the written words take you. The opposite is true here. Attendees are not only engaging the speakers but questioning and demanding clarification of things they usually have to passively accept when they read them in a book or hear them from colleagues who, in most cases, are not actually working in the industry the way these people are.

Before this starts to sounds like pontification, let me tell you what my situation is. I flew from Toronto to cover Expo 3. In addition to covering this event, I also have a screenplay under consideration in Munich, London, Los Angeles, Toronto, New York and Prague. One studio in particular, in Venice, California, is getting very close to a co-production or tri-production deal with Russian and Italian, German or Austrian producers who want to get involved . This is one of the reasons a documentary crew making a film about screenwriters pitching in the Expo pitch fest, wanted to follow me around the Expo and interview me. I’m not here to pitch but to observe and report indifference, praise and bitch. (There were plenty of all three).

Screenwriting Expo 3

I found most of the seminars I sat in rather rudimentary. If you’ve read at least one screenwriting book or attended one seminar or class, you’ve probably heard most of it, too. There were, however, a few good advanced classes that seemed engineered for the advanced or somewhat practiced writer. One of these was about writing sub-text or off-the-nose dialogue. It’s a fine art that the best writers in the business are skilled at. It’s the difference between obvious, uninteresting dialogue and exposition and writing that is subtle, metaphoric, comic, saying more by what it doesn’t say than what it does say.

There was no doubt, however, that the main focus of the event was the pitch fest. One very brief opportunity to sell the potential of a screenplay in a room full of agents, producers and other studio types who heard hundreds of pitches during the weekend.

I cornered one of these, Tristan Olson, a story editor (which is like an acquisition editor) at the Robert Evans production company, the organization that produced Godfather, Chinatown and other mega hits. Evans has been head of the studio since the 1960’s and it is currently affiliated with Paramount.

Screenwriting Expo 3

“We aren’t looking for any particular genre,” Olson told Filmmakers. “The great thing about our company is that we have multiple tastes and multiple genres and the ability to find good, marketable, appealing material, projects in all genres. We aren’t discriminating against any genre as long as it pushes the envelope within that type and introduces a complex and high concept story, we’re definitely interested.”

I asked Olson what he thinks of independent filmmakers and script writers who refuse to be constrained by commercial (i.e. three-act structure and alien, sex, violence themes) interests and instead put the emphasis on creative or artistic inspiration and objectives.

“You can’t hit a home run unless you step up to bat and swing hard for the fences,” Olson said. “By playing it safe you might break even but you’ll definitely get that golden ring.”

I had to wonder how many of the Expo attendees were there trying to figure out how to tell the difference between playing it safe and going for the golden ring. I got the impression, just milling about the crowd, that most aspirants would be happy just to get to first base.

Whatever they were doing, the Evans exec said, overall, most of the potential scripts were at least doing that.

“They’re good pitches,” Olson observed. “The thing that is most evident to me is the tenacity and the passion for the art form and I really respect the fact that they are willing to come out here and give it all they have.

Tristan Olson - photo by J. Asmar,
“One thing that is certain about all these writers is that, maybe they aren’t the best pitchers in the world or the most skilled at pitching but I’ve definitely had many that are really skilled and I’ve been pitched really good projects. But what comes across is their respect for the art, their love for the art, their tenacity which I truly respect.”

Olson said he’s been pitched projects that are on a grand scale and others that are little, independent art-type films. In every category, however, he said he was hearing some really good stories. So although it seems like most of the attendees have limited experience in the field and only a rudimentary knowledge of the craft of screenwriting, they are bringing potentially viable and marketable scripts to the event.

photos by J. Asmar,

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