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What I Learned From ScriptFest/GAPF 2017

June 29, 2017

This year I have been making a hard leap forward in my screenwriting career, such as it is, by submitting my pilot to almost any screenwriting competition that was accepting original television pilot screenplays. In addition to the pilot I co-created with my long-time writing cohort Alex, I wrote up a draft of a one-hour sci-fi drama pilot as part of building up my creative portfolio (currently plotting out a historical fiction feature and another pilot) and have been submitting it to competitions. After receiving positive notes from Finish Line (a competition that focuses on rewriting and gives entrants pages of notes; an invaluable resource for screenwriters), I was spurred to rewriting and submitting where I could.

Still, it came as a surprise to me the other week when I was notified by email that my pilot had placed in the top ten for the ScriptFest Screenplay Contest, allowing me to attend the annual ScriptFest/Great American PitchFest located in Burbank. Usually these kinds of writers’ conventions are too pricy for my blood and when you’re going up against hundreds of other writers just as thirsty and hard-working as you, it feels like that money and time can be better used to advance in other ways. However, attending the convention with the boon of having placed in a competition was too good an opportunity to pass up, and after some last minute finagling with my work schedule I packed and ready for a weekend in Burbank.

While I’ve attended a few similar events in the past, notably the last two years at Story Expo in Los Angeles, ScriptFest was an incredible experience for me. In addition to getting to attend classes and a private consultation with acclaimed script consultant Pilar Alessandra (whose classes I have attended in the past before with my friend Alex), I attended a class led by industry veteran Carole Kirschner before spending Sunday enjoying a luncheon with industry executives and the fervor of the Great American Pitchfest. After a morning of dealing with anxiety and heavily reworking my pitch approaching, I was able to pitch my work to a few companies and walked away from each 5-minute session feeling very positive about the experience.

While the event was a great success for me and is helping to spur me back into writing mode (after all, this is my first blog update in forever), I left having learned quite a few things that I feel many aspiring writers like myself should heed for events like these.

Go Over Your Pitch Relentlessly

One of the biggest difficulties of screenwriting is taking the world that exists in your head and effectively communicating that to the audience. Sure, every plot point and detail right down to the cereal that background character on page 13 is eating, but the reader can only glimpse your story through what’s on the page. The pitch is similar- your screenplay could be the greatest story in the world, but a garbage pitch is going to make the listener imagine a garbage story. My original logline for my sci-fi pilot was vague and when I described it to Pilar, she pointed out that it sounded essentially like a rework of The 100, a series I have not personally watched but am familiar with.

Of course, the usual writer protests pop up in my mind- “My story is nothing like The 100! The 100 is a post-apocalyptic dystopia story! My story is almost the spiritual antithesis of that!” But the fact of the matter is that if that’s the case, then something’s getting lost in translation; a fact that was reinforced when I pitched the logline to a partner at Carole Kirschner’s class that evening and he got the impression it was a Lord of the Flies-style set-up. I was able to get a few minutes with Carole after the class ended who gave me the advice to focus the logline and pitch on the characters, as that what would best make my story stand apart.

Loglines are something that seem fairly simple but can be deceptively difficult to do well, as not only do you have to describe the premise but do so in a way that doesn’t have people hearing it go “Oh, I’ve heard this one before.” Which leads me to the next lesson….

Pitch From The Heart

I’ve always had difficulty with trying to communicate in unfamiliar situations (I dropped out of public speaking a couple weeks into the semester back in college), and I was extremely anxious about my first time pitching to the point where I considered just forgetting it and maybe trying another time after I’ve rewritten my drafts and built up my portfolio more. Ultimately, I ended up going ahead with it, figuring that powering through it was the best way to go and it would be, at worst, practice to improve myself for future opportunities.

I knew that trying to stick to a pre-made speech or formula would be just asking for trouble- one of my biggest problems with any kind of pitching is that if I fall off the practiced speech in any way, I get thrown off completely and it becomes a mess. Instead, after constantly practicing my loglines to myself (and probably looking nuts to anyone watching), I just decided to go with it and speak from the heart about how and why I came up with my pilot and why the story is so important to me. Anybody can put a story together from a collection of tropes and ideas, but a story that comes from a personal level is impossible to duplicate.

Pitch Yourself, Not Your Product

Pretty much the biggest unspoken question in any job interview, and not just story pitch, is “Do I wanna work with this guy?” When you’re pitching, you’re doing more than just trying to sell a product – you’re building a connection, and in the entertainment industry connections are everything. Cover your loglines and story, but don’t get hung up on plot points or character arcs; focus on why you feel this story matters enough to pitch in the first place. There’s also a very pragmatic reason to veer towards pitching yourself- even if your story may not fit with what they’re looking for, they may see you and decide you’re exactly who they need.

Have A Feature Script In Your Portfolio

Granted, I’m aiming to be a television writer and if you are, too, then you’re probably wondering why to even bother. If you want to write only television, then by all means churn out original pilots and spec scripts like there’s no tomorrow. However, I have heard in the past it’s a smart idea to diversify your portfolio with something else like a novel or play, and if you’re trying to get noticed in Hollywood then a feature-length screenplay may be a wise move. At the Great American Pitchfest, I was pitching to a very niche market with some sci-fi television pilots, but with some rare exceptions just about everyone was looking for feature film scripts. If you’re looking to reach out to the most people possible (almost a necessity in this business), then it may be a good idea to add a feature to that TV portfolio you’re building.
As for me, I’m going to continue building my portfolio and submitting my work where I can. ScriptFest/GAPF 2017 was a fantastic experience for me and I feel it’s kicked off a new phase for my writing career.

‘Til next time!

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