Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Screenwriting festivals: Los Angeles or Cheltenham?

I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of attending both the Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles in autumn 2007 and the Screenwriting Festival in Cheltenham in the summer of 2008. As the L.A. Expo rolls around again, here’s how I thought the two squared up to each other:

Last year it was really easy for out-of-towners to get to the Expo because it took place at hotels a quick shuttle ride from LAX. This year, though, the Expo has moved further into town to the Convention Center, which has no hotels on site. Shame—I took a room in one of the host hotels and it was really pleasant to be able to pop back to my room during the day for a moment of quiet.

The Cheltenham location couldn’t be more different. The venue name, The Manor by the Lake, says it all. It’s about 10 minutes drive out of town, with two hotels close by, and next year I will stay in one of them. This year I stayed at a hotel a couple of miles away, the Cheltenham Regency, about which the less said the better.

The Expo operates on a massive scale. Last year it boasted over 4000 attendees and sucked up the conference facilities of two vast hotels. I found myself constantly referring to the map in the Expo schedule to work out how to get from one seminar to the next, and still managed to get lost a couple of times.

Cheltenham limits itself to 500 delegates, and there’s little opportunity to get lost: events are either in one of the two small (and often too small) conference rooms in the main building or in the marquee. And there’s plenty of time to get between them, which wasn’t always the case when moving between sites at the Expo.

You pays your money…
At Cheltenham there’s only one payment option, a sturdy £300 for all three days. If you only have the time or resources to attend for one day, well, it’s still £300. The organizers argue that to get the most out of it you need to be there for the duration. And I think they’re right. I just wonder: maybe if they let the undecided come for one day that would allow them to discover how brilliant it is and make sure they’re at the head of the queue for next year’s three-day passes.

Cheltenham’s three-day pass unlocks access to all seminars, and choices are fairly straightforward. They offer at most five events at any one time, often just a couple. I usually found it pretty easy to decide which was most relevant for me, but if you’re not enjoying your chosen presentation you can leave and try another one (which is much easier to do if you’re leaving a seminar in the main building and sneaking into the dark of the marquee than vice versa).

At the Expo, changing your mind about seminars is only possible if you bought a Gold Pass, which allows access to all workshops, often with preferential seating. Last year this cost $300, around £180. This year it’s $350. Alternatively you can buy a cheaper Expo access pass and pay an additional $5 for each seminar you want to attend. That’s cheap; but if after five minutes you realise your chosen presenter’s crap, you’re stuck. The ticket taker on the door to your next choice won’t let you in, whereas you’ll just be waved through with a Gold Pass. And as there are at least 20 choices in each slot, the opportunities for regret are huge.

Because the choice is so vast, the Expo tries to make the task of selecting seminars easier by classifying them as beginner, advanced = written at least one script (!), or pro = optioned at least one script. I thought this would be helpful, and stuck to the advanced or pro seminars. The problem was that many presenters felt insecure about pitching their talks at this higher level, and kept explaining basic concepts for any beginners who might have strayed into the room, rather defeating the object.

Food and drink
One thing I liked at Cheltenham was that if none of the seminars happened to please you could wander into the refreshment tent—sorry, the Chateau de Sours Marquee—and join one of the round table discussions, aka Scriptbites. I thought this was one of the most impressive things about Cheltenham: the willingness of presenters to make themselves available to delegates in this unstructured setting. At the Expo, once the presenters had presented most of them just seemed to vanish.

Nor did the Expo offer a central dining/hanging out area for delegate bonding. I hope they will this year. Lunch options last year were limited to the expensive hotel dining room or to lunch boxes provided by the Expo containing a sandwich, crisps and fruit. You got one of these free each day if you had a Gold Pass, but if you were just on a day pass they charged an astonishing 20 bucks for it. I gather from the website that they will not be offering any lunches this year, promising instead that there are plenty of eating places nearby. That, I think, will be a big improvement from a culinary point of view, though still not great for networking.

The Expo attempts to cover that base by running evening networking events, included in the price of the Gold Pass and $30 each if bought separately. Some of these events offered mixed messages, both by cranking the sound system up to earbleed so that you couldn’t hear what any of your networking partners were saying, and by laying on entertainment, such as standup, to which half the room paid attention while the other half kept on cheerfully (and loudly) networking. I didn’t find them very productive. By contrast I found Cheltenham’s dining tent, with plenty of space, good food and no structured agenda, extremely convivial after 6pm. That chocolate fountain is something else…

Last year the Expo was paradise if you wanted to sit at the feet of the screenwriting gurus and use the workshops as a taster to decide who you wanted to study with or whose books you wanted to buy. Nearly all the big names were there: Linda Seger, John Truby, Michael Hauge, Karl Iglesias, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Dov S-S Siemens. Probably the only major guru who didn’t show up was Robert McKee. It wasn’t so great, though, if you wanted to hear about the experiences of working screenwriters. And if you wanted to listen to producers or showrunners there was really very little on offer. I think it significant that the seminar I most enjoyed was given by Bill Marsili (Déjà Vu), a working writer with no book to sell. His background in improv inspired him to give a very entertaining presentation-performance, and he offered some helpful (and some very off-the-wall) hints on how to survive and make contacts when first arriving in LA, along with surreal anecdotes about getting his film made.

Cheltenham, by contrast, offered very few professional screenwriting teachers, preferring instead to focus on professionals active within the industry: writers, agents, producers, script editors, finance experts, from Jane Tranter and Laura Mackie to Barbara Machin and Kay Mellor, Tony Jordan and Ronald Harwood to Stephen Woolley and Christopher Hampton. One of the most fascinating seminars was presented by Michael Gubbins, editor of Screen International, who analysed the current market and predicted trends. The room was packed and the feedback first-rate.

Being there
The Expo is grueling: four 90-minute sessions a day for four days, plus lunchtime speakers, early evening speakers, panel discussions, networking, not to mention fifty-odd vendors. (On the third day I caved in and bought myself some little brass widgets to secure my brads and a nice little hammer to hammer them in place with. You can tell my judgment was impaired by then.)

By Sunday afternoon I was exhausted, glad to be on a plane home by late afternoon rather than hanging around to vote on the scene writing finalists and attend a closing ceremony. The only outdoor air I’d had in four days was when trotting between the two conference hotels while jet fuel exhaust from LAX spewed over us and raging wildfires ringed the city.

One wise thing the Expo organizers did was to send out very detailed feedback forms after the event. My guess is that the feedback hit them pretty hard with criticism of favouring gurus over working writers as seminar presenters. As a result the emails now regularly landing in my inbox trying to persuade me to return this year (Too late! Too late!) heavily feature the working writers they are bringing in. They even have some showrunners on the platform. That sounds like a big improvement.

After attending last year I wished I’d gone earlier in my career. It would have been really interesting to attend all the gurus’ seminars and decide which books to read. What I wanted from the Expo that I didn’t get was more nuts and bolts about how to develop a career. I think this year they will provide that.

Cheltenham’s bucolic environment is much more soothing, though I wouldn’t fancy traipsing between the main house and the marquee if it rained all the time. Having only arrived in the U.K. a couple of days before the festival started I was still a bit draggy from jetlag, but the dining tent offered many ways of reviving a person and the whole atmosphere was much more relaxed than L.A. And I think three days is a much better length than four: you can pace yourself more easily and not end up exhausted. Sessions are shorter, too, just 60 minutes, and although that sometimes felt too short I think the time constraint kept the discussions admirably focused.

So if you have to choose, which should you attend? Like everything, it depends what you want. Each festival, not unnaturally, focuses on speakers from amongst its natives, but that’s no reason not to cross the pond. Most of the skills are transferable, and these days there’s no reason we can’t consider a career in both camps. (Well, is there?)

My tips for Cheltenham: if you haven’t yet been, go. Book a hotel close by. And if you want to go to one of the seminars in the main house, get there early so you don’t have to stand at the back. I’m really looking forward to next year’s event.

My tips for Expo: get a Gold Pass to give yourself maximum flexibility. Book a hotel as close to the venue as possible. Pace yourself. And don’t do the pitchfest. More on that next time.


Phill Barron said...

Alright, you've convinced me. I'll see you in Cheltenham.

Piers said...


We've been trying to convince The Barron to go for ages...

But he doesn't listen to the likes of us.