Are ‘Mom & Pop’ Film Festivals an Untapped Resource for Writers? | Script Revolution

Are ‘Mom & Pop’ Film Festivals an Untapped Resource for Writers?

Introduction: 

I love it when smart, creative thinkers challenge my views. J.B. Storey is the definition of a smart, creative thinker with remarkable credentials to back that up. As many of you know, I'm not a fan of small, unknown competitions and festivals when it comes to getting traction as an aspiring screenwriter. J.B. however makes a good argument in this article to look at the marketplace differently and consider the boutique approach - CJ

Why are you reading this?

If reading this, I can infer you’re a creative, on a journey toward attempting to establish yourself as a ‘working professional screenwriter and/or filmmaker’. You may have experienced some successes, you may be at the inception of learning this beguiling craft, you may have been grafting for years, still waiting for a break. Or, perhaps you’ve reached a point where you simply enjoy writing and are no longer compelled by wistful dreams of recognition, riches and/or fame.

Now, did I state a unique insight or was it a ‘No sh!t, Sherlock’? Well, both. As the insight is driven by quantitative statistics and qualitative data. But it’s also instinctively obvious. It’s the reason why you are reading this blog post and use Script Revolution… (Said with love and respect to CJ). You’re here, because it’s one of several tools a nascent writer can utilize when starting out.

It’s a well-established hosting resource. Therefore, you have some degree of confidence that it is worth investing time to post your work—in the hope of it attracting a filmmaker. It’s one part of a de-facto ‘I’m a new writer, here’s my work, someone please validate my creative bona-fides, and let me know I’m not delusional, and maybe I have a modicum of talent’ framework & formula, unestablished writers use to break into the ‘paid writer, WGA-represented' kingdom.

Is there a specific formula for success?

No. Why? Let’s put it in the form of a term coined by the late great, William Goldman: ‘Nonrecurring Phenomenon’. A phrase he used when explaining the oversized, unexpected success of films that studio execs had no idea would have the impact they had. (Think: GHOST, RUSH HOUR, JOHN WICK, MEET THE PARENTS). Each film far exceeded forecasted revenue and audience satisfaction data. No focus group or prior films suggested they had a Unicorn. Why? Well, as Goldman’s, opined: no movie exec really knows whether something will be a success or not.

Of course, times have evolved. And we now have the likes of Netflix and others who use data to optimize audience segmentation to determine their content investment strategy. But, by no means have they perfected the formula. If they had, everything they released would be great. And, well… yeah.

Likewise for writers. There is no specific recipe that will bake a cake of success. But there are lots of Baking 101 resources writers can utilize to learn the fundamentals. Scratch that... not ‘can’... Should.

However, none of these resources will thoroughly address how to write the perfect tale, dedicated to the people in your imagination, watching your words come to life on a big screen, smiling, laughing, crying. The audience you want to reach. The audience you believe will connect with the Big Idea. How do you write something that connects the fruits of your imagination to the appetite of the silver screen savant? What they want? What they need? Because if they won’t accept the words you’ve conjured into a narrative, it’s game over.

It’s all about the customer.

By now, you’re rightfully wondering where am I going with all of this? I’m alluding to the most ephemeral and evasive secret sauce those in product development and marketing would refer to as ‘Customer Acceptance & Satisfaction’.

In the case of storytelling, these are the folks, bums in seats, chomping popcorn, and slurping drinks, while watching your masterpiece. Happy as a clam. In short: ‘Positive audience sentiment’.

I have spent more than 20 years working for the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and major ad agencies on roles focused on content and communications. This means, you spend most of your time in the land of user experience. Basically: ‘What does the customer want?’. Sounds simple, right? Again, like with films… not so much. Exhibit A: Zune.

However, I can tell you that great user experience is based on anticipating customer needs, by delivering a simple infrastructure and meaningful content that is optimized to deliver a satisfactory engagement. In filmmaking parlance we are talking about creating great stories, that surprise and delight movie-goers, thereby triggering positive ‘audience sentiment’. Movies are similar to customer products, both go through a planning process in an attempt to make and supply an experience that will hit the sweet spot for their intended ‘end user’. But it is a tough nut to crack. Product planning is more of a science. Whereas story development is an art. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to really try and understand what your audience is looking for. What will drive satisfaction?

Nearly all established production companies and filmmakers have needs. They have a template they follow. A framework they use, time and again, because they 'know' it works 100%, 50% of the time. Fair play. And if you pay attention to only one thing CJ consistently suggests… it is this: Research the hell out of the market to understand trends and needs. That should play a significant role in what you choose to create, who you target, and how you approach them, if you wish to ascertain the pot of gold at the end of the writer’s rainbow. Oh, and the second thing: be patient. Then be more patient. And when you’re done doing that, be even more patient. Did I mention you should be patient?

Methods and Approaches to getting a seat at the Round Table.

Okay, so, let’s take a beat and talk about the typical ways we writers approach getting noticed. And then let’s dig into what could be an untapped resource that is arguably/hypothetically more ‘audience sentiment’ focused than all the other tried and true methodologies.

Here’s the typical set of approaches, we’re familiar with.

  1. Host & Share – The services and resources we use to manage our scripts and share them with would-be suitors. These comes in all shapes and sizes, with varying agendas. You have the pay-to-play hosting services like InkTip. Then you have Blacklist and Coverfly; services that monetize their customers (writers) in different ways. One to host and pay for coverage services (Blacklist), with the hope your script will make their highly-publicized annual best-of-the-best list. The other to pay for competitions, coverages and a shot at the Redlist (Coverfly). Then you have unpaid hosting sites that are not invested in monetizing writers, such as Stage 32, Simply Scripts and my personal favorite: Script Revolution!
  2. Coverages – As we know, studios, production companies, and literary agencies rely on ‘reader coverages’ to assess to overall quality of a script, in terms of market fit (story) and/or writer potential. These are hit and miss. ‘Readers’ come in all shapes and sizes. Some objectively better at being objective. And others, subjectively unable to not be subjective. So, it really is the proverbial ‘Box of Chocolates’. But not in the sweet, aww-shucks Gumpian way.
  3. Screenplay Competitions – Lots of competitions out there, that vary in terms of grandeur and importance. Of course, Page, Nicholls, Austin and a few more are well known, and can be used as a platform to garner the attention of filmmakers and agencies in terms of putting the writeron the map. Truth is, look through all the finalists of Nicholls and Page from the last ten years, and you won’t find many of those screenplays ever made it in front of a camera. Much like coverages, judging is highly subjective in terms of whom is deemed worthy. A Page winner may not even be a 2nd Rounder at Austin. All comes down to the person reviewing your work, and whether it personally resonates.
  4. Pitch & Network – This is probably the best and most likely avenue to making it to ‘The Show’. As noted by those far smarter than me, this is all about doing your research, understanding the market, the production companies, and commercial viability of your product. But it requires 4 things: 1) Packaging and marketing. 2) Tenacity and patience. 3) A bit of luck. 4) A damn good story.

‘A damn good story’. As a product marketer I can attest, there is only so far you can go with polishing a turd. If the product is poor or there is no market for the product, then it’s DOA. Exhibit B: Google Glass.

Cream of the Crop doesn’t always climb to the top.

I was fortunate to receive an interesting yet agonizing pearl of wisdom, (in my late teens) from two writers; One is my uncle, David Storey. The other was the father of a close friend, Kingsley Amis. Given their respective track-records, I think it is safe to say they had a fairly good idea of what it takes to breakthrough. Now, sadly for those who want a formula, they will be bitterly disappointed. Both chaps, in separate conversations effectively said the same thing: 'Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.' But in much more caustic and curmudgeonly language.

Now, arguably we have seen much crap get made, typically ‘cos someone knows someone. But if you dwell in obscurity, hoping to one day be the next Mamet or Sorkin, that means you must be as good as Mamet and Sorkin. You must have a good product. You must have talent. You must be patient. And these are not mutually exclusive requirements.

Like most of you, I love to see good stories come to life on the screen. And sadly, I believe there is a boneyard of great scripts that have never seen the light of day because none of the above approaches worked. Due to poor timing. Bad luck. Or, lack of patience. You may have a great product and you may be a great writer, but for whatever reason you’ve hit a wall. And the damn wall hit you back.

No one will ever know you wrote something audiences will love. Because there is no empirical evidence to suggest that’s the case. But then again, do any of the above approaches truly tap into what will make moviegoers marvel? I don’t believe so.

A different approach.

Here’s an atypical avenue to consider, that is generally pooped on from a great height: 'Mom & Pop Film Festivals’. What I mean by that, is smaller festivals not called Sundance, Slamdance, or anything that ends with ‘dance’. However, they are beloved local festivals embraced, and adored by the surrounding community. Typically run by volunteers, movie mavens, hobbyists, former industry pros.

Most importantly, those making programming decisions know their audience. Know them well. Port Townsend Film Festival, is a quintessential example. Been running for 20+ years, and for those that live there or close by it’s a popular annual event, that tends to bring back the same audience year-after-year. Which in turn, means those responsible for picking films for that audience, are acutely attuned to what they will and won’t like.

Recently, more of these types of festivals have been adding an ‘un-produced screenplay’ segment to their programming. And those who are fully invested in this category, have also been smart and inclusive in their approach. But they are often overlooked, because they’re also being painted with the same brush as similar-sized festivals who have a screenplay category, but for them it’s more exploitive.

However, those that really care, try to make it a worthwhile endeavor for the writers of their ‘officially selected screenplays’. Some set up live table-reads in front of an audience, and live stream the event. Likewise, festival event producers will seek out other opportunities for their screenwriter finalists to network, sit in on workshops, and attend shows. These examples are not universally applied, but should be, if those festivals want writers to believe it’s worth the investment. There should be meaningful, tangible outcomes, otherwise, on the surface it looks like a money grab.

The programmers are the audience.

Now, here’s the thing you need to know about the programmers; They are the audience. Which means, they’re tapped into the sentiment of the audience. Meaning, if they selected your screenplay, they know their audience segment that will connect with your material.

Think of it like the pitch & network method, blended with the screenplay competition approach. Because if you are an ‘official selection’, and the festival is worthy of attendance, and there is a tangible outcome… it can also be a fabulous networking experience. You’re surrounded by filmmakers who are hungry for new material. Plus, your respective story is aligned with their creative vision. Something you can assume by virtue of the fact you were both selected for the same festival.

I have submitted a screenplay of mine to a few of these festivals. Selectively focusing on ones that I felt (hoped), would be the type of story, that fits with the thematic and cultural characteristics of the event, and those that attend. It has been a mixed bag. But regardless of what I won or was selected for, it all came back around to if it was helpful and enjoyable. And yes, those that really do go the extra mile for the writer make it a truly rewarding and lovely experience.

I know this idea goes against nearly every single piece of advice given, but I honestly believe it’s an untapped resource with a lot of potential. Not just for writers, but filmmakers and festival programmers too. We haven’t reached a definitive tipping point where this should be added to the mix of ‘go-to’ resources. Not yet. But I am a fan of lateral thinking. Moreover, I am an even bigger fan of ‘customer satisfaction’, AKA, ‘audience sentiment’, as this is the truest measure of product or story quality.

This is the end. Or, the beginning.

If you made it this far, thank you. Either you are hate-reading this, or believe the question is worth contemplating. You think maybe there is some method to this guy’s madness. You think and believe the journey is always evolving. Perhaps this is the genesis of a new gateway into the land of ‘Paid Writer Utopia’. Hard to say. But I do know, if writers, filmmakers, and festival programmers start to amplify and optimize the potential, it’ll be worth the investment and who knows… could be your bridge to Avalon.

About The Author

J.B. Storey's picture
Real name: 

Once upon a time I dreamed about becoming a 'working writer'. But, life had other plans. Good, enduring plans. So, nowadays I work on being a writer, in my 'spare time'. And every once-in-awhile I get lucky and win an accolade or two. I've also even been blessed with seeing some of my work come to life on screen and stage. But no matter the outcome, I continue to write. As I love the process. It's a constant state of learning and growing. There is nothing comparable to conjuring and...Read more

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J.B. Storey's picture

Thanks for kindly posting, CJ! Moreover, being open to my crazy ideas!