Middlebury VT is hosting the first New Filmmakers Festival this weekend, August 27-30. The entire town of Middlebury, that is. Which is how, having just arrived at the Festival, I stumbled into a conversation about screenwriting while in search of an espresso at Middlebury Chocolates.
Four men were comfortably seated on couches in a corner of the shop: Jay Craven, filmmaker and the festival's artistic director; Bill Phillips, screenwriter, producer and Dartmouth professor; David Laub, producer; and Fred Strype, film professor at Sarah Lawrence. Approximately twenty, mostly younger, people perched on the semi-circle of metal folding chairs trying to hear above the whine of the espresso machine. They had been lured by the topic: What Do Producers Look For in a Screenplay?
Sometimes it pays to plunk yourself in the middle of a conversation about which you know little (I am not a screenwriter), or maybe even nothing; all of the questions, and the answers, are the more interesting for the lack of ability to predict them. At the same time, there was the familiarity of that kind of conversation between those who have arrived and those who are hoping to. Bill Phillips told the endearing story of early years when he wrote to 86 different agents; 85 never wrote back, and the one that did declined to represent him. There was some advice that had little to do with screenwriting per se and everything to do with success regardless of a chosen field: be a hard worker, make yourself indispensable even if interning for no money, learn to collaborate, don't be the one that needs to be micro-managed, find a mentor. English teachers everywhere would have rejoiced to hear exhortations to use the active voice and comprehensible, muscular language. How else to make your work stand out from the estimated 1 million scripts that are submitted to studios each year?
My own day job is being a professor, which may have helped in my appreciation of these young screenwriters as they leaned in, filled with their own dreams, searching for how to get from where they are to where they long to be. It's a universal theme, and this means of passing on wisdom--heads bent together in real time in a coffee bar--seemed time-honored and satisfying.
The festival continues through the weekend. I will be watching and blogging here as the weekend unfolds. Numerous films: short, long, some family-friendly, are available for viewing; the festival received 320 submissions from 35 countries. There are also workshops and conversations with filmmakers. Information is available at www.middfilmfest.org