On a blustery Thursday evening I travelled to Baker Street to attend the London Screenwriters Festival launch event, or LSF14 for those of you who like acronyms. The festival organisers, like a travelling army of cinephiles, had made their camp on Regent’s University’s leafy campus nestled in Regent’s Park.
Two large marquees, suitably named ‘the Final Draft’ after the screenwriting software, and ‘the Genius Tent’ that I’m pretty sure was sponsored by the bombastic screenwriting guru Robert McKee, were to be the main rallying points of the three day event.
A young volunteer wearing a red LSF t-shirt ushered myself and a friend into the Final Draft marquee. We had crossed an invisible threshold into a world of people who spent hours in front of their computers, dreaming up stories and crafting them into screenplays. I sign in receiving my wristband and a name badge with a free WiFi code on the back. After a beer and a wander around the considerably sized tent, I made my first contact with a fellow screenwriter.
We geeked out about our excitement for the forthcoming Jurassic World and our displeasure at Terminator: Genisys retconning the existing canon of films. It turned out my new acquaintance had a rather interesting day job as a VFX supervisor on Joe Wright’s latest offering Pan, which sounded like an ambitious project to say the least.
LSF14 swung open its doors to the eight hundred or more delegates on a sunny Friday morning. I was a little late getting from Peckham where I had crashed on a friend’s bedroom floor the night before, after somebody had thrown themselves in front of my Thameslink train to Derby. I made my way inside the University to Tuke Hall, which was like an upmarket village hall on A/V steroids.
It was packed to the rafters with screenwriters so I made my way upstairs to peer through a balcony door. On stage was Chris Jones, the festival’s bouncy creative director, delivering a motivational speech. My initial reaction was to cringe as Chris told of his struggles to find a girlfriend and a very recent tragedy that had affected a member of his team. He spun this tragic event into a silver lining that he hoped could be used to motivate people into fully committing to their screenwriting goals.
Underneath Chris’s self-help message there was a real emotional honesty, mixed with gusto and positivity, that had won me over. I was going to embrace his mantra of being “fucking awesome” for the next couple of days. I consulted my festival timetable that was arranged into different coloured blocks, which detailed the times and places where the guest speakers would be talking on that day. I picked ‘Writing Breakthrough Crime Drama: The life and works of Lynda La Plante’ in the Final Draft marquee.
Surrounded by an audience of budding crime writers and Prime Suspect fans, Lynda La Plante held court on a small stage, lighting up the room with a touch of old school charm seldom seen in this modern era of media training. Lynda talked animatedly about her research methods and about “going to source”, to find the authentic backbone of her characters.
Lynda’s anecdote about her research into her first television programme, Widows, was fascinating. The story centred upon a group of women who had been widowed after their husbands, professional bank robbers, had blown themselves up with their own C4 explosives. The ladies get together and decide to follow in their deceased loved ones’ footsteps and rob a bank themselves. In order to get a convincing level of story detail, Lynda tracked down a props master with connections to the London underworld. She was pointed in the direction of an East End boozer and met with a notorious safe cracker, who gave her the skinny on robbing banks and getting away with it.
Over the next few days I attended over fifteen talks ranging from the Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Reynolds, who co-wrote Finding Nemo, to Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror and Screen Wipe. I collected a wealth of screenwriting gems, from how to write a witty one-liner to finding the controlling idea of my screenplay. There was also the opportunity to attend script chats. These were small Q&A sessions held in a small wood panelled room at the back of the university.
I trotted along to a session with John Lloyd, the producer of Blackadder and the creator of the panel show QI. He was gruffer and a little more candid about the television industry than he had been on stage. His advice to writers trying to get a break stayed the same, which was that they should be producing their own work and not count on television commissioners to read their spec sitcom scripts in the hopes of getting a paid writing gig.
The most nerve-wracking event of the festival was Pitch Fest, which can best be described as creative speed dating for writers and industry professionals. A week before the festival began, dressed only in my threadbare underpants, I sat in front of my laptop in an almost Glastonbury ticket-type frenzy, hammering my web browser’s refresh button. After a few agonising moments I had booked myself into the 2 o’clock Sunday afternoon Pitch Fest session.
My reasoning was that because it was the last session of the festival, the producers and executives in attendance would be worn out and ready to say “yes” to anything just so they could have a cup of tea and a lie down. It is important to point out here that the proper way to approach Pitch Fest is to use the LSF website beforehand and do a bit of research. I was pitching a horror film set in the North of England, so ideally you should pick a handful of producers and executives in the same pitching session looking for that type of project.
Sunday afternoon had arrived and I found myself shuffling towards the Pitch Fest booth to pick up my ticket. The ticketing system was there to ensure that delegates couldn’t double dip into morning and afternoon sessions. Again, it is worth pointing out that Pitch Fest isn’t a make-or-break event but rather a litmus test on how commercially ready your project might be. I waited in line silently, going over my logline as nervous screenwriters chatted about their sci-fi, rom-com and horror scripts, as well as the likelihood of getting them made.
After about fifteen minutes I walked into a small hall with a row of tables and chairs on either side, with a producer, executive, or agent sitting behind them. In the centre of the hall there was a projection screen displaying a five minute countdown clock. I lined up along with a couple of other people in front of a producer looking for British horror films. A loud bell signalled that my five minute window to pitch had started, so I sat down, said “hello”, then delivered my logline.
This was my first ever pitch and I didn’t go in with high expectations that I would be given a million dollars on the spot. The producer liked my idea and wanted to read my treatment. We exchanged contact information and with that my five minutes was up. I would say this was the normal experience of most people at Pitch Fest. The ninety minute session continued and I lined up a few more times, getting a couple of “yes”s and “no”s, and by the end of the session I was pitched out. I left the hall feeling good, having received some useful feedback, which is something I couldn’t get pitching to myself in the bathroom mirror.
The festival drew to a close on the Sunday evening and I trekked over to the Globe Pub on the corner of Baker Street tube station. It was the final networking event and the last screenwriters standing swapped an orgy of business cards with happy and tired smiles, most of them having to go to work the next day or fly back home. They made promises to keep in contact and maybe see each other next year. Who knows how many writers groups, director and writer team-ups and love connections were made over the course of the festival. I imagine there were quite a few.
The London Screenwriters festival is going to be happening again in 2015, alongside other events put on by Chris Jones and his tireless team pushing the gospel of creativity, screenwriting and achieving career goals. It is definitely an experience I would recommend to anyone interested in writing for film, television and radio. If you do go along keep an open mind and embrace all its creative funkiness.