Kelly Jo Brick: Highlights from the Austin Film Festival & Screenwriting Conference

Austin Film Festival’s Matt Dy with writers Daniel Petrie, Jr., our own Kelly Jo Brick & Jimmy Mosqueda. Photo by Arnold Wells.

by Kelly Jo Brick

With days packed with panels, workshops and roundtables and evenings jammed with films and parties, the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference brings professional and aspiring writers and filmmakers together in a celebration of the art, craft, and business of writing.

In this, the event’s 24th year, attendees found a slate of educational, informative and inspirational panels on screenwriting, television writing, playwriting, and podcasting. TVWriter.com’s own contributing editor, Kelly Jo Brick, was in Austin as a panelist this year and she brings us highlights from the festival.

STARTING OUT

  • You have to be bad before you can be good and you’ll never get in the game if you haven’t written anything.
  • If you want this to be your job, you have to treat it like a real job. Give it your good hours, not your tired hours. — Dana Fox (COUPLES RETREAT, creator/showrunner BEN AND KATE)
  • Distinguish between what you love and what you are good at. Don’t just listen to your interests, but also to what comes out when you write. — Michael Green (co-creator/executive producer AMERICAN GODS, writer BLADE RUNNER 2049)
  • Don’t be discouraged if you’re coming to writing later in your career. People who come with experience from outside the entertainment industry have soared, because they often have great discipline, as they’re happy to not be in their old profession.
  • Have a community around you who supports you. Find your crew, including your fellow writers, family and friends.
  • You don’t have to wait for someone else to empower you as creators. You can make your own projects. — Gale Anne Hurd (executive producer, THE WALKING DEAD, co-writer/producer, THE TERMINATOR)
  • Remember to take time to have a life.

WRITING THE SCRIPT THAT GETS YOU NOTICED

  • Write about something specific that you are passionate about, an interesting world, a story never told, a hobby you know a ton about. — Megan Amram (writer/producer, THE GOOD PLACE, SILICON VALLEY)
  • People are getting hired off of short stories and plays, as well as TV and feature samples.
  • Character is key. Writers who can bring unique, diverse characters to life on the page stand out.
  • Many readers judge your script on the first ten pages alone. Make those first ten to fifteen pages as solid and interesting as you can. — Raamla Mohamed (writer/supervising producer, SCANDAL)
  • If you try to write something for the marketplace, it won’t sell. You succeed when you write something that personally connects with you. — Eric Heisserer (ARRIVAL, THE THING, FINAL DESTINATION 5)

COMMON CHALLENGES

  • Procrastination is a problem for many. Find an accountability partner, someone with whom you can check in regularly to keep you on schedule.
  • Set tiny, achievable goals and deadlines. If you feel overburdened, think only of the next thing you have to get done. Accomplish that then move on down your to do list.
  • Just finish your first draft. Nobody will see the script until you are ready to share it so don’t hold back. Write quickly. The fun comes when you can go back and build on that foundation you’ve set.
  • Recognize where your own internal resistance comes from. Don’t fight who you are naturally. Find a way that works for who you are. If that means writing early in the morning, late at night, in a coffee shop, at your dining room table, go with it. That’s how you’ll do your best work.
  • Imposter syndrome, don’t let it get in your head. You are in that meeting or in that room or working on that project because you are you. You deserve it. You earned it. Keep reaching for what’s next and be focused on where you want to be.
  • Get rid of the negative voices around you. That includes silencing your own inner critic.

WRITER/AGENT RELATIONSHIP

  • When first meeting with prospective representatives, listen closely to their thoughts and approaches toward your career. Do they talk exclusively about working on just one project? Are they talking more about their business goals and successes than you and your writing? Are they forward-looking, concentrating on your career?
  • You want someone who has a vision for you and your career and is dedicated to putting a plan together on how to get there.
  • As a writer, your job is to write. Focus, be creative and productive. Be the artist first and let your reps concentrate on the business side.
  • Always talk with your representation before writing a project. It’s not bugging them. They want to be involved from the idea stage. Agents and managers have a better beat on what has legs and what doesn’t.
  • A perfect client is someone who appreciates the craft, takes it seriously and understands the business. You are the CEO of your own company. Always be writing. — David Boxerbaum (literary agent, Verve Talent and Literary Agency)
  • The more people you have on your team, the more contacts and connections you have behind you, the further you can get. — Alisha Brophy (LICENSE TO DRIVE, WHITE GIRL PROBLEMS, SWIPED)

STAFFING

  • Be able to talk about who you are and your own story. What shows do you watch? Why did you get into TV?
  • Be yourself. Be likable. — Bradley Paul (LODGE 49, BETTER CALL SAUL)
  • If you get a staffing meeting, that means the showrunner likes your script. He or she meets with you to find out if the like you and want to hang out with you day after day.
  • For a good meeting, follow the flow of the conversation. It’s okay to veer off target and talk about other things if that’s where the meeting leads. That’s how you bond and develop the relationship. — LaToya Morgan (INTO THE BADLANDS, TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES)

PODCASTING

  • In a podcast, your primary job is to design a story that will serve the sound and vice versa.
  • Podcasts are very intimately consumed. It lets you tell a story as a fly on the wall.
  • Many make the mistake by thinking if they can’t make their film, they’ll just make it into a podcast. To be successful, you really need to lean in and take the medium seriously.
  • Actors do a lot of heavy lifting with their voices. Podcast scripts often contain more parenthetical instructions for actors as there’s a greater reliance on tone and inflection to convey the story.
  • Keep things simple. In an audio medium, less can be much more. More can confuse your listeners.
  • Bringing aboard name talent can draw advertisers. It can also bring its own set of complications, which can be challenging for first-time podcasters.

Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Sublime Primetime – Insights From Emmy-Nominated Writers

 Sublime Primetime

by Kelly Jo Brick

Several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers attended the annual Sublime Primetime event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety. Writers Elliott Kalan (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer), Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) spoke about the episodes they submitted, their inspirations, challenges and the business of TV.

Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com some of the best advice they got as they were growing their careers.

Elliott Kalan, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – “I think the main thing that stood out was to not either wait for the perfect moment or to hide yourself. Like not to feel like, well I’m really good, somebody’s going to come out and find me. It’s up to you to put yourself out there as best as you can and to go after every opportunity that you can and to not wait for somebody else to come to you, but in a professional way.  To put yourself out there in a way that people will either hear of you or get a sense of your material. And with the internet now, that’s kind of easier to do than ever.”

Semi Chellas, Mad Men – “At the Canadian Film Centre where I studied, the Artistic Director told us when we graduated, to all the writers, ‘Make sure to get dressed every day.’ That really has helped me. That’s the single best piece of advice I ever got. Because if you’re lying around in your pajamas, you’re probably not taking yourself seriously. You need to remember that advice more than you would think.”

Jane Anderson, Olive Kitteridge – “I have always written in a style true to my own heart. The worst thing you can do is to try to fit yourself into a style or genre that doesn’t belong to you. Find your own voice. And if you have a unique enough voice, the industry will eventually find you.”

Alec Berg, Silicon Valley – “I think the simplest advice I ever got which is probably the best, is write every day. Want to be writers fail because they don’t write.”

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men – “I got a piece of unsolicited advice when I was unhappy with one of my jobs, which was, a friend of mine said, ‘If you can write, you can change your career.’ So no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what it is, just keep writing. I wrote Mad Men on spec, at night, at another job. So that was part of it and I was like even if I don’t sell this, even if I don’t get to make it, I feel better and also, it changed my life. And you’re never too old to write a piece of new material. You’re never too established to write a new piece of material. If you want to have what people you admire have, you’ve got to keep writing.”

Writers also addressed the changing environment of television and competing in an atmosphere of nearly 400 scripted series spread across numerous platforms.

Jane Anderson – “I think what’s happening now is television has become what feature films were in the 70s, when incredible independent work was being done like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Right now we are overtaking the feature film industry for inventiveness and creativeness and getting out of the box. So I’m really proud to be in this medium right now.”

Matthew Weiner – “There was a lot of great TV in the past and then traditionally, the movie business comes in and scoops up all the writers and they end up in the movie business. And now it seems to be going the other way. For me, the Sopranos is sort of the beginning of what’s going on right now. To me, what’s been nice, is the audience has to pay attention and maybe you have to do something insane to stand out and you need to spend more for marketing and you have to get people to go to a new place to figure out how to do it, to see your show. But for the Writers Guild, the more jobs the better. The more shows the better.”

Semi Chellas – “I think of it the way I watch series now and it’s much more the way I used to read novels. I will take one at a time. I’ll watch it in chapters. If I’m liking it, I’ll look at my friends watching it too so we can have a book club about it.   I feel like that gives me an enormous sense of possibility that it’s not anymore about getting the right night, keeping people on through the commercials, those things that I started out being sort of driven by when I started writing for TV have kinda gone away and it now feels to me like going to a bookstore or a library and there’s all kinds of books and there’s books from ten years ago and there’s books from 100 years ago and you still are enjoying them and talking about them with people, so it gives me a sense of freedom.”

Stephanie Gillis, The Simpsons – “Animation, it’s just blown up, I mean the last 5 years it’s been incredible. I do feel like in terms of content, that there’s so much, there’s also so many possibilities.”

Panelists also reflected on the challenges they and their fellow writers are facing in the current marketplace.

Matthew Weiner – “It’s so lucrative right now to have a show. It still costs a lot of money to make a pilot and they’re all trying to find all these sneaky ways to get writers to do work for free. New ways invented every day. Where’s your bible, let’s open a fake writers’ room and we’ll put it on a fake TV set, can anybody draw, can you show me the whole show, can I have 50 scripts and whatever.  That’s always there to see what their investment’s going to be.

And we’re not here to complain about these things, we’re here to celebrate how great it is to be a writer, but it’s upsetting to see. My motto was always, and I imbued every single person I’ve ever worked with, with this idea that you cannot let them use your love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free. That’s why we have agents and some have a union. And all this stuff, we would just do it and never think about it.”

Joshua Brand, The Americans – “I’m sort of at a different place along the trajectory in my career. So the guys who are at the top get paid very handsomely. But it’s become a much tougher business, not just for writers. Certainly going from cable shows and 13 episodes so these writers or the actors are working 6 months a year and then they’ve got to get another job. They have families and if they have a mortgage and how do you get another job because they then have an option on you for that show. It used to be working on a network show was 22 episodes and that would be your year. Income equality that we hear about affects the business as well. People who are getting squeezed are the people who are at the lower end. And it is much tougher from my perspective on those people than it was for myself starting out. It used to be that, I was talking to someone earlier who was a young writer and it used to be that on shows, a number of episodes were left for freelance writers and that’s not the case anymore.”

Christine Nangle, Inside Amy Schumer – “With us, with sketch comedy, things can go online and be digested much more easily than an entire episode of a show. So the issue that the Writers Guild has taken an interest in that we deal with is when an entire sketch is online and it will have a 5 second Comedy Central thing after it. And we’re not getting paid for it because it’s used as advertisement, promotion. And so it’s really frustrating. And so for us, it’s like a sketch is a like a chunk of our show and somebody can watch that and say oh, that’s funny and move on and that’s it. It’s not like there’s a cliffhanger where they’re going to tune into the show to see what happens next. It’s been incredibly helpful for us to have our sketches to go viral and get attention. But in terms from the writer’s perspective, seeing all our stuff online all the time and however many views it has and know it doesn’t exactly affect what you’re taking home at the end of the day, like I really hope that we can figure that out because I think that’s going to be a huge issue.”


Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.