HIGHLIGHTS OF THE AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL & SCREENWRITING CONFERENCE

2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)
2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Annual Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference gathers professional and aspiring writers together in the celebration of the contribution writers make to film and television.

Attendees had the opportunity to see a jam packed slate of films as well as choose from a variety of panels on the craft, art and business of writing for television and film. TVWriter.com’s own Contributing Editor Kelly Jo Brick, was in Austin as a panelist this year and she brings some top takeaways from the event.

BREAKING IN 

  • Breaking in through the assistant ranks is a great way to show your personality to the people who are making staffing decisions. Getting a writing job is 50% personality, 50% writing. – Raamla Mohamed, SCANDAL, STILL STAR-CROSSED
  • Whatever entry-level job you’re doing, show up with a smile every day. – Jono Matt, DOCTOR DOLITTLE
  • Age isn’t a big deal as long as you don’t make a big deal about it yourself. – VJ Boyd, JUSTIFIED, THE PLAYER
  • For features, the toe in the door assistant route doesn’t work as well. There’s not a natural path in film. It becomes a question of do you find a job in the industry. This avenue helps with meeting people and morale, but it’s often hard to find time to write. The other choice is to take a non-brain taxing job. You’ll have time to write, but it’s hard on your morale. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that your work is good. – Michael H. Weber, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
  • Embrace failure. It’s all part of the process. A great baseball batter fails two-thirds of the time. – Kent Alterman, President, Comedy Central
  • You just have to write. Don’t obsess over details, just keep writing. Get out, network, get to as many people as possible. – Mark Johnson, Executive Producer BETTER CALL SAUL, BREAKING BAD
  • Try to make something. Doing that can help you break through. – Pamela Ribon, MOANA, SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE
  • Leap frog forward with your peer group. Find yourself a writers’ group. Find a like-minded group so you’re not alone. Shane Black, LETHAL WEAPON, IRON MAN 3
  • If you’re aiming for features, look for a reading job or get a job that gives you regular hours so that you can leave work at work and have more time to work on your own writing. – Christina Hodson, SHUT IN, UNFORGETTABLE

CHOOSING WHAT TO WRITE 

  • Think about what’s not on. Where is there a void, then write an original with a clear vision that is clever, emotional and relatable. We look for specific shows with specific visions. – Jennifer Salke, President, NBC Entertainment
  • Your first script will be your calling card. Just write what you want, don’t restrict yourself to a budget, get a script that people want to read. – Shane Black
  • Find a story that says something to you and write it in a specific life-filled way. You should absolutely write what you want to write. You can only go where your heart goes. – Michelle Ashford, Creator/Executive Producer, MASTERS OF SEX
  • Your point of view is the most important thing you have. Don’t tell people what you think they want to hear. – Kent Alterman
  • Write that weird idea you have that’s unique to you. – Amy Talkington, THE ICE QUEENS

PITCHING

  • When pitching, start from a relatable human character dynamic, that is what will pull people in. Who is in this world? Why do I care? – Jennifer Salke
  • Love and know your pitch. Find a personal attachment to it and set the visual and world right away.
  • Pitch the show as if you’re describing your favorite show to a friend. – VJ Boyd
  • Be ready with an answer if they ask what else you’re working on. Have a few ideas in your pocket.
  • Go in with confidence. Pretend you already have the yes. Know your story throughout and have a clear vision for it.

WRITING GREAT BAD GUYS

  • When creating a strong villain, be thinking of what specifically does he or she want and why do they want it now.
  • Stress your bad guys out as much as your leads. Give them their own ticking clock.
  • Characters reveal themselves through the lies they tell and expose themselves through the things they keep secret.
  • Use your own fears as inspiration.
  • Villains should be delicious and fun to write. They are the heroes of their own stories.
  • Art should make you look at monsters and see the evil inside. – Tom Szentgyorgyi, Executive Producer, BATES MOTEL

GETTING NOTES

  • Be wary of any writer who accepts all the notes. – Mark Johnson
  • Be easy to work with during the notes process. Even a bad note can hit on an issue. Be ready to educate/inform others on the notes you didn’t take. – Christina Hodson
  • Bathe in the notes. Let them wash over you. Take them. Listen. Deal with most and pick your battles over the choices you made and why. – Amy Talkington
  • Look at notes as an opportunity to make your projects better. – Pamela Robin

WHAT DECISION MAKERS LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING WRITERS

  • A clear and interesting voice, hearing a particular kind of voice and way with language and understanding of characters, that stands out. – Michelle Ashford
  • A room filled with unique voices. People with facile brains who write well. – Stephen Falk, Creator/Executive Producer YOU’RE THE WORST
  • Complementary personalities and skills, making a good balance in the room. – Kent Alterman
  • Imagination and the ability to translate it. Sheer uncontained talent over process and discipline, that can be learned. – Mark Johnson

    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

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with VJ Boyd

A series of interviews with hard-working writers –
by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival
Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

VJ Boyd came up through the assistant ranks before breaking in as staff writer on JUSTIFIED. He’s gone on to write for THE PLAYER and is producing his pilot THE JURY for ABC. He, along with writer Mark Bianculli and producer Carol Mendelsohn, recently sold the drama DOOMSDAY to ABC.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I started writing when I was eleven. I wrote a story that I thought was going to be a novel, but it ended up being 21 pages, which was a lot for me. It was basically just a rip-off of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, but I thought from then on that I wanted to be some kind of writer and so I wrote a screenplay when I was 16. I started reading all the books at the library about how to write fiction, short fiction, how to write screenplays and kind of advanced from there.

EARLY ON, WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT GOT YOU EXCITED ABOUT WRITING?

I can’t really remember what movies made me want to write movies when I was 16. I know there were a lot of movies I hadn’t seen, so I would read the screenplays, like I read the screenplay for THE USUAL SUSPECTS, PULP FICTION, RESERVOIR DOGS and also SHAWSHANK.

When I was much younger, STAR WARS was a huge thing for me. I knew I wanted to do something with movies and so for a long time I was like, “I’m going to do special effects.” Then what I realized was I just wanted to tell stories. In grad school, when I started leaning toward writing for movies and TV more heavily, THE SHIELD was a big inspiration. That’s probably the show that made me want to write for TV. Watching the behind the scenes stuff on their DVDs on how they broke story, I was like, “Oh, I can do that. I can write these kind of stories.”

WHAT ADVICE DID YOU GET ALONG THE WAY THAT REALLY HELPED YOU AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

Someone said, “If you can think of anything else you can do that you’d be happy doing other than writing, then you should go do that, because it’s so difficult to succeed at and there’s no guarantee you will succeed, even if you’re good and even if you do all the right things.” You may be a great writer and a great person, but you just don’t get the opportunity, so you have to really love it. I made the decision to move out to L.A. and do it and to stick with it because I couldn’t think of anything else that I’d be happy doing.

Also always be writing. If you’re a writer, you should be writing. If you haven’t written anything this year, maybe you’re not a writer or maybe you need to try to write something and see if you really love it as much as you thought you did.

When I was assistant for Graham Yost, season one of JUSTIFIED and then also on FALLING SKIES season one, when Graham had a script he needed to write, he went in his office and he wrote it and then he came out and it was done. It was a job. It’s important to remember to treat it like a job. It’s not always going to be perfect. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You gotta set a timeframe and get it done.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?

I was a writers’ P.A. on the show THE BEAST, the Patrick Swayze show. I got that about a month after moving to L.A., which is a pretty quick timeframe. I was very lucky. This doesn’t work for everybody; in fact I don’t know anybody else who it’s worked for. For me, I cold called production companies when I saw that shows were getting picked up to series and I asked, “Hey, I’m looking for an assistant job, can I send my resume?” I ended up being able to send my resume to THE BEAST and they interviewed me and hired me.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO WRITE FOR A SHOW?

I was an assistant season one of JUSTIFIED. Then season two, one of the staff writers left to go work on another show and so I asked my boss if he’d read my stuff. I really wasn’t thinking he’d actually staff me, but I thought maybe I’d get a freelance, which is much more realistic. He did read a couple of my scripts. He liked one of them and he actually hired me as a staff writer. It was a huge opportunity. It was very good timing and again I was lucky, but I was also prepared for the opportunity.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

I get a lot of questions about how important is it to have a manager. Getting a manager isn’t that important. I’ve never gotten jobs through my representation really. They’ve set up meetings for me, but I got my first job through coming up as an assistant. Networking and making contacts on your own is more important than desperately trying to get a manager.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR UP-AND-COMING WRITERS?

Keep writing. Write something new all the time. I would also say don’t be afraid of networking. There are a lot of people, especially if they’re not from New York or L.A., who see networking as this transactional thing, as being a fake friend. I’m pretending to be your friend so I can get something from you, but you know what it is, it’s mutually beneficial for both of you. Like you both are trying to do the same thing. We’re both trying to be TV writers. We’re both trying to get assistant jobs, whatever it is. We’re not pretending to be best friends, but we’re like, hey, we’ll keep in touch, maybe we’ll get drinks and keep up with each other’s career every month or so. If I’ve got a job and I hear about one, I’ll tell you and vice versa.

It’s not being fake. Networking is a thing and it’s okay. You kinda have to get over the fact that Hollywood is all about relationships and networking is a thing. Don’t take it personally when people want to give you their card for networking and you’re like, oh, I thought we were friends. You can still be friends, but everyone is trying to do the same thing and trying to get that advantage and if you have a problem with that you might want to write novels.


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.