Returning to IFTN for her third festival diary (Austin 2008 and 2009), Irish Screenwriter Eilis Mernagh chronicles her experience at the recent Moondance Film Festival, Colorado.
It was about a month ago that I opened an email one day to find that I’d won an award for my screenplay ‘Star on the Run’. I’ve always wanted to win a screenwriting competition. But in particular, I’ve always fancied winning a physical award, something I can frame or put on my mantelpiece. Sure, 10 grand would be nice too but can you walk onto a stage to collect it? Bask in the glory of applause?
After much whooping and telling every person in sight that I’d finally won something, I noticed that it was the Moondance International Film Festival that was awarding me the prize (the Atlantis Award for Best Feature Screenplay, to be exact). And the location would be Boulder, Colorado. About 5,000 miles and one grand in airfare away.
I’m trying to save for a move to the U.S. to pursue my writing dream but the lure of walking onto a stage was too strong to resist. I booked a horrific, complicated series of flights to and from Denver and started planning my speech.
Moondance is a small and quirky festival that’s very well respected in the industry. Started in 1999 by screenwriter Elizabeth English in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, it promotes non-violence and screens a lot of films starring, written or directed by, or about women.
Winning an award at Moondance is a great thing to have on your CV. Francis Ford Coppola and Jodie Foster have requested the roster of winning scripts in the past, and many previous winners have secured representation as a result of their success in Boulder.
It takes place from 16-19 September and features a weekend of workshops, networking parties and of course, movie screenings.
I made the mistake of taking the bus from Denver to Boulder. A mistake because after travelling for 13 hours, the last thing you want to do is stare uncomprehendingly at a bus timetable, then sit outside an airport for 40 minutes. On the plus side, it was 13 dollars versus 90 for a taxi. The bus dropped me off in some anonymous location on the outskirts of Boulder. It was dark, pretty chilly, and I was totally lost. There were no taxis in sight. In fact, I never saw one cruising taxi the whole time I was in Boulder. Does no one in Colorado take taxis?
I trundled my suitcase for three blocks until I found a pizzeria and admitted defeat. The nice owner called me a cab and gave me a free Diet Coke, restoring my faith in Boulderites.
My hotel was the Millennium Harvest House, which is big and fairly boring. It was fine for the purposes of this trip, but it’s 30 minutes walk from anywhere and as I mentioned, taxis are thin on the ground. If, unlike me, you hate walking I’d advise staying at the Boulderado, which is pricey but within staggering distance of anywhere in downtown Boulder.
With that, I raided the fourth-floor vending machine and called it a night.
The festival mostly takes place at the beautiful University of Colorado, which looks like a movie college campus - complete with cute Disney-esque squirrels everywhere and the kind of frat and sorority houses that you only ever see in gross-out comedies and slasher flicks. It was great.
I started Friday, the first day of the festival, with a workshop on Titles and Loglines hosted by Elizabeth English herself. Elizabeth is highly intelligent and pulls no punches when it comes to teaching. She kicked things off by demanding that all the participants read out our titles and logline. True to writer form, most of the people present reacted as if they were having their teeth pulled, myself included. We can sit in a room and write a screenplay but we really, really hate being put on the spot and asked for loglines.
And every single logline sucked. Most of the titles sucked harder. Elizabeth berated us and said how boring they were. Also, if we were ever going to pitch these lines to industry professionals, we were going to have to be more assertive and grow a pair (I’m paraphrasing). Everyone hung their sorry heads. To save you the same pain, here is what to do and what not to do when writing a title and logline:
- The title is the first and maybe the only impression you make to a producer. Make sure it’s great! Make sure it means something and is relevant, and doesn’t have the exec scratching his/her pointy little head. Elizabeth hated my winning script’s title. And after some discussion and some suggestions from Mike Edwards, another participant, Searching for Summer came up (Summer being the main character). I have to admit, it’s a better title.
- Match the script to a producer (i.e. make sure it’s a genre they like).
- No one “learns” anything in a logline. Learning is boring.
- Also boring: adjectives like “intelligent” and “dependable”. Adjectives should be used to boost impact and make your plot and characters sound cool. He’s not a DEA agent who catches dealers - he’s a dangerous loose cannon DEA agent who battles an evil cabal of ruthless international drug dealers.
- The logline should give a sense of time and place and should sell the story. Give the producer a reason to ask for your one-sheet synopsis.
After two intense hours, every person in the room had a much better title (where needed) and a decent logline (which everyone needed). I can honestly say I learned more in that two hours about selling my script than I did in several days of some much more expensive seminars. Elizabeth knows what she’s talking about!
We all then went to a drinks party at the Julien Hotel, which is very chic in a Western kind of way. What’s nice about Moondance compared to bigger festivals is that it’s very chilled, and because you have more time to talk to fewer people, you make friends quickly. The weather by now was toasty by Irish standards. To Boulderites, it was “pleasant, autumn weather” two weeks ago, it was 15 degrees hotter...
I did manage to catch some good short films later that night and one excellent feature film, ‘Siberia Monamour’. The film’s Russian director Slava Ross had his suitcase mislaid by an airline on the way over - and with the case went the only DVD copy of the movie. So the festival streamed it from the internet via a laptop instead. Ross was so distraught at the resulting screen resolution, he remained outside the theatre. But I thought the film looked fantastic the photography incredible, the performances totally convincing, not to mention a complex, beautifully interwoven plot. Slava Ross is a major talent and I expect to hear a lot more about him in future.
There were some adventures later on. Another writer called Jimmy gave me a lift back to the hotel and fellow screenwriter Mike Edwards a lift back to his truck - except Mike couldn’t remember which of the THREE university multi-storey car parks he’d left it in. We were driving around, totally lost and searching for the elusive truck, when the car nearly ran over a raccoon. I’d never seen one outside of Central Park before and was ridiculously excited. Then a female campus cop pulled us over for erratic driving (while lost, in a deserted car park). Also very exciting she had a gun, after all...
Day two began with another workshop this time called “How to get an Agent”. It was hosted by screenwriter and script analyst Candace Kearns Read, who’s worked for some of the biggest Hollywood agencies including ICM and William Morris. Candace is another lady who really knows her stuff. She counselled us to avoid potential agents who try to solicit funds in exchange for representation. Other danger signs include an agent who asks for a retainer or one who refuses to provide references. They should only collect dues when you have been paid and they can only take 10% of that.
Here are some of her other tips:
- The best way to get an agent is to meet someone who has one and get them to introduce you.
- There’s no one way to get an agent, however everyone will have their own path. Follow your instincts about where to go and who to meet.
- As a baby writer, you’re looking for a “baby” agent someone just starting out who will grow with you.
- Define your niche. What kind of writer are you going to be? And who are you personally? Define where you fit or your agent will do it for you!
- Make friends with assistants and get to know them they are the future agents and executives! Call the receptionist and ask for an assistant’s name and email address they may read your script as they will be looking to impress their boss by discovering a new writer. They can also sometimes arrange informal pocket deals for up and coming writers.
- If a producer turns down your script because you don’t have an agent, ask them if they know of any new agents they can refer you to.
- Dress casual for your meetings but expensive, smart-casual.
- Keep lists of who you contact and when it’s easy to lose track.
You need a 30-second verbal pitch that you can use anywhere Starbucks, a party, etc. Candace got us to write pitches and deliver them to the person next to us. It was an eye-opener it’s much harder to do this naturally than you might think. She advised us to tell the main parts of the story, defining midpoint and the other big stages along the way. Raise a question in your pitch to arouse interest in the listener. Give a strong hint to the ending, but leave it open.
Then it was off to an Italian bar and restaurant for another meet and greet. The food and wine came thick and fast, as did the conversation.
Later, I saw two excellent shorts at the lovely Fiske Planetarium. It has a huge, white dome and seeing a movie projected on the inside wall was really cool.
First up was Jessie Kahnweiler’s ‘Stupid Questions’, based on her own experiences of working as a Hollywood casting agent. Boasting a great soundtrack and sparkling performances, this one marks Jessie out as a director to watch and proves that Zelda Williams has inherited her dad Robin’s acting ability.
Then there was the amusing British short ‘Lab Rats’, about two students paid to fall in love with each other as part of a bizarre experiment. It’s based on a prize-winning Moondance script from a previous year!
Candace then very kindly drove us back into town, where we found the only Irish pub in Boulder, Conor O’Neills. I introduced filmmaker Bijan Mottaheden to Murphys and Candace introduced me to blue corn tortilla chips, which are amazing and should be shipped worldwide. I think it was a pretty fair exchange. O’Neills actually serves decent Guinness, too!
Sunday dawned my last day. I had a fabulous last breakfast before seeing six matinee shorts, some of which were directed by teenage filmmakers. The one that blew me away was a pilot for a TV show called ‘The Drama’. The tale of a high-school jock who joins a drama group, it’s directed by 17-year-old Matt Grodsky and all the parts are played by his real-life classmates and teachers. The script was fresh and funny and the performances were all outstanding. Elizabeth said it was better than ‘Glee’, and she’s not wrong. I’m dying to find out what happens next!
After lunch, it was time for the awards ceremony. Everyone gathered at the Boulderado, which is an old-style Western hotel with a “saloon fight about to happen” vibe. It was great to clap everyone else but even better to finally get up on the small stage and get my picture taken with my award.
Not long after, it was six o’clock and I had to run to the waiting cab outside (no more buses!) and take off for the airport. The lady at the check-in desk took one look at the silver, pointy star award and said “Stow it”. I spent the whole flight back hoping that British Airways wouldn’t pull a Slava Ross and lose my case.
Moondance is a festival with a lot of heart and I’m really glad I got my first award (what I hope is the first of many) in Boulder.
I had a great time, met some fantastic people, made some friends, and spent three days in what must be the one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It was worth every penny and every mile it took to get there.
Thanks to Elizabeth English and everyone else at Moondance 2011!
Follow Eilis at @EilisMernagh