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Left to right: Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water co-writer), Dee Rees and Virgil Williams (Mudbound), Aaron Sorkin (Molly's Game), moderator Jeff Goldsmith, Michael Green (Logan), and husband-and-wife writing team Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick). Photo credit: The Los Angeles Film School.

by Susan Royal

The Eleventh Annual Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters Q & A, moderated by Jeff Goldsmith, was held at The Los Angeles Film School on February 5.

Best Original Screenplay nominees in attendance included Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (the husband-and-wife writing team behind The Big Sick) and Vanessa Taylor (who co-wrote The Shape of Water with its director, Guillermo del Toro).

Screenwriters nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay included Aaron Sorkin (2010 winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network and currently nominated for Molly's Game), Virgil Williams and Dee Rees (co-writers of Mudbound which Rees directed) and Michael Green (who co-wrote Logan with Scott Frank and James Mangold.)

Goldsmith began by asking each to describe their lowest moments as screenwriters.

Aaron Sorkin responded, "My lowest moment is now" which spawned laughter until he offered a clarification. "What I mean is when you've finished one thing, it's just back to that blank-ed cursor again. You get to be happy for about five minutes. You finish something and you're proud of it. It's good and it's landed with the audience and right now comes the moment [you think] 'I used every word I know. I don't have an idea for a story. This is it – now is when I get found out as a fraud.' So right now is when I'm not that much fun to hang out with."

Kumail Nanjiani described how he and his wife excitedly presented their script to the producers and received copious notes in response. They drove home from Culver City to Los Feliz in stunned silence. Said Emily V. Gordon, "To get massive notes is discouraging, even when they're really good notes as these were. On any day I receive notes, I don't write that day. I just absorb them and write later."

Michael Green offered this advice about notes that don't seem right to you: "Part of your job is defending your script from people who are good-intentioned but coming at you with other projects' problems because they have a history with them." Sorkin agreed.

Goldsmith asked each of them what writing, music or other works of art inspire them.

Dee Rees said she likes to read short stories. "I find short stories to be the most cinematic literary form." Among the writers whose short stories she mentioned were Edward P. Jones, David Foster Wallace and Alice Munro.

Virgil Williams, who has a writing background in television ["Criminal Minds," "ER," "24"], answered: "As a TV writer, I don't have time for inspiration, but I like to be around things or places that take me back to the beginning."

Gordon said she likes to re-read her favorite novels and is also inspired by music – recently writing to the score of Heathers.

Nanjiani gets inspired by listening to the commentary track on movies. "You watch something thinking it's perfect and then you listen to the commentary [in which] they talk about all the decisions and hard work that went into it. It's really inspiring seeing the process that went into great work."

[You may want to read Andrew Egan's piece entitled "No Comment" (Feb 21, 2017) about the uncertain future of DVD commentary at]

For further inspiration, every year Nanjiani re-watches The Lord of the Rings trilogy and re-reads the screenplay of Michael Clayton.

Others chimed in about the Michael Clayton screenplay.

Michael Green: "If you haven't read Michael Clayton you aren't serious about screenwriting."

Vanessa Taylor: "I come back to Michael Clayton a million times. It's almost like a compass, a reminder of what I aspire to, such a flawless, incredible script which, by the way, did not win the Oscar, of course, shockingly."

[Michael Clayton was written by Tony Gilroy. It starred George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack and Tilda Swinton, who won an Oscar for her supporting performance. Gilroy's original screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Juno, written by Diablo Cody.]

Before becoming a screenwriter, Kumail Nanjiani was (and still is) a very funny comedian. His comic interjections made the highly informative evening all the more enjoyable.

You can watch the entire conversation on Jeff Goldsmith's podcast.

by Susan Royal

Getting Past Me: A Writer's Guide to Production Company Readers
by Mindi White (Limelight Editions)

This excellent book sheds light on what story analysts are really thinking. One of the particularly useful chapters is entitled "Kiss of Death," and warns against something as seemingly innocuous as putting one's profession on the title page, as with "M.D.". or "Esq." because readers have read a lot of terrible scripts written by doctors and lawyers. Other no-nos include racism, sexism, rape as comedy and plagiarism. Says the author: "I gleefully point out blatant theft in my coverage. I'm not alone. Do not steal. You'll be so busted."

Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett (Focal Press) evolved from the blog of the same name by a former Hollywood script reader. Lots of insight and tips, including:

"Tip #32: The setting is like another character, so try to make it as three dimensional and interesting as all your other characters."

"Tip #92: Always remember that funny trumps everything. Your script could be written in crayon with your name spelled wrong on the cover, but if it's genuinely, screamingly funny, none of that matters."

"Tip #124: A quick and dirty rule for action paragraphs – nothing longer than three lines. Try to stick to it – you'll be amazed at how economical your description becomes."

"Tip #150: If you're going to break the rules, do it in spectacular fashion. That way it's obvious you are breaking the rules, not ignorant of them."


This section (updated regularly) lists screenwriting competitions and sidebars associated with or sponsored by film festivals.

Some film festivals present industry workshops, labs and conferences on the subject of screenwriting:

The Austin Film Festival was the first film fest dedicated to celebrating the writer as the heart of the collaborative filmmaking process. The festival holds a Heart of Screenwriting Conference and Competition which attracts major screenwriters and producers as speakers.

The BlueCat Screenplay Competition has a BlueCat Lab, which accepts pitches and shorts along with feature screenplays, with a chance for three writers to come to Los Angeles and workshop their projects with local professionals and mentors.

The Los Angeles Film Festival presents "Coffee Talks" with a panel of screenwriters and holds a 7-week Screenwriters Lab.

The Nantucket Film Festival offers a number of panels focusing on screenwriting as well as a series called "Morning Coffee With...", which enables festival-goers a chance to meet with screenwriters.

The Rhode Island International Film Festival presents a Master Class in which the grand prize winner will have segments of the work produced and video taped.

The San Diego Film Festival collaborates with the American Screenwriters Association to present the "Selling to Hollywood" conference. Also a competition with cash and prizes and a development package.

Each February the Santa Barbara International Film Festival manages to round up all or most of the recently Oscar-nominated screenwriters for a seminar held during their festival February.

The Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by the Sundance Institute. In addition to the annual festival, the Institute puts on a Screenwriters Lab (a five-day workshop for developing scripts) twice a year in January and June. Those chosen to participate develop their films under the concentrated guidance of veteran filmmakers and actors.

Screenplay readings are staged by some fests, including these:

At the Atlantic Film Festival one writer will be chosen to receive a live staged full read-through with local actors at the Scrip Out Loud session during the festival.

The L.A. International Short Film Festival (L.A. Shortsfest) provides staged readings of selected screenplays by professional actors.

The Slamdance Film Festival holds an annual screenplay competition and then puts on a staged reading of the winning script during the festival held each January.

The Seattle International Film Festival presents a theatrical read-through of the winning script in the Washington State Screenwriting Competition.

The organizers of the Nantucket Film Festival describe it as "a screenwriter's festival presenting features, short films, documentaries, staged readings and panel discussions." Writers are encouraged to present their films and works-in-progress and get feedback from other writers and filmmakers.

The The Ohio Independent Film Festival presents a year-round screenplay reading program called Script Mill.
In addition, the winner of the Ohio Independent Screenplay Awards will be read at the fest.

The Rhode Island Film Festival holds a script competition. The winning screenplay receives a staged reading at Scriptbiz, a script marketplace and seminar.

The Tribeca Film Festival develops and showcases scripts with scientific and technological themes and or characters in its Tribeca/Sloan Screenplay Program.

The Women's Image Network, which puts on the WinFilm Fest, conducts "WinFemme Monthlies," an industry staged reading of selected screenplays.

The Breckenridge Festival of Film gives awards to screenplays in each of four categories: Adult Drama, Comedy, Action-Adventure and Children-Family.

The Great Lakes Film Festival has a scriptwriting competition for screenplays, stage plays, and teleplays. Prizes for the winning script include $500, 2 complete passes to and accomodations at the festival. For more info go to:

The motto of the Hollywood Film Festival is: "Bridging the gap between Hollywood and emerging independent filmmakers and storytellers." Toward that end, it presents Discovery Programs and Awards. Go to:

Film Fest New Haven hosts the not-for-profit New Century Writer Awards which is open to writers of all nationalities, backgrounds and countries. Works accepted in two categories. Category I includes screenplays and stage plays. Category II includes short stories and novel exerpts. The top three prizes are cash awards for both categories I and II. Top fiction winners are also considered for publication in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope All Story literary magazine. One screenplay or stage play is selected from each year's competition to be presented as a stage screenplay reading during the film festival weekend.

The Nantucket Film Festival (see above) gives the Tony Cox Award for screenwriting, sponsored by ShowTime Networks, Inc. The winner receives a cash prize and a first-look option from ShowTime.

The Love Unlimited Film Festival and Art Exhibition hosts the Screenplay Writing Exhibition and Awards. Festival organizers say: "The theme is all screenplay writing that is directly, indirectly, literally, or symbolically related to love. This is a not-for-profit event and ticket fees to the awards and exhibition are free of charge in Portland, Oregon; Urbana, Illinois and Austin, Texas. Ticket fees in California are $20 with no one turned away for lack of funds. Over 40 awards will be given out for screenplays in over 30 different categories with a People's Choice Award held in each region. The awards welcome people of all backgrounds from all over the world. In 2011, the Screenplay writing awards will take place in Austin, Texas; Urbana, Illinois; Los Angeles, CA and Portland, Oregon."

The Ohio Independent Film Festival awards for Best Screenplay and Best Northcoast Screenplay.

The Santa Monica International Film Festival has included a screenwriting competition as part of its Moxie! Awards.

Some competitions have been established for scripts with particular subject matter or setting:

The Asian American International Film Festival has an annual Screenplay Competition every spring where five finalists are chosen by readers and a final winner chosen by a panel of judges. The winning screenplay gets a live staged reading and Q&A with the writer during the festival, in addition to other prizes. Go to:

The International Family Film Festival in Santa Clarita, California is a family-themed festival which has a showcase for screenplays that have "no gratuitous sex, violence, nudity or obscene profanity." Go to:

The Flicks on 66 Wild West Digital Shootout solicits short scripts from around the world, selects the six best, then brings the writers to Albuquerque for one week in July to shoot, edit and premiere their movie. For more info, go to:

Moondance Film Festival has an award program "to promote and encourage women screenwriters, playwrights and filmmakers." Go to:

WinFilm Fest (formerly the WIN Femme Film Fest), the Women's Image Networks' Film/Video/Screenplay Festival, is dedicated to promoting positive images of women in the media. Screenplays must have a positive female protagonist. They award a staged reading of the winning screenplay and hold a screenplay pitch session with film executives. For more info, go to:

The Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema presents a "Set in Philadelphia" Screenwriting Competition. The scripts must be set primarily in the greater Philadelphia area and preference is given to "scripts which capture the spirit, characters and/or locations of the region."The winning screenwriter is awarded cash and two professionally cast readings of the screenplay.In addition, the Irene I. Parisi cash award is given to an outstanding writer under 30. Go to:

The Hollywood Black Film Festival, held at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, holds a "Storyteller Competition" for black screenwriters only. For more information call (310) 348-3942 or go to:

The IFP Market gives a cash award – The Gordon Parks Award – to an African American Screenwriter. Go to:

Urban World Film Festival holds a screenplay competition with the 5 finalists presenting staged readings at Tribeca during the festival.

The IFP has a sidebar entitled No Borders for approximately 50 screenplays or works-in-progress in need of financing.Distributors meet with producers, directors or writers who are selected for No Borders. For more info, go to:

The Hollywood Film Festival has a market for works-in-progress.
Call (310) 288-1882 or go to:

Worldfest Houston has an entry category for unproduced screenplays.

OTHER FILM FESTIVALS which include screenwriting awards and/or events:

Big Bear Lake Film Festival

Carolina Film & Video Festival and Screenwriting Showcase

Cinequest (San Jose Film Festival)

Great Plains Film Festival

Jackson Hole Film Festival

Jacksonville Film Festival

Kern Film Festival

Lake Arrowhead Film Festival

New Hampshire Film Expo

Screamfest Horror Film Festival


SoCal International Film Festival

Valley International Film Festival

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