By Cate Wood Hunter
This year has flown by faster than any other in my life. As it approaches its Gregorian calendar end I am trying to wrap up just how much has happened. Attending the London Screenwriter’s Festival this year was a life-changing experience and I am deeply grateful to everyone who made it possible. Chris Jones, Lisa McMullin, the WGSA, the incredibly hard working volunteers and staff members of the LSF and all the campaign contributors who gave of their money and time to make it possible so that I could attend the festival – THANK-YOU. Chris asked me to write a blog about the experience and it has been one of the hardest pieces of writing to do. I think in part because I am aware of how many brilliant writers will be reading this post and the fears that whatever I write just won’t quiet encapsulate the experience or the FEAR of it all – it was overall an exercise in engaging with fear and so of course now I need to press through.
A bit of background to why I needed funding to get to LSF 2016 – I had applied and been accepted to attend LA Story Expo through the auspices of the Writer’s Guild of South Africa, but at the last minute funding fell through. I had been preparing myself and my work to attend the Expo – it was the mark on the horizon to aim for. I decided that I would continue to work like it was going to happen anyway and keep the momentum of preparation going, but slowly my motivation and gumption started seeping away. Come September and no LA Story Expo – what then? It felt like my dream of becoming a produced screenwriter was never going to happen and this felt like a flame dying inside.
Last year March I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time, this time the diagnoses being – “there is nothing more we can do for you”. It was fight for my life or watch it slip through my grasp. I took a massive gulp of air and dove deep. I decided to resign from my job, re-engage full-time with my Master’s in screenwriting studies (which I had put on hold during the year of chemotherapy, radiation and all the fall out around that) and focus all my resources on a) fighting the disease holistically, b) completing my studies (studying what I had always wanted to study, at the university where I had always wanted to study) and c) to give everything I had left to trying to see if I could become that rare thing – a screenplay writer earning a living from their own work. This meant letting go of secure income and cashing in my small retirement savings fund and living very frugally to make the money last as long as possible. It meant working very hard, pushing myself through exhaustion, keeping my hope and focus, and trying not to let blind fear cripple me every day. Cashing in my safety net felt like the most scary and reckless thing I had ever done in my life. I had to do battle with a whole innerverse of fears. I nearly lost the plot a number of times. New Year found me dangling on a last thread over a void. But I got help and I kept going. Hope dawned with the LA Story Expo on the horizon and the completion of my MA in sight.
I had made the decision that I was going to put all my effort into presenting myself as professionally as possible and give it one last extreme push (I have been trying to be produced for the last 11 years). If there was no breakthrough in LA, then I was going to hang up the writer’s cloak, go back to a normal day job and only write as a hobby. The only problem being, day jobs aren’t so easy to find. The last time it took me 2 years and over 90 job applications, so the thought filled me with deep despair. I felt like I was in the second act doldrums – no end or hope in sight but doom and gloom just over the horizon. Then an email came from the London Screenwriter’s team – a follow-up with previous attendees as to ‘why was I not returning to LSF?’ I replied: ‘hey, it’s not you, it’s me – I love you guys, it’s just not possible right now’. Then Chris Jones got engaged and, well Chris being Chris Jones, he kicked the hornets’ nest, he stirred the pot, he put his oar in and he said ‘let’s get unreasonable, let’s see how we can get you here’, and a rollercoaster was launched. Chris suggested I do a crowdfunding campaign and I just could not do it. I come from a country that has so many people in dire financial need that to ask for money to attend an event in London felt like a cheek – I was not worthy of charity when there are so many in more need than me. So therefore ‘thanks for the support but no’. Well Chris said if I was not going to do it, he would get it done on my behalf – enter stage right; Lisa McMullin pursued by bear. Lisa, a fellow screenwriter from London, began to put a crowdfunding campaign together – this was it, no more hiding because the campaign meant that I was now going to be center stage, in the spotlight (i.e. no invisibility cloak), it meant opening myself up to the possibility of rejection – what if? And this thought terrified me. I took a leap of faith, borrowed money against our bond and decided to go for it.
Only those closest to me (or wise enough to read the signs) know how I struggle with extreme social anxiety. Over the course of the last 25 years of my life I have come to realize that most people who turn to the creative arts find the weight of the world too much and that contrary to the media image of artists as hippy-happy-go-lightlies; we are a group of people who use writing, acting, music or fine art to mediate, process and express this weight. Writing is a solitary pursuit and once you have made peace with that it becomes an all too easy refuge from the world. My mother says that when I was little I had 5 imaginary friends; I now believe that these were characters from the various stories I was working with in my head – I now have far more invisible friends that keep me company and safe from engaging with the real world. Writing in my hermit hole was easy – re-engaging with the world is not. But part of my trying to become well – to put my dis-ease with myself and the world to ease meant that I had to engage with what Chris was offering – as terrifying as it felt. And then… people gave and before I knew it I had enough to attend the festival and pay back my loan (phew!).
But another fear arose, coming to the festival on the back of the campaign meant that people would know who I was, that I could not just blend in or put on a persona (and thanks to Chris I now owed a lot of people hugs, photos and a supper). The first day (Networking Tuesday) was a full on immersive ‘shake all the demons out your box, Pandora’ experience for me. Grueling. Exhausting. Liberating. I had been to the festival in 2011 and this had altered my life trajectory in that it (Chris at the end of each LSF asks you to make a commitment to yourself) made me commit to doing an MA in screenwriting. Now here I was again. I learnt a hell of a lot in 2011, one of the biggest things was the affirmation that I had good ideas that could stand on their own in an international arena, but it was still about the story and not about putting myself forward and into the picture. Attending the week-end event of lectures, presentations and seminars is an absolutely worthwhile, learning, jam-packed with information experience, but getting involved in the workshops around the Festival is what is really transformative – hard work, yes, but worthwhile – that is if you are serious about getting to where you want to go.
Networking Tuesday… “Face Your Fears day” more like. Put a group of hermit screenwriters in a room and then make them engage with one another – the stuff of those in the rooms worst nightmares. Intense man. And I know that I need to do it many more times for all the lessons to sink in. But more than that, it was an opportunity to get to meet one on one, people who like me, might have glided past one another. One of the best parts of the festival and a reason I would like to go back every year is the opportunity to get to know and talk to other writers, to share our stories – life and creative projects, to be inspired and humbled. To be reminded why I do this, that I am not crazy or at least I am not crazy on my own. It meant that every day that followed there were familiar faces in the crowd to talk to, to share the experience with on the day and now in the months that have followed, to keep connecting through platforms like Facebook. Oh yes, that is another big thing that Chris drives home, get out your cave, connect and share in person and on social media. Post the fest I very reluctantly joined Twitter – and learnt that it is not about me having to voice my opinion, but sharing what is important to me. And then a funny thing happened; firstly Twitter decided I was a stalker and kept shutting my profile down because I was trying to friend so many people at once (all writing, film and creative connections that I actually knew), then Lisa advised that I post a few comments of my own first. That did the trick (thanks Lisa – see what networking can do?). Then one day a production company I was following tagged me erroneously in a tweet – what a great mistake for me – I now have a whole lot more people following me than I would have had otherwise – J @LisaMcMullin #thanksforhelpingLisa #LisaMcMullinisthebest (still working out the hashtag app) #cananyonehelpmewithhashtaggingadvice LOL.
One of the most fundamental ways that attending LSF 2016 changed me was in the realization that it is not about the product first and foremost – it is about the relationships. It’s all about networking people. Yes you have to have your craft down (and attending the workshops and lectures of the LSF help you with this too) and yes your ideas need to be great and you need to be seriously invested in them. But a good idea or a great script just hangs in the air if you don’t get it to the right people. How do you get it to them? Through your network. I had already been unconsciously networking for the last 10 years, but not fully mining or galvansing this. I thought that I could work very hard on my own till I had the perfectly crafted screenplay and that all I needed to do was hit send on the email into various producers email boxes and it would happen. Well I did send and send and nothing really happened. I was optioned, I even won competitions, but I was not following through. Production companies very rarely take a chance on an unknown entity, they will back the writer who has worked in the field, built their reputation through competitions, short films and writing for television. Networking is likened to speed-dating – it’s how producers know if you are going to be the person that it is worth spending a lot of their time and money on. Another thing that sunk in hard was that very few unknown writers with original concepts are signed and produced. Your spec script might get you onboard a writing team or an offer to write a project that a production company feels will make them money. In fact, I was surprised to learn from a Q&A session that even well-established screenplay writers struggle to get their original work produced. So while I have been, unwittingly in the course of being human, engaged with networking for the last 10 years, LSF brought it home – why it is important and why my career won’t happen without that engagement.
12 years ago I was completing my MA in Fine Art when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. One of my first reactions was; I can’t die now – I have not written my screenplays. So that was a hard wake up call to stop putting off what I had been doing in my head all of my life and now had to do in reality. A friend then introduced me to a film-maker: person A (what I wouldn’t give for an animatic right now), he leant me a copy of Syd Field’s ‘Screenplay’ book and a demo copy of a screenwriting software program also called Screenplay – it was so awesome and easy to use I bought the software online immediately. And for those of you who don’t know; it was a program developed by Chris Jones. I began to teach myself how to write my stories in screenplay format – I attended workshops, seminars, classes and read book and after book. Person A also suggested I join the South African screenwriter’s guild and I did and then through them I attended other workshops etc. During this period I had a screenplay officially selected as part of a film festival, I got optioned and then for the next four years I re-wrote and re-wrote as it went from screenplay to series to mini-series and even got shortlisted by 2 UK broadcasting companies (but not greenlighted). While I did the re-writing work, I thought I could sit back and let the production company drive my career forward. I did not send out other ideas – I thought this one breakthrough would lead to all others. But the option agreement eventually fell through and I was no further forward. Any achievement was invisible to the outside world. And I began to plummet. But then serendipity happened, my computer crashed, I needed to upgrade my Windows system and with this my Screenplay software stopped working. So I contacted the makers Chris Jones et al, and he informed me that they were no longer operating that software and suggested I change over to Final Draft, which I did. But he also said – “how about attending this new thing I’ve put together –the London Screenwriters Festival?” Fortunately at that time I had enough money from various free-lancing jobs and I went. I had fallen into a hole where I did not think that my ideas were good enough. So I went and what happened was that I had a whole lot of people in the know affirm my ideas. In particular I had a big time screenwriter with an American based animation company love my idea, he cross-questioned me for 45 minutes. I was riding on a high until he told me they were not looking to outsource concepts. This drove me to decide to do my MA in screenwriting so that I could fast track my learning, grow my skills and knowledge, and develop the story under the most conducive environment possible. I was rejected at my first application – I was told that I would have to start at third year full-time level which I could not afford time-wise or financially. I then became a committee member of the WGSA (#thankspersonA) during the course of being a committee member for 2 years I helped to stage many workshops and seminars with the benefit of attending them myself. During this period we hosted a screenwriting ‘guru’ from LA, which was then hosted at the UCT campus through the auspices of the department I wanted to attend. There was a new H.O.D. of the film school who invited me to apply for my MA again – I got in. By being part of the WGSA committee I became visible and much more in the know.
I had been keeping in touch through social media with a fellow screen-writer who had been a co-committee member with me but who lived in a different city – person B. She then e-introduced me to an industry friend of hers – person C, with whom I corresponded through email and Facebook. In February person C invited me to attend an animation festival where we met in person. Through attending pitching sessions at this festival I watched as screenwriters used images to illustrate their pitches and I thought ‘HA!’ I have to get on board with this. A good image would deliver the message and feel in a flash compared to fumbling nervously for the right words. The festival was showcasing animators and illustrators and I met with an illustrator who felt like the perfect fit. A month later person C introduced me to a film networking and facilitation company – people D. I made an appointment to see them but they were so busy and fully booked that the appointment fell 1 month after my return from LSF.
I finished my MA and entered the screenplay into competitions and it made the top 10 selection for the San Diego Kid’s International Film Festival, so I posted this news along with the illustration on Facebook to celebrate and person B and I started corresponding around this project as she writes for television animation. I then launched the “Let’s get Cate to London” campaign on Facebook. Person B then invited me to submit a proposal for an animation concept for a TV series (this was the Monday, the submission was due that Friday and I was flying to London on the Thursday and there were many things I was still trying to wrap up). I said I would not be able to get it done on time. Person B said – “here is the opportunity, use it or lose it”! I had been brewing an idea for 2 years and I thought – “Fuckit! Do it now, this opportunity might not come around again”. I stayed up all night and got it down. The proposal was accepted by film production company E with whom person B is working. Post the festival people E wanted to know if I had any other projects – they are now interested in 3 of my works.
During the LSF I hear that my proposal has been shortlisted. On my return I am offered a spot on a writing course learning to write for animated series by person B (another major learning curve). I realize I have to do this – be on a team – that is how you break through. It is also where she gets to vet you and see who she would like to work with and what kind of team person you would be #wiseandwileypersonB (no, I still don’t think I have this hashtag thing sorted). The meeting date with people D arrives and I get there a little early. I immersed myself in some reading and then got a tap on my shoulder – it was person A – we hugged and had a quick catch up. People D saw this and afterwards asked how I knew person A? I then gave a brief outline (waaaaay more brief than this blog) of how person A had helped set me on my path, led to my e-meeting Chris and how this had led to LSF 2011, then my MA and then to attending LSF 2016. They asked how I knew person C – I explained about person B (who they also knew) and how this had led to company E (ditto) being interested in 3 projects. My credibility as an unproduced unknown entity went right up – my network did this for me – before people D had read any of my work they knew I was serious because they trusted the people I knew. They have subsequently put me in touch with 2 more production companies: F has invited me to put together a series proposal, and G is interested in a concept. There are now a lot of lines in the water and interest being shown in my work. Nothing has been signed… YET! But it feels like the tide has turned and I know now that I have to keep following up, participate in creating opportunities – like introducing company E to a UK prod co (whom I pitched to at the Fest) – company H; to see if they might be interested in co-producing my work. I also know that I have to become part of a writing team or get a short film made by working collaboratively with other film people (this is my next fear factor). I also know that I must keep building my relationships with the writers I have met, keep engaging and keep stepping out of my hermit shelter – this is good. It’s 360 from where I was before and it was attending the Festival, the networking Tuesday, the various presentations, that made me see clearly what and how much it takes to become a produced writer. And in the process of attending the festival I have made a whole lot of new, intelligent, kind, quirky, funny, aware and highly creative friends. Thank-you London Screenwriter’s Festival and all of you who helped make it happen. I will keep you posted…