Nashville Film Fest a fun, great learning experience

By G. Robert Frazier

The Nashville Film Festival concluded its most recent run Saturday after 10 days of movies, informational panels about the film industry, and parties celebrating the creative minds behind the films and scripts entered in the event. As a script reader for the screenwriting competition, I earned a gold laminate that provided free access to as many of the events I could stand.

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By all accounts, the fest was a roaring success both in numbers of entries in the film and script categories and in attendance. There were more than 3,500 film entries and 1,500 script entries across numerous categories, from shorts to features, from dramas to science fiction.

The event was the culmination of my third year as a script reader and, coincidentally, NaFF’s third year to hold a screenwriting competition. I began reading as a way to learn more about the screenwriting process, while also helping out a good cause. I can honestly say that I learn some new technique or become aware of something to avoid with each script I read. That knowledge can only help me as I continue to write my own scripts and send them out into the world.

IMG_20160417_211650283The fest also provided a key opportunity to study the mystique of the short film. As I am co-writing a short screenplay with a friend and fellow member of the Tennessee Screenwriters Association, taking in as many short features on the big screen was an invaluable learning experience.

I have a new respect for the filmmakers who put so many hours and so much work into their projects. Hopefully, we will be able to put this knowledge to good use and produce our short on film as well.

One downside this year was the decision to allow ScreenCraft to sponsor the writer’s conference portion of the festival. Not that I have anything against ScreenCraft. They certainly brought in a stacked and talented roster of industry professionals to share their knowledge over two days with festival-goers. But it was the added $300 admission price that was a put-off for me.

NaFF 2016 PostersIn the previous years of the festival, my script reads were enough to gain free admission to a few writing panels held at the fest. This year, however, because the event was held by ScreenCraft, my reads got me free film access but no access to the writer’s conference. That was more than a bit disappointing to someone who would like to learn more about the craft of writing and is reading specifically with that in mind.

I sincerely hope that the NaFF organizers rethink or renegotiate the deal next year to better benefit their readers.

Still, I’m happy for the experience of reading scripts and for helping determine the winning scripts in the competition. I read 140 entries in the competition. Of those, 13 went on to attain semifinal status and four reached the finals. Two of those four were winners in their categories and the other two were runners-up in their categories!

Below are links to the winning films and winning scripts in the competition:

2016 NaFF Shorts Awards Recipients

2016 NaFF Feature Awards Winners

2016 NaFF Screenwriting Competition Awards

 

 

Reading and Writing for the Web 7/22

Every day I scour the web for articles on reading and writing to further my education about my craft and try to share the best of those articles with you here. Today, I thought I’d focus on reading.

One of the most common, reiterated pieces of advice for writers of any sort — be it novelists, memoirists, poets, or screenwriters — is to read. But don’t just read for entertainment — although that works too – you need to read with a critical eye toward learning. Reading is one of the best, if not the best, ways to study your craft in action, to see what works on the page, how it moves you, and how emulating another author’s style of writing can elevate your own writing. Read widely, read voraciously, read with a critical eye.

One way to do just that is to write book reviews. I came across Blogging for Books some time last year and have been reading and reviewing books for their website and this blog ever since. I’m averaging about one book per month. I also started reading books this month for Killer Nashville, an organization dedicated to the mystery/thriller genre. My first review (of Chris Knopf’s Cop Job) is slated to appear on their website on Sept. 1. One of the neat things about both sites: free books! And, as an added bonus, exposure to new authors whom I otherwise would not have picked up. Both sites are looking for additional readers, so check them out.

I’m also a first-round reader for entries in this year’s Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. The gig came about thanks to a referral from the fine folks at the Nashville Film Festival, for whom I’ve read scripts for the past two years. If you are interested in screenwriting, reading screenplays is one of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of the craft.

Speaking of reading, I came across a cool online sweepstakes where you can enter and possibly win a collection of 80 Penguin and Penguin Classic titles. I’ve already got or have read a few of them, but there are a lot more on the list of books you could win that I don’t have. (Not that I will ever have time to read them all, but, hey, if it’s free…).

Finally for today, let’s all bid a fond farewell to an influential author, E.L. Doctorow, who passed away Tuesday. Doctorow was the man who brought us the critically acclaimed, award-winning novels Ragtime (which inspired the hit Broadway musical), Billy Bathgate (which became a hit movie starring Dustin Hoffman), and The March, to name just a few.

Remember, if you come across any interesting articles on reading or writing, you can post them in the comments section.

 

Join the ranks: Nashville Film Fest looking for a few good readers

Since it’s Giving Tuesday, I thought I should share a unique way for you to give back: You can be a volunteer reader for the Nashville Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition.

This is my second year as a reader for the competition, wherein I get to read dozens of scripts and rate them according to NaFF criteria. In doing so, I am helping whittle the entries down to potential winners in more than a dozen categories.

Nashville Film Festival logoI became a reader last year in an effort to strengthen my own script-writing abilities, but you don’t have to be a writer to take advantage of this opportunity. You just have to love stories and love reading them. The folks at NaFF will help you identify what works and what doesn’t work in the script you are reading so that you can effectively rate them.

What’s more, the knowledge gained from reading and rating scripts will broaden your own film-going experience. You will look at movies in a whole new way. You will learn how a good film is structured, as well as what makes good dialogue and scenes.

NaFF is one of the largest and oldest film festivals in the U.S., screening over 250 films from more than 50 countries. Last year, which was NaFF’s inaugural screenwriting competition, more than 1,500 entries were received. They are anticipating about 2,000 entries for the 2015 competition. Winners will be announced at the film festival in April.

Relax, you don’t have to read them all. And you don’t have to read the entire script. You only have to commit to reading the first 30 pages.

Believe it or not, in those few pages, and with the help of NaFF’s training, you will be able to make an informed decision about the script you are reading. You will be able to assess whether the script has effectively established a main character you care about, a goal for the character, an antagonist or challenge that the main character must overcome, and a whole lot more, from use of dialogue to setting.

I read pages from more than 170 scripts in 2014, including one of the scripts that eventually won a top prize. And I read a number of scripts all the way through. Some because I wanted to know how the story ended, some because I was learning more about the business of script writing, both what was done right and what was wrong.

I’ve been reading off and on for the past couple months, and will ramp up my reading in the months ahead. NaFF receives most of its entries in January as the deadline nears. Trust me, there will be plenty of scripts to go around.

And it’s not too late to get in on the fun.

NaFF needs about 20 more readers to join its ranks. If you live in Middle Tennessee, to get in on the action, all you have to do is attend a reader orientation from 6 to 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Dec. 4. The 90-minute training session will be led by Harold Loren, a 2014 juror and presenter. The event takes place at Nashville Public Television, 161 Rains Ave., Nashville (near the Tennessee State Fairgrounds).

You don’t have to be a resident to participate. NaFF has readers all across the country, and even in Canada. NaFF can send orientation materials to you and all of the reading and judging is done online. Just email competition manager Josh Escue at josh@nashfilm.org.

PS: Did I mention that readers can earn tickets to see films at the April 16-25 festival as well as attend a screenwriting training program, as well as after-parties?

NaFF: The Identical superbly written, acted, directed

Made it to the Nashville Film Fest (NaFF) today.

Saw Something, Anything and The Identical. The first story focuses on a young woman who loses her first child in birth and suffers a long bout of depression afterwards that basically ends her marriage and former friendships. She seeks out an old school friend who also had doubts about his life and went into a monastery for four years, before learning that wasn’t what he wanted either. The two ultimately find each other and forge a new path. The movie was a bit slow, though it was well-acted. Written and directed by Paul Harrill, with stars Bryce Johnson, Linds Edwards, Ashley Shelton and Jason Benjamin.

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The Identical’s Seth Green and Blake Rayne appear on the red carpet at the Nashville Film Festival.

The Identical, on the other hand, was superbly acted, shot and written. The story follows identical twins separated at birth who both find their calling in music. Think what if Elvis had an equally talented twin brother no one knew about. The film was shot entirely in Tennessee and features Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green and Blake Rayne in the title role. From first-time director Dustin Marcellino. The filmmakers provided a fascinating question-answer session after the viewing and described how it was all made possible by the script (written by Howard Klausner). According to the director, Ray Liotta said after reading the script it was a part he had to have. It took over three years to bring the film to fruition, but from the audience reaction I’d say their time was well-spent. The rest of the nation can view it on Sept. 12 when it’s released in theaters. Trust me, it’s a heart-tugging, entertaining story of rock ‘n’ roll, faith and family that is not to be missed.

I plan to return to the fest for a panel on scriptwriting and for more movies on Friday.

Lessons from a script reader

Over the past several months I have served as a volunteer reader for scripts entered in the inaugural Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition. I am working on a spec feature script and a tv pilot, so the experience of reading and reviewing scripts in the competition afforded an excellent opportunity to learn my craft. And it’s been a rewarding endeavor, to be sure.

The first 30 pages of each script are crucial. As a reader, I was tasked with identifying the premise of each script (who and what the script is about) and determining how compelling the story was. Key ingredients in the grading process were the characters introduced and the use of dialogue.

What stood out, more often than not, were the missteps that kept the scripts from reaching the next level of review.

Below are some insights into scripts, as well as some things to watch out for:

Flashbacks. A character’s backstory is certainly important to fleshing out their motivations, wants and needs, but flashbacks to me are a huge distraction. Too many writers are relying on flashbacks as a crutch. Frankly, I found flashbacks as unnecessary interruptions in the flow of the main story. They slow the momentum, seem obtrusive, and don’t always add much in the way of depth to a story or character. Heck, I’ve read scripts where there are flashbacks after the first paragraph. Can we not establish the character in the present for a few minutes before jumping backwards? If flashbacks are needed, then look at something like Saving Mr. Banks as a way to do them right. In that movie, the flashbacks were a story unto themselves. The story in the past lent deep meaning to the main character and why she wouldn’t sell her story to Mr. Disney.

Too many characters. Focus on establishing the main character, his or her current situation and wants, followed by the inciting incident and how that might impact that character’s goals. Remember, stories are about the transformation of character from one state to another. By inserting character after character into the script, no matter how small a role they have, it takes away from the story you should be telling. I read one script in which there were ten named characters within the first four pages, followed by a dozen more by page twenty. When you have to look at a list of characters or keep scrolling back to remember who’s who, that ruins the momentum of the story. That loses the reader. That dooms the script.

Establish your characters quickly. Don’t wait until page 30 to introduce a character’s romantic interest, confidant or mentor, protagonist or antagonist.

Write believable dialogue. Make certain dialogue sounds unique to each character and that their own personalities/motivations come through. Try not to be too simple or direct. Use some subtext, i.e., not always stating what is meant but inferring it. But don’t go overboard. I’ve read a lot of scripts where the writer suffers from the delusion that they are Quentin Tarrantino. That can come across as being too writerly and unnatural sounding. Be careful of loaded informational dialogue that tells more than it shows.

Avoid use of camera directions. That’s the job of the director. Follow the character and his actions, and the director will follow you. Let your script flow naturally.

Avoid too much setup. I’ve read a lot of scripts that take page after page to establish characters, build worlds or situations, etc. The story doesn’t get going until after page 30. If your character’s goals and inciting incident aren’t clear at this point, or earlier, your script isn’t going to make it to the next reader.

Find an original plot/idea. So many script writers are clearly chasing trends. Zombies. Seniors coping with Alzheimer’s or other end of life diseases. Young adult vampires. Super heroes. This superhero phase is going to fade, trust me. Marvel and DC Comics destroyed my love for their characters by pushing out title after title in the 1990s. They’re back at it again now (DC publishes 52 books every month alone, if not more) and Marvel has more than 100 titles. It’s too many to keep track of and it’s ridiculous to even try. Now with more and more superhero movies on the horizon (a half dozen planned for this year alone) there are few fresh superhero stories to be told. It’s become comical. [Addendum: I say all that, and yet it’s interesting to note that one of the winning screenplays in the NaFF competition was Heroman, a story about, you guessed it, a washed up superhero. So what do I know?]

Realize that your scripts will cost money to produce. Yes, we all want to write the next summer blockbuster. But face it, if you are just starting out it’s extremely unlikely that any studio will plop down a hundred million dollars to produce your movie. You have no cred. You have no track record. They’re going to go with the proven commodity. And if your script includes car chases, special-effects laden fights on the moon or in deep space, the script is going to be seen as unproducable and it’s going to be thrown on the slush pile. Keep it simple, and focus on the story.

Pay attention to three-act structure. You may hate it, you may think it’s formulaic and confining. Fine. But if you’re just starting out, you better know how to write a script using three-act structure before you decide to break the rules. Script readers are looking for three-act structure, and if it’s not there your script, despite all its gloriously fresh ideas, will be tossed.

Get coverage on your script. There are plenty of outlets that will read and provide coverage for you. Yes, for a price, but it will be worth it in the long run. The coverage can point to structural problems, plot holes, etc. that you can address now before they doom your script. [Addendum: It would also be useful to join a local screenwriters group, if you have access to one. I am now attending meetings of the Tennessee Screenwriters Association where I hope to build new connections, continue to learn my craft and, hopefully, receive valuable feedback.]

Lastly, for God’s sake, check your spelling and your grammar. Punctuation and spelling were not instant reasons for disqualification with NaFF. But you can bet they were noticed and that somewhere in the back of readers’ minds when making their decision, it factored into the equation. Sloppy mistakes signal that the script isn’t up to professional standards and the writer wasn’t either. Misspellings, missing commas and apostrophes, and inconsistencies in characters (names, ages, for instance) matter.

To write a good script, you’ve got to read scripts. Good and bad. See what works, what doesn’t. Go to LA Screenwriter for links to scripts, including Oscar-award winners Her, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more.

Nebraska a funny, deeply moving script worth reading

My brother Wayne Frazier and his friend Natalie Lipka are co-hosts of an awesome weekly podcast Hollywood Close-up. Each episode features an interview with movie and TV industry types, from  actors to screenwriters to casting agents and more.

I’m particularly interested in the screenwriting aspect of the movie biz. Followers of my blog know that I recently read more than 160 scripts as a volunteer script reader for the first-ever Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition. The experience has been more than rewarding as I’ve learned so much about what to do and what not to do, all of which I hope will translate into a solid script of my own to pitch to Hollywood one day.

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So, it was with great interest that I listened to this week’s show, which featured none other than Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee Robert Nelson, the author of the screenplay for Nebraska. It’s Nelson’s first feature film script, although he’s done a lot of work in TV, and it was great to hear him tell his story on my brother’s podcast.

I was inspired enough to visit one of my favorite WordPress sites, LA Screenwriter, which has links to all the Academy Award scripts on its site. I quickly found the link to Nebraska and downloaded it, then read the entire 101-page script. (It sounds like a lot, but scripts are actually pretty quick reads.)

It’s a funny, deeply moving story about an elderly man who believes he is the winner of a million dollar lottery and sets off to collect his winnings. His 40-year-old son accompanies him, even though he knows his father’s letter is really nothing more than one of those magazine subscription gimmicks. Together, the pair bond as they visit his father’s hometown, relatives and old “friends,” some of whom want a piece of his dad’s winnings. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the script and real poignant moments, as well.

I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet, but I intend to. In the meantime, the script’s impact will stay with me for some time. Robert Nelson has crafted a timeless story that I hope I can one day emulate with my own writing.