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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Conference Call: My Review Of The Toronto Screenwriting Conference

So, this last weekend (April 10-11) I attended the Toronto Screenwriting Conference... and man, what a trip that was.

Both days were mental feasts.

And my brain is still rubbing its belly, sinking into the couch cushions in the aftermath of it all.

Conference-wise, some speakers were good, others blew my socks clear off.

Sheldon Bull was one such speaker.

I'd never really watched Coach or Newhart -- and have only a passing awareness of Sabrina: The Teenage Witch -- but man, this guy truly knows his stuff.

He comes into the room, such a vibrant and genial personality, and then just gets right to it: "I've been doing this for 25 years and this is what worked for me".

And then he explains his approach while making it make sense in the context of current shows, a formula that some of the best comedic writers on TV weren't even aware they're using (until he put it down on paper).

He walks us through an episode of Big Bang Theory (Sheldon wants to get Stan Lee's autograph) and shows us, beat for beat, how it matches up perfectly.

It makes sense and it instantly illustrates his point.

What the hell? I'm learning?!

Brilliant.

At the beginning of his session the event organizer/host Mr. Glenn Cockburn (of the Meridian Artists agency) said to us that Mr. Bull was one person they knew they had to get, that they really wooed to come and be here.

And now I completely understand why.

Simply put: I could've spent the rest of the day just listening to him speak.

Of all the speakers, I really felt that Mr. Bull hit the ground running - he got right to the point and didn't dumb it down.

He took a temperature of the room off the top, found that most of the room was professionals and emerging writers and off he went.

Thank you, sir.

The Q&A Sessions were captivating in a whole other way: frank, revealing and often funny - it was heartening to see some fellow Canadians (Tim Long, Chuck Tatham) who made it big come back and share their adventures with us.

I found myself really into Mr. Tatham's Q&A session as, unlike Mr. Long's and most of the others, he actually seemed like the process was work and had struggle involved.

One of the things that I found somewhat weird was to listen to a Q&A like Mr. Long's -- and, to an extent Mr. Reese's with Zombieland -- and hear how the process (working on The Simpsons) was actually sort of a breeze.

Well, at least the way he told it.

Now, I'm sure it's not as simple as all that, but man... I watched a lot of pro writers in the audience squirm when Mr. Long talked about leaving work at 6pm-ish, having 3 writer-rooms full of people and tons and tons of time to re-work jokes and scripts.

I haven't been on staff yet but I've talked to enough staff writers to figure that things are significantly more hectic on our side of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Tatham's Q&A session, on the other hand, was full of deadpan moments of strife and tales of long nights -- relating to us candidly about what it was like to work on some of the shows he's been a part of (Arrested Development!)... and how his struggles ultimately made him a better writer.

His honesty and humility about it all, to me, made for an utterly compelling 90 minutes and I felt it was - bar none - the strongest Q&A of the conference.

How was the conference as a whole?

Well, as I think about the weekend and how everything stacked up I do find myself asking one particular question:

"Would I attend next year?"

And you know... I think I would.

The session with Mr. Bull ended up being worth the price of admission and, to be honest, I did learn a ton about the business and the craft.

Not so much about the nature of the business or the craft as a writer in CANADA (though Mr. Cooper did offer a few insights)... but hey, I guess that's the less-sexy elephant in the room.

LA = rich, pretty land of bounty where writers drive Ferraris.

Canada... not so much -- and, well... you can't really blame'em.

All that, I guess, is a round-about way of saying that the conference itself was not without its flaws.

If I were to attend again next year there are some improvements I'd like to see:

1) 75 mins -- which is what it often ended up to be after all the milling around and shuffling around of rooms was worked out -- is nowhere long enough for me or the speakers; as evidenced by how much (and how often) we were told speakers would have to skip over planned talking points due to time constraints.

I get that we're not going to have like 3 hours with these people, but let's give everyone a SOLID 2 hours. One speaker was just starting to warm up as their time ran out... and that's a damn shame.

Which leads me to my 2nd point.

2) Put it all on one floor. Somehow. I'm not sure if there was more than one classroom per floor but it's just dumb to make people shuffle between 3 different levels and waste precious time getting re-settled and relaxed.

3) Start earlier, end later. It's a conference filled with some amazing speakers - let's squeeze this sucker dry. I know it's not easy, but hey, if you make things more efficient in the inner-workings you can start half-hour earlier, end half-hour later and still fit in lots more content.

Especially if you do #4

4) Offer food options. Every floor seemed to have a Tim Horton's station that was just laying dormant -- and I heard people complain about this.

Why make people go all the way out of the building? Wasted time and wasted potential income -- maybe you can work out some sort of deal with the school to have it open and running, split the profits...?

I dunno. But it seems like a big oversight -- I know I spent about $20 a day on food, easily.

Food that I bought elsewhere, with money that could've been yours (at least in part).

That's a solid 'tsk tsk' right there.

Anyways, in conclusion:

As a first outing for this conference I would say that I've come away from it feeling quite positive about the experience.

The price IS a bit steep but given what was on offer I do feel that I got my money's worth.

In fact, hell, charge $30 more per ticket, make it an even $400 and offer everyone lunch and snacks next time.

Food's not THAT expensive and you had a ton of volunteers this year.

You could've used a few to serve some grub, made yourself some extra coin and kept the ball rolling more efficiently.

Anyways, yeah... just my 2 cents.

Cheers!
Brandon

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