Why does the Toronto Screenwriter's Conference work?
The easy answer is 'Access' -- there a great number of writers here in Canada (myself included) who are willing to pay $300+ to be in a room with people like Sheldon Bull (Coach, Newhart, Sabrina: The Teenage Witch) and Leonard Dick (Lost, House, The Good Wife).
But any conference could put you in a room with industry insiders.
There's something that makes the TSC different.
There's something deeper, something that the TSC has managed to pull off -- for two years in a row now -- that's really made it stand out for me.
Made me glad I spent the money and took the time.
You see, it's one thing to be in a room with these people, to hear them talk to you about their successes (and failures); but there's something in the way that the folks at Meridian have pulled this off -- something in the way they've brought these fantastic speakers on board -- where these people hit the 'stage'... and the walls just come down.
For an hour and a half Sheldon Bull is there and it's like he's talking to us, not as students or 'clients'... but as peers.
Yesterday, I was sitting in a room with Franklin Leonard (Development Exec for Will Smith and creator of the Black List) and... I don't know... to have him tell us how much he respects writers -- to learn that the man reads between 500-700 scripts a year... and feels bad 'cause he can't get through more; to hear him say 'I want to work with writers to bring out the best script possible' and then, of all things, to feel like I understand him...
In the end I didn't see some 'Development Exec', I saw this guy who was trying to do a freaking impossible job, in an insane situation... but still had a real desire to help us writers (which, yes, realistically, helps him too... but still.).
I got to learn, from him -- in an open and (mostly) unguarded way -- how we can help ourselves flourish inside the Writer/Development Exec relationship.
And it was profound.
It was -- and I think this is what truly sells the TSC for me -- a new perspective.
One of many.
This year, I got to sit in a room with Kevin Shortt (LOST - The Video Game, FAR CRY 2, JAMES CAMERON'S AVATAR: The Game), a working video game writer for Ubisoft as he explained to us just how different writing for video games is from TV and Film. How so many of the tools we rely on simply don't work (or don't work the same) inside an interactive environment.
I got to see how a video game's story is put together. (As an avid Gamer, this was very cool).
At this year's TSC, I gained insight in ways and from places that I never would've expected.
You see, I'm a TV writer, I wouldn't have thought that sitting in a room with Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat, The Water Horse, The Shipping News), listening to him talk about adapting books for film, would've been relevant to me. And yet there, in that room, I found so much for me to take away. I got to listen to an Oscar-nominated writer talk openly about his process, about how he tackles Act Two problems and his own fight to put words to page. He talked about his struggle through the lean years and how he kept his spirits high.
Yes, Virginia, this was money well spent.
That said, and, to be fair, it wasn't all wine and roses (literally, no wine or roses).
To the Conference's credit they did give us free coffee/tea/water this year (eliminating the previous year's Tim Horton's/Starbucks budget) but I still have to say that I didn't like that we were pretty much forced out of the building to find our own lunches.
I know that it's a tough thing to pull off (potentially impossible due to the Ted Roger's school rules, etc) but I found it quite a shame that in the one time -- the perfect time really -- for us to do some real networking amongst ourselves we were allowed to break up into our component parts (read: groups of people we already knew) and head off to eat.
I would've loved if we could've had a room full of snacks/sandwiches, etc with some real time to eat and mingle with people instead of the 15 or so minutes between each speaking session. I know that at least 3 separate times (over both days) I ended up having to cut it short and run off because a session was about to start. I think that, given that we had a 'Networking Lounge', we shouldn't have to be put in that position... and that having a common lunch area (with the option to take off somewhere else if you like) is a better option.
Again, I understand this may simply not be possible, but I'll admit that I did find it to be a notable frustration given that so many other parts of the Conference were of such top quality.
** A special note here about the Volunteers -- I certainly hope you guys got something special out of this, because you really knocked it out of the park. Every single volunteer I met knew where I needed to go and was beyond courteous. So, yes, a definite +1 for you there. Also, those Orange shirts? Swanky. My buddies Tochi and Stephanie rocked them something fierce.**
So... what would I like to see next year? What can be done to make the TSC better?
I'd be intrigued by some sort of 'Post-TSC' dinner. An opportunity to sit at a table and break bread with some of the speakers (and a bunch of fellow writers). A chance to eat and chat. Maybe one speaker per table? I don't know. This is potentially a scheduling nightmare, but it'd be a great option for those of us who'd like to ask more questions. (Yes, this would be a separate paid option).
I'd also love some sort of takeaway. I'm not sure what just yet but having spent these past couple days meeting people and taking notes... I'd like something to keep (other than the schedule pamphlet) the conference in mind. A sort of 'cherry on top' thing. Sure, maybe I'm being greedy, but I think there's something to be said with a little parting gift. A real 'thank you for coming' that helps to solidify the great experience had over the last couple of days. As it stands the conference was just... over. And I left. It wasn't bad by any means... but I think, certainly from a marketing standpoint, that it's an opportunity missed.
Anyways, in closing, I quite enjoyed this year's TSC; it delivered on a number of fronts, giving me not only a host of new tips and tricks, but also some perspective on many different facets of the industry I'm trying to break into.
Can't argue with that.