March 10, 2016

The New York Film Academy Screenwriting Department, in cooperation with Final Draft, hosted the first in its second annual series of “Life In” panels. Arranged for NYFA’s Final Draft Fellowship (a 12 week Writing Fellowship for the finalists in Final Draft’s Big Break Contest), this panel focused on “Life in Feature Films” and saw the panelists explore getting the first draft out, pitching, the ins and outs of representation, and getting your foot in the door of the industry.

The Feature Films panelists (many of whom teach at NYFA) included:

DAVID O’LEARY (former VP of Bellevue Productions)
Adam Finer, NYFA’s Associate Chair of the Screenwriting Department, moderated and had several pieces of insightful advice from his years as a studio executive and manager. Adam said that first and foremost, “You have to have the materials you need to get your job done. If you don’t have the software, or a notebook, how are you going to jot down notes or write your scenes? You have to always have the tools on you.”

Adam continued to guide the panelists in an animated discussion of their first foray into the industry, the value of grammar and tight writing, and representation.

Dan Kay was of the opinion that a new writer didn’t need representation right away. He said, “Worry about doing good work. Developing your craft. The career will take care of itself. …Do the work and eventually you’ll get there.” He then said that once you’re ready, when your work is where it needs to be, not to worry about getting an agent. Instead he said, “A manager’s going to nurture you. A manger is going to read your work, is going to see something on the page and know how to help turn you into a great writer.”

The panelists delved into the topic of research, how much you need, and how it can help you with story. Christina Beck said, “Being in the environment of the story helps me really get inside that world and characters and it can inspire scenes and ideas you never would have gotten from research alone.” But, the panelists agreed, while research can help develop story, the research cannot get in the way of the story. Rachel Goldberg said, “I’ll give the script to someone in that world for authenticity. But you have to weigh authenticity over story. And story comes first.”

When asked about how long the first draft of a script takes to write, the panelists’ answers were varied. They all agreed that the length of time spent writing the first draft varied from weeks to months, even years, and that it really depended on the story. However, they did all agree that before the Fade In comes months of development work. David O’Leary stated, “What I’ve learned the hard way is development is writing. Treatments, beat sheets, character work, it’s all important and without it, it all falls apart.” Doc Pedrolie chimed in, “Before I ever sit down to write the script I do outlines, treatments, detailed beat sheets with slug lines and action and instructions for exactly what happens in each scene.”

At the end of the discussion the audience (made up of Final Draft fellows, NYFA students and alumni) was invited to ask questions, which ranged from how to build a sci-fi world, to putting your work out there, to simplifying complicated worlds and characters.

One alumna opened a discussion with Christina Beck and Rachel Goldberg about the challenges female writers and directors faced. Both emphasized working hard and taking advantage of programs that support diversity: TV labs, Chicks with Scripts, Women in Film, and Film Independent to name a few. Rachel iterated that it would be hard for female writers and directors, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying. Christina said, “You just have to write and tell the best story you can. It doesn’t matter who you are, you just have to write the best script you possibly can.”

Another student opened a discussion of pitching your projects. David O’Leary stressed that practice was key, knowing your story and the characters down to bones, and once you know it let it go. Adam Finer said, “In terms of pitching the simplest answer is, tell a story. Tell me a little about you, then tell me something interesting and engaging. Be there and be present in the moment.” Doc Pedrolie chimed in by saying, “Surrender to the conversation. Don’t go in to tell your story and leave. It’s a conversation. Surrender to it.”

The ultimate bit of wisdom given to the attendees was to always be writing. Always have new ideas, always be rewriting, and always be pushing yourself to perfection in order to get the best version of your script you can. Dan Kay said, “You have to love the process of writing. Being alone in the room, creating the characters and the world, that’s writing. If you still love creating, that can sustain you through all the BS that follows.” Doc Pedrolie added, “Constantly be writing, be generating, be rewriting. You have to be generating stories people want to see. You have to have contacts, network, follow up.” Rachel Goldberg encapsulated the evening with, “Just keep going. Don’t stop writing, pitching, hustling. If this is what you love, don’t stop.”