Chris Jones talks about his role as the creative director of the first London Screenwriters’ Festival, which will run Oct 29-31.
UK writer/director Chris Jones and producer/screenwriter David Chamberlain were so bereft when the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ festival went into receivership last year that they decided to set up their own festival.
The result? The inaugural London Screenwriters’ Festival, which takes place from Oct 29-31and features more than 75 speakers from the industry including Tim Bevan, Working Title development executive Amelia Granger, Ruby Films producer Paul Trijbits, TV writer Tony Jordan and Sophie Meyer, head of development at Ealing Studios.
The festival also includes a series of workshops covering script editing, how to self agent and writing for particular audiences.
Jones, who wrote and directed the 2008 short film Gone Fishing, which was shortlisted for an Oscar, is also developing a feature film called Rocket Boy. “I think I’m on the 17th draft. It’s similar to Gone Fishing in terms of tone and feel. Emotionally and creatively.”
He talks to Screen about the challenges of setting up a festival in 12 weeks and why it’s vital that the industry supports our screenwriters of tomorrow.
Why did you decide to set up the London Screenwriters festival?
I was a keynote speaker at the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival last year and when it went away, my colleague David Chamberlain and I got together and said, what Cheltenham created was so extraordinary that we couldn’t allow that to disappear.
Because we are based in London, it made sense to have it in London and we just decided to go for it.We are rising from the ashes. We have taken Cheltenham’s extraordinary groundwork and we’ve put our spin on it. There are some very different things, and it’s about being a creative person in 2010.
How long have you been working on the festival?
We’ve been working on it for about 12 weeks, so we have gone from zero to full-tilt boogie in literally no time.
What has been the response from the industry?
The most extraordinary thing has been how amazingly professional film-makers, writers, producers and agentshave completely embraced what we are trying to do. I think they really get it.
I don’t know a film-maker at any level in any field, who wouldn’t acknowledge that the most fundamentally most important thing to get right is the script.
Everybody knows that and to have an event that focuses on helping people be better at what they do, just seems to make sense to everybody.
Do you feel that there is enough training for screenwriters in the UK?
There really is a gap. I think part of the problem is that there is only a certain amount of screen time available and so many people trying to get things made, that there seems to be gap between the people who have done it and the people who are trying to get in. That is the gap we are trying to bridge.
Another problem is that writers tend to sit in their own little space and have these wonderful ideas, but are often slightly disconnected with reality.
So as much as this is a place for people to learn new tricks and pick up professional contacts, its also a chance for writers to get together and talk about nothing but scripts and movies all weekend without being looked at strangely. It’s a social gathering for likeminded people to say, look we’re all crackers, we love this thing that we do, let’s just enjoy it.
Have you had any experience running festivals before?
Not at all. But I’m fairly fearless when it comes to things like this, I’ve made independent feature films when I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and then I ended up writing the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook series when I had no training in writing a book, and through almost sheer bloody mindedness and naivity I tend to get through these things.
I’m sure we are going to experience some interesting developments throughout the festival but I also know we will get through it and we will pull it off!
How have you managed to fund the festival?
Now that the UKFC has been axed, we’ve always been aware that this being our first year, it’s a difficult time post credit crunch, there is a lot of speculation in the business, the whole industry is in complete flux.
So no one is sponsoring us. But then as filmmakers and writers, if we aren’t responsible for our future then how can we expect anyone else to take an interest in us. So the whole thing is 100% funded on ticket sales. And the tickets are selling really well.
What are some of the highlights of the festival?
We have a feature script competition, and a £5,000 treatment competition in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust.
But my personal favourite is that we are giving one writer the opportunity to submit a script of 10 pages or less, which is suitable to be filmed at the festival venue [Regent’s College]. The winning script will then be announced on the morning of the first day [Oct 29] and then handed to a professional director and crew who will immediately start shooting the film on Canon 5Ds at the festival, in the presence of the delegates. We will end up with a high quality, cinematic short film which will we edit and premiere at the close of the festival.
The point is we are not just telling people how to do it, we are actually commissioning someone’s script and making it. And then we will help them to push the film to other festivals afterwards.
Writers will get rare face to face time with industry professionals. You can pitch to professional speakers. There are going to be people who attend who will get the chance to directly pitch to Tim Bevan. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.
You also have a strand for young writers…
We have set up a young writers academy with the BFI where we are giving 10 young writers between 16 and 18 who are perhaps not able to afford a ticket, the opportunity to attend the festival and have access to some of the biggest players in the business.
Our hope is that one day, one of those kids will be picking up an award at the BAFTAs and saying thank you to the London Screenwriters’ Festival! That would be a job well done.
What happens after the festival?
It’s a unique opportunity to be part of a bigger community. We are building our social network right now because what we really want to do is keep people connected throughout the year, so they are part of a larger community and those people can self educate each other.
The brutal fact is that it costs a lot of money to mount an event for 400 people with 75 speakers, in the centre of London over three days. We don’t expect to make a profit this year, we equally don’t expect to make a loss. I think we will have a much easier ride going into 2011.
We’ve already committed to 2011 and I suspect I will be creative director, but I would love to bring other people in as well. I know there will be people with other dynamic ideas that we can bring into the fold. We want to bring as many ideas to the table as possible.