Idyllwild, California feels separated from the rest of the world. The little mountain town of 4,000 is nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s quiet. It’s clean. What air there is at the mile-high elevation is fresh and clear. For reasons I cannot guess (given the size of the town and the fact that it’s 2014), Idyllwild offers more than one place to rent movies.
Maybe Idyllwild has some strong movie mojo, because the tiny town, two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, hosts the annual CineStory screenwriting retreat. (Two and a half hours can turn into six if you’re unfamiliar with L.A. traffic. That’s not a hypothetical figure – leave early in the day.)
CineStory is a nonprofit organization that aims to nurture new screenwriting talent through its annual retreat and fellowship. The retreat unfolds as a mix of panels, one-on-one sessions, and meals. Meals may seem an odd inclusion in that list, but the schedule allocates plenty of time for lunch and dinner socializing. The mentors – all industry professionals who donate their time – eat with the writers (that’s you – your CineStory badge has “WRITER” printed right below your name. The badge is a handy reminder for those moments when you doubt you could ever possibly be a writer – just check your badge! I still check mine from time to time.). Meals are a chance to talk shop in a laid back setting with people who know what they’re talking about. For me, this was an education in itself – getting a sense of how professionals talk about their own projects, the industry, and how one works within the other. It’s also one of the ways CineStory builds an extraordinary sense of community during the short four days of the retreat.
The panels cover a lot of different topics, from how to get a manager to sign you (the panelists in this case are working managers) to what producers look for in a script (with, yes, actual producers). A few panels blur the line between presentation and workshop. One session focused on crafting a great logline, and the writers all had a chance to present our loglines for critique by the panelists. Two sessions are devoted to writers pitching to mentors as if they’re in a meeting with studio executives. The mentors then conduct an “after meeting,” in which they talk about the pitch and the writer as executives would after the writer has left the room.
You’re assigned three ninety-minute meetings with mentors for one-on-one sessions. Each mentor has read your script before the meeting. I received several pieces of game-changing feedback. One example: I found out that my story, about a sixteen-year-old kid on a mission to rescue his dad, was straddling the line between a PG and PG-13 rating. In PG-13 movies released in the last five years, parents are almost always absent from the main story line. Guardians of the Galaxy? Mom dies, Dad missing. Hunger Games? Dad dead, Mom incapacitated by grief. The prevailing wisdom is that a PG-13 audience doesn’t want to see a movie about kids and their parents. They want stories in which the kids face challenges on their own.
I had time (meals!) to bounce that advice off several mentors during the retreat and almost everyone agreed. The lone standout said this may be true, but that his recommendation was for me to write whatever story I’m passionate about, regardless of the market. Since my passion for the story didn’t hinge on the dad rescue, I changed it.
My big takeaways:
- A better understanding of the movie business. Especially the way in which each script has to be considered for a very specific spot in the market.
- How to shift my story’s plot and theme to give it a better chance of finding a home in that market.
- New friends. Everyone at CineStory loves movies. Everyone there either is a writer or appreciates writers and the fact that – as writers – we alone have the ability to begin the process that results in a movie. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that an amazing sense of connection and camaraderie develops among the writers, mentors, and organizers.
I highly recommend CineStory. Remember to get out of L.A. ahead of traffic, then you’ll have time to enjoy the drive, walk around Idyllwild, and kick back with a rented DVD before the real fun begins.
You can find more information about CineStory at their website, http://www.cinestory.org.