Report from the Fourth Annual Screenwriters Festival: Cheltenham, UK
by Andrew Horton
What do Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), Doug Chamberlin (Toy Story 2), Bob Barker (four Wallace & Gromit films), Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain), Lee Hall (Billy Eliot), and Catherine Johnson (Mama Mia) have in common? Of course, they're all talented screenwriters; but between October 26th-29th, 2009, all six participated in the fourth annual Screenwriters Festival in Cheltenham, England.
Over 450 participants, and more than 40 speakers, participated in this year's festival which was held on the campus of Cheltenham's Ladies College: a charming and relaxed venue for screenwriters from Great Britain and all over the world.
Consider how rare a phenomenon this sort of script festival is. Yes, we can name some business-minded, "pitch-centered" conferences in Santa Fe; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and a few other locations. But the Cheltenham Festival is a unique script-related gathering, in my experience, because of its primary concern with screenwriting and screenwriters in and of themselves. This year, I was particularly happy to see that speakers and participants covered the whole industry spectrum: from feature, short film, and television writers to internet, YouTube, and blog film developers to extremely low-budget, independent filmmakers.
I was greatly impressed, for instance, by Marc Price, who completed his well-shot and edited feature horror film Colin (2009) in his native Wales for a total budget of about $80!
Why does Cheltenham make a great festival location? Not only is it a small, beautiful spa city near Wales that participants can easily reach by train from London. It's also the site of a growing film and television studio network. Films shot in Cheltenham include Bridget Jones' Diary, Harry Potter, Amazing Grace, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Doctor Who, and The Libertine which starred Johnny Depp and John Malkovich who both, apparently, loved the area.
I encourage screenwriters everywhere to check out screenwritersfestival.com (Cheltenham, 2009) to review a complete line-up of speakers and participating organizations. This list includes the BBC and Channel 4 TV and a wide variety of companies such as CITV, Granada Television, Eye Film, ITV, HBO, Palace Pictures, Film & Music Entertainment, Working Title, Focus Films, Free Range Films, New Line Cinema, Fine Line, and Ealing Studios among others.
Kudos are due the organizers and board members who've successfully fostered the amazing growth of this festival. Hats off especially to David Pearson, festival director; film producer Kevin Loader, who is chair of the festival board; and board members such as Phil Parker. Special thanks also to Kenny MacDonald too who, as festival coordinator, was always online, on the phone, and in-person making sure everyone was able to make the most of this terrific gathering.
I would encourage American and other "non-British" screenwriters, and even producer/directors, to consider attending the 2010 Cheltenham Festival. Not only will participants enjoy being in such a beautiful location, the festival gives American screenwriters, in particular, a means of reaching beyond our own screenwriting bubble and gaining exposure to developments happening "out there." The Cheltenham Festival is a major player in the sort of "global screenwriting" culture I've written about for years.
I currently have scripts that I've written, or co-written, in pre-production in New Zealand, Greece, Norway, and the United States, and my professional message remains, as it has been for some time, for screenwriters to learn from script projects that are being successfully completed around the world on non-Hollywood budgets.
Feature filmmaking is never easy. But I see an emerging trend wherein independent productions involve international writing, conception, production, and/or exhibition and distribution efforts without the participation of Hollywood or other large international studios. My message, therefore, is simple: "Don't be afraid to make the film you want to make, and don't worry about huge budgets or what will 'sell.'" There are so many ways to get your film made by crossing borders. How else can one explain the success of so many independent films, including The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000), No Man's Land (Bosnia 2001), Whale Rider (New Zealand 2003), Water (India 2005), Little Miss Sunshine (USA 2007), Once (Ireland 2007), and The Band's Visit (Israel 2007)?
My presentation at the Cheltenham Festival focused on six films made by filmmakers I know personally, and whom I've helped, including Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader (Taking the Waewae Express 2007), Sterlin Harjo (Four Sheets to the Wind 2006), and Gena Ellis (screenwriter, Angela's Decision 2007). I also discussed the script I wrote with Russell Campbell of Victoria University ten years ago. Make a Joyful Noise (in pre-production) is a dramatic comedy about a black New Orleans jazz band family that winds up on an Otago sheep station once the Russian cruise ship they're on crashes. The film will be produced by a new company: Inspire Films of Wellington, New Zealand.
I was personally touched that so many of those who attended my presentation are already in touch with me about their projects and encouraged by my suggestion to simply, "Get your script made" without worrying about big budgets, major studios, and years of waiting for replies.