My Cinestory Contest Review

I first heard about CINESTORY several years back when I went to a screening of an indie film called Cake. The writer talked about taking the script to the Cinestory Retreat and finding support for it there. I went to their website and thought the experience sounded amazing — spending time in an idyllic setting working with professional writers on ones project, making friends and bonding, etc.

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Who wouldn’t want this?

Over the course of a few years I submitted two or three features to the Cinestory Contest (entry fee $55-$75) and never heard back, but last year, just as I’d finished a first draft of an original pilot, I saw they’d added an episodic lab for TV work, and submitted again.

This time, I was excited to get an email notifying me that I’d made the quarter finals, and more so when I got the email saying I’d made the semi-finals!

But some of the warm fuzzies cooled and floated away when I read this:

RETREAT FEES
GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Free
CATEGORY WINNERS: $1175
FINALISTS: $1600
SEMIFINALISTS: $1700

$1700??

Let’s go back and read that submission page again. Reading more carefully than I did, you’ll see that the grand prize winner gets “free tuition,” which by implications means the the other invitees… don’t. Also, if you go to their FAQ there is a statement noting that the is a cost for the retreat.

That cost, by the way, does not cover lodging or transportation. So, for me, the question became, do I have in excess of $2000 to spend in three days?

In other years, when I have been working a day job, the answer might have been yes. This year I am mostly writing, so the cost is on the high side for me. In truth, the $55 entry fee was already on the high side for me.

For me, the $2000 buys a month of food and rent, and expenses so I guess that’s like my own personal writers’ retreat?…  Except… not. Working at my desk at home is not meeting people and making connections. What if, like with the Cake, someone took a shine to my project and help shepherd it to fruition? What if someone just liked me, my writing, my work ethic, and it led to the job in or near a writers room? What if this were the opportunity  that changed my career?

I won’t ever know, because I didn’t go.

Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Once you’ve prepared, how far should you go –and how much should you spend — on the hunt for “opportunity?” for those little moments, those chance meetings that might change everything …or might change nothing?

Cinestory, by the way, is a non-profit organization. None of the mentors are paid. As noted in the FAQ, “they volunteer their time for free.” The way  they say it implies I should feel good about that, though I’m not exactly sure why I should feel good that money is just going to the organizers and not the instructors.  Isn’t that just saying that if I ever succeed in my own struggles to achieve a career and reputation in the industry then I can look forward to being asked to work for free, teaching students who are paying generously for the experience?  If you want to pick a profession  (besides writer) that gets consistently undervalued — it’s teaching!

So my review of Cinestory retreat is that it looks enticing on the website.  My review of the Cinestory contest marketing is that it feels disingenuous, despite what I’m sure are genuine good intentions on the part of the organizers.

If you are an aspiring writer with a day job and want to take a feel-good vacation that will maybe give you some inspiration, friendships, connections, you should totes submit. But if it doesn’t work out, consider using the same amount of money to take three 10-week long classes at UCLA extension, also taught by working industry writers who are being paid (albeit too little) to help you with your writing.

Writing Tip: Record Your Notes Sessions

Getting notes on a script can feel either “good” or “bad.”

“Bad” is when you are hoping for accolades, for someone to tell you it’s really close, and instead you hear that things aren’t working for the reader, they don’t understand things you thought were clear, and they have thoughts — a lot of thoughts!  In the cartoon version of your life that’s happening inside your head it’s a literal truckload of notes dumped on top of you. It’s overwhelming and it’s heavy. Like this picture — but with NOTES instead of money!

A truck dumping a load of money

It’s like this, but with notes instead of money!

“Good” is when you  know there’s some problems with your script, but by some stroke of luck, you have some folks who like it anyway because they see its potential, and hopefully they are a little bit smarter than you–or smart in different ways–and they say things that they think which makes you think things that you say and then everyone is very excited about where this can go. And while you’re all talking you start to “see” it. It’s like the visual version of having a word on the tip of your tongue — it’s not there yet, but it’s totally within your grasp and probably as soon as you get off the phone it will no doubt arrived fully formed. This is fun!

After a notes call you hang up the phone,with a sense of accomplishment — either because you’ve withstood the deluge without crying, or because you’ve held your own in a great conversation! Either way you clearly deserve to decompress by staring vacantly into the fridge for a full minute and maybe taking a stick of wrapped cheese and then wandering the apartment vaguely looking for the water glass you set down before giving up and getting a new one.

Then it’s time to get to work! You return to your computer, pumped to make this next draft the Great American Script…  and realize that the whole conversation you just had is a blur.

You don’t panic. You close your eyes and think: A few moments from the conversation come back, but now you aren’t entirely sure if you and the other person were talking about the same thing.  You remember thinking thoughts that were so profound you knew you’d never forget them, but you’ve forgotten what they were.

Shit.

Check your notebook see that you’ve got a few half sentences written down, like
“she should tell him that…” or
“maybe an element of betrayal”.

Double shit.

But wait! Now you look in the upper left corner of your computer screen, see the little Quicktime audible file and remember that you recorded the whole thing. Probably, it’s STILL recording, because you forgot you were recording. So you turn it off. You NAME the file with the project and date.

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This is great! You don’t have to admit to someone that you forgot everything they said! Plus, now you can transcribe the conversation, which at a 3-1 ratio could take three hours. Three hours of typing without having to solve any problems. Hallelujah.

And while you’re listening and typing, not only will you remember what you talked about,  but you’ll hear a bunch of stuff that you missed. Stuff people said while you were processing what somebody said before that. Tossed-off comments you thought were jokes, but now realize could be the key!

Re-listening to the notes will also help you process your emotions. However you felt during the call — good or bad — listening again will make you feel less so. If you felt good — hearing yourself talk will make you feel less brilliant, for sure. But if it was bad, you might find it wasn’t as bad as you thought. And putting it on paper will give you some distance, which — at least for me — is a better, more sustainable place from which to start a re-write.

The Hollywood “No”

Last week, I went to a presentation where a speaker mentioned  that rejection imprints more deeply in the female brain than the male brain. I thought this was pretty interesting, so looked online for details but failed to find any article to corroborating this, although I don’t disbelieve her. In any case, it got me thinking about rejection.

Generally I don’t need to  consciously think about rejection because it has become such an integral a part of my life.  I have a kind of “unaware awareness” of it that is constant, but not always identifiable as an irritant. It’s like after you get used to a heavy purse, a funky hip joint, or the fact that Trump is president. After awhile, you kind of forget about it until you watch a news clip, try the wrong yoga pose, or finally clean out your purse and realize you’ve been carrying THREE full water bottles it it. It takes moments of increased or decreased pain intensity to remind you that “oh yeah, that pain has been there.” 

Currently, I have a short story out to a few literary journals. Last week I received the first “thanks, but no thanks” from one of them. We can assume that perhaps someone else is actually reading my story and rejecting it right now, as I write this.

This is actually my favorite type of rejection — a direct rejection, in writing.  

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how for a long time, he collected all of his rejection notes on a nail, until the nail got too full, and he had to replace it with a long spike.  When I first read that I found it inspiring to think of rejection letters are kind of a badge of honor — evidence that you have been to battle and survived.  I’ve not done anything so romantic as hammer a spike into my landlord’s wall, and with changing times my rejections are often delivered via email… so instead I keep an excel spreadsheet with my rejections. I also enter my occasional acceptances, and then I color code them so I can see what the proportion looks like. 

The spreadsheet has been helpful in another way — it helps me see rejection more like men are trained to see it — as a numbers game.  I can see patterns — that for every ten or twelve submissions to journals, I’ll get one acceptance. I will never forget congratulating a friend for having an essay published in The Atlantic. It was an honorable mention for a writing contest they held. She told me she had submitted it sixty times. It was rejected fifty-odd times before it placed in a prestigious contest.

What is missing from my spreadsheet however, are the less obvious rejections — the “Hollywood” rejections. This is probably because when I started the spreadsheet, I didn’t have the skills and experience to recognize them.

But then a couple of years ago, I bought Stephanie Palmer’s Good In a Room and found a really excellent breakdown of rejection, Hollywood-style.  By the time I read it I had been around long enough that I was starting to “get it,” but by no means was it a natural transition for me. Coming from the straight-forward Midwest, learning to decipher a “Hollywood no” was kind of like an Asberger’s kid having to look at flashcards of faces to decipher different emotions.  When I first got to Los Angeles, I sent a script an agent’s assistant.  She told me she “liked it, but didn’t love it,” and I thought, “Awesome. She liked it!”

Yeah…no. 

Recently, talking to a friend who is newer to the writing game, I found myself trying to break it to her that the super-complimentary email she’d received from one contact about a script, and the other friend who just hadn’t gotten back to her yet were in fact…rejections.  The conversation didn’t go super well. Maybe I should have just shared the section of the book I am about to share here.  Or… maybe, I should have just kept my mouth shut.  This, too is the Hollywood way: Time is the greatest teacher, let it deliver the unpleasant news. You don’t need to. 

But, to save you a couple years of figuring things out, I will herein share from Good in a Room*:

“No” Is Silence Over Time

Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher wrote this in a recent article (crediting Merill Markoe):

“In Hollywood, ‘no’ is silence over time. The way you find out you’re not getting the job, that they passed, that they didn’t respond to the material, that they’re going a different direction, is silence. It’s the call you don’t get.” (via Huffington Post)

Other forms of “silence over time”:

  • If you can’t get an in-person meeting at all.
  • If your emails don’t get returned in one week.
  • If your calls don’t get returned in two weeks.
  • If your script has been passed along (to a star, director, or producer), and you haven’t heard back in a month.

If you pitch to a decision-maker and they want to be in business with you, they will get in touch as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard back, the answer (almost always) is “No.”

Unless They Pay You, The Answer Is “No”

That’s the title of John August’s Scriptnotes Episode 71. John’s screenwriter co-host, Craig Mazin, elaborates:

“Unless there’s money, the answer is no. Isn’t that terrible? And it’s so unfortunate because there’s thousands and thousands — so many wonderful, creative ways for people to say no to you. And so many of them sound like yes, which is horrifying really to contemplate, but it’s human nature. Nobody really likes saying no to somebody. Nobody wants to be mean. No one wants to see that look reflected back to them.” If you’re not getting any money, the answer is probably “No.”

“No” Often Starts With A Compliment

When people in Hollywood say “No,” the medicine is typically accompanied by a spoonful of sugar. Examples include:

  • “This has a lot of potential…”
  • “This is a great piece of writing…”
  • “I love the main characters…”
  • “This is hilarious…”
  • “We love it…”

If you’re getting compliments like this, they can be true, but don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of these compliments translate to: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you….”

“No” Usually Ends With An Excuse

After the compliment you get the excuse:

  • “… but isn’t the right fit for us.”
  • “… but we are overbudget.”
  • “… but it would be too expensive.”
  • “… but we have another project that is too similar.”

If you’re hearing reasons like these, don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of the reasons translate to: “…but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

“No” = Compliment + Excuse

Most of the time when you’re getting compliments on your writing followed by an excuse about why you’re not getting any money, the actual compliments and excuses are not the truth. The truth is that they are saying: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you, but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

This is a hard thing to hear because we want to believe that the compliment is real because that’s something to feel good about. We want to believe that the excuse is real because it lets us save face. The thing to understand is that if your work was good enough, you’d at least get a “Maybe.”

This last one, by the way, is my favorite, because I love that it’s an equation: Compliment+Excuse=No. 

 

Some other random articles about rejection.

10 Surprising Facts About Rejection

Get Rejected More, You’re Not Doing it Enough

Character Need: What they don’t know that you do…

Warning: This is going to be a craft post, likely boring for non-screenwriting nerds.

I’m reading a new book by Yves Lavadier called Constructing a Story, and I’m reading about character arcs.  One thing that we talk about in drama is character want versus character need.  The want tends to be a tangible, external, and a conscious goal–to complete the mission, rescue the kid, win the girl, etc. The need tends to be internal, and unconscious–some kind of step toward growth that the character needs to take–like coming to terms with the past, letting go of judgement or rigid expectations, opening his heart.

Separate from that, there is a narrative tool called dramatic irony which is when the storyteller reveals information in such a way that the audience has information before the character does in order to create  suspense. The audience is waiting for the character’s knowledge to catch up with our own.  Like we know that there’s a dangerous intruder in our heroine’s apartment. She comes home and starts making dinner–unaware of the danger.  It creates a specific kind of emotional engagement.

Mr. Lavandier points out that once the audience picks up on the character’s need– it elicits a question in our minds. Will the character learn what we already know in order to emotionally grow? He notes that this is, in fact, a situation of dramatic irony.

This was eye-opening for me, because, although it’s completely logical, I’d never thought about waiting for character change in as a form of suspense, suspense that could be for an entire act or maybe more..  The audience knows something and is waiting for the character to catch up to that knowledge, for her unconscious to become conscious.

In life we do the same thing, kind of, but it’s less satisfying. We have friends or relatives with issues that seem obvious to us, but which said person cannot see, and we talk with or other friends or family members, about how it would be better if they could see.  In life though,  person generally don’t change that much, so after awhile, there’s not so much suspense. I suspect there are probably people waiting in vain for me to make certain discoveries in my life. They should probably go to the movies, which will be more satisfying, because in constructed fictional narratives,  people change.

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