Screenwriters Hook Up With Hollywood at San Jose Cinequest

Hammer Theater Center, San Jose CA, Photo by Eva Barrows
Hammer Theater Center, San Jose CA, Photo by Eva Barrows

Cinequest’s ad on the Visit San Jose website flashed at me as I was cruising upcoming city events. I clicked over to Cinequest’s site and found that the 13 day film festival just began, running from February 28 to March 12. The festival will honor actors Jane Lynch and Fred Armisen for their bodies of work and screen 100 feature films, 150 short films, and virtual reality films in San Jose and Redwood City. During my internet search I discovered that the film festival was hosting a one day “Writers Celebration” for the budding screenwriter. I was lucky enough to find out in time and attended this past Sunday.

The Writers Celebration kicked off at the San Jose State University campus with two panels of entertainment industry insiders. The first session was a how to pitch and pitch challenge with movie and television talent agents. The winners of Cinequest’s screenwriting competitions pitched their story ideas in front of the agents and audience. Some presenters had flair and kept the early morning crowd’s attention while others went long losing momentum. The panel advised writers to stick to the main character’s story line in a pitch and highlight how the secondary story lines propel the main story. They also encouraged writers to be concise and use action to keep the audience engaged.

The second act of the Writers Celebration was dedicated to discussing the business side of getting into the entertainment industry. The four person panel included Carol Leifer, standup comedian and television show comedy writer. Carol wrote for the television show Seinfeld where she pitched story lines for the character Elaine. Carol advised that women are needed in the writers room because men can’t tap into issues that women face: such as “skinny mirrors” (where department stores create optical illusions) and Korean manicurists that speak about you to their co-workers in front of your face. Carol carries a notebook around with her at all times to get these funny observations documented. Since her reminder, I’ve jotted a few gems down myself in my “funny file.”

Cinequest Banner, Photo by Eva Barrows
Cinequest Banner, Photo by Eva Barrows

The other members of the panel work in acquisition for production companies, Sierra Affinity (Entertainment One) and Grindstone Entertainment Group (Lionsgate). They named a few film and screenwriting competitions their companies scout for new projects: Sundance, Nicholl Fellowship, UCLA and SXSW. They also troll script rating systems, Blacklist, Script Pipeline and Ink Tip. The panelists advise that when a project is submitted to them they pay attention to catchy email titles and intriguing loglines, and if those aren’t there they don’t read the query.

The finale of the Writers Celebration festivities was a recognition ceremony at the San Jose Hammer Theater Center for the Cinequest screenwriting competition winners. Approximately forty screen writers filled the stage with ten writers in four categories: full length feature, short film, 60 and 30 minute teleplays. Some of the winners got to pitch their log lines to the audience and the audience voted for their favorites.

The Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award was given to accomplished director and screenwriter Jason Reitman. The award celebrates Reitman’s bold story telling choices in his work. Being the son of a successful director, it was important to Reitman’s to find his own path. When he started making movies he entered them in film festivals and caught industry attention. Reitman’s experience with film festivals illustrates that they are a great place to gain exposure and recognition.

The cost of attending the Writers Celebration at Cinequest, a mere twenty five dollars was well spent. I left inspired to keep up my “funny file” and look for outlets and opportunities for my own screenwriting. I will definitely keep Cinequest on my radar for further exploration next year.

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