Screenwriters Part 1: Are Script Expos, Coverage Services & Pitchfests Scams?

David Konow contributes to Deadline.

With the Writers Guilds West and East tonight presenting their awards to last year’s most respected practitioners of the craft, it’s a perfect occasion for Deadline to examine the cottage industry of screenwriting conventions, expos, coverage services, and pitchfests. They’re supposed to help writers learn their craft and get their scripts out into the world. It goes without saying that this is a hot button issue in Hollywood. “Those who can’t write, teach seminars.” That’s what John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride posted on his website under the category of ‘So-Called Experts’. As he further elaborates to Deadline, “Most seminars feel like scams, and pitchfests give me nightmares. I don’t know any movies that have come out of them. The important thing to remember is that pitching only means something when the person hearing your pitch already thinks you’re a good writer.”

Yes, the business of screenwriting will always attract shysters willing to prey on people with a dollar and a dream. Yes, there are many people who talk a similar rhetoric about ‘paradigms’ and ‘character arcs’ so it all feels like a con or cult built around scripting for showbiz. But some people must find it all useful, right?

Though it’s not clear when the industry around screenwriting may have started, but some feel it grew exponentially in the late 1980s after the Writers Strike. “The industry pipelines were dry and million dollar spec sales were the order of the day,” recalls Den Shewman, former editor in chief of Creative Screenwriting. “I still remember agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson having some kind of uber sale competition, each scoring a million dollar spec sale a month.” Not to mention the big script paydays Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas which became the stuff of wannabe movie writers’ dreams. As recently as last fall, the well-known Black List launched a pay service for unrepresented screenwriters to have their work analyzed by industry professionals. Its first over-the-transom success story wasn’t: the scripter Justin Kremer (McCarthy) had previously been an intern there. On the other hand, Kremer had uploaded his script to the site and paid for a single read. When the screenplay got a high score, it was included in the site’s weekly member email spotlighting the highest rated scripts. After dozens of downloads from Black List industry members and more ratings from those who read it, McCarthy became the site’s highest-rated uploaded script. That’s when Kremer, who’d gone to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and graduated from the Dramatic Writing Conservatory at the State University of New York/Purchase, was signed by CAA.

It goes without saying to let the buyer beware when looking for a pitchfest, coverage company, or screenwriting teacher. “There were a lot of people in early 2000, even now, who decided to hang up a shingle and call themselves an expert,” warns Jim Cirile of the script coverage company Coverage Ink. “There’s 87 coverage companies out there right now. How many of them are run by people who’ve had a studio deal or have sold anything? How many of them are run by some college kid who figures he can make a couple of extra bucks by reading a screenplay?” InkTip’s Gato Scatena adds, “Before we allow someone to come in and teach at our seminars, we do vet them out and call referrals.”

It’s believed that pitchfests, where you meet face to face with industry professionals and try to sell your idea, started back in 1996 with the Writer’s Network. The argument for pitchfests is the supposed access you get to people who can potentially sign you or buy you. “It’s one thing to send out query letters. It’s another thing to literally get in an executive’s face and try to sell them on yourself,” says Cirile. “It’s a really fast way of opening some doors for yourself, and you get an unprecedented level of access.”

“Screenwriting is one art form. Getting out there and networking is a completely different art form,” says Gato Scatena, VP of Marketing at InkTip, a networking and pitching company. “Learning how to pitch, learning how to be comfortable in front of strangers, all of these things are important. It’s good to meet other screenwriters, it’s good to meet other executives, it’s good to meet assistants.”

Erik Bauer, who founded Creative Screenwriting Magazine, says the access you get to industry people at a pitchfest “would be very difficult for writers to arrange on their own. And some writers and filmmakers make good use of that access, showing trailers for their movies, and making contacts that helped them in their careers.”

Jack Epps Jr., who wrote Top Gun and Dick Tracy with the late Jim Cash, and who also teaches screenwriting at USC, says, “The expos that are well run bring in really good people, and it allows a very wide range of the public to take screenwriting classes. And for the cost, the access is pretty good.”

So those are the pros. But the first con is the costs, which can be $200-$500 a weekend and more if you’re traveling in from out of town. The second con is that pitchfests rarely produce made movies or even films in development. “I don’t think there’s been any big spec sales that’s come from any of these that I’m aware of,” says Cirile. “What happens more often is you make connections that help down the line.”

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