A Decade's Worth of Lessons

Posted by Signe Olynyk
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest post comes from screenwriter, founder of The Great American PitchFest, and one of the hardest working people anywhere on the planet, my friend, Signe Olynyk.

As The Great American PitchFest enters its 10th year, Signe has taken a moment to look back and reflect on the people who have helped not only make the enterprise a success, but assisted in making her a better screenwriter.

I love this blog. I absolutely love every heartfelt word. And I learned a great deal along the way.

I hope you do as well.



PS - Please see the close of the blog for an exclusive offer to all Stage 32 members for GAPF's exclusive, all encompassing screenwriting seminar, Your Career in a Day.

Ten years. That's how long I have been running the Great American PitchFest (GAPF) and Screenwriting Conference. Many people do not know that I started the event in Canada, before expanding it into Los Angeles and most recently, London. That makes a grand total of 14 events in a decade.

I am one of the luckiest people I know. During this time, we have been welcomed into a community of screenwriters with more than 2,000 people coming out to our event each year. Time and time again, established screenwriters and special guests have generously donated their time to speak to aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers, never hesitating to share their wisdom with others. Most of our classes are free. Some of our bigger workshops have a small fee. All of them are excellent.

I started this event because I wanted to make a difference to the lives of other writers, their careers, and the screenwriting dreams that we all share. I have written and produced my own feature film, with a second one (written by my brilliant producing partner, Bob Schultz) going into production next month. And I have met some of the most talented, generous, and fascinating people I've ever known as a result of this event. I am very fortunate to call many of them close friends. Happy anniversary indeed!

It is a tradition of mine to write 'thank you' notes on my birthday to friends and family who helped to make my life the amazing ride that it is. As I remember the past ten years, I feel compelled to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned from many of the excellent speakers and special guests we have had over the years.

Thank you to Pilar Alessandra, who came to support the very first Great Canadian PitchFest by helping writers learn how to hone their scripts and pitch to the industry. Pilar taught me that pitching can be as simple as filling out a 'fill in the blank easy to pitch' template, to build confidence and take the nerves out of pitching. She explained that the simplest pitch is just a story about a hero character with a specific goal, who overcomes the obstacles in their way - just like all of us. She taught me that when describing characters, to write about their 'essence' instead of their physicality. 'Chubby man' becomes 'never met a jelly donut he didn't like'. 'Paint pictures with select, hand-picked words, and your scripts crackle with interest.

Karl Iglesias taught how to make my script leap off the page, by using visual power words that have sounds. Words like 'smacks', 'booms', 'bursts' or 'smashes'. 'A car drives by' is improved with 'A red Ferrari blasts by, boombox blaring.' Use present tense to give more energy to the read.

Shane Black taught me to back my characters into corners, and make them fight for their lives, or for someone they care about. He once described a scene he saw where one of Charlie's Angels was tied up, and her captors tossed cards into a hat while she chewed through her ropes. No. Threaten her. Increase the jeopardy, and do it every moment you can. Tie Geena Davis to a giant spinning wheel that splashes through the water, and nearly drown her. Have her struggle to untie her hands. Strain to reach the gun. A true do or die moment, where she has to save herself and defeat the bad guys. When you want to show your characters growing closer, have them touch, even if it is inadvertently. And as you climb the ladder that is your career, reach down to pull those up with you as much as you reach up for a hand. That's how you build a career. And even if you can't live in a 'pad of guys', find like minded people who will support you, but make sure they think differently enough to challenge you.

Stephanie Palmer, thank you for confirming the importance of making sure the relationships I develop with others are 'real' and meaningful. It's easy to meet a lot of people, but sharing with others and putting yourself out there is the only way to truly develop relationships with others. Invest in real relationships and get to know others by giving of yourself. Don't ask what they can do for you. Give to others first, and you'll be amazed how much you receive in return.

Mark Stolaroff, thank you for the gift of the lessons you share in your 'No Budget Film School'. I made a low budget film because of what I learned from you. Among other things, I learned to look for the 'movie worthy' resources in my own life that I could weave into a script and shoot on a limited budget. I learned to hire people who were looking for 'step up' positions who could contribute resources in exchange for opportunity, and to make the first ten minutes of a film as exceptional as possible because that's as much as many distributors will ever see before making a purchase decision.

Pen Densham, you rode an alligator, and you believe in the possibility of others. You are always encouraging and speak directly to people's hearts with your words. You tell about dropping out of high school and how 'if you can make it in this business, anyone can'. I don't believe that to be true. But you've taught me that when someone else believes in you, anything is possible. You inspire me. And someday, I want you to show me that alligator trick.

Julie Gray, you taught me that we live in the future and that we can write movies from anywhere. That no matter what heartaches and challenges we face, writers can deal with anything if they just keep writing. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. What matters is what you know to be true in your heart.

Gary Shusett, you gave me advice once that if you want to get to know someone, find photos of them, and then find a way to get to know the people who they are with. You are dogged, and persistent. You pick up the phone and are not afraid to ask for what you want. I learned that if you ask often enough, sometimes you even get it.

Jerrol LeBaron, you taught me not everyone has the same interests at heart in the screenwriting community that we all share. There are people out there who will steal your ideas. I have learned from you that sometimes you have to watch your back. That there are those will plagiarize the hard and sincere work that others do for their own community, and then attack them without provocation with information that is knowingly inaccurate and false.

From Luke Ryan, I have learned that the opportunities for writers have grown more than ever. It's not just about being a screenwriter any more - it's about creating a 'world' for your story that can brand itself as a comic book, a webisode series, a feature film, and dozens of other platforms to reach audiences in ways never seen before. Build your audiences from the beginning by finding followers and supporters who believe in your work. Involve them in the entire process, from Kickstarter campaign through production, and then follow through with fulfillment. If your audience is there and you are smart and prepared about how to reach them, you can find each other. Being a writer today means much more than it did five years ago, or even six months ago. You must also be prepared to be a producer, a filmmaker, and whatever else it takes to see your work realized. Above all, you must become an entrepreneur.

For Haley, Dylan, and Jordan, I thank you for helping me to see that my best work sometimes happens when I am doing nothing at all. To be a great writer, you must live. To write great stories, learn your craft to the best of your ability, but don't forget how to play. It is only by having as many experiences as possible that we can grow and become 'more'.

Drew Yanno, you taught me how to focus on my 'third act' and by doing so, I can't help but strengthen the first and second acts. I learned that figuring out my ending is often a better way to start.

Kathie 'The Fonger' Yoneda, has taught me in her gentle way, that to write roles that A-list actors want to play, you want to try and personalize moments within your script to appeal to the actor you are trying to attract. Want John Travolta? Research him to discover he enjoys piloting small aircraft. Consider attributing that trait to the character in your script to draw potential interest.

Michael Hauge, you taught me how to write characters that are relatable. By creating protagonists that are funny, likeable or respected by others, or by creating sympathy, audiences will identify with that character and want to follow them until the end.

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, everything I learned about Twitter, I learned from you. I still don't get why anyone cares about that time I put pretzels, Nutella, and peanut butter on a bagel (it was delicious!), but I respect that they do. I learned that connecting directly with my audience and my community is empowering and enriching. My writing and the PitchFest has developed mightily through the ability to connect directly with others, and I have you to thank for showing me the tools available.

Viki King, you taught that a screenplay can be written in 28 days, and a reasonably decent one at that. You taught me I should ask a question on page 3 that I answer on page 85. And that it should be a question that I personally need to explore. Hopefully by the time the script is complete, I will have been changed as much as my characters.

Linda Seger, you taught that the reason why writers need to avoid writing stereotypes is because it doesn't elevate anyone's writing, or life. Create unique, interesting characters who audiences haven't seen before. We've all had crackers before. Give us crackers with Nutella, peanut butter, pretzels, and well, more Nutella. That's something to get excited about. It's the same way with characters.

From Ruth Atkinson, I learned that the reason audiences go on journeys with the characters we create is because they want to experience change through the eyes of others. Characters need to change as the story progresses. They need to be different at the end of the story than they were when it started, and often, the complete opposite.

Pamela Jaye Smith, you taught me that 'shades of gray' are often more interesting than characters who are all 'good' or 'bad'. That sometimes our antagonists are driven by evil, but aren't necessarily evil. When you put them on an oily hill coated in evil and give them a little push, the hellish slide down can be a fascinating ride. I've learned that the dark side can bring amazing richness to my characters, both protagonists and antagonists.

Heather Hale, you are the queen of networking. There is hardly anyone I meet who hasn't crossed paths with you. You taught our writers the art of conversation. You ask a question. They respond. You listen and respond to reflect that. Then it is their turn. Small talk is a dance, and both partners need to participate. Some are better dancers than others. From you, I learned how important it is to 'make relationships before you need them'. You never know who you might meet today who could influence your career tomorrow.

Carole Kirschner, you are a more recent addition to our journey, and you make yourself so approachable to others. From you, I have learned how approachable a studio exec can be. I've learned every exec really is hoping my script is amazing, and that I am a good match for their needs. If we have worked hard to master our craft, written great material, and if we are decent 'real' people to work with, there are opportunities. We need to have confidence in our work, our abilities, and not be afraid to ask for the opportunities we want.

Ellen Sandler, you have mentored a number of the writers you have met at GAPF, and you even produced a webisode series and a couple other projects with others. You are a writer's best friend, and you lift the curtain and let writers have a peek at the mysterious inner workings of a TV Writer's Room. From the lessons you shared as Co-Executive Producer on 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and your experience mentoring other writers and producers, I've learned that 'Everybody Loves Ellen'. For good reason.

Richard Botto, you came out last year for the first time and I'm thrilled that you will once again be joining us. You know how to build a community, and that is reflected in the thousands of writers who are part of the magnificent and global Stage 32 network. Thank you for all you do for the community, and for providing a forum for love letters such as this so I can thank so many, and share some of the lessons I've learned from them all.

And of course, as in any decade-long journey, we have lost some dear friends along the way:

Ray Bradbury, you taught me to 'get a day job in an art gallery' or somewhere that doesn't leave me so exhausted that I am unable to write at the end of the day. When you are a writer, you have no choice in the matter. You must write, and do what you must do. But even when you are waiting for your muse to speak to you, show up. Sit at the computer and do the hard work of developing your craft so that the muse knows where to find you, and so you know what to do when she appears. And then just do what you have to and keep up with the voices in your head.

Blake Snyder, you changed the industry by redefining genre, and giving us a new guide for structure. You taught me to handle my exposition with fascinating 'Pope in A Pool' type scenes to make my stories more interesting and digestible. And to really look hard at the point of each scene to make sure the exposition was even necessary. Or the dialogue, for that matter. You taught me that my characters must face 'the point of no return' and commit further to their goals, with increasing stakes at each turning point. You also taught me how important it is to experience today. There is no guarantee of a tomorrow.

Ray and Blake, our community is diminished by your loss, but the immortality you have achieved through your writing and your lessons to others serves to inspire us, and gives us tools to inspire the next generation of writers who follow us. That is a debt that can never be repaid, except by living up to the example you have offered us.

To those I may have missed, please forgive me. We have had hundreds of exceptional speakers over the years. You have all been mentors in my own professional development, many of you without even knowing it. I also thank all of our partners over the past decade. I thank you all for your commitment to helping others and elevating the craft of screenwriting overall.

To the executives who give up a weekend each year to make themselves available to new writers at our event, thank you for being such an important part of the community. As writers, we all want someone to give us a chance, and that's what you do by participating at GAPF. To the execs who have optioned scripts from our new writers, hired them for writing assignments, or signed writers for representation, thank you for being open to new writing talent. There are a lot of us out there, and we are working hard to create great work.

To all our volunteers, I thank you for making the GAPF feel more like a family reunion each year than the massive undertaking that it is. This event really is a labor of love for everyone involved. I have met some tremendous people through GAPF - talented writers who also believe in the community we are building, and in what we are all trying to achieve. For giving of yourselves and helping to support others to reach their own screenwriting dreams, I thank you for showing me that the impossible really can be done, year after year.

And most of all, thank you to Bob Schultz. Bob is my best friend and he has been at my side for every GAPF, except for the very first Great Canadian PitchFest when we hadn't met yet. He showed me when my script was a BOSH (Bunch of 'Stuff' Happening) and how to fix it. From Bob, I have learned to appreciate the method of 'dirty headlights' writing - when you write without an outline, following your characters around until they do something interesting. Writing makes my heart sing. So does Bob. (And, well, lizards and baby seals, too.) Thank you, Bob. For everything you do. And often, for what you don't!

And to those who come out to participate each year, thank you for making the Great American PitchFest & Screenwriting Conference the very special event that it has become. I also hope you will share some of the lessons you have learned over the years in the comments section below.

Signe is available for questions and remarks in the Comments Section below.

I am happy to announce that Stage 32 has secured a $10 discount for the Great American Pitchfest's exclusive, all encompassing seminar, Your Career in a Day. 15 speakers, 9 hours, a lifetime of information.

I will be speaking at the event and very much look forward to meeting all attending Stage 32 members face to face.

Your Career in a Day takes place Saturday, June 1st from 9am to 6pm at the Burbank Marriott. Please click here for more details: The Great American PitchFest Presents Your Career in a Day

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