Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab - What I Learned in My 1st Lab

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab - What I Learned in My 1st Lab

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab - What I Learned in My 1st Lab

Anu Sukhdial
Anu Sukhdial
a year ago

I jumped head first into the world of screenwriting about a year ago after completing the one-year UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting (100% online which was convenient for me because I don’t live in LA!). With a decent draft of my first script in hand, I wondered: what next? Like most beginning screenwriters, I submitted it to the major screenwriting contests (Nicholl, PAGE, ScreenCraft etc. etc), hoping to get some traction. Which I did. And didn’t. And then I started doing some research into screenwriting labs.

Think of these labs as small-sized retreats where you can amp up your writing and expand your industry knowledge with the support/guidance of AMAZINGLY accomplished and talented writers/filmmakers. The lab is a community in the best sense of the word. They can last anywhere from a few days (Athena Virtual Writer’s Lab) to a week (Sundance Screenwriting Lab), or even up to two weeks (Film Independent Screenwriting Lab).

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab  What I Learned in My 1st Lab

WHAT IS THE RIGHT LAB FOR ME?

Some screenwriting labs cater to specific demographic groups (for example, The Writer’s Lab caters to women over 40), while others are linked to film festivals (e.g. Screenwriters Lab at the Hamptons International Film Festival). Regardless of which Lab you decide to apply to, ask the following: Who will be leading the Lab, and what is their background? What is the Lab’s primary focus? To give you notes/feedback on your script? To help you meet industry insiders? Both? Will the interactions with industry insiders be 1:1 and/or part of larger group or panel discussions? WHO are the Lab mentors you will be closely working with? All of this information should be forthcoming to all prospective applicants.

I chose the Athena Writer’s Lab (associated with the Athena Film Festival – a joint partnership between Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership and the “Women and Hollywood” initiative) primarily because they select scripts that “have a woman (girl) or women character(s) in leadership role(s) or position(s).” As my script is a corporate drama about a female tech executive, I thought it would be a good fit. Plus, I had heard great things about the founders/leaders of the Lab from a screenwriting instructor, including the fact that they work hard to make sure the Lab is very well organized and runs smoothly over the course of its two days…which as it turns out was absolutely true.

THE APPLICATION PROCESS – IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T GET IN…

Don’t worry if you don’t get in the first time. These labs are highly competitive, and only accept a handful of writers. I applied last year to Athena, got rejected, but then used script feedback from screenwriting contests to completely overhaul my rough draft. And I submitted again this year, and was accepted.

So, first lesson learned: make sure to put your very best foot forward in the application process. Not perfect (because you will have the opportunity to get feedback/notes in the lab), but your very best draft. Persist.

And don’t ignore the other parts of the application that may be required like a bio, an artist statement, or a synopsis of your story. Each piece of the application is important to give the Lab organizers/leaders a comprehensive picture of you as a writer, your voice, and what you can contribute to the overall Lab experience.

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab  What I Learned in My 1st Lab

A FANTASTIC PEER GROUP

I participated in the Athena Virtual Writer’s Lab along with seven other feature writers from around the world. All talented writers who are writing courageous, untold stories about women/girls from all economic, cultural and social backgrounds. This was very inspiring, especially because many of these writers had been in this business longer than me.

On the first day of the Lab, I had an hour-long feedback session with a fellow writer - where she gave me feedback on my script, and I on hers. I got her script about two weeks in advance of the Lab, so that gave me plenty of time to read through it, and come up with comments. It was a really useful exercise - to see how another writer uses dialogue and description to make characters come to life.

1:1 DISCUSSIONS WITH INDUSTRY INSIDERS (ASSIGNED AS LAB MENTORS)

A total of five industry mentors were assigned to work with us eight writers over the two-day period. That’s a lot! I had 1:1 hour long sessions with two different producers/writers. Again, they had read my script in advance, and were ready with detailed notes.

This was THE real highlight of the Lab for me because both were independent filmmakers who had produced shorts and feature films. They had a wealth of experience in terms of not just reading scripts, but in figuring out how to make the written page sing and really come alive on the screen. They gave me feedback on THEMES and CHARACTER ARCS and forced me to ask detailed questions about my script, in terms of the ultimate message I want to get across and how to best deliver on it through my characters and their development over the course of my story.

The feedback was very SPECIFIC and ACTIONABLE. Plus, both filmmakers were just terrific people to talk to – down to earth, kind, and extremely generous with their advice.

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab  What I Learned in My 1st Lab

2021 Athena Virtual Writer's Lab Participants

INDUSTRY PANELS ON A VARIETY OF RELEVANT TOPICS

The second day of the Lab was Industry Day (where all feature and TV Lab participants came together) and included four 45-minute long panels on topics all screenwriters care about – like how to get good representation, how to motivate ourselves to keep writing (which I, as a mother of two energetic boys, struggle with all the time!) and how to navigate writer’s meetings with development executives.

The Lab recruited top notch professionals for these panel discussions, and they were chock full of practical advice and tips. Due to the small size of the Lab, we had more useful Q&A time, something that is just not possible in larger screenwriting/industry conferences.

PITCH FEEDBACK

Another plus! This was my first time doing a verbal pitch for my script, and I was nervous. But the Lab organizers listened, asked questions, and gave me very specific feedback on what worked and what didn’t work.

Since the Lab, I have taken several Stage 32 webinars about pitching (and have been endlessly revising my pitch!), and have also gained the confidence to pitch to several producers through Stage 32. If it wasn’t for the dry run I had at the Lab, I wouldn’t have been able to take this step.

Demystifying the Screenwriting Lab  What I Learned in My 1st Lab

NOT JUST FOR NEW WRITERS

Although I am just a year into this screenwriting business, I strongly believe these Labs are useful for wherever in your career – especially if you are looking for detailed feedback from industry insiders.

Another way to get this feedback is of course to win the Grand Prize at one of the major screenwriting competitions, and if that is the way you want to go, great and all the more power to you!

But if you are looking for a more attainable, realistic way to workshop your script RIGHT NOW, and prepare it for the big screen (or the TV screen), then apply for a Lab. Bonus: You will connect with filmmakers and creatives who can nurture and support you along the way.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Although the Lab ended more than two months ago, I still keep in touch with my fellow writers from the Lab, and continue to nurture the connections I made with my mentors as well as the organizers of the Lab. It is up to you how much you sustain these relationships after the actual Lab experience is over.

However, just like Stage 32, community is everything, and I am happy and thankful to have found another supportive community in the Athena Writer’s Lab.

Will I be applying to another lab in the near future? You bet. Onward!

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About the Author

Anu Sukhdial

Anu Sukhdial

Screenwriter

Anu graduated from the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting in June 2020. She enters the screenwriting industry after having spent nearly 15 years as a senior marketing executive in Silicon Valley working for various tech start-ups and large companies. Her feature drama script, Tabitha Dro...

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