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January 12, 2004

  • Moving The Goalposts
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    At the end of every year of my screenwriting courses in University, our class was given sage advice on how to break into the film industry. Now, I took the course for four years in university and I was given three—I took it twice with the same instructor—different, and completely contradictory, explanations.

    In the end, I found, and still find, the whole thing mystifying: it seems to boil down to a combination of luck, forbearance, extroversion, or the ability to get an executive’s cell phone.

    One thing I did find helpful was entering the Writers Guild of Canada’s competition for the Jim Burt Prize two years ago. The Jim Burt Prize, named after the late CBC Executive who commissioned a lot of Movies of the Week and fostered new talent back in the day when the CBC had resources to do that, offered $5000 to the best screenplay written by someone who had never had a feature produced. The competition was open to anyone so long as they had established credentials as a writer.

    Fortunately, I did have credentials by virtue of having short fiction published by the BBC. And so I rewrote a new draft of a screenplay I had written in university, submitted it for competition (done by blind judging) and was shocked to discover that I was one of the four finalists being invited to the WGC’s big award ceremony.

    Alas, I lost. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. The WGC’s Communications officer pretty much telegraphed the fact that I lost when I called her on the phone to RSVP. But it was neat to go to an expensive party with a lot of Canadian celebrities—Nicholas Campbell stood next to me at one point, and Ken Finkleman tripped over me as he lunged toward the podium—and I had a good time making the acquaintance of a struggling unproduced screenwriter who told me the ins and outs of some of the other finalists. It turned out I was the only finalist who had not gone to the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies—Norman Jewison’s prestigious school for film geeks.

    It would have been classy for the WGC to have at least given me a certificate saying I was a finalist—I’d like something to put on the wall beside my high school Creative Writing Awards—but just being nominated helped me. It enabled me get noticed, just a little, when I sent my script to agents and producers. It didn’t help me get my script produced—that would be too easy—but it certainly helped me get a little bit of recognition, and ultimately that’s what’s important.

    The Writers Guild of Canada didn’t offer a Jim Burt prize last year, but in December I discovered from the WGC website that this year it was returning. The cash prize was a measly $1000 this time—perhaps reflecting the shrinking market value of Canadian screenwriters—but they were offering something better in its place: a feature film producer would look at your script.

    I was sold. I quickly checked to find out when the deadline was and started plotting in my head whether or not I would need to take a vacation from work to get the screenplay I’ve been working on finished.

    Except this time I discovered I couldn’t actually enter the competition. I wasn’t eligible. Not because I had entered before, but because the WGC changed their rules. While two years ago I was able to demonstrate professional standing by having published fiction, this year the boffins at the WGC changed this such that I would need to “possess a writing credit on 1/2 hour of produced drama or documentary”.

    Needless to say, I was displeased with this and so I sent the WGC an e-mail that politely pointed out that their rule change discriminated against people like myself who were finalists the last time. I also asked, pointedly, what kind of a message were they sending to new talent. Proving you have the chops to write is one thing; getting a film produced is entirely another.

    A month passed and this week I received an e-mail back from a low-level functionary at the WGC. It was written in the traditional weasel words that everyone knows so well “Thank you for your query” “I have passed your concern on to the appropriate parties”, and so on. What I found particularly humourous was their justification for the rule change: they did it because they were disappointed with the quality of the scripts they had received.

    To my mind, this is an interesting way of developing a meritocracy. Close off your competition so only people who can afford to a ) go to the Centre For Advanced Film Studies, b) do film studies at university, or c) make a short film can actually apply. Funny how all three of these things have actually little to do with writing talent and have everything to do with having money and/or the right education.

    There’s a word for this: unfortunately, I can’t use that kind of profanity, so elitism will have to suffice. In 2002, there was only one finalist out of four to not be affiliated with the Centre for Advanced Film Studies. This time, they’ll be four for four. Bravo to the Canadian film industry, is all I can say.

    One day I will crack that combination of luck, forbearance, extroversion, or the ability to get an executive’s cel phone and I will get my screenwriting produced. And on that day I will no doubt be asked to join the Writers Guild of Canada. And on that day, I will calmly tell them that will be a cold day in hell. I will probably have to immediately recant because I’ll be required to be a member of the WGC in order to be produced. But I assure you that the smug nanoseconds before then will be among the happiest of my life.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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