Being a screenwriter is like being a fish; sometimes you make it upstream to spawn and sometimes you wind up in the bouillabaisse.

school of fish

I would imagine most people who chase after careers in the film business think of their success or failure in the same way most people hope to win the lottery. I think a career in film is more like being a fish. Fish travel in schools. Sometimes the green fish is ahead and sometimes the green fish is behind, but the pack moves together in unison toward the shared goal of making it big in the movies. Every once in awhile, someone from the school gets plucked out of the water, or eaten by a shark, but the school itself just keeps moving forward in the dogged pursuit of whatever comes next.

Six weeks ago, I attended the Cannes Film Festival for the red carpet premiere of my short film, THE DARK OF NIGHT. It was a once in a lifetime experience that it made me realize just how few people ever make it in the film business. For every actor who enjoys a hit right out of the starting gate and who remains an A list actor all their working lives, there are hundreds of thousands of people who never get past security. The ones who do find themselves part of a smaller group of fish, the ones who have had some degree of success, who are always one step ahead of, or behind, one another.

the dark of night poster

Ten days ago, I was in California for the Palm Springs Short Film Festival, a seminar at Amazon Studios sponsored by the Athena Film Festival, and a pitch meeting with Mark Gordon Studios. I realized once I got there that over half the people I met were people who had competed against me in a screenwriting competition I had won, or people I had lost a competition to at some point in the past year or two.

Brandi Ford was an Athena List Finalist the year I was an Athena List Winner. This year Brandi was selected as an HBO Access Fellow, one of eleven fellows out of over 3500 submissions, one of which was mine. Pearse Lehane has won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay competition twice, and this year he was also the winner of the Emerging Screenwriters competition. I won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting Competition as well, but came in ninth in the Emerging Screenwriters Contest. Dee Chilton was selected by the Black List for a weekend long workshop at the Athena Film Festival and has since landed an agent, her first short film is in the can, and the script that landed her as a semi-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship has been optioned, whereas I have never made it past the top fifteen percent of writers who submit to the Nicholl Fellowship, the number one screenwriting competition in Hollywood.

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In less than a week, I take my place again at the front of the pack with an eight day mentorship as part of the New York Stage and Filmmakers Powerhouse Season at Vassar College. This was an invitation only opportunity and both the mentors and my fellow mentees have such impressive credentials that I half wonder how I had the incredible good fortune to be asked to apply in the first place, let alone be selected to participate in such an amazing program.

For point of reference, the NY Stage and Film organization workshops plays every summer at the Powerhouse Theater to get them ready for Broadway. A little play called “Hamilton” got its start at the Powerhouse Theater a few years back, about the time the film part of the organization decided to work their same magic with film and TV writers. Only a handful of writers are chosen. I think I may be one of the few with a measly bachelors degree; most have masters degrees in film from places like Harvard, Yale and Columbia University. Some have produced feature length films, others have won major screenwriting contests, and one secured a spot with the Writers Lab, the Meryl Streep funded workshop for female writers over 40 in 2016.

I am curious to see where all this goes. I used to think that winning a screenwriting contest meant instant success. But I know now that we are all swimming together in this small school of silver fish, and while our collective opportunities to avoid becoming bait are higher than most people’s, we are all just a school fish waiting to see what happens next.

fish

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The red carpet, the Cannes Film Festival and coming home to my day job.

Two weeks ago, I discovered that the short film I wrote, the one that is already remarkable for the fact that one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood, Robin Wright directed it, the crew from the Emmy award-winning House of Cards volunteered their time and resources to breathe life into it, and Sam Rockwell, Leslie Bibb, Callie Thorne, Michael Godere and Nini Le Huynh agreed to star in it, would make its red carpet debut during the 70th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

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No matter how many times you may have rehearsed your Academy Awards acceptance speech in your pajamas, nothing prepares you for a moment like this. I spent my formative years in Hollywood, so red carpet premieres in and of themselves are not a big deal bearing in mind I’ve been the one who made sure celebrities like Michel LeGrand and Jerry Weintraub made it to the festival venue, the green room, and the after party. Michel LeGrand still owes me for the bow tie he wore to the Palm Springs Film Festival, not that anyone is asking, and Jerry Weintraub may never have found his way to the men’s room at the Palm Springs Museum of Art if it weren’t for me.

The truth is, I was on the fence about going. The ticket from Asheville to Nice was $1700, and frankly, I am at the point in my “career” where I have spent more money pursuing the dream of becoming a writer than I have actually ever made AS a writer. I’ve had exactly one paying writing assignment for low-budget indie producer, Larry Levinson, and that was years ago. But my husband knew, even if I didn’t at the time, that this was an experience I would regret not having taken part in, so he bought the ticket, and I had the panic attack.

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I haven’t gone clothes shopping in years and I needed everything. I found an evening gown on Rent The Runway, then had a panic attack about getting it back to the US before the deadline. They charge $50 a day for every day its late, not including the additional daily rental charge. So I found the dress I wanted on ebay, a floor length Badgely Mischka that might cover up the fact that I no longer have much of a waistline to speak of, a pair of spanx that ran from my neck to my thighs, and a pair of flat sparkly shoes so if I fell off them I wouldn’t have far to go.

Robin Wright and Denise Meyers

I made arrangements to stay at an Airbnb a “bus ride away” from the Croisette, bought my first set of grown up luggage, installed a global plan on my phone, and boarded a plane for Charlotte, destination, Nice, France.

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When I got to Heathrow Airport, I received a text from Nini Le Huynh; The Festival de Cannes was putting us up at the Grand Hyatt Martinez from Tuesday to Friday, so I let my Airbnb host know and headed to the Martinez, which, as it turns out, was the host hotel for the festival. Everybody stayed there; Jessica Chastain, Will Smith, Elle Fanning, Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard, Pedro Aldomovar, Fan Bingbing, Victoria Abril, Sara Sampio, Monica Bellucci and Robin Wright. I had a front row seat to all the insanity, from the crowd of paparazzi and fans gathered behind barricades outside the front door, to the entrances and exits the stars made, to sitting down to breakfast with Robin like it was an every day occurrence.

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Wednesday afternoon, I got another text from Nini. We had been invited to attend the seventieth anniversary dinner for the festival in the Grand Ballroom of the Martinez. The stars sat together at a long table in the middle of the room; the other tables fanned out from there. The room was cavernous, and it was hard to hear anything, but the experience of being there was unforgettable. Especially after Robin introduced me to Harvey Weinstein, who was kind enough to engage me in conversation for a few minutes.

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The next morning, I accompanied Robin and Nini to the Variety/Kering Women in Motion interview at the Hotel Majestic where the main focus of the conversation was the upcoming season of House of Cards and Wonder Woman. When she was asked about our film, she introduced both Nini and myself to the room, then made sure to mention all the people from House of Cards who volunteered their time to work on the movie. We ended up having over 125 crew members involved in the film, not the least of which was a young editor named Alfonso Carrion, who spent hours and hours making sure the film was perfect.

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We left for the Palais at 6:15 and were delivered directly to the red carpet. Two lines of people with invitations to the opening night film feed into the red carpet from either side, and risers packed with reporters in tuxedos line either side of the red carpet. Behind us, more reporters on step ladders, to get the best possible vantage point, and more security than you could shake a stick at.

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Robin was announced, and all four of us (Robin, Nini, Alfonso and myself) stepped onto the red carpet. Everyone started screaming her name. We made three stops on the red carpet, since its not very long, and there are reporters on both sides. We turned to face one set of photographers, then on a signal from a man in a tuxedo on the carpet itself, we turned and faced the other set of photographers. We repeated that move two additional times, them made our way up the steps of the Palais where we were greeted by Thierry Fremaux, the head of the festival, who ushered us upstairs to a private cocktail lounge where we drank champagne and waited for the film to begin.

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A short time later, we took our seats in the Salle Bunuel Theater where Thierry introduced each of us before inviting Robin on stage to talk about the film. She was so complimentary about the film and gave Nini, Alfonso and I credit for the roles we played in making the film possible.

And then it was showtime.

Leslie Bibb and Michael Godere

The film looked marvelous on-screen. People reacted the way we had hoped they would in all the right places, and when the final scene cut to black, the woman beside me, an agent from CAA, said to herself,  “God that was GREAT’.

Sam Rockwell as Officer Witt

We went to dinner afterward, just the six of us at a little seaside restaurant. It was lovely, just sitting around a table, watching the sunset over the ocean and sharing a bottle of wine. It was definitely a night for the record book.

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I am back in North Carolina now, back to my day job, trying to make sense of the events of the past week, and how to move forward. The film was accepted into the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in June, which is an Academy qualifying film festival with a short film market (the only one of its kind in the nation). I’ve been invited to an event hosted by the Athena Film Festival, who arranged pitch meetings for Athena List winners with Amazon  as well, and hope to set up some meetings with agents and managers while I am there.

In the meantime, I am working with a TV producer for a series based on the short film, and a new project about an award-winning screenwriter who returns from a red carpet event and goes back to work fixing toilets and refrigerators in the RV repair business she owns with her husband.  Because there’s nothing like hearing the sound of God’s laughter after telling him your plans.