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by Susan Royal

Now in its sixth year, Screenwriting Expo has established itself as the only can't-be-missed screenwriting conference around. This year it pulled in nearly 4,000 attendees from around the world. In one seminar the speaker asked who among the group had traveled the farthest to attend. There were people from Canada, Ireland and South America, but a round of applause was given to the writer who had driven up from San Diego, through the active fire zones.

Every year the Expo attracts top Hollywood screenwriters and this year was no exception. William Goldman made his fourth consecutive appearance as a featured guest of honor speaker, along with such luminaries as Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, American Gangster), Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and many more. There was also a huge turnout to see Seth Rogen interviewed.

Nearly all the leading screenwriting teachers were among the speakers teaching at 300 instructional seminars. Many of those seminars were designed to prepare attendees for Screenwriting Expo's mammoth annual pitch-athon called The Golden Pitch Tournament which featured over 90 production companies, agencies and managers.

Novelist/screenwriter James Dalesandro (1906) led a seminar entitled "Loglines/Treatments/Pitches." He emphasized that when pitching you must engage the person to the point that, hopefully they will begin asking questions about the film. Any question is fine, except, "Huh? I don't get it." You should entertain them and, "be the salvation of that person's day. The cardinal sin is to be boring."

Karl Iglesias, author of 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, led a seminar entitled "Pitching: Engaging Listeners Emotionally." He advised coming up with a good title and stating it in the pitch. "Legally Blonde and The Devil Wears Prada really say it all." Among his many other pitching tips were having a pitch buddy to practice with, and saving your favorite exec for last, "because by the end of the day your pitch is smoother."

Some seminars addressed the business aspects of screenwriting. Manager/producer Victoria Wisdom held a seminar entitled, "How to Find the Right Buyer for Your Project." She stressed the importance of writers immersing themselves in the business. "You must think like a pro and sound like a pro in order for people to treat you like a pro." This would include knowing what kinds of films each company is making, how films of different genres are currently performing and which actors are in demand.

It also includes not wasting execs' time. "Don't talk too much. Cut to the chase. Make your points and get out. You're dealing with people who have alpha personalities and they have about five seconds to deal with you."

Professor Richard Walther has been chairman of the UCLA Screenwriting Program for 25 years. He led several seminars at Screenwriting Expo 6, including "Screenwriting: The Whole Picture." He began with words of encouragement for the older writers in the room: "Don't think life has passed you by. It hasn't. You have so much more to say in a screenplay than the funniest thing that happened to you in the dorm last week. Most Oscar-winning screenwriters are not in their twenties."

Walther emphasized making the filmgoer feel something intense. "They don't have to feel good. You can provoke or disturb them. You can scare them. But you must make them feel real emotions. So many lives are numb or dull, which is okay, because, well, you don't want your flight to New York to be exciting, like, "Oh, what a flight I had – a near miss at JFK, a tire blew out, six people in front of me puked. It was incredible!' But you do want intensity in a movie."

Author/screenwriter Christopher Keane was the speaker for the "How to Adapt Anything" seminar. He believes one doesn't have to be slavishly faithful to the original material. "Look for the essence of the story. You're writing a movie, not a chronology. Never let the truth get in the way of a good adaptation."

He said the best piece of advice he could give a screenwriter is to read two screenplays a week for six months. "You won't believe how much your screenwriting will improve."

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