Monday, April 24, 2017

20 things I learned at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference

by Allan Tong

TV scribes and some film writers, descended on the Toronto Screenwriting Conference last weekend (April 22-23) to listen to two full days of advice about the craft and business of writing for screen. Gracing the stage at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre were the creators and showrunners of Archer, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, Shoot The Messenger, Kim's Convenience and Mohawk Girls as well as big-league American and Canadian producers and network AMC. 

The $500 pass all the panels, but passholders paid $25 or each industry roundtable that overlapped panels to ask showrunners, producers and network buyers anything...as long as they didn't pitch any shows. I didn't attend these, but delegates I spoke to were pleased to meet these folks, and some hoped it would lead to pitch meetings one day.

Overall, the level of advice inspired writers. Speakers raised fresh ideas and reinforced existing notions, which is the aim of the TSC. However, pitching was off-limits and the guest speakers were hard to access once they were onstage, though many were in the audience to watch other panels. The TSC is not a marketplace, but a school. 

Should it inject more business elements into its packed schedule? Allow pitching? Introduce a component about agents, funders and casting agents, folks who don't shape the craft of writing, but nourish the business side? Perhaps. 

The conference ran smoothly, though several sessions began and started 10-15 minutes late, such as the Sunday morning coffee break which unfortunately spilled into the start of the Corey Mandell session. This was the weekend's true writing class--and an inspiring one. (My favourite.)

So, here are 20 things I learned from this year's Toronto Screenwriting Conference:


"Writers and crazy people spend time with imaginary characters." - Adam Reed, Archer creator

While constantly fielding pitches, AMC commissions 70 scripts each year, then assigns six to eight writers' rooms (three or four twice a year). Here, they decide which shows to greenlight for production. They don't order pilots.


"Have the courage to tell a story that matters to you. Plumb your own heart of darkness," which are your darkness fears and internal conflicts. - writer and screenwriting coach, Corey Mandell


Be careful shacking up with a writer, warns Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby). "Writers will steal everything from your relationship." Also: "People with some success struggle exactly like you," says the two-time Oscar winner. Any writer, everyday, faces the same battles with their script. "Finding the story is so tough."



If you're a writer in Toronto or anywhere and want to pitch AMC, but don't have an agent in Hollywood? Then, partner with a producer, but don't assign him/her ownership. Leave that to AMC who wants to own the show. The days of a prodco licensing say, Mad Men, to AMC are over.

"A story escalates or dies. A great story escalates through its characters' hearts of darkness," their darkest nightmare. - Corey Mandell 


Unsolicited scripts end up in the garbage bin, reveal American producers. Sorry. It's true.


Courtney Jane Walker finds that female Degrassi (Next Generation, Next Class) fans harshly criticize her show's female characters on Twitter more than guys do to male characters.


The "boneyard" of discarded ideas is useful when you need an idea in the clutch, says Kim's Convenience co-showrunner, Kevin White.

Paul Haggis' question to himself and to characters he creates: "What would you for love? What two things? Now...choose one."
Showrunner Marti Noxon never aimed for commercial success, but wound up marrying her personal interests (i.e. anorexia) + genre (thrillers, soaps) + specificity (detail, knowledge of a subject).

"I don't recommend virtual reality. It's as bad as this one." - Motive showrunner, Dennis Heaton (left) with Archer creator Adam Reed

"Daffy Duck is one.of the great villains of all time." Archer animated series creator Adam Reed (right)

Two questions to ask when writing any script, comedy or drama (from Kim's Convenience) (click to enlarge):


U.S. producers more likely to hire a new writer for TV than films given writer's room. A studio can pair a rookie with a veteran scribe.


Paul Haggis, who used to work at a moving company: "We all have jobs. Take the shittiest job, nothing creative....Save that for writing."



Get to the point of a comedy sketch within the first five seconds. Lesson learned from season one of the Beaverton.


The biggest career mistake that writers make: they stop getting better. "Keep pushing yourself to get from good to very good to great to EXTRAORDINARY." - Corey Mandell

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