Screenplay Coffeehouse a hit, spawns sequels

If in the beginning was the Word, at film festivals like Sundance, where young directors are deified, the writer, unless he is also the director, is ignored, cast into an obscurity below the minor feature actors, slightly above the key grip.

Yet the offscreen hit of last year’s Sundance Film Festival was the Screenplay Coffeehouse, sponsored by the Writers Guild of America. The main attractions, aside from the low-budget cafe lattes and sandwiches, were the screenplays of the films in competition stacked for browsing on newsstand racks and their writers.

Participating screenwriters included Kevin Smith, who wrote and directed previous festival darling “Clerks,” Christopher McQuarrie, Oscar winner for “The Usual Suspects,” and Joan Tewkesbury, Oscar-nominated for her script for “Nashville.” They all perched on a barstool like cabaret singers for “a really healthy mix of question and answer and argument,” Tewkesbury says. “And there’s nothing finer as far as I’m concerned.”

“We were filled every day,” says Vicky Gallion, public affairs coordinator for the Writers Guild, who organized the Coffeehouse. The screenplay cafe is part and parcel of the WGA’s ongoing campaign to upgrade the creative status and recognition of the screenwriter.

It worked. When Gallion returned to Los Angeles, there were invitations from Cannes, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Seattle, Toronto and Berlin for similar creative kaffee-klatsching.

“It’s good, because in the hype of the festival everyone wants to see the finished product,” says Nicole Guillemet, managing director of Sundance Film Festival. “This brings it back to where it all started with the script.”

Before opening the coffeehouse last year, the WGA had only hosted “little evening seminars” at Sundance, according to Gallion. But when asked if they had any ideas for the unused hotel conference room adjacent to the festival’s main screenings, the WGA decided to become a major sponsor.

“We did everything to change the ambiance of the room,” Gallion explains, “candlelights, linens on the tables, screenplays on racks as in a newsstand, the chalkboards done very artistically.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We were going to open from noon to 5, but the first day they were banging on the door. We ended up opening at 9 and closing at 6 every day during the nine days of the festival. From the first hour we just did gangbusters.”

Stars like Brad Pitt, Ellen Burstyn and Brooke Shields ambled by. Filmmakers and distributors confabbed after screenings. Studio execs and agents dropped in between films to work on their laptops or confer in hushed tones on their cell phones.

“Several film festivals now want us to do basically the same format and plug it into what works for them,” Gallion says. At Cannes last May the cafe was part of the American Pavilion. But instead of the lone writer on a stool, Gallion took a cue from Roger Ebert’s successful Hot Directors panel at Cannes and organized a Hot Writers panel. It featured Shane Black (“The Long Kiss Goodnight”), Charles Edward Pogue (“Dragonheart”), David O. Russell (“Flirting With Disaster”) and Jack Hill (“Switchblade Sisters”), and was moderated by Guild president Brad Radnitz.

As at Sundance, the WGA drafted writers who were already in attendance to promote their films, to save money. Gallion says, “A lot of times an independent filmmaker is a hyphenate, the writer is the director. But we’ll also fly in writers, because we’re trying to help festivals like Sundance see the light. As many writers aren’t invited to festivals as directors or actors.”

At both Sundance and Cannes, a major attraction was the scripts themselves. “When I went to pack everything up at Sundance, the scripts had been so used and old,” Gallion describes. “It was just wonderful that so many people had actually read them. In Cannes I had so many young European filmmakers who wanted just to look at American scripts.”

In addition to the screenplays from films that were programmed at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, well-acclaimed works were added to the mix, “like ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ etc.” says festival founder and director Robert Faust. “The audiences were milling about, having cappuccino, reading the classics and the screenplays from the festival films.”

At Toronto the WGA plans to co-sponsor a coffeehouse with the Writers Guild of Canada.

This year at Sundance a half-dozen magazines — Scenario, Filmmaker, Film Threat, Fade-in, Scripts and the WGA’s revamped and renamed journal Written By — will co-host the writers: “Flirting With Disaster’s” Russell; Sarah Jacobson, whose “Mary Jane Isn’t a Virgin Anymore” will screen; and Lee David Zlotoff, whose “Spitfire Grill” was the audience favorite last year.

The Writers Guild’s aim is to establish relationships with the new generation of filmmakers. “We want the inde-pendent film world and the filmmaker to realize that we’re not just part of the Hollywood institution,” Gallion says.

The guild also is actively recruiting multimedia makers. Last year the New Technology Center of Sundance scheduled the producer and director of the interactive CD-ROM “Psychic Detective” for the festival, but not the writer, Michael A. Kaplan, so the WGA paid for him to come.

“The coffeehouse itself was a very casual and intimate place where you could really read the screenplays they had, if you were on your own,” he says. “Actually it was positioned in a place at Sundance where everyone needed an oasis.”

Adds Tewkesbury: “It’s pretty interesting for people to know that not every writer in Hollywood makes a million.dollars. Writers write for years and years and years. Some of it gets produced, and some of it doesn’t. But the most valuable thing you can learn in any conversation with any writer is to keep writing.”

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