Inside look at the ScreenCraft Writers Summit


Chicago will become the center of the TV and film universe when it hosts the eighth annual ScreenCraft Writers Summit at the Hotel Allegro next month from April 24 to April 27. Agents, producers, show runners, financiers, studio execs, and, of course, writers are scheduled to share their wisdom.

Designed to connect blockbuster movie professionals with emerging writers, the event offers an extended weekend program of guidance, support, and camaraderie through workshops, panels, cocktail parties, pitch events, and mentorship.

 Speakers and mentors include Meg LeFauve, who wrote ‘Captain Marvel’; Max Borenstein, who wrote ‘Godzilla’; David Rabinowitz, who won an Oscar for ‘BlacKkKlansman’; Wendy Calhoun, co-producer of ‘Empire’; and Stephen McFeely, whose credits include every ‘Avengers’ movie since the original.

And that’s just the beginning. ScreenCraft alumni have gone on to sell scripts and join writing staffs at studios like Amazon, Disney, and Netflix.  

Building a community

“We find that, if you get writers together, they want to stand around and talk and drink and talk some more,” says ScreenCraft Summit Executive Director Emily Dell. “There are excellent opportunities to build community. There are social events every night.”

Dell speaks from experience. Besides running the summit, she’s a writer and director whose credits include ‘B-Girl’, a tale of breakdancing and will power currently playing on Amazon Prime. She also works closely with ScreenCraft co-founder John Rhodes, a producer who has worked on films like ‘End of Watch,’ ‘Rabbit Hole,’ and ‘Enders Game’.

Together, they have developed a program of expertise and intimacy that gets bigger every year. Here, in a Reel Chicago exclusive, the duo shares some insight about ScreenCraft’s Chicago debut next month.

John Rhodes and Emily Dell

Meet Screencraft’s John Rhodes and Emily Dell

What is the quick history of ScreenCraft?
John Rhodes: I founded ScreenCraft with Cameron Cubbison in 2013. We were both assistants at the time. I was the assistant to the CEO at Open Road Films. Cameron was one of our readers, and his script coverage was excellent, head and shoulders better than the rest. I saw an increasing number of screenwriters asking for their scripts to be read, and I saw an excellent opportunity to develop an emerging talent screenwriting discovery program. 

ScreenCraft has grown since then to become a leading talent organization for emerging screenwriters. The people who worked with us were selling their scripts and getting hired on TV shows. Out of that growth, four years ago, we decided to start an annual conference. Our very first summit was in Nashville in partnership with the Nashville Film Festival.

Why did you choose Chicago for ScreenCraft 2020?
Emily Dell: One of the other reasons that we chose Chicago is that we find that all of these industry heavyweights have a better experience when it’s not in LA. Storytellers love to experience a new environment that feels fresh. Walls come down and connections are built and everybody has more fun. Year after year, we have seen more than 50% of our attendees fly in from out of town. It also opens up the different Chicago-based creative communities to build collaboration for the long term. It’s been fantastic to forge alliances with Chicago organizations like the IFA and the Chicago Film Office and the local universities. We’re talking to Second City about doing some programming. Same with iO. 

JR: This year we’re producing it on our own in Chicago for two reasons: it’s the single largest audience base for emerging screenwriters, obviously home to a long list of illustrious screenwriters and filmmakers. It’s also a geographically central location for people to gather and network. 

There’s a reason why some of the biggest film events are outside of Los Angeles. There’s something to be said for gathering people outside of their regular environment. We expect to bring show runners, educators, producers, financiers, AA winners, literary agents, managers, studio execs, and staff TV writers to the summit. 

ALSO READ: Reel Women: Emily Dell of ScreenCraft Writers Summit

What’s new in 2020 for summit?
JR: It’s our biggest summit ever. It’s the most attendees, the most industry panelists, and the most days of programming. We’re expecting about 500 attendees for three days of programming. 

ED: It starts on Friday and ends on Monday. Friday and Monday are both half-days of programming. Saturday and Sunday are both full days. We find that, if you get writers together, they want to stand around and talk and drink and talk some more. There are excellent opportunities to build community. There are social events every night. 

How do you select the speakers and mentors?
ED: There’s kind of an organic conversation behind the scenes that reflects what’s in the zeitgeist, and we think that’s important to our attendees and it also brings the heavy-hitters back. A majority of attendees listed Meg LeFauve, who wrote ‘Inside Out’, as their favorite presenter. She’s an excellent speaker, but she’s also funny and down to earth and very forthcoming about her process and the hurdles she has faced. She makes things not only easy to digest but also inspiring. 

How has the curriculum evolved since it was introduced?
ED: It’s a process of focusing on things that seem important, listening to our audience, and learning year by year which programs have the highest attendance. Last year, we had a really amazing lineup of panelists who were also highly accomplished instructors — Meg is in that category — so we broke out a panel series called the Craft Intensive Series, which is a single instructor in a smaller room doing a deep dive on some aspects of craft or the business. It’s a way to dig deep on a certain topic. 

We had set up a lecture room that sat about 45 people for the series. By the second lecture, we realized we had to move it into a room about twice that size. There were lectures on story structure, on how you present yourself to gatekeepers in Hollywood. Meg gave an incredible lecture on character. 

How has a screenwriter’s job description evolved over recent years?
JR: Almost every screenwriter now writes television because episodic TV has just exploded across all the platforms. It means writing more TV pilots, more episodic ideas, to be considered for staffing in writer’s rooms. TV is definitely seeing a golden age. 

ED: On that theme, I think writers have to be entrepreneurial about their craft and getting their work out there. They have to constantly produce new ideas and new material and submit to competitions. 

What advice do you offer about competitions?
JR: We have a panel on talent discovery programs and a great lineup dedicated to talent discovery. We have Angela Lee, Senior Manager of Artist Development at Film Independent; Enid Portuguez, Director of Events and Communications at the Writers Guild Foundation—

ED: We also have Joan Wai, Senior Manager for Academy Nicholl Fellowships at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Shira Rockowitz, Associate Director of the Feature Film Program at Sundance Institute; and Hunter James, who is the manager of the Launch Pad Pilot Competition, which is pretty incredible for getting representation and deals. We cannot give direct advice to writers about which is best but we do create a forum where they can ask all the questions they want and talk with their peers. 

What have your alumni done?
JR: Alumni have gone on to be staffed on Netflix shows, Amazon shows, and sold scripts to major studios like Universal. One of our biggest success stories is a writer who won the Austin Screenplay Competition. 

What’s the typical profile of an attendee?
ED: Our largest group of writers consists of people who have written between one and three scripts, so they’re still at the beginning of their journey. The other two groups are either looking to write their first script or are a little bit more sophisticated and ready to be discovered. We offer something for people at all those levels. 

What are the most common objectives of the people who attend the workshop?
ED: We actually get people coming to get to the summit for a reason. We usually say it’s education, access, community, and inspiration. Those are the core values that we want people to receive, and some people, depending on where they are in their career, are going to need more of one thing than the other. 

What are the most difficult elements of screenwriting to learn?
ED: There’s a steep learning curve at the beginning because everybody wants to watch movies on TV and that makes people think they know how to write movies. You have to be very humble at the craft, you have to understand that it’s harder than it looks, and you have to always be learning.