So ends another year of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. It was a weekend filled with sage writerly advice, free drinks and lanyards. Let’s take a look at the thrilling conclusion of TSC 2014.
To kick things off was a panel discussion of genre in Canada. Denis McGrath moderated the discussion between Cameron Porsandeh from Helix, Sam Egan from The Listener, Emily Andras from Lost Girl, and Allan McCullough from Sanctuary. They addressed one of the most pressing criticisms fans fling at creators: they “don’t know where they are going” with the story. An important point to remember is that TV is very much a collaboration so it’s almost impossible to have a rigid vision of their show’s future. They also noted that more often than not, you have to earn the right to be serialized, which is an interesting way to look at it.
I think one of the things that made this panel so engaging was Denis McGrath. You could see the experience he had has a moderator in the questions he asked and how he interacted with the participants. He brought his own genre experience to the table, which gave him insight, and he’s also just plain funny. No wonder he’s always asked to moderate a session at the TSC. Major props.
The esteemed Leonard Dick then took on the one hour drama. With credits like Lost, House, and The Good Wife , he definitely knows what he’s talking about. Dick went through how they would break down a season for the show and then right down to the episode. And yes, he talked about how they killed off Will. They tried to lay down the ground work so even though his death was a surprise, they had set up the entire Alicia-Will relationship for the most drama possible.
He also compared TGW to The Simpsons since they both burn through story so quickly. With the structure of the TGW, they often start in the middle of the court case and never get to the verdict. And though they strive towards accuracy in the legal aspects, sometimes the story trumps all. After all, nobody ever writes the network over the legal case.
After lunch, Eric Gilliland took us through his pilot Downwardly Mobile which starred Rosanne Barr and John Goodman. He was fabulous to watch because he was like an overly excited kid while he talked about the whole process. He broke down the development of it with Rosanne and how NBC loved it every step of the way, right up to when they killed it. He didn’t have an answer for why it didn’t get picked up except for that’s how the industry works.
He talked about his experience pitching and suggested that everyone take an improv class. Not only will it help with pitching but also with interacting with your actors. He also made an interesting note that nobody programs with their gut anymore. Cheers got picked up for another season even though they tanked in the ratings just because the president of NBC happened to like the show. Nowadays it’s all by the numbers and nobody is taking risks anymore.
To finish off the whole conference was my hero Michael Arndt. He broke down the secrets to having an insanely great ending. The main point was breaking down not only the external and internal stakes but also the philosophical stakes. Star Wars is such an amazing ending because they pay off all three stakes in less than 30 seconds. Each set of stakes have their arc throughout the movie and to make the best ending, there has to be a moment of despair where the protagonist has failed all of those stakes. You have to take absolutely everything away from them, including the one person they were closest to. Their closest ally turns their back on them and sides with the dominant values of the world instead of the hero/underdog values. What is so satisfying with Arndt is that he is so thorough and makes you look at the structure that you know so well in a completely new light. Made me love Little Miss Sunshine more than I thought humanly possible.
Overall, the conference went incredibly smoothly and had a fantastic turnout. I would really like to say how amazing the staff of the TSC have been every year that Film Army has been involved. They are so helpful and unbelievably nice. Also a shout out for the awesome volunteers in their snazzy orange shirts. With an event like this, it’s funny since most of the successful people in those rooms started out in positions very similar to those orange shirts. Thank you to the entire TSC team!
Well, it’s hard to believe it’s over and that it’s a full year to the next one, but I’m already looking forward to it! (Can I suggest speakers? Because Bryan Fuller would make me swoon.)