3 Insights from the 2016 Toronto Screenwriting Conference

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by Erin Cardiff (@EC1979)

There are about 2,500 miles between Toronto and Los Angeles, or what can often be an unpleasant five-plus-hour flight. It can be tough to be based here and still feel connected to work that is mostly performed so far away. Thankfully, this is where the Toronto Screenwriting Conference comes in.

The Toronto Screenwriting Conference is the only event of its kind in Toronto, and it attracts some serious top-tier talent. The 2016 edition included talks from writers, producers and executives who each had a wealth of knowledge to share. It skewed heavily to TV writers, but one could argue Toronto is a TV-writer town. Here are the highlights:

Glen Mazzara at the Premiere Screening for THE WALKING DEAD - Season 3 hosted by AMC at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, California on October 4, 2012. Photo Credit Sue Schneider_MGP Agency

1. Diversity Matters

Glen Mazzara giving a talk on TV anti-heroes? Oh man, I could not have been less interested.

I also couldn’t have been more uninformed about his work.

A huge focus of both of his sessions was the importance of diversity in the writer’s room — a movement he’s been actively championing since his days as a writer/producer on The Shield (2002-2007). He told some colorful anecdotes (which I don’t think I can repeat here), but his adamant speech on the need for diverse voices to tell diverse stories was incredibly inspiring to hear from someone at his level.

“Breaking a Season” was an intensive look at the construction from story to season from writer and now showrunner of FXX’s comedy You’re The Worst, Stephen Falk.

After joking that the concept for Orange Is The New Black “sounded stupid to me,” he talked about working under Jenji Kohan on both Weeds and OITNB. When it came to his own show, he insisted on both a balanced cast and writer’s room. He ultimately hired two woman/man writing teams because, “Getting two writers for one salary? You can’t turn that down.”

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2. Perspective Matters

Nicole Clemens heads series development at FX — definitely one of the heaviest hitters I’ve seen speak at a conference anywhere. And she brought her great insight into both programming and the development process for cable TV. Her talk was especially thoughtful, with her high regard for the writing process. Clemens repped writers at ICM for many years prior to her stint at FX.

Moira Wally-Becket had an inspiring story of how she not only survived the 2008 writer’s strike, but afterward ended up as a writer on Breaking Bad. She stayed with the show throughout its run. The process for staffing her own writer’s room on Flesh and Bone involved blind reads and finding writers with their own voice — a topic that echoed throughout the conference.

Charles Randolph was a headline speaker at the conference. He adapted The Big Short and has an Oscar to show for it (an award people actually ask him to bring to dinner parties, believe it or not). A former philosophy professor, Charles brought his own fresh perspective on feature writing — so much so, he’s getting his own article on LA Screenwriter in the coming days.

jenngrisanti-portrait

3. Great Writing Matters Most of All

The dedicated teachers who held panels — Corey Mandell and Jen Grisanti — had one very clear core message: it’s the uniqueness of your voice that will make your writing successful. Developing your voice, and learning the skills you need to get your unique self out into the marketplace, are the keys that put you into the pack of professional writers. There are no formulas, no gimmicks, and no tricks — just learning and practicing your craft and being true to yourself. It may sound overly simplistic, but it works!

Overall, it was surprising how much information and inspiration came out of spending two days locked in a room with a bunch of word nerds. Organizer Glen Cockburn gave a quick introduction, saying his aim was to produce “the best screenwriting conference in the world.”

Based on the 2016 edition, I’d say the Toronto Screenwriting Conference is well on its way.

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Erin Cardiff has been a writer for longer than you’ve been alive. With the recent addition of producing and directing to the workload, her first film is set to arrive in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @EC1979

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