Local and national screenwriting talent collided in Downtown Pittsburgh this past weekend.
Spearheaded by director and founder Cathy Rescher, the three-day inaugural 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conference was held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Friday, May 20, through Sunday, May 22.
Rescher was inspired by the four-day screenwriting conference that takes place during the annual Austin Film Festival, the largest writers’ conference in the world. With 3 Rivers, she sought to put together a melting pot of Pittsburgh talent and insightful professionals involved in screenwriting and filmmaking in general.
Actually putting the pieces in place for the conference, though, was a challenge.
“I just thought to myself naïvely, ‘How hard can it be?’” said Rescher, who has experience in project management, marketing, design and related fields. She researched and booked various sponsors to help fund the weekend event, including Row House Cinema, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Stage 32, to name a few.
But Rescher’s biggest break was securing sponsorship from New Sun Rising — an organization which provides fiscal backing and mentoring to enterprises in the Pittsburgh region. New Sun Rising’s leaders unanimously voted to support the project, essentially greenlighting the conference with substantial monetary backing from the group.
Tickets for the event started at $30, and the conference was host to over 30 speakers from around the country.
“Getting the caliber of industry professionals we had here was exactly what we set out to do and I remain hopeful we can continue doing it,” said Ramesh Santanam, who works in media and public relations and writes his own scripts. Santanam assisted with 3 Rivers by contacting and recruiting some of the speakers, as well as helping plan the conference’s programming.
“It was exhausting at times but entirely worthwhile, thanks to the many people who volunteered their time and expertise,” said Santanam.
The preeminent speakers included Ashley Edward Miller, a screenwriter for “X-Men: First Class” and “Thor,” and Laura Harkcom, writer and producer for Syfy and Fox and a consultant for NBCUniversal. Joining them was Christopher Lockhart, story editor at the William Morris Endeavor in Hollywood.
Those three guests would be hosts of the Pitch Finale, the last event of the conference. Three amateur screenwriters delivered pitches of their original scripts to the three judges, Miller, Harkcom and Lockhart.
Though the audience heavily favored the pitch about a modern-day stoner Dracula in Seattle by Lucas Esteves, a Point Park MFA graduate for Screenwriting and Playwriting, the judges awarded first place to John Spare, who is currently working towards completing the same graduate program.
Spare, whose pitch was an original horror-mystery story called “Black Eyed Kids,” was awarded a screenplay of “The Usual Suspects” as well as the opportunity to have his piece read in full by Lockhart, who has read over 60,000 scripts and whose agency’s clientele includes Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr.
I attended just the final day of the weekend, drifting between the various panels, as there were always at least two occurring simultaneously.
Though I lament missing earlier discussions from the weekend such as “iPhone Filmmaking” and “Writing Dynamic Dialogue,” the lineup from Sunday was full of thought-provoking discussions.
Highlights included “Heroes and Villains” — hosted by Miller, author William C. Martell and Alvaro Rodriguez, cousin of Robert Rodriguez and writer of “Machete” — as well as “Comedy Sketch Writing,” led by Mike Betette of the “Epic Rap Battles of History” YouTube series.
“Writing Partners, Team and Groups” was also full of excellent conversation. Miller was especially witty and articulate. His advice was sound — “You can’t be a professional in this industry and not collaborate” might as well be the conference’s slogan — and his jokes hit. “If your experiments don’t work out, if you’re fast enough, you can always blame the other guy.”
Though it may be called a screenwriters conference, the scope of topics spread to nearly all facets of filmmaking and the industry.
Sarah O’Melia, a member of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists along with Rescher, assisted with the event’s marketing as well as helping with the website and brochure. She noted how much of the discussion that took place during the conference was applicable to many fields.
“I think a lot of what they’re saying is not just relevant to screenwriting or film or cinema, it can be relevant in any kind of art form,” said O’Melia.
Monique Helt-Morrison, a screenwriter and creative producer who just moved from Los Angeles, personified the independent screenwriter’s struggles and successes.
“I came from the hub to here really as a way to connect with local Pittsburghers who are likeminded in the TV, film and creative world — and of course to learn,” Morrison said.
During her senior year at Louisiana State University, she held a job doing social work for the school. As Morrison was about to leave for Los Angeles, her boss, Cecile Guin, handed her an unpublished, 500-page manuscript about the life of Feltus Taylor Jr. — who was charged with armed robbery and first-degree murder in 1991 and executed in 2000.
The project, entitled “Waiting to Die,” has been Morrison’s passion project for the 16 years since. But despite the hurdles of legal rights, the project — for which Morrison has six separate screenplays, including writing for a season of television — is finally close to getting off the ground.
Morrison, who attended each day of the weekend, had no problem with the lack of overwhelming turnout. “What I like is that it’s intimate enough to where you can really get one-on-one time with the different panelists,” said Morrison.
The intimate format of the humble event’s inception resulted in an atmosphere that nurtured relaxed, stimulating conversation amongst the relatively famous guests as well as between the speakers and the audience.
Rescher considered the conference a success and says she is grateful to those who attended.
“It wasn’t the 500 people that I anticipated, but for a year one, I think I hit my mark. The people that came, they’re the early adapters, they’re the die-hards — I appreciate my audience so much,” said Rescher.
Rescher hopes that future 3 Rivers Screenwriting Conferences will give attendees the opportunity to connect with a greater web of talent in Pittsburgh’s independent film community, similar to Steeltown Entertainment’s Crew Connect project. Despite the time constraints and stress of creating the conference, she is optimistic about what she can do with more time to prepare and apply for grants.
“Hopefully next year, now that I have a lot of things more or less in place, it won’t be nearly as tough in terms of raising money and awareness.”