Interview with Cléa Frost: An Inside Look at the CineStory Screenplay Competition
Executive Director of CineStory, Cléa Frost is a native of Australia. She attended one of its leading film schools housed at the Victorian College of the Arts. Since graduating, she has worked as a director's assistant, writer's assistant, creative executive, story analyst and script consultant, as well as a writer-for-hire for on both feature film and new media projects.
Currently, Cléa is also developing and producing several webseries, including THE APOCALYPSE DIARIES, a sci-fi series that she wrote and directed. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and one-year old son and dreams of the days when she could sleep past 7am.
Barri Evins: Tell us a little about the origins of CineStory and its goals as a nonprofit.
Clea Frost: CineStory was founded in 1995 by Pam Pierce who wanted to bring aspiring writers together with producers, agents and others working in the film industry. From its inception, CineStory has been about giving promising writers access to people who can take their writing, and careers, to the next level. With CineStory, you don't need to have industry contacts or live in LA to become connected to people who can help you become a professional writer. CineStory was founded on the principles of nurturing talent and building community among writers and industry mentors and that's the tradition we continue to this day.
BE: The word is spreading among writers about this extraordinary contest with the unique prize of a four-day Writers' Retreat with industry professionals. How many submissions do you anticipate your 16th year?
CF: We're a boutique contest, so the odds for entrants are great! We expect about 500-600 entries for the 2012 contest.
BE: How do you find your first-round readers? What are their backgrounds?
CF: First round readers are all CineStory staff, board members and select alumni. This means that everyone reading scripts has worked in the industry as a writer, agent, manager, producer, executive or reader. We pay close attention to every script we get and all of our readers - from round one to the final round - are highly qualified.
BE: I know you have some utterly awesome judges for the final round. And having been a CineStory judge in the past, I've experienced first-hand the integrity, commitment and passion the judges bring to determining the winner. I remember one year where we called a judge who was away on location to learn about on their opinion on a script. We were still debating when the restaurant closed, then threw us out, and we continued a heated discussion on the sidewalk! Who are some of these devoted judges?
CF: It's true - the judges' dinner is a wonderful experience. Every year the Finals Judges meet over dinner to decide who will be awarded the fellowship as well as the other prizes. There are eight scripts in contention and eight judges, each of whom reads multiple scripts. So it gets rowdy, it gets passionate and there are always surprises along the way. It's an inspiring discussion about screenwriting, creativity and voice, which really epitomizes the spirit of CineStory. This past year finals judges included Glenn Gers (Writer: MAD MONEY, FRACTURE), Lisa Callamaro (Agent), Amy Salko Robertson (Producer) and Monica Chuo (Producer). We always have a mix of reps, producers, pro writers and executives to get different perspectives.
BE: Tell us about the prizes for the Winner, Second and Third Prize, Finalists, Semi-Finalists, Quarter Finalists and for all the entrants.
CF: The Grand Prize is an amazing gift for any writer. This year it includes $5000 cash, free entrance to the September Writers' Retreat, held in Idyllwild, CA, a picturesque small community two and half hours East of Los Angeles, in the mountains above Palm Springs. Plus they receive an amazing 12-month fellowship program. It's the prize every writer should dream of winning.
All Finalists and Semifinalists receive an invitation to our exclusive Writers' Retreat, where for four days they work one-on-one and in small groups with Hollywood pros.
Finalists receive discounted Writers' Retreat tuition, as well as other prizes. The second prize is valued at over $1500 and includes $500 cash, while the third prize is valued at $1000 and includes $300 cash. Some of our industry sponsors include Script Pipeline, iScript and Mariner Software.
As a small nonprofit, we don't currently have the means to make the Retreat free for all Semifinalists, although we're working on it! However, for their fee, each writer gets intensive, personal attention from three mentors as well as numerous hours of small discussion groups known as Informal Rooms. Writers and mentors also share meals, filmmaker Q&A screenings and more.
BE: The real prize here is the CineStory Writers' Retreat. There's a certain mystique surrounding the Retreat because, in a sense, you have to experience it to know how amazing - even transformational - those four days are for a writer, their script and their career. As a longstanding Retreat Mentor, I've had the opportunity to see how passionate the mentors are and how impactful the Retreat is for the writers. How does a writer get there, and what happens when they do?
CF: The aim of the CineStory Screenwriting Awards is to identify writers who are ready to take their careers to the next level. Your ticket to the Writers' Retreat is being a Semifinalist in the contest. There aren't many programs like the CineStory Retreat for screenwriters, and the ones that do exist often recruit most of the participants internally. But CineStory offers every writer, no matter where they live, the chance to qualify.
Once you're at the Retreat, well, let's just say it's a mind-expanding experience. First of all every writer has 90-minute one-on-one meetings with three different mentors who have read their work beforehand. We go to great lengths to match writers with mentors who have the skillset they most need right now. These meetings delve deep into the writer's strengths and weaknesses and look for solutions that are going to bring the writer that much closer to becoming a professional.
On top of that, writers get access to over 15 hours of Informal Room sessions. These are small meetings, lead by two to three mentors, on all different topics. This year we had Informals on subjects like how to become a working writer, how the writer-agent/manager relationship works, the new paradigm in terms of the huge changes taking place in the industry right now and so on. Every year we have Informals on pitch sessions, called Fly-On-the-Wall, where writers can pratice pitching and get honest feedback on both their presentation and the material that was pitched. We also have a guest filmmaker Q&A screening, usually with a writer or writer-director, often a past winner of the competition who has gone on to get a film produced. Overall, I think that what makes the Retreat stand out is the level of advice that the writers receive. Every single mentor brings a wealth of knowledge to their one-on-one and informal room discussions. These are people who develop material, sell scripts and make films day in, and day out. They are playing at a professional level.
They are also extraordinarily intelligent and generous and want to push each of the writers to overcome barriers to success. So you have this dual benefit of incredibly useful, up-to-date insider knowledge and advice that's specific to you as a writer.
BE: CineStory goes to extraordinary lengths create a special and unique environment at the Writers' Retreat and to help new writers become a part of the thriving CineStory community. Please fill us in on those extras that make the Retreat nearly magical.
CF: A huge part of what makes the Retreat so special is the social componant. Writers and mentors share lunch and dinner every day. They hang out and talk in small groups, they get to know one another without the barriers that might otherwise exist in a formal industry setting. There's a real sense of a level playing field and everyone being there to talk about the thing they love the most: story. So by the end of the four days, people have bonded, friendships have been forged and everyone leaves the mountain feeling renewed. CineStory is about creative people coming together - something all too rare in a business that can be full of frustration and imbued with a sense of competitiveness.
BE: Who can the Retreat attendees expect to meet with, eat with, be mentored by and build real, working relationships with?
CF: We always make sure that the mentors represent all the key facets of the industry in terms of screenwriting. So we have a great mix of pro writers, producers, managers, agents and executives.
BE: What can the winner expect during their Fellowship, a year of mentorship with two CineStory Mentors? How are the winner and their mentors partnered?
CF: Every fellowship is tailored to the individual writer. So sometimes the writer receives feedback on material, advice about what to write next, advice on career moves, introductions to people in the industry and so on. Basically the mentors are there to help the fellow advance to a professional level using all the tools at their disposal. As part of this individual approach to the fellowship program, these year-long mentors are selected only after meeting the winner at the Retreat. This allows us to get to know the winner, discover what s/he needs most and what we can do to help. On the last day of the Retreat, staff and mentors get together with the writer to handpick his/her two industry pros.
BE: What are some of the benefits of being part of the CineStory community?
CF: Every year at the end of the Retreat all of the mentors and writers get together in one room to talk about why they came and what they got out of the experience. It always gets emotional! And in that final meeting I think the benefits of community, and specifically of the CineStory community, are illuminated. Writing is a solitary pursuit for the most part and the film industry can be a tough, even demoralizing business, especially for those trying to open some doors. To be surrounded by smart, caring people who want to help you succeed is healing, inspiring and invigorating. Being part of the CineStory community means having the support and advice you'll need to achieve your goals as a writer.
BE: CineStory has generated some exciting success stories. What's your favorite?
CF: You're right - lots of people are aware that the writing team Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (IRON MAN, CHILDREN OF MEN, COWBOYS & ALIENS) were CineStory winners in 1999 and continue to be huge supporters of the organization. Mark's on the board, and both he and Hawk have been mentors at recent Retreats. And there are a bunch of other great success stories like this.
But my favorite recent success story is probably that of Mark Grisar. Mark came to our Retreat in 2009 as a finalist, but not a winner. In one of our 'Fly on the Wall' practice pitch sessions he pitched a script that a producer on the mentor panel responded to immediately. She said, 'I think I can set that up' - and guess what? She did.
Mark came to the Retreat as a writer who had won a bunch of contests, which got him temporary boosts but nothing substantial. He lives on the East Coast and has no real connections to the industry here in LA. But he walked away from that Retreat and into a deal for a script he had pitched just for practice! To me, that's the perfect example of what CineStory can do for a writer who is ready to turn pro.
BE: What's new at CineStory?
CF: In the coming months, we're launching new services for our alumni. Any writer who has been through the Writers' Retreat program becomes part of the alumni community and in the coming years we're going to continue to grow and develop as many services as we can to nurture those writers.
But we're also looking for ways to reach all writers. So in the next two months we'll be launching free services that everyone can access, including podcasts, videos, articles, interviews and so on. Writers should sign up for the CineStory e-newsletter to keep up-to-date with all of these developments. www.cinestory.org
BE: What's the single question about the CineStory Screenwriting Awards you are asked most often?
CF: What's a 'clean' cover page? Basically it means no name and no contact information on the cover/title page - just the title. But do include the title!
To enter, visit www.CineStory.org/contest
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