Fun things happen when you say, yes!
Bringing table reads to Oaxaca
Dave Ryan told me his big idea over lunch at the classic LA location, the Farmers Market at Fairfax and 3rd. How about adding table reads to this year’s Oaxaca Film Festival? Cool. Nothing better than hearing how a script really sounds.
The informal readings hosted by Ron Leach at the last festival were a hit—a laidback mix of constructive commentary and killer cocktails in a lush walled garden.
Then Dave told me his even bigger idea—You should run it. I said, yes. Did I even have a choice?
The Oaxaca Film Festival is one of the few writer-centric events on the international festival circuit. It’s intimate, unlike Austin where the sheer crush of screenwriter hopefuls is daunting. In Oaxaca, camaraderie trumps competitiveness. And there’s mezcal.
Both Dave and I had won the Oaxaca festival’s screenwriting competition in previous years. A deeper involvement with the festival seemed natural—you go where the love is. And we wanted to help the festival create more value for writers, as most travel a long way at considerable expense to attend.
We took the idea to Ana Echenique, the festival’s executive director. Ana liked it. But added one demand: It has to be open to every writer coming to the festival.
Hosting a bunch of writer friends in a leafy courtyard and plying them with margaritas is one thing. Scaling up to over 100 unknown people, while putting the festival’s reputation on the line is another. I had to rethink my initial plans for an informal “salon-style” event and develop something more structured. Of course, there would be things that are impossible to predict—especially in Mexico—so how do you minimize the risks?
Writing a set of instructions so that festival attendees would show up fully prepared helped clarify things.
Select consecutive scenes that you want to get feedback on.
Print out enough copies for everyone in the group before leaving home.
Have character descriptions ready.
And the logline.
Then I found experienced moderators, half of them previous Oaxaca script winners.
The thorniest issue was time. Dave, Ron and I fought the festival organizers for longer sessions: Could we get two hours? More? The organizers have their priorities and the entire schedule to consider, complicated by the lack of available space with many of the city’s buildings structurally unsound following 2017's crippling earthquakes. But none of the organizers are writers.
With ten in a group, two hours means twelve minutes per writer—minus introductions, time to share scripts and cast each read. We struggled to find the ideal balance between the number of script pages to read and time for comments.
Coffee. Seats. Action!
Though familiar with the city, I couldn’t picture the RoundTable location, Galeria Arte de Oaxaca. Finally, I checked it out the day before starting and was pleasantly surprised, a classic courtyard building, which—if nothing went right—at least had interesting art on the walls to look at. There was a coffee station. And yes, the tables were indeed round. A good omen.
Taking place over three days, the RoundTables were one of the main elements of the festival. The organizers placed the attendees in twelve groups—ten in English and two in Spanish. These groups had a broad mix of skill level and experience with wild variations in genre. In the group I hosted—scripts ranged from SciFi to historical spectaculars, horror, fantasy, and urbane drama—the commentary was at a high standard.
Moderating in moderation
My preference as moderator was to simply cast each script, including assigning the screen directions and to listen to the group read. I made sure the writer could do the same and just take notes.
Running the stopwatch on my phone and keeping the group on time is about as much multitasking as I can manage. After each reading, I focused on giving practical structural advice: how to tighten scenes, eliminate unnecessary dialog and propel the story forward. Usually, I’d open with some remarks, then encourage others to chime in. Mine is only one opinion. Luckily, in my group, no one got too defensive. People loosened up. It was fun.
Other moderators were free to handle the group dynamics at their discretion and I dropped in on as many other groups as I could to see how things were going.
One recurring issue with scripts, particularly from lesser experienced writers, is the amount of screen direction per page. It’s really obvious in a table read when there’s too much, the story bogs down. You can feel the group is anxious to move on and the clock ticks over much faster than the pages. But it’s instructive for writers to hear this and sense the frustration. The same with dialog, you can tell when a scene passes its most dramatic point and starts losing air.
What we learned
Immediately after the event, I constructed a survey which Persis Love, the festival coordinator, distributed online, and over 50% of the participants responded.
People were fine with reading six pages, the size of the groups and the length of the sessions, my main concerns. But one thing I plan to do is have more women moderating at future RoundTables, especially as this year’s success means the program will be expanded.
See you in Oaxaca next year. Bigger and better than ever!