How to Build a Better FiLMLaB

As we begin planning for a fourth season of FiLMLaB in 2015, it is important to reassess what our purpose is; why we ever thought this was a good idea and how we can do better. When I first signed on as Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference in 2011, I spoke to Conference Chair, Stefan Feuerherdt about the possibility of including some kind of screenwriting competition that would culminate in our August event. At that time, all of the Willamette Writers writing contests were handled through the Association’s (founding member) Kay Snow Awards and presented at the conference, including a modest screenwriting prize awarded for the best ten pages of an original screenplay.

In my mind, screenwriting was never a particularly great fit for the Kay Snow Awards. You were limited to ten pages (from a presumably 90-120 script); but which ten? And if you’re doing it right, there’s a lot of white space on those ten pages which puts the screenwriter at a disadvantage to say, a novelist, who, page for page will have more words on the page to tell their story. A better reflection of a screenwriter’s talent, albeit abbreviated, would have allowed a first act, or up to thirty pages. Suffice it to say, my first year on the conference committee did not allow time to pursue a new and improved screenwriting contest.

L to R: Katie Michels, Haley Isleib and Randall Jahnson at OIFF

L to R: Katie Michels, Haley Isleib and Randall Jahnson at OIFF

So I brought it up again in 2012, hanging out after Randall Jahnson‘s screenwriting class at the Backstage with some writer friends. I had just started teaching screenwriting at Clark College and had many students of my own who were actively seeking writing contests to enter their scripts into. I have had some luck with screenwriting contests myself, but find a predatory element to many them. If, for example they are associated with a film festival, the writing contest often funds the festival. Your “award”  may consist of bragging rights to a contest no Hollywood insider has every heard of, and a piece of cardstock with your name on it. I have even known of contests that will give you the cardstock, but charge you for the ‘specially crafted award’ (say a metallic star) should you request it. They charge for the shipping as well.

That’s not the kind of contest we wanted.

So what could we offer potential contestants? The Kay Snow prize had a small cash award associated with it. Very small, as I recall. Maybe we could increase that? But there was still the problem of it being limited to ten pages. That’s when Dustin Rush (actor, writer, all around good guy) piped up and said, “Why don’t you just make their film? If it was me, that’s what I’d want.”

Our discussion took a whole new turn. It seemed outrageous to think about it, but through Randall Jahnson’s class we were meeting all kinds of filmmakers, cinematographers, gaffers, directors; many of whom were tired of the grind of commercial work and were looking for fun, creative stuff to shoot during their off hours. We already had the ten page limit, maybe we limit the contest to short scripts? The conversation evolved from there, but in a nutshell, that’s how we got to our seven page script limitation (an amount that can be reasonably shot during a weekend when most of our professional film people would be free).

Slate for INSPIRATION, 2013

Slate for INSPIRATION, 2013

We were so excited about this prospect, about giving the writer something tangible as their prize (their short film!); I mean, how unique was that?! What a return on investment for the measly entry fee! Better still, give them meetings with the director and rewrite opportunities with experienced screenwriters; include them in preproduction meetings (even if they’re only a fly on the wall) so they really understand what true collaboration looks like; let them be on set as their film is being shot, and finally, debut their short film at the Willamette Writers Conference where every August Hollywood agents, managers and creative executives spend three days taking pitches.

Marc Manus

Hollywood Manager, Marc Manus, celebrity judge 2014 FiLMLaB

And while we’re at it, what if some of the Hollywood people act as celebrity judges for the script writing contest? And what if the winner was also given a free pass to the conference and free pitch sessions with the agent/manager/creative executive of their choice? Hmmmmmmm.

Oooh, oooh, what if the short film made it into some film festivals and won an award?

It didn’t all happen that first year of 2012 (although that film, Alis Volat Propriis,  did play in two festivals and take home an award in 2013). But 2014 winner Jon Dragt was able to participate fully in preproduction discussions and saw his short script/film premiere at the Portland Film Festival.

And now it’s time to continue the discussion, realistically of course, but also with an eye to what FiLMLaB could become in the future. Back in 2011 when I first started this discussion, Stefan and I thought we could have three winners and three short films(!). We would let the audience decide the grand prize winner at the conference. It was naive to think we could do it in 2011; but perhaps not so naive for 2016 or 2017?

We’ve experimented with themes (linking the contest to the conference theme, i.e., New Frontiers [in writing], Fresh Brewed [inspiriations]) and location as ways to contain the story (and thereby the budget). How else might we make the contest interesting?

It is your turn to let us know your thoughts. What would you like to see in the 2015 contest and/or beyond? We’ve toyed with the idea of being genre specific; everybody tells you to write a ‘contained horror/thriller’, why not experiment on us? Too limiting? What about using a prop or a photo this year to build your story around? Genres wouldn’t matter then.

This is the beauty of a contest like FiLMLaB – it can be whatever we want it to be.

We are first and foremost writers helping writers. This contest exists to make you a better screenwriter by providing the kind of real life experience and collaboration you can only get by working with filmmakers.  So weigh in. Leave us a comment, talk to us on our Facebook page or new Twitter account @WWFiLMLaB

We look forward to hearing from you.


Ruth Witteried

As Visual Media Director, Ruth Witteried works with all programs based in the visual arts, including screenwriting and film production. As Executive Director of the FiLMLaB competition and project, she produced the 2012 FiLMLaB short, Alis Volat Propriis, winner of the 2013 OIFF Best Comedic Short; 2013′s Coffee.Table.Book.; 2014's Unwelcome Guests, and in 2015, The Return of Bug Eyed Bill. She acted as Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference from 2011-2013 and occasionally teaches screenwriting at Clark College. She currently is Executive Director of Willamette Writers' FiLMLaB. You can follow her on Twitter @sityourassdown1 or Facebook at FiLMLaB. Contact her. (