Most festivals don’t want protests. This encouraged the formation of a picket line.
The Nantucket Film Festival, which ran June 21-26 on the misty island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, is uniquely geared toward the craft of screenwriting. The stars are sure to appear – Allison Williams brought the glamor this year – but here pen and paper are more important than primping and Pompadour.
The WGA is a longtime partner of the festival, and the biggest gala event was a tribute to screenwriters honoring Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ writer Jenny Han and Nicole Holofcener, whose “You Hurt My Feelings” screened in the lineup. That film is literally about an auteur, as are many others that have shown, including Christian Petzold’s “Afire.” And the biggest competition is by no means built around established names , but in a screenplay contest aimed at finding new talent.
At a time when the WGA strike caused many writers to shun FYC events and simply apply their way with words to make pithy picket signs, the Nantucket Film Festival stood out from marching into awards season and focused on supporting writers’ ability to write. It culminated with a festival-sanctioned picket at the island’s main public library, the Atheneum.
“We are not a market,” said festival director Mystelle Brabbee. “But we’re proud to help form connections for writers.”
“This is not a market where everybody sells, sells, sells,” veteran television writer Donick Cary (Letterman, “The Simpsons,” “Silicon Valley”) said at a “Screenwriters’ State of the Union” panel I moderate. “But there are a lot of very creative conversations going on with people across the entertainment spectrum and people outside of it as well. It’s really a great place to walk around and have a conversation. The documentary I made for Netflix, ‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’, just came out of a conversation at a film festival. (Ben Stiller and Fisher Stevens were) like, ‘We should do this. Let’s talk about.’ Otherwise it would have taken six months to arrange that meeting and make a presentation.
Above all, the festival is an incubator for writing talent through its screenplay competition, which recognizes outstanding writing among feature, short and episodic offerings. None of the writers are “names” – yet. (Debra Granik was a winner of this award early in her career.) But winning their category means a trip back to Nantucket in the fall for a month-long writers’ retreat and mentorship program. Last year’s Feature Screenplay winner Michael Lei received hands-on assistance in making his screenplay even better from his assigned mentor, “Judas and the Black Messiah” director Shaka King.
“This mentorship program has been really special because they (the mentors) stay with you for a weekend,” Lei said. “You’re eating, drinking, hiking, watching movies with them. It’s a very organic personal connection.
Sophie Barthes, the director of this year’s Sundance premiere “The Pod Generation,” helped her get started through this mentorship program when she won the Screenplay Award in 2006. She wrote that film, “Cold Souls ”, thinking of Paul Giamatti to star, and met Giamatti in Nantucket after he won the award, he proposed it to him and he actually agreed to act. The film was released three years later.
Helping develop writing talent is one thing, but supporting a fair business environment for them to work in is another. And this is where the Nantucket Film Festival is particularly unique, splashing photos from the picket line on their Instagram and incorporating messages of what the WGA strike is advocating all along. (“Good luck coping without a paid writer,” said tribute gala host Brian Williams, between jokes about the Nantucket climate and lewd jokes about his daughter.)
In the panel on the state of the writers union, Barthes acknowledged the difficult financial realities of being a writer of feature films in particular. “When you are asked to rewrite, it is actually two months you will be rewriting, unpaid. Unless you’re also directing, you’ll be paid less than the intern while your script is in development.
At about the same time as the festival kicked off, news broke from the nearby Cape Cod town of Chatham: a WGA picket had forced work to be halted on the new six-part Netflix series ‘The Perfect Couple,’ starring Nicole Kidman and Liev Schreiber and based on the novel by Elin Hilderbrand.
“I think this is affecting the industry in many places, not just Los Angeles and New York,” Cary said. “It’s also North Carolina and Atlanta, and there’s production everywhere.” The Nantucket Film Festival itself underlined it: the problems facing screenwriters are the same everywhere, even on this rocky outcrop of an island that can feel cut off from the rest of the world.