Toronto Screenwriting Conference Head Talks Hosting TV's Biggest Creators

Courtesy of Toronto Screenwriting Conference
Mara Brock Akil and Glenn Cockburn

Conference founder Glenn Cockburn wants top TV scribes to talk storytelling mechanics, not about "war stories that are fun to tell at dinner parties," at his event this weekend.

First things first: Toronto Screenwriting Conference founder Glenn Cockburn doesn't want top TV scribes like The Good Doctor showrunner David Shore and Hand of God creator Ben Watkins to talk about the occupational pleasures and hazards of writing for Hollywood when attending his event this weekend.

Cockburn instead wants screenwriting legends to focus on the mechanics of their craft — characters, story and structure — because they rarely do that back in Los Angeles, where playing the studio game or making deals, rather than getting words on the page, dominates conversations.

"We are trying in Toronto to build the premier screenwriting conference in the world," says Cockburn about getting Hollywood TV creators up to Canada for inspiration and new ideas. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Cockburn, who also reps Canada's top creative talent via his Meridian Artists shingle, before the Toronto Screenwriting Conference welcomes Unreal showrunner Stacy Rukeyser, Homeland exec producer Chip Johannessen and other Hollywood talent to discuss their craft among peers in Toronto.

Over the years, Hollywood has gone up to Banff to talk about TV, Just for Laughs in Montreal to talk about comedy, and the Toronto Film Festival to launch award season campaigns. Do TV's best creators also need Canada to escape their industry bubble and find new creativity?

When you sit with people in Los Angeles, it's about the business of TV, more than the creative. I remember a speaker at our conference once who said, when he sits down with fellow screenwriters in Los Angeles, they talk about the business. And when he wants creative feedback on a project, he calls his cousins in Ohio. They're separated from the industry. If they like my idea, I move forward. If they don't, I still have more work to do. That's a big part of it. If we take away some of the politics and the anxiety of the craft, and focus on some of the fun, we get to the excitement and creativity.

So the Toronto Screenwriting Conference wants showrunner legends to talk about their craft, not working with directors and actors as they do elsewhere?

We have speakers coming this weekend that we're all excited about. But we also feel there's a real place for a master-level conversation about screenwriting to happen once a year, and we want the Toronto Screenwriting Conference to be that place.

That's by targeting master screenwriters, not rookies getting into the business?

Sure, there's a lot of screenwriting conferences out there. But most of them only appeal to beginner screenwriters, people trying to get an agent, figure out what a three-act structure is, people who are looking for a boost to get their career started. And the content is not at a level where professional screenwriters would want to take part in the conversation. Screenwriters who have succeeded, who have risen through the ranks, who are working full-time, want to have a conversation at a masters level.

The Banff World Media Festival offers master classes by Hollywood screenwriters. Why is your Canadian event different?

I love Banff, but it's tailored to a generalized audience. There are producers, network executives, emerging writers, people from around the world. It's a great group of people, but it's not focused as they put screenwriters onstage to talk about their shows. Those sessions rarely talk about screenwriting, about how to build a TV episode, how to map a seasonal arc, or season three or four of a new show. They often tell war stories about how a show got made, horror stories about a lead actor, a network exec who says the numbers were down, but the SVOD numbers were up, so we renewed. It's all about the realm of the TV show, as opposed to the specifics of screenwriting. We're not getting the information that would be helpful. These are experts at building the architecture of a series, and we're asking them for the war stories that are fun to tell at dinner parties.

It's about screenwriters getting out of their home office or a cloistered writers room to talk about their craft face-to-face. 

If screenwriters are writing a feature film, they're probably at home, not getting out to talk to other screenwriters. If they're in a writers room, yes, they're among other writers, but not constantly interacting with people. And one of the reasons I believe we're on the right track with the Toronto Screenwriting Conference is the speakers stay all weekend, sit in on sessions and lectures, because they don't have access to this anywhere else. When David Shore gets up this weekend and does a lecture on screenwriting, showrunners in the room don't have access to Shore at any other time because they're off running their own shows. So to hear David Shore talk about how he writes and runs a show is incredibly interesting to screenwriters who normally don't get a chance to see him, and everyone can engage in a conversation or at a social event in the lobby of Bell Lightbox, and we're creating a conversation about screenwriting.

Sounds like you're also creating the United Nations of screenwriting.

My dream is that, one day, I'll walk into the conference and the showrunner for Sherlock is talking to the showrunner for NCIS, who's sitting with the showrunner for Private Eyes, and everyone is talking about how they write a procedural in the country they work in, and have access to each other. The conversation becomes about what they do, and not what everyone else does.

And you want to inspire screenwriters, not remind them of the long odds to get their scripts to the small screen. 

Absolutely. If we can get screenwriters past the wall they're facing, and put a new idea in their head or create a new avenue to new ideas and formats, we've done our job. The feedback we get is, I leave the weekend ready to tackle new challenges, thinking of new ideas. And we hear people get new perspectives on screenwriting. I learned to do it this way, I heard others do it another way, that's exciting to me as an artist to find new solutions. It's about inspiring and creating new energy for screenwriters who feel empowered to take on new challenges.

What are the new screenwriting ideas and formats likely to be talking points this weekend?

We have the foundational elements of character, story and generally being entertaining structure down. But there are so many ways to combine those elements, so many factors that come into telling a story. There's a lot of conversation about what streaming video has done to the one-hour structure. If you write a 10-episode for Netflix, are you writing a 10-hour story or 10 separate one hours? That's an interesting conversation. Even in the serialized series of the past, you'd have to drop in dialogue and scenes to remind people what happened last week, because they haven't watched the series in two weeks. Now you don't have to do that as much. That opens up the ability of screenwriters to explore new things, to not spend time recapping so much. There's also trends in comedy, new ways to make people laugh. And in drama, episode nine of a 10-episode season has become the big episode. Look at Game of Thrones. It's the second-last episode of each season that's the biggest episode, with the season finale looking ahead to the next season. That's a big shift. I'd like to hear whether that opens up new creative possibilities, or handcuffs them.

We are getting away from screenwriting mechanics, but there's a trend among Canadian screenwriters of having agents in Toronto and Los Angeles to alert them to possible gigs on both sides of the border. Is that the best way to avoid going down to Hollywood and never return home for work?

With my other company, Meridian Artists, we have an office in Toronto and Los Angeles because I believe we can prevent a Canadian talent drain, by facilitating it. If we represent our clients as agents in Toronto, and as managers in Los Angeles, we can advise them across North America. A lot of people who go down to L.A., and turn their backs on Canada, or stop communicating with Canada, lose out on a lot of opportunities they'd have here in an industry that's growing.