Toronto Screenwriting Conference Head Talks WGA-Agency Fight

Mara Brock Akil with TSC Founder Glenn Cockburn-Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Toronto Screenwriting Conference

Conference founder Glenn Cockburn says Hollywood's talent agencies battling the Writers Guild of America will be a hot-button issue this weekend.

Toronto Screenwriting Conference founder Glenn Cockburn has impressive timing as he brings Hollywood's top TV showrunners to talk shop at his weekend event in Canada, just after negotiations between the WGA and talent agencies collapsed and their battle enters uncharted waters.

So Cockburn expects screenwriting stars like Locke and Key writer/showrunner Carlton Cuse, Hand of God creator/showrunner Ben Watkins and The Chi showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis may well touch on the unfolding dispute over packaging fees and affiliate production as they focus on the mechanics of their craft — characters, story and structure.

Talk of the WGA-ATA dispute will likely dominate networking and exchanges on the fringes of the Toronto conference, as well. "When you have an assembly of 400 professionals who are either screenwriters or work with screenwriters, of course we're going to have a lot of conversation, and I'm looking forward to that because it's a great forum to have those discussions," says Cockburn.

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 top Hollywood showrunners and screenwriters to discuss their craft among peers this Saturday and Sunday.

I gather your goal is for the Toronto Screenwriting Conference is to let TV's best creators escape their Hollywood bubble and talk about the mechanics of screenwriting?

The mission of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference has been to build an event for professional screenwriters. A survey of other screenwriting events in North America and the world show that they're all really built for emerging screenwriters, they built to help them get into the industry, or learn the basic of the industry. That's not our market. Our target is really the professional screenwriters who is already making a living in the world of screenwriting, or someone — a producer or director — who makes a living in the industry working with a screenwriter, and who wants to engage in a conversation about the professional aspects of screenwriting.

So there's no "How to Get an Agent" panel at your Toronto event?

We'd never have that panel. It's assumed you already know how to get an agent, you're already working and you want to have a conversation with and about other screenwriters, about what they're up to and what's in their minds, and about what they've learned from craft and what they can impart to our attendees.

There might also not be too much talk about screenwriters getting an agent, given the current fight between Hollywood writers and agents. That's certain to loom large this weekend. 

I'm certain there will be a lot of talk at the conference, more so at social events than from the stage. When you have an assembly of 400 professionals who are either screenwriters or work with screenwriters, of course we're going to have a lot of conversation, and I'm looking forward to that because it's a great forum to have those discussions. With all the uncertainty in the marketplace, with the WGA and ATA battle, between production levels that may not be sustainable in the long run, and regulatory issues that we face here in Canada, the Toronto Screenwriting Conference serves to remind writers that those who continue to pursue their craft and artistry will survive, regardless of how the chips may fall.

The 2007-08 Hollywood writers strike offered a big open door to the Canadian industry, to sell their homegrown TV shows to U.S. networks as never before. Do you see the current impasse between Hollywood writers and agencies giving a similar lift to the local industry?

The difference is, when the Writers Guild went on strike, that ceased production in the U.S., and Canada was able to take advantage of that, because we had shows that we could sell into the U.S. This is a different scenario because the work is not going to stop and writers will continue to work in the U.S. So I don't think there's an opportunity for Canada to benefit from this dispute. It's isolated to the WGA and the ATA, and the industry will move on as best they can until it's resolved. And Canada won't benefit excessively from it.

This year's lineup features Carlton Cuse, Ben Watkins and Ayanna Floyd Davis. How do you go about finding the talent? 

Right off the top, we curate our speakers to ensure they're able to talk about craft at a highest level. Secondly, our moderators guide the conversation to provide value to professional screenwriters. And third, ideally by the questions that our attendees ask, everyone has a sense that we're trying to have a more masters-level conversation in the room. Hearing what they have to say is important for screenwriters.

For screenwriters, they spend so much time working alone. Even in a writers room, it's a small group of people compared to the whole of the writing community. And we love that the speakers are almost always in attendance all weekend long. They're coming, they're speaking and when they're done, they're around to hear what the next speaker has to say and then they're having lunch together and they're back for another session. When you're delivering content that even your speakers are sticking around to hear, that's when I think we're really hitting the target.

With the business increasingly going international and onto emerging streaming platforms, how will the conference address opportunities for screenwriters in an increasingly borderless landscape? 

My dream for the conference is that, as it builds, eventually the screenwriter community from Los Angeles, London, New York, Toronto and Vancouver will all feel that they need to be in Toronto for this weekend of conversation about screenwriting. And if that expands to Asia and Europe and we get screenwriters from around the world coming in, that's more than I can hope for. We do try to program not only for the screenwriting doing a TV series, but also for those with ambitions to make films and indie films. In any given year, it's impossible to cover every aspect of screenwriting, between all the dichotomies of high and low budget, and international and domestic, and comedy and drama and all those things.

The Golden Age of TV means there's around 500 series being made every year, and more of them are landing on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. How should screenwriters address the emerging streaming world, and is it removing a bottleneck to getting their scripts produced?

The impact of the volume of production going on in the world today is the opportunity for screenwriters to get their voice out to their audience. The real opportunity is the number of shows being made, the number of points of view and perspectives being found, and new audiences found for screenwriters who couldn't secure them through the old broadcast system. That's an exciting time for screenwriters, and certainly having that conversation is a big part of what we do. We're bringing up Heather Brewster from Keshet International, who are known largely for their international TV business. They will be part of that international conversation.

How should screenwriters adapt to this increasingly borderless entertainment business, with new partners and new distribution being sought?

It's very important for screenwriters to try and watch as many shows as they can outside of their domestic market. Part of the reason is financial. What Scandinavia has done in dramatic TV, on budgets that are similar to or lower than Canadian budgets, is something Canadian screenwriters should be aware of. How are they doing that, how are they creating shows that the world is watching, on a low budget? How any country or any culture is finding creative, and financial and screenwriting solutions to the restrictions of their marketplace and finding opportunities around the world is important for screenwriters to study.

The conference this year tackles the link between writers and mental health issues with a panel by Halt and Catch Fire creator Christopher Cantwell. What inspired this move?

We felt it was important to start addressing mental health issues from our stage, both from a creative representation, in other words, how are mental health issues portrayed onscreen, but also what are the mental health issues that screenwriters go through. That's from the burden of carrying a TV show, to rejection they face between opportunities, to the isolation of being at home and trying to figure out what your next idea will be. Writers spend so much time alone that they can lose track that other people are having similar thoughts and similar problems, and we want to bring that conversation into the Toronto Screenwriting Conference.

Given the prevailing challenges and disruption of the global entertainment business, is the screenwriting craft and artistry being discussed over the weekend necessary as never before if filmmakers want to get heard in today's marketplace?

I've always believed that content is king, and no matter what happens in distribution and how distribution changes, audiences will always want content. If you're the writer, regardless of how it gets to an audience, the demand will ensure it gets pulled through to the audience.

Given the volume of production in Toronto and Vancouver from Hollywood producers, and increasingly the streaming platforms, is it possible for Canadian screenwriters to consider working on Hollywood projects from this side of the border without feeling the traditional call to pick and move themselves and their families to Los Angeles?

It's an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, there's never been a better time to be a screenwriter in Toronto. Canadian content production levels are high. There's a lot of people building very fulfilling careers here. At the same time, there's never been a better time to be a screenwriter in Los Angeles, because of the volume of production. So screenwriters in the end have more choice about where they can build their careers, and how to manage their careers across North America. That's the real benefit from today's industry.