TRANSCRIPT EP7 - Screenwriting For Screenplay Contests & Film Festivals with Kristina Michelle

Updated: Apr 12

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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, I have a very special guest today. We have on screenwriter, producer, film festival director extraordinaire: this is Kristina Michelle. Kristina, thanks for coming on with us today.

Kristina: Thanks for having me on, Geoffrey!

Geoffrey: This is great, one of the first festivals I ever went to was the Indie Gathering International Film Festival, which is the one that you and the fantastic Ray Szutch run. I love that fest. I really wanted to bring you on because we’re both directors of festivals, I run Script Summit, and I want to discuss a [festival] director’s point of view on screenwriting, the submissions we get, and what works and doesn’t work. But before we get into that, I want to hear your origin story of what brought you into this process.

Kristina: Well, just in general with the film industry, I started out very young as an actress. That had been my primary interest from when I was really young. I actually started acting in theatre in 1997, I did that for a few years and then in 2004 I found film acting classes that were like an hour away from me, run by Ray Szutch. I started taking his classes and I transitioned from theatre to film. I was always creative, as far as the writing side, I wrote screenplays in the past but never really tried to do anything with them outside of some competitions. But I was primarily focused on being an actress, at the time. I was interested in [working] behind the camera, too.

I got involved with Indie Gathering as a volunteer. I would help check people in, show people to the screening rooms, pump up their screenings, but I was really there for the networking. Indie Gathering is now in its 25th year, the first year I went was in 2006, and I just really wanted to get involved and help out. After a couple of years of doing that, I said to Ray, “You do everything yourself, you need help! Let me take on some of these duties and help out with the organizing.” And he said, “Okay, here you go!”

Geoffrey: That’s awesome!

Kristina: It was like a load off his back, from having run it himself for so long. He had helpers and staff, but the organizational aspects, communications with people, and all the administrative details. It’s a lot of work!

Geoffrey: It really is.

Kristina: I love doing it. I came onboard producing the festival with him back in 2010, so it’s been a little over ten years now. We started the International Horror Hotel Festival nine years ago. Indie Gathering is open to films and scripts of all types, but with Horror Hotel [it’s more genre specific]. We noticed with Indie Gathering, horror creators like to stick together: they’ll be in the bar together, in the lecture room together, and they’ll watch the horror films together. They network with other people, but they really like people that are like them.

Geoffrey: [People] that have that niche.

Kristina: So we started [Horror Hotel] just as a one-day event for film, the first year. It went really well, so the next year we opened it up to scripts, film scoring, and Scream Queen competitions.

Geoffrey: That’s always fun to witness.

Kristina: And now Scream King, too, because the guys wanted to get in on that. Over time, I got out of being in front of the camera and I realized I don’t like personal recognition, I like being the person in the background. It’s weird, having been on camera for over ten years, to say that, but it wasn’t my main focus. I like being the person that helps connect other people. I like being the person that helps other people out if they need it. I don’t like making things about me.

Geoffrey: And you were so good at that. When I started out, I was very much in a shell, I was the introvert’s introvert. I was shy, I’d sit on the couch by myself and Ray would walk over and chat with me, he was so sweet.

Kristina: You start to meet this person and that person. It makes people more comfortable to come out of their shell because we really try to make it like a film family. We don’t want it to seem dodgy, [we tell people to] have fun, make your connections, and we’ll take you where you want to go.

Geoffrey: It’s community building. I think you’re 100% right. We’ve got the same mentality with Script Summit [when it comes to] building a community. You guys really are international. I know you have International in your name, and a lot of festivals throw ‘international’ in their name because it makes them look bigger, but you guys are literally international. I’ve seen people from Germany, India, and all over the world fly to Cleveland, Ohio to attend your award show; which is so awesome and you have to be so proud of that to have that kind of pull in the indie film industry. You really do create a tight-knit community. I have friends I’ve met in Ohio that are life-long friends, they’re family to me and you really do achieve that. We try to do the same thing, “How do we succeed together?” and I love that mentality. It’s not running it as a business, you run it so you can do well, but you’re not getting rich off a film festival. Usually, these things break even. But it is very selfless. I don’t think people understand the work that goes in on a [festival] director’s end. You are putting in so much work from all the coordinating and the logistics of it.

Kristina: And it’s year-round. The public sees the festival weekend, and a lot goes into that one weekend, but it’s year-round. Our festival is in June and we may have a month off after that, but even then, we’re sending people their certificates who couldn’t attend, following up, and keeping that communication going. Then a month and a half later, we’re opening submissions for the next year and starting all over again, so it’s non-stop.

Geoffrey: It really is. We do our award show in September and then we’re taking submissions again in late-October or even November. And you’re just back into it, you’re not really getting any time off. With Script Summit, I email every submitter personally and thank them for supporting the community by submitting. You have a personal touch like that, too. A lot of festivals don’t do that because its hundreds, if not thousands of emails.

Kristina: Right! It takes me 2 and a half to 3 days to contact everybody. I’ll start the process days early and I’ll hear [from submitters], “heard back on this project, but not this other project,” and I’ll say, “let me get there and we’ll let you know.”

Geoffrey: It’s a lot of work, but it tells you, me, and the audience how selfless it is to really be the director of a festival. So let’s talk about the screenwriting aspect with script [submissions]. What do you find, trend-wise, that tend to be the most successful scripts at your festival?

Kristina: Actually, I would honestly say not trendy scripts [are more successful]. A lot of times you’ll see trends in writing and film where a lot of people are trying to hit these key things for marketability and things like that. But sometimes writers focus too much on checking those boxes and not focusing on their story. A lot of times, some of the most successful scripts are just original scripts. It’s not necessarily what’s the hot thing right now, because what’s hot today isn’t going to be hot a year from now when it gets made. When you follow trends too much, you’re cutting yourself off from creativity. It should be about the story and not writing for show.

Geoffrey: Something with heart and originality.

Kristina: Although I will say, sometimes genre stuff does really well: Action, Horror, and Fantasy. Because a lot of people really love those and they’re very marketable to a wide-spread audience. But at the same time, one year we might have a Comedy win Best Overall and next year it’s an Action [script], so it’s not really anything reoccurring. It really comes down to the story and the writing.

Geoffrey: I think that’s great. With Script Summit, I’ve noticed that some trendy scripts can do well if they’re written from a really personal take and it’s somebody who’s writing on a topic and feeling it. Not just because, “COVID is popular, so I’m going to write a COVID script like a million other people.” Next year, we’re going to get swarmed with those and then they’ll expect those to do well. It’s not like that. But if you have a personal traumatic story that can be a little bit common, then that personal touch will take it to a new level. But if you’re just writing to be trendy, because you think [something] like zombies are in, it’s not going to do you well. I totally agree about originality, as well. I know you have a panel of judges with Indie Gathering and Horror Hotel, just like we do at Script Summit. Do writers think you’re the judge? Because they think I’m the judge and they’ll tell me, “hope you enjoy the script,” and I don’t read the scripts.

Kristina: It happens sometimes, but I am upfront about that. I’m going to read your script but I’m not going to judge it, and that’s for a few reasons. One, I know so many of those writers. Even though I can be impartial, like I don’t care if you’re my sister, if you write something and it’s not good, then it isn’t going to do well. But at the same time, you have people assume that that person did well because they’re a regular or that person did well because I know them. So we keep that very impartial, you’re not going to know who the judges are. I will say we’ve had instances where a judge might discreetly say to someone, “I was reading your script and I wanted to ask you about this.” But that’s after the competition and we try to avoid that. You have some people trying to butter-up judges, or they think, “if you were judge last year, and if I didn’t get in this year, it’s your fault.”

Geoffrey: Exactly. I don’t release our judges either because harassment is an issue. There are some festivals that list their judges, and you can easily find them. That terrifies me because I do not want our judges harassed or even buttered-up. I will say, Kristina Michelle, just so everyone understands, has the best memory that I’ve ever met in a living person. I don’t say that lightly, I know a lot of people. I submitted a script one year, you were registering me, and you repeated back to me a comedic bit I did in my script. You got it word for word.

Kristina: Hipster Z!

Geoffrey: Hipster Z, you got it word for word! It took me a second to think what you were talking about and I wrote that thing. And you were like, “that was hilarious.” I was just blown away by you and your capacity [to remember]. You’re reading hundreds, if not thousands of scripts and I was so impressed by you. You bring that to the table and that is one way to help personalize you and the festival and really bring everybody together. I wish I had that capacity, I just don’t.

Kristina: I like to say I remember everything but what I’m supposed to. I just have all these facts in my head, but if you ask me what I had for breakfast, I have no idea. But I remember your script from three years ago.

Geoffrey: Yeah, we just compartmentalize it.

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Geoffrey: That’s the thing, joining a festival or submitting to a festival can really change everything. I had been writing for around seven years and really getting better at to perfect the craft before I even considered submitting to a festival. Yours was one of the first ones, and then from there my script just took off and went worldwide. That’s when I said, “I’m good enough now to start transitioning.” What I notice is a lot of first-time writers will submit, their scripts can be a bit rough, and they might not do well. Do you have any advice for a writer like that?

Kristina: Just getting feedback from people, before you try and go the competitive route, and being open to constructive criticism. I don’t care how good of a writer you are, there’s something that could be better. Or there’s something somebody else feels could be better or different, which could translate better to more people if some little thing was different. I know a lot of times that what you write is your baby and you don’t want to change it. I’m not saying to change things just to appeal to others but certain things like dialogue might not come across well. If you’re not open to that, put [the script] down, shelve it, come back to it a few months later, work on something else, then come back to it and read it again as if you’re the reader [not the writer]. Take that time to step away from it and come back or have someone who can help you edit. First-time screenwriters, or people who haven’t been doing it a long time, have a lot of things that could’ve been caught at the editing stage, where if they had someone else looking at it and helping them that way.

There’s a lot of things that people can do to improve themselves, but I feel like the biggest thing stopping people from getting better is accepting that feedback from other people. One great thing if you have a screenplay…whether you want someone else to produce it, submit it to a festival, or make it yourself, is to do a table read. Get some local actors from your community college theatre program and bring them together. It’s a fun experience for them and they get to give you constructive feedback. Plus you can listen to your words off the page and [maybe you’ll realize] these characters sound exactly alike and you didn’t realize it. They’re completely different [characters] but they sound exactly the same. There are a lot of ways but I feel like other people can help make you better if you’re open to that.

Geoffrey: I love this, you’re a screenwriter, a producer, and a film festival director; so these tips that you