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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’re giving are solid and people need to take this to heart. One thing I notice is a screenwriter’s impatience, as a [festival] director. They’ll submit a screenplay, they get excited about it, they don’t get feedback on it, they don’t polish it or clean it, and then a month later I’ll get an email saying, “I just updated the draft, can I resubmit it?” In the past, we would be okay with it, but now we pay our writers, so it gets to the point where it’s already been judged. And then I say, “You have to put in a new submission, I’m sorry.” I would say be patient and if you have to push off until a later deadline to have that script perfect, then do it. Don’t just get impatient, put that script in, and then realize there’s typos or realize you could’ve fixed the hook of your script.
Kristina: Or you have the wrong character name over here when you meant that other character.
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Geoffrey: Exactly, or the spacing is all off. Because one thing I’ve noticed is, if you’re doing that with a screenplay festival, you’re probably going to do it when you approach a manager or an agent. That’s something you need to get out [of your system]. Or if you apply to a gig, you might be like, “Oh no this is the wrong draft!” Get that out of your system, you need to stop doing that.
Whatever draft you send out needs to be the perfect draft that you are committed to, until you get notes, of course. A table read is a fantastic idea, there are so many acting schools and actors out there, and they’re all hungry for work. You can get a table read as easy as providing pizza bagels, you don’t even need to pay anybody. And the feedback you can get from it is amazing. One of my first scripts that got optioned got a table read and it blew my mind.
Kristina: And don’t be overwhelmed by feedback, learn how to filter through it. Because if you’re having a table read with 12 actors and a narrator, make your notes but don’t be overwhelmed and think you have to take everything into consideration. Somewhere there is going to be a unified voice saying these things might need to be tweaked. The biggest thing isn’t necessarily taking people’s feedback on the table read, specifically, but being able to hear it yourself. Yes it’s good to have that feedback from others, but when you can actually hear other people speaking your words, it’s a whole different story from saying it yourself or hearing it in your head or, “honey, can you read this line?”
Geoffrey: I think it’s true. I’m always impressed by actors’ choices and how they approach and read a part, the voice and the mannerisms they choose, and the cadence they choose in reading your lines. It blows my mind. In my head, I write it and I hear it in a certain way, and when you have an actor come in and they do it in a way where you’re like, “that’s super cool!” Or they do it in a way where your like, “Ugh!” It’s neat. Doing a table read and not being overwhelmed is great. What you want to do when you’re doing a table read is look for similarities. If you see two or three people stating an issue with the script, that’s something to really take a note of. Another thing I like to do is I watch the actors as they’re reading their part.
Kristina: To see their reaction?
Geoffrey: Yeah and if I see somebody skip ahead a few pages, then I know I’ve got them in the story because they want to know what’s happening. I had an actor do that during a read where he actually missed his part because he was trying to find out what happened in the next scene because the story grabbed him. That tells you right there when you’re doing something. But if you’re in a table read where it’s painfully slow and the actors are getting board, that is a big red flag and I’ve seen that happen, as well. All these things are great.
What is your feeling on awards? We all give out awards for festivals and I feel awards are great, I love getting them and who doesn’t like to be rewarded for their work? But I don’t feel that’s the point of the festival. What do you think?
Kristina: It’s not the most important part, although it is a good draw for people to want to be there because it’s recognition. With our festival, we’re pretty different from a lot whereas most festivals have a winner and a runner-up because we go by a score basis where if you’ve reached this score in judging, you qualify for an award. It might be 2nd, 3rd or 4th place, it might be an honorable mention, and you’ve seen how many trophies we have at the event. It’s nice to have that personal recognition as long as you understand it’s not the most important thing.
Geoffrey: That’s right.
Kristina: A lot of people, they just want to get their awards on their trophy case and that’s it.
Geoffrey: Yeah, in my book, I write about, “what is success for you, as a screenwriter?” If success for you, as a screenwriter, is an award case full of trophies then alright that’s your focus. If it’s getting work and getting paid, that’s a different path. I love the fact that your awards are merit-based. We give out a couple of awards, as well, we’re not just limited to one or two, we give out awards by category. It’s great and fun, I love seeing the big smiles from people when they win. With awards, don’t get stuck on it if you don’t win, it’s part of the community.
Kristina: A lot of people are not the most gracious losers, which I hate to use that word, or “non-selectees”. And it’s not even just people who’ve been rejected, sometimes somebody won second-place and they’ll say, “Do you know how much work I put into that?!” And I’m thinking, “Do you know how much work the winner put into it?” Judging is so subjective and that’s what people have to understand. It’s not just, “this is the best,” it’s “this is the best to who we have reading it.” [Even if] you do well at our festival, you might not do well at another festival. Or if you do well at another festival, you might not do well at ours. We try to have a wide range of people who are reading things, but at the same time, you can’t have just one person reading everything and not have a personal bias. We’ve seen in the past, people will say, “I can judge all these categories. Action script: 92, comedy script: 61.” Then I’ll ask why they rated the comedy script lower and they’ll say, “I don’t find most comedies funny.”
Geoffrey: But that’s not fair to that writer.
Kristina: Right, that’s not fair. Then I’ll need to replace them now, and we have people to do that. With us, it’s a multi-layered process of being judged within your category, first, then selections determine whether or not you’re qualified for awards. Then for overall awards, like Best Feature Script, you’re going through another process of judging where the same people are reading all of those winners so it’s unified. This is fair so we can get a subjective process. People like different things and respond to things differently, but there are universal stories that translate well to everybody and that’s what should win.
Geoffrey: We do a tier system of judging, as well, and I love your approach to it. Because there are festivals that don’t do it, there are festivals where the director reads every script and magically their friends win. I’ve been to those, I’ve bought a plane ticket and flown to those and left going, “I think this is just going to be a date night with the wife.”
Kristina: There are ones out there where they say they’re reading all of them and they’re not. I know people who’ve been invited to judge for festivals, I’ve had people reach out to me asking me to judges festivals, and I say, “Sorry but I literally read thousands of scripts a year with all my festivals and I can’t do it.” But when you hear a person say they’re only going to read ten pages, it’s not fair.
Geoffrey: I’ve heard of that. There’s festivals that will read ten pages and if they don’t like it, you don’t even get considered. What if it’s a slow-burn script? That’s just wild. I won’t name them, but there’s a big festival that does that and it’s sad because you paid hard-earned money and you expect your script to get read. I’ve received threats and curses, I’ve been cursed in Latin before by people that didn’t make it in the process that were, as you would put it, not as graceful. I would say, as a director of a festival, we’re doing our job. But if this is how you’re going to treat me because a judge didn’t like your script, I weep for you because I can only assume this is how you’d treat a producer who passes on your script. I got a death threat the other day, Kristina. If that is what you’re doing, you need to take a big look at yourself and what you think screenwriting really is. Because there’s a perversion in that person’s mind of what they think it is. All I can do is hope that they learn from the situation, eventually. Sometimes these people get lost in a dark rabbit hole and it’s sad.
Kristina: Notification days are never really fun. There’s always at least one, sometimes to varying levels. I’ve never received death threats.
Geoffrey: I’m above and beyond, then.
Kristina: I work outside of the festivals, too. Ray and I run other businesses and we’ve had people in the past go, “You rejected my submission, let me go find all the things you do and leave you negative reviews everywhere!”
Geoffrey: Oh my goodness! It’s true though.
Kristina: And it just stuns me that they took the time to do that, instead of taking it constructively and moving forward.
Geoffrey: Every time I get a threat online, it magically shows up as a negative book review on my Amazon. It’s like, wow that’s coincidental. I can understand why a screenwriter can get frustrated with not winning because as a screenwriter yourself I’m sure you’ll understand, it’s a different craft and form of art. If we artists, we could hang up our work and people could enjoy it. If we were musicians, we could stand on the street, sing a song, and maybe somebody will throw a quarter in a hat for us. But as a screenwriter, you can’t really stand out on the street reading your screenplay out loud to people and expecting them to enjoy it. I think that’s another reason why a lot of weight is put on screenplay awards because it’s our recognition. I can see that. It’s unfortunate but true. But at the end of the day, you can’t just go and blow up your potential network because you didn’t win the award. Do you have any tips for writing for a screenplay contest? I have a few myself and I’m sure you have a few.
Kristina: I guess I’d go back to what I was saying in the beginning as far as trend writing. A lot of times it’s not even looking to hit this genre, or looking to do a zombie film, sometimes people are trying to hit too many markets at once…Sometimes simpler is just better. When you’re trying to tick these boxes, you’re making it too much of a formula, you’re making it more like a checklist. Where is your creativity and where is your voice in that? It’s not just a technical thing. Yes, there are a lot of technical aspects to it, but if I had the choice between reading a well-written script, technically speaking, with all these boxes ticked that’s not a good story or a script that could’ve been a little more polished but draws you in, I’m going to read the latter.
Geoffrey: I like that, that’s good. Originality and finding your voice as a writer is key. If you can marry that with a polished script, you’re going to have a winning script. I think you’re 100% right. Because you can write a soulless, heartless, polished script that is just words on a screen and doesn’t have anything to say that’s just aiming to be a big-budget blockbuster. Superhero films, for instance, but it doesn’t have anything behind it.
Kristina: That’s another thing, too, writing with a budget in mind. Sometimes people will specifically write for competitions or a showpiece, and it’s something that can’t be made for less than $300 million. It just comes down to, if there are two equally good scripts and one is more marketable and has a better chance of being produced, that’s going to win out over a shock-value script.
Geoffrey: Like Armageddon. But that’s good, it makes sense if you really think about it. I’m glad you mentioned this because it needs to be said: If you’re writing or submitting to an indie festival, submit an indie script. If you’re writing to a horror festival, submit a horror script. If you’re going to submit to something bigger, submit something bigger, and I think that’s entirely appropriate. Hipster Z was well-loved at Indie Gathering, and thank you for that, I am honored. Even if it wasn’t well-loved, I still would’ve loved you guys. But I had submitted that to a horror festival only, not Horror Hotel, a different one. And they said it was too funny, so it didn’t even place. So then I submitted it to a comedy festival and they said it was too scary, and it didn’t place. That tells you how subjective it is, like with you guys. It had won other festivals, as well.
Kristina: That’s why we have a Horror-Comedy category…That brings up another point, not as far as the writing goes, but how writers can do better at festivals is to know the festivals you’re submitting to. Too many people blindly submit, so if you’re submitting to a festival that’s specifically horror, know what they’re looking for. Get a feel for that instead of just sending it everywhere. Something will stick, but you’re going to get a lot of rejections.
Geoffrey: And it’s expensive! You’re spending hundreds of dollars for a shotgun approach hoping for a win. You’ll probably get one if it’s a pure numbers game, but I like the smart approach. I like doing research. It’s the same thing when I acquire producers and managers, I research them a little. You don’t want to get too stalkery, but definitely research the festival that you’re going to submit to, I think it’s brilliant. I know people do it with Script Summit because I see them on the Facebook group, and I’ll know what they’re doing. Eventually, they’ll reach out to me and ask certain questions and I love that. It shows somebody that is in the next level that cares about their career and is trying to succeed.
Indie Gathering International Film Festival and Horror Hotel are your festivals and I highly recommend them. Kristina and Ray are such fantastic people, lovely, and they’re directors that care about their writers. But I also wanted to mention you’re a producer and a Telly Award Winner for which show, again?
Kristina: Horror Hotel, same as the festival. We have the International Horror Hotel, which is the festival, and we have a TV show, which is a hosted horror show. That’s been going for seven years now, we just won our second Telly on that. I produce, write, edit on the show.
Geoffrey: And your host is really great, she’s fantastic and has a lot of personality. Kristina, it’s so nice to bring on a [festival] director and speak about the other aspect of screenwriting, from a film festival point of view. Because I don’t think you really get to see that perspective. It’s so lovely to see you and great to have you on. So you have a good one!
Kristina: Thank you!
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