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Student Screenwriters Find Community at Spring 2019 BYU Writers'Conference

Media arts students heard from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Schrader and other industry professionals 


Conference attendees participate in a table reading of student work. (Lindsey Tippets)

The Department of Theatre and Media Arts hosted its fourth biennial Writers'Conference May 29-June 1, bringing together film students, professors and industry professionals at BYU's Timpanogos Lodge in Provo Canyon.

As a craft, writing can be a difficult balance between solitary work and collaboration. Many students struggle to find the confidence and community necessary to share their work, prompting media arts professors Tom Russell and Courtney Russell to organize an immersive retreat that fosters connections, training and experience giving and receiving feedback.

"The conference is such a unique experience that writers don't usually get," explained Elise Finlinson, a media arts student with screenwriting and production design emphases. "Writers are notorious for isolating themselves, so it's good to get us all in a room together. It's a great way to share and hear from some incredible people in the industry, network with my peers and get professional exposure I wouldn't get any other way."

The conference boasted a host of special guests — from alums and local film industry professionals to Oscar-nominated screenwriter, director and critical writer Paul Schrader — giving students a sense of the broader writing community outside of their BYU classrooms and projects. 


Students follow along during screenplay table readings. (Lindsey Tippets)

Guests offered advice on topics and concerns within the business of writing, including challenges that women often face in both Hollywood and the local film scene, and discussed their own work and career experience. 

Finlinson was particularly grateful for the insights of "A Quiet Place" screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, while fellow media arts student Elena Bender was most inspired by Schrader and critical writer and philosophy professor Adam Miller

"It's important for us to have role models to look at who have successfully created a career in writing," said Bender, a critical studies student with additional interest in screenwriting and new media. "I enjoyed being able to watch films created by the people who were presenting, having the opportunity to critically dissect them with my peers and then being able to hear the writer's perspective on the piece. It gave us a very holistic view."

Throughout the conference, students were also able to step into the role of presenter, sharing scripts, pitches and other projects with their peers and faculty mentors. Finlinson's screenplay was selected for a table reading, allowing her to hear her action and dialogue interpreted by classmates.


Elena Bender (right) helps run an exercise on using audio cues in writing. (Lindsey Tippets)

"It was sort of an out-of-body experience to hear my words out loud like that," said Finlinson. "I'm not used to sharing my writing, so it was definitely helpful to get that kind of immediate feedback — well, helpful and really scary, but mostly helpful. It was great to hear people laugh at things I hadn't even thought were very good jokes and also to hear what jokes people didn't laugh at. It was an awesome experience."

Bender co-presented the first episode of "Radioland," an experimental fictional narrative podcast. Together with director Sam Burton, she ran an exercise on the utilization of sound in writing and answered questions about the project.

"I was incredibly nervous," said Bender. "But I feel like the audience really received it and responded well, which is good, considering how abstract it is. I have great faith in the podcast itself because the team I was working with is incredible, and Sam is an excellent director. I'm excited for the rest of the episodes to be released."

Bender came away from the conference inspired to be brave and persistent in her writing.

"My biggest takeaways were to write and rewrite," she said. "I'm not going to get better by doing nothing and just thinking about the stories I want to tell; I actually have to write them down and let people read them and then rewrite. I have a lot to say, and it's never going to be heard if I don't write. It's all about growth."