HamptonsFilm Screenwriting Lab

David Nugent, artistic director HamptonsFilm, explains in the piece below how the non-profit film organization moved its illustrious Screenwriters Lab online in the face of COVID-19.

Back in early March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to evolve into the crisis that has now turned the world upside down, we at HamptonsFilm started to worry about how this virus could impact the upcoming 20th edition of our Screenwriters Lab.

After the five-day Film Festival we annually host in October, our Screenwriters Lab is our second-largest operation. Each year, we receive hundreds of screenplays from around the world, and with the help of a team of dedicated readers, my colleague Megan Costello and I select the three strongest projects to participate in the Lab. This year’s class of fellows & projects included Adinah Dancyger’s Gracefully, Kelly O’Sullivan’s Mouse, and Max Walker-Silverman’s Esther’s Guide to Sex and Death, and the plan was to travel these screenwriters out to the East End of Long Island in early April, and pair them up with three established writers, directors, and creative producers for a weekend of one-on-one development mentorship.

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This year’s group of esteemed group of mentors included Anne Carey (producer of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and 20th Century Women), Peter Hedges (writer and director of Ben Is Back, and writer of About a Boy and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), and Darius Marder (writer and director of Sound of Metal and writer of The Place Beyond the Pines.)

What our festival (or any film festival of a certain size) can lack in intimacy, with over 150 screenings and events taking place, is where our Screenwriters Lab excels. Over the course of the weekend, we have breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and include other members of the artistic community of the East End as well as board and advisory board members to join us at evening events.

We invite the public to a Master Class in Screenwriting, where esteemed writers, such as last year’s guests Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor, discuss their celebrated careers. Board members generously invite us into their homes for networking cocktail events, and last year, our co-chairman, Alec Baldwin, hosted an intimate welcome dinner for the fellows and mentors. For a long weekend, a small group of artists get to know one another, share notes and concerns, and support one another.

Though we were initially optimistic that we would be able to host at least some guests — perhaps through a slightly modified version of the Lab — the looming global health crisis suddenly escalated in ways we could never have anticipated. Along with the rest of the film world, we looked on in disbelief as SXSW, Tribeca, and many other beloved festivals and institutions cancelled or postponed their events. Next, one of our mentors felt they could no longer take the risk to fly in from Los Angeles, and then we discovered that two of our selected fellows would also be based outside of New York. Hotels, restaurants, and event spaces began to close — including the ones where our Lab would generally take place.

After extensive discussions with our highly skilled executive director, Anne Chaisson, we encountered a challenging situation that demanded a contingency plan. We were faced with the decision of either postponing or canceling the Lab, or delving into the realm of virtual meetings by utilizing a platform called “Zoom,” which I had little knowledge of at the time. To assess the familiarity of our fellows and mentors with video-conferencing platforms and gauge their interest in partaking in this online experiment, we promptly reached out to them. While we would miss the serene retreat of escaping our regular lives and convening in the Hamptons for focused work, hosting the Lab virtually seemed to be the only viable option. Thankfully, to our immense relief, all participants embraced the idea and agreed to embark on this new endeavor.

As the first evening of the Lab approached, we prepared for our introductory meeting, a gathering that would typically be accompanied by cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. However, in the realm of virtual meetings, this customary gathering had transformed into a Zoom call. To recreate the ambiance, Megan and I opted to change our virtual backgrounds to depict the hotel in Sag Harbor, where we usually host the Lab. Displaying the familiar fireplace by the water, a place where we would traditionally gather, may have evoked mixed emotions among the writers. Nevertheless, it felt like the appropriate gesture to make in the context of our virtual setting.

These kinds of virtual meetings need more engaging content. So we were thinking about how to make virtual meetings more interactive and engaging, you can incorporate various strategies that encourage active participation and foster meaningful connections. You need to make more intimate interactions and promote active engagement among attendees. Additionally, integrating interactive elements such as polls, surveys, or Q&A sessions throughout the meeting can create opportunities for real-time feedback and involvement. Another suggestion is to incorporate multimedia content, such as videos or presentations, to enhance visual engagement and bring concepts to life.

So, at the beginning of our virtual meeting, we initiated a round of check-ins to determine each participant’s location of “broadcast.” Our diverse group was spread across various places, including NYC, a cozy log cabin in Kentucky, the picturesque mountains of Telluride, Western Massachusetts, and my own residence in Amagansett. We took the opportunity to share our thoughts and emotions in light of the ongoing pandemic, discussing our reasons for self-isolation and our itinerary for the upcoming weekend. Although meeting new people in a virtual setting was an unfamiliar experience, I was encouraged by everyone’s enthusiasm to connect with fellow artists. It was evident that they cherished the chance to interact with fresh faces and welcomed a respite from the prevailing circumstances.

The following day, the mentors and fellows spent hours working with one another over a variety of different online platforms, and later that evening, in order to make up for some of the informational networking events could not take place in person, we organized an “Industry Happy Hour” with two wonderful members of our Advisory Board Dan Steinman (co-president and COO of 30West) and Michael H. Weber (Oscar-nominated co-writer of  The Disaster Artist, 500 Days of Summer, and The Spectacular Now), and Liz Hannah (writer and co-producer of The Post and the writer of Long Shot.

I had prepared questions for them about their careers and advice, then planned to turn the questions over to our fellows, but it seemed that the issue of the virus’ effect on the industry loomed over everything at the moment, from the stories people may want to see told, to what could possibly get financed, to even how films would be seen when we get to the other side of this.

Thus, we spent 45 minutes sharing how COVID-19 had affected each of our corners of the film world, from the viewpoint of producers, financiers, a lawyer and two working screenwriters. While a degree of fear naturally informed these discussions, everyone saw hope in the role that artists can play in moving ourselves forward with new stories and new ways to tell them.

On the final day of our virtual edition of the Lab, the fellows and mentors shared a concluding one-on-one session, before we came together to discuss each project as a group. As we all gathered together for this final Zoom call, an incredible feeling of solidarity and hope permeated the session. Even though we were separated by thousands of miles and different time zones, it became clear that the passion of artists will thrive whenever and however we see ourselves out of this pandemic.

We yearn for connection with one another, and to find ways to support the next group of artists who will tell our tales. And while this year’s Lab may have been assisted by the wonders of technology, what really drove it was everyone’s commitment to both their craft and each other. We are one of a number of arts organizations whose primary mission may be sharing films with our local audiences, but who also work hard and take pride in supporting artists at varying stages of their career.

And while producing this year’s 20th edition of our Screenwriters Lab presented challenges we’d never imagined, we wanted to share how we were able to make it happen in the hopes of reminding all of the storytellers that where there’s a will, there’s often a way.

Pictured above, courtesy of HamptonsFilm: (L to R, starting with stop row) Megan Costello, David Nugent, Max Walker-Silverman, Kelly O’Sullivan, Adinah Dancyger, Peter Hedges, Darius Marder and Anne Carey.