Slamdance gives first-time screenwriter top prize
October 28, 2008
A politically charged thriller about a man who begins seeing numbers on those around him and a page-turner about a murderer who asks himself what’s next after he gets away his crime are the subjects of the top-two winners of the annual Slamdance Screenplay Competition, now in its 13th year.
Neil McGowan took home $7,000 for "Numbered," which won best feature- length screenplay, and Douglas Miller, a native Utahn, received second prize for "Goodman’s Garden." The two beat out about 2,000 other submissions to take home the prizes.
The winners were announced at a Writers Guild of America reception in Los Angeles on Oct. 17.
"Maria Full of Grace" and "The Woodsman" starring Kevin Bacon are among past winners that have been turned into successful mainstream films.
Plans are already underway to stage public readings of this year’s winners at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City Jan. 15 to 23, which runs at the same time as the Sundance Film Festival.
Whether "Numbered" and "Goodman’s Garden" are turned into films will depend on producers and directors optioning the scripts.
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So far, no contest-winning script has been adapted into a blockbuster film, but some of the writing competition stories have been made into offbeat independent films for about $300,000.
The goal of the contest isn’t to find potential money-makers, but rather to foster creativity. The contest’s director, Joy Saez, spent from February until mid-October poring over submissions with about 25 other readers. Some of the screenplays are unpolished, not even formatted correctly, and other submissions glow. "It’s an independent voice for those coffee-shop filmgoers," she explained. "Much like the film festival, we are looking for unknown, unproduced raw talent. We bring the writer full circle."
Slamdance’s writing contest offers previously unknown talent an inroad into the film industry. Before his break as a writer, McGowan worked as an administrative assistant for a research and analysis company in Los Angeles. He had written and produced short films and plays, but "Numbered" was his first attempt at a movie-length screenplay. He moved to Hollywood 12 years ago to pursue acting.
Now 37, his lucky day has finally arrived.
"This is the biggest and best thing that’s ever happened to me," he said. "It’s the greatest confidence builder. It’s hard enough to get your friends to read something."
It wasn’t just friends who took a liking to "Numbered." Writers for television and film read the script and enjoyed it.
"It’s very well-written and it’s an interesting concept," Saez explained. The film also has political import, she added, because it deals with the fear of the unknown.
"I was thinking about society in general," McGowan said.
He wasn’t alone in trying to write a topical drama. In fact, the vast majority of dramatic screenplays submitted to Slamdance this year were ripped from the headlines. "We read a lot of war-based dramas," Saez said. "There are a lot of people who are losing family in the wars right now and they just needed to express it."
Detective stories, mysteries, true stories and gay and lesbian films were all subjects writers attempted to dramatize. About 60 percent of the entrants were men, but women also had a strong showing. "They’re not just writing romantic comedies and teen movies," Saez said. "There really is a range."
McGowan first got the idea for "Numbered" years ago, but he decided to sit on the idea for a while. "A screenplay is like the marathon of writing," he said. "It’s what you train for. I was always good with character and dialogue, but it’s all about structure. I caught a lucky break because ‘Numbered’ pretty much wrote itself."
McGowan honed his writing skills on short films, usually dark comedies. They have screened at film festivals in Austin, Nashville and Philadelphia. But he credits acting with providing him with the psychological insight to create compelling characters and situations. "I feel bad for writers that only write," he said. "I think you should do at least two things."
To see two of McGowan’s eight-minute short films, log onto IMDB.com and type in his name. For more information on the Slamdance Film Festival, visit Slamdance.com.