Word Farm: TV and film industry pros mentor student screenwriters

One of the most exciting events of the year for students of film and media studies is also one of UCSB's best kept secrets. “Word Farm”, a student-run screenwriting workshop with working professionals from the television and film industries, begins its seventh year later this month. Some 30 students will spend three days – January 29-31 – developing and refining their screenplays and proposals under the tutelage of director Allison Anders (Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart), former Writers Guild of America president Daniel Petrie (Beverly Hills Cop), writer and producer Cheri Steinkeller (Cheers, Teacher’s Pet), writer Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls), and a host of other industry pros.
Word Farm is an intense – and productive – experience. Students, who do not have to be film and media studies majors, commit to working for three full days, and pay just a small fee ($45) to cover the cost of their meals. During the weekend, they will take seven classes (two on Friday, three on Saturday, and two more on Sunday), interacting with professionals on topics ranging from story structure and character development to getting past writer's block. At each session, the students develop and refine their screenplays, TV scripts, or even just their story ideas and “pitches”, working from different perspectives – how to block a scene or develop the narrative – and with different professionals. At the end of the weekend, they will have presented their stories multiple times and be closer to having a finished story or script.

Word Farm was conceived by Joe Palladino, undergraduate adviser for the Department of Film and Media Studies, and three former undergraduates who majored in film and media studies, Zach Hart, Tim Stout, and Ian Weinreich. The workshop is hosted by the Screenwriting Co-op, a student organization. The department  focuses on film and media history, theory, and criticism and although it offers production courses, the undergraduate major is not a film production program. Even so, “we have always had active students who are very creative,” says Joe Palladino. “Our students have started their own creative forums for experiential learning – Word Farm, for writing, and the UCSB Camera Convention (“Cam Con”) for production.”

Although organized largely by students, Word Farm and CamCon, which takes place in the spring, are known for the high level of participation and commitment by industry professionals. They are not paid for their time, and many come back year after year and become mentors to the students. Tom Lazarus, son of former film executive and UCSB lecturer Paul Lazarus, has taken on a number of past “farmers” as production assistants on his films. Writer and director Allison Anders, UCSB professor of film and media studies, says “it's always such a learning experience for ME to participate in Word Farm.
The enthusiasm and passion of the students reconnects me to that in myself and never fails to inspire me.”

The possibility of finding a mentor is one of the most important opportunities offered by Word Farm. Students may take part in successive years and can develop working relationships with the writers over time. One student, Hunter Daniels, who is still an undergraduate, is being mentored by Michael Miner, writer of Robocop, and is already pitching projects to studios. Other participating writers have less experience in Hollywood but can offer the perspective of “someone who is finding his or her footing and getting established,” says Palladino. “What matters is that our students become inspired by someone who is willing to help them.”

“Word Farm is a way to help young screenwriters to focus on their craft,” Palladino continues. “Why they want to write their stories, how to develop the stories, and ultimately getting them in a chair and starting to write their stories.”

January 25, 2010

News Date: 

Monday, January 25, 2010