The Jacksonville Film Festival: Paradise for Filmmakers and Screenwriters


John Leary, Alison McMahan, and OscarJohn Leary, Alison McMahan, and Oscar


Our horror/thriller script, Heaven Sent, was a finalist for the Screenwriting Awards at the Jacksonville Film Festival in Florida.  We spent five days last week as very pampered guests of the festival. Jennie Jarvis coordinated an incredible experience for the ten finalists which included pitching workshops, production workshops, several opportunities to pitch to nearly a dozen producers, a red carpet photo op, television interviews, and plenty of parties where we could hob-nob with the producers, the other screenwriters, and filmmakers who had films in the festival.

Jacksonville had had its screenwriting award on hiatus, so it was a special privilege to be amongst the finalists in this new inaugural year. Finalists have to get themselves to Jacksonville, but from there everything is arranged: we had five nights hotel at the stunningly situated Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, and a van, usually piloted by fearless screenwriter-doubling-as-Jennie's assistant Mike Masson took us everywhere we needed to go.

Our experiences began with a private lunch and then public workshop with screenwriting guru Hal Ackerman, the author of Writing Screenplays that Sell, We were also given copies of the latest edition.


Hal AckermanHal Ackerman


The day concluded, as nearly every day did, with a VIP reception for the opening film and a screening of Everything Must Go starring Will Ferrell, the first-feature effort by Dan Rush.

Friday started just as auspiciously with a private workshop with producer Jillian Stein. Stein gave us insight into how the indie producer looks at scripts, what their problems and challenges are, and how best to approach them.

Jennie Jarvis and Jillian SteinJennie Jarvis and Jillian Stein

We then had lunch at the famous Mossfire Grill with Stein and producer Khris Baxter.  That afternoon Baxter led us in a pitching workshop.

Mike Masson, Khris Baxter, Allen Gorney and Alan JamesMike Masson, Khris Baxter, Allen Gorney and Alan James

Four of the screenwriting finalists were invited to pitch something off-the-cuff as part of the workshop, including John Leary and myself. John and I pitched a very low-budget film called Girl in Trunk: "Her cheapo boyfriend locks her in the trunk to sneak into the drive-in. Big accident, he’s dead, and the three people who could free her aren’t going to." Although we stumbled over it and were extremely nervous, a producer in the audience came up to us afterwards and requested the script. That was a major success and the festival had barely started!  Drew Fogg brought down the house with his side-splitting pitch for a movie set in the world of competition eating.

There were not one but two parties that evening, as we were invited to Jacksonville's Octoberfest and then met some of the filmmaker's who had films at the festival, including Jason Winn of Tin Roof Films, Brett Carlson who made the short Take My Wife, Derek Underwood the maker of Nothing Noble, and others.

Allen Gorney, Alan James, James Poirier, Drew Fogg: Nerves before the PitchAllen Gorney, Alan James, James Poirier, Drew Fogg: Nerves before the Pitch

Saturday was the most nerve-wracking day, as it began with a closed-doors session in which each screenwriting finalist pitched the producers privately. John and I were pitching Heaven Sent, and we had spent the last few days writing and re-writing our pitch and rehearsing a tag-team delivery. We were nervous and maybe a bit over-rehearsed and felt our delivery was a bit wooden but we did manage to get it down to two and a half minutes which gave the producer's plenty of time to ask us questions and led to a lively discussion.

James Poirier, First Prize Best Screenplay, & Jennie Jarvis on Red CarpetJames Poirier, First Prize Best Screenplay, & Jennie Jarvis on Red Carpet

In the afternoon we repeated the pitch, this time in front of a public audience that included our fellow screenwriters as well as all of the producers, including a few that had missed the morning session. Practice had made us more confident, and we drew a lot of energy from the audience and our fellow screenwriters. The audience was voting for best pitch which of course went to Drew Fogg for the pitch of his comedy, The Wedding Photographer, about a slacker who has to come to terms with his life when he photographs his lesbian sister's same-sex wedding. Bert Havird kept us on the edge of our seats with his pitch for a thriller about a man who has to save his pregnant wife from the clutches of a psychopath out in the woods, Daniel Solomon combined music and coming of age in Ireland with his Orchardville Diaries, Keith Harris described the story of a KKK member working with a black pilot to desegregate a small town. James Poirier also had a historical drama, about the real life Finnish WWII hero Simon Heyha who singlehandedly kept an army of Russians from invading his little town.  Alan James & Allen Gorney, the only other screenwriting team in the group, pitched their script about an anchorman who dies on-air during the election of the first female president, while the show’s producer does whatever it takes to keep the show going. Three of our number could not be there to pitch but Jeff Piercey had his friend Cole Pepper do his pitch for him, also set during WWII, about a German tank commander interned in a Florida POW camp.

Screenwriters Dining OutScreenwriters Dining Out

The day ended with a red carpet gala event at the historical Florida Theatre for the opening of the documentary Thespians, and then a Gala roaring 20s party.

Sunday morning was spent recuperating by the pool, where I met one of the distributors and pitched him a completed documentary that needs a home. He encouraged me to send it along.

Nadia RamouterNadia Ramouter

In the afternoon I attended the Jacksonville Film History Panel, led by Nadia Ramouter who also showed her documentary, Hollywood East,  on film production in Jacksonville during the silent film period -- a little known chapter of film history, when Jacksonville was a thriving production center before Hollywood became Hollywood. I was particularly interested in this chapter because I knew that Alice Guy Blaché had shot one of her last features here, Her Great Adventure starring Bessie Love.


In the afternoon were the awards. Jennie knows to build suspense. She started by giving out Certificates of Achievement, and then said, "and now for the award winners." John and I looked at each other and realized that we didn't have certificates, which meant we must be amongst the winners! Sure enough, James Poirier won first prize for his script White Death, Keith Harris won second prize for Damascus Road, and our script Heaven Sent tied for third place with Bert Havird's Keeping Hope Alive. It was particularly heartwarming to us to have horror/thriller scripts given prizes.


The FinalistsThe Finalists

We went home with pockets full of business cards and plans to all submit to the festival again next year.



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