Missouri Scriptwriting Competition Builds Community Within a Tough Industry
The creative industries lost $150 billion in sales from April through July of this year, according to an estimate from the Brookings Institution. Millions of jobs are gone, and hundreds of venues and arts organizations have shuttered.
But even as the creative economy reels from the pandemic, analysts predict an opportunity for communities to shift to locally sourced culture—with support from municipal governments, arts organizations, community groups, philanthropists and the private sector.
One such organization is the Missouri Film Office, a resource for production companies interested in filming here. Through its Missouri Stories Scriptwriting Fellowship competition, the office is also providing something else that’s invaluable for creatives right now: a sense of community.
The seven-year-old competition is open to writers anywhere, as long as their screenplays and television pilot scripts are set in Missouri. It’s a golden opportunity for anyone who’s been spending their quarantine time writing—because all of the entrants receive feedback and scoresheets from the industry professionals who judge the competition, says Andrea Sporcic, who runs the Missouri Film office for the Division of Tourism. All entrants can also participate in a free MO Stories Workshop. (Past examples can be found online).
Sporcic says she had no idea when the program started that it would be so well received by writers. “We’ve had more than 300 scripts,” she says. The submissions are very diverse—from period pieces set in the past to modern urban stories.
That diversity mirrors the range of settings Missouri offers for film production. The state has cotton fields, forests, riverfronts, caves, skyscrapers, vineyards, cattle pastures, suburbs, deltas and historic small towns with Spanish, French and German influence. It lends itself to any time period or citizenry, from pioneers to street gangs.
The rich history is what attracted 2014 Fellow Peter Mayer, who won with a TV pilot script called “City of Blues” that was set in the 1950s. “St. Louis is an inordinately interesting place,” Mayer explains. “It was one of the largest cities in the U.S. It was industrial, an economic powerhouse with large companies. It had very influential organized crime, a highly suspect municipal government and an active music scene. All of that converged in the 1950s.”
Mayer is a full-time actor whose path to the competition started in the early 2000s, when inspiration for “City of Blues” struck. The script that eventually won was a collaboration with two colleagues, Joe Leonard and Scott Fuller.
“Of all the talents in theater, movies and stage, writing is the most elusive,” Mayer says. “It’s a rare talent.”
While Mayer has stayed on the acting side of the industry—the St. Louisan currently appears in “Casting the Net” on the Urban Flicks TV streaming network and the award-winning movie “The Ghost Who Walks”—he feels the competition was invaluable in connecting him with other film and television professionals.
“It’s of great help to talk to other writers—for both young and experienced writers—because it’s enormously difficult work,” Mayer says. “It can be such a frustrating business.”
Writer and actor Dominique Johnson agrees. “First and foremost, I met wonderful people,” says the 2015 Fellow, who grew up in St. Louis and now lives in New York City. “Andrea Sporcic, the Missouri Film Commissioner, and Stephane Scupham, the Kansas City Film Commissioner, are powerful advocates for Missouri film and Missouri filmmakers. It was not a one-time affair meeting them, but a relationship that continues to grow, and I look forward to working with them for years to come.”
Johnson says the four-day retreat where Fellows are joined by Hollywood mentors for one-on-one and group feedback was especially powerful. “It was a terrific experience to be in Rocheport together, sharing delicious meals at a beautiful inn alongside the Missouri River and Katy Trail. To be tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life allowed for a full-immersion experience that I loved. I’d take a walk during a discussion break and feel the Missouri ground under my feet, see the stark trees of February and hear the river rushing by. The fellowship experience connected me to how much Missouri lives in me and my storytelling.”
Since then, Johnson has been busy: “I’ve written, directed and acted in a short film starring Nathan Darrow (Meechum on ‘House of Cards’), a fellow Missourian. Called ‘You Again,’ it screened at the Kansas City FilmFest International. I’ve had screenplays place in the top 50 of the Academy Nicholl Fellowship and in the final rounds of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I am currently at work on a self-help book and a novel. This November, a feature film that I act in, ‘Small Time,’ will be screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival.”
Other past Fellows have similarly expansive films and TV series to their credit as both writers and actors. However, Sporcic says, “not everyone across the state knows we’re doing this competition.”
Her goal is to get as many writers as possible to enter in 2020, both to support emerging industry talent and, ultimately, to attract film production to the state. “Stories set here have a better chance of being filmed here,” she explains.
And because the COVID pandemic is hitting creative industry centers like California and New York so hard this year, there may be new opportunities for under-the-radar states like Missouri to attract attention.
The Missouri Stories Scriptwriting Fellowship’s submission deadlines are Nov. 6 (early), Nov. 16 (regular) and Nov. 25 (late). Winners will be notified in January. Rules and regulations are available online. Three writers’ scripts will be chosen, and those winners receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the concentrated fellowship experience, where they work with industry mentors.