Lena Waithe kicks off DePaul University’s Courier 12 screenwriting conference. The weekend event is ‘a shot in the arm for all of those aspiring writers out there.’

Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

Almost a year since Illinois’ first stay-at-home order, the pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives, including those things at the intersection of education and entertainment.

DePaul University’s Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference (Feb. 5-6), normally held in the fall was pushed back to winter for the first time due to COVID-19, according to associate professor Brad Riddell of DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts, a producer of the event.

“We just had a hard time getting organized in the fall,” he said. “We thought it was a good time to do it while people are sitting at home.”

This year’s event will kick off Friday night with a conversation between Emmy Award-winning writer, creator, producer and actor Lena Waithe and DePaul School of Cinematic Arts faculty members Jess King and Fatou Samba. Six virtual panel discussions with screenwriting talent and TV/ film executives from across the entertainment industry will take place throughout the day Saturday. Also included will be discussions with writer, producer Sahar Jahani of “Thirteen Reasons Why” and “Ramy” and showrunner Chris Cantwell of “Halt and Catch Fire.”

While there are many writing conferences, Riddell says DePaul’s Courier 12 stands out from others because there’s a familiarity with the talent and an appreciation of their work. He said this year it was a bit of an easier ask because many of us are sitting at a desk already.

“There are a lot of great conferences out there, we’re the only one that does this as a service, for free,” Riddell said. “It’s a service to the city, to our students, to the creative community. It’s something that we can do to connect aspiring writers with successful writers and let them experience that wisdom and inspiration from folks who are doing well at the thing that we all dream of doing.”

Riddell says 2021 1/4 u2032s Courier 12, which celebrates accomplished writers and gives them an opportunity to inspire DePaul students and aspiring screenwriters around the world, is bigger than in years past since it is virtual and room space isn’t a constraint. He said registrations are high and he’s expecting double or triple the event’s highest-ever attendance.

“Every year we try to have a nice balance of television and film, a nice balance of representation, different demographics, different genders and identities,” Riddell said. “As faculty, when we are organizing this, we’re like, ‘man I would love to talk to this person, or hear what they have to say.’ And so that’s sort of the ambition that drives who we go after a little bit and we go after folks that have a lot to say about their craft and what they do as writers.” This time around, Riddell gets to talk to Eric Heisserer, screenwriter of the film “Arrival,” a favorite of his.

“Even though I’ve been in this industry for almost 20 years I’m still kind of geeked out to get to talk to Eric about a film that I love, and I think that’s part of what drives some of this too,” Riddell said.

“Paper Girls” showrunner Cantwell will be talking about life in the writer’s room — an environment that is different thanks to COVID-19.

“I would say that almost everything is changed,” he said. “I feel tremendously fortunate to be showrunning a show right now with two partners that has a series order. No one is doing that. We’ll shoot in a few months, which is amazing. But the COVID-19 protocols are intensive, as they should be. I just had to turn in my COVID-19 protocol worksheet and it was about 25 pages long in terms of what you agree to do and what you agree not to do in terms of entering the show’s ecosystem.”

Cantwell said writer’s rooms are now remote, using different software to try to be able to communicate better with one another since the typical whiteboard is not an option. And shooting locations in the United States are a bit difficult as opposed to other areas in the world.

“Just because it’s difficult to get things off the ground, no one’s certainly going to order something to series, I think — that’ll be few and far between,” he said.

Riddell, whose credits include “American Pie: Band Camp” and the upcoming feature, “Later Days,” co-signed on the obstacles in the industry due to the pandemic. Having finished a movie right at the start of the pandemic, the once-clear parameters on where that film would best find an audience is a bit murkier, he said.

“I think what we’re going through makes it harder to work effectively and efficiently,” Riddell said. “All the people we’re bringing in, the work that they’re doing is our escape at the moment, and they’re still doing that work and I think that’s something that we need to celebrate. That’s sort of our guiding light for this year’s Courier 12: ‘Hey, can we use this event to inspire, give a shot in the arm for all of those aspiring writers out there who haven’t made it yet, or close to making it’ and need some reassuring of their dream? I think that’s sort of what we hope to do this weekend.”

Admission to the Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference is free and open to the public but separate registration is required for both the Friday and Saturday programs at https://depaulvas.eventbrite.com.

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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