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Sundance Institute Invite: A Pilot Online Screenwriting Course
by Karen Pecota

Being chosen to participate in Sundance Institutes pilot online screenwriting course was truly a privilege.  The course ran from July 6, 2015 - August 16, 2015.

Here below is a brief  overview of what each participant was to expect. The director of the program, Jen  Colin was clearly excited to be the first to administer this progressive  hands-on teaching tool for screenwriting. She presented these guidelines to all  chosen participants:

Overview: The four-week course  includes a series of moderated conversations with Sundance Lab Creative  Advisors and writing exercises that help aspiring screenwriters with the  beginning skills necessary to write a screenplay.

Participants identify  sources of personal inspiration, take a story idea from concept to page, and  create one complete scene. By listening to moderated discussions, participating  in forums and peer-review of work, aspiring screenwriters build their own  supportive, virtual community.

Elements: Access to four,  one-hour discussions on the craft of screenwriting with leading screenwriters  and a watch list of films. Complementary media (film clips, working drafts of  scripts) to represent key discussion topics. Optional writing exercises can be  shared with peers for feedback. Peer-review work and notes to sharpen your own  skills as a writer. Ability to create profiles and connect with other  participants. Actively participate in moderated message board threads with  other beginning and aspiring filmmakers.

Designed for: Aspiring  beginning-level and emerging screenwriters. Film lovers, culture hounds, and  anyone curious about independent screenwriting through a Sundance lens.

The five week course  was very well organized with weekly assignments attainable for someone like me  who had no screenwriting experience. However, that said, the weekly course work  took a good chunk of time to complete. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed with  the amount of time I'd need to invest to complete the assignments. I had my  doubts if I'd be skilled enough to accomplish the goal of the course and  actually create one complete scene of a screenplay.

Learning from others  was a highlight. The discussion sessions we would screen from artists who made  films, as well as, the course mentors or teachers each had their own  progression of how they got from A to Z in their screenwriting craft. This was  encouraging to me because I realized that though there are the basic elements  one follows for story and character building, each artists then leans into  their own style to make the product unique. This fact gave me the confidence to  be more creative working on each course assignment. The challenge was  rewarding.

The formal  virtual-sessions with the mentors and our director, Jen Colin were enlightening  but I also gleaned heavily from other classmates. Half-way through the course  we formed small groups consisting of 6-8 members. My group was diverse in age,  experience with screenwriting and skill. My group leader was a teenager who had  already written three screenplays and was active in her schools' arts program.  The most experience member of our group has several screenplays on his shelf  needing completion to which he looks forward to spending time with soon, upon  his retirement in 2017. I was the least experienced member and had so many  questions regarding simple terminology in the craft of screenwriting. Each  member shared their favorite resource material that was super helpful.

Another benefit for me  was that the writing assignments helped advance my skill as a journalist. It  stretched my thought process. The weekly tasks were clear and precise and each  assignment built upon the other. This made it possible to see how a story is  built and that steps necessary to build a narrative from an idea is essential  to follow. I call it a quality control. Each step is important. And several of  our mentors' advised us not to miss one or we could lose control of our  idea/message.

One of my take-a ways  from the course was that I gained a deeper appreciation for the role of a  screenwriter. It's a hard job that requires hours of dedication. Hours of  writing and re-writing. I experienced this in mini-form via the course and  wrote a complete scene for a script. The process takes time but I believe that  a well written script is the catalysis for a successful film.

In order to complete  the assignment given at the beginning of the course, I wrote a scene from a  screen play based on the following:

Contemplating a story  idea for this assignment, I came across a photo of one of my husband Steve's  backpacking adventures. I could not help but smile when I looked at it. The  serenity it projects was nothing like this big adventure.

Steve and Gerry have  been backpacking buddies for years. Dusty was not as experienced but wanted to hang with his old friends. Steve,  Gerry and Dusty decide to take to the hills three days before a big Memorial  celebration planned for the passing of Steve's dad. In the dead of summer, a  three day backpacking trip ended up to be four. Due to severe weather changes  that altered their planned route, horrific events take place. The Forrest  Rangers were on alert, the Forrest service rescue helicopter was called, Dusty  (the most equipped of three) had frost bite and suffered extreme emotional  exhaustion, and Steve misses his dad's Memorial Service. The family not sure if  he was dead or alive.