Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference goes virtual


Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference.

The annual Courier 12 Screenwriting conference was forced to go virtual for the first time.

Last weekend, DePaul’s Visiting Artist Series hosted the Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference. Organized and produced by students and faculty from the School of Cinematic Arts, the series has brought in artists from across the entertainment industry to the conference since 2008, and this year was no exception. 

Due to the pandemic, the entire conference was held over Zoom, which had its advantages, according to associate professor and event producer Brad Riddell from the School of Cinematic Arts. 

“I think the challenges have actually turned into opportunities,” he said. “Our big challenge is usually that the folks we want to attract to come and be guests are busy people, but this year, we’re asking folks to spend an hour with us on Zoom, which is something they do a lot already, so it’s actually worked to our advantage.”

The event kicked off on Friday with a conversation with Emmy Award-winning writer, creator, producer and actor Lena Waithe. In a discussion moderated by DePaul School of Cinematic Arts faculty Jess King and Fatou Samba, Waithe gave insight to life as a creative in the midst of a pandemic, how she feels about representation in the industry and her own work, and of course, her shoe du jour (they were Union x Air Jordan 4’s). 

When asked about her work life during the pandemic, Waithe said that she’s “writing a ton, producing, and having amazing conversations. There’s a lot going on, we’re just doing it from the crib. I actually think I get to be a little more productive because there’s a million Zooms happening, and naturally, it would take me a couple days to have that many meetings, but instead, I’m knocking out a bunch of meetings in an afternoon.”

Later on in the conversation, Samba brought up Waithe’s groundbreaking work as a writer. As the first Black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series for her work on “Master of None,” Waithe has broken many a glass ceiling for Black creators in the industry. She said that when she’s writing, her work may reflect her own life, but it tells a story that the whole community can understand.

“I don’t think of myself as a singular entity, I think of myself as a part of a community,” she said. “You know, Lorraine Hansberry [A Raisin in the Sun] did not just tell a singular story about a Black family in Chicago, she told a story about what it meant to be Black in America. To me, what I’m really trying to capture in trying to be honest and tell my story is ultimately leaving proof that Black people existed in this world in a very complex way. I’m leaving my version of a time capsule of us.” 

With a conversation that was eye-opening and inspiring, the conference started off with a bang.

Saturday morning began with a conversation about breaking into the industry between associate professor of screenwriting Matt Quinn and DePaul alumni JB Ballard, Sam Campos and Roberto Larios. The group discussed their careers, what went into deciding to move to Los Angeles, and how DePaul and the School for Cinematic Arts helped them get where they are today. 

Ballard, a writer’s assistant on the Starz series “Gaslight,” said that “I actually chose DePaul because of the L.A. Quarter program. I knew I wanted to go to L.A. when I was still in high school in Texas, so I went to DePaul knowing I would end up in Los Angeles. I got the internships I needed to get, became a P.A., and eventually I was networking with other DePaul alums.”

Later on in the afternoon, Riddell moderated a conversation with Eric Heisserer, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter for “Arrival.” A notable point in the conversation came when Riddell asked Heisserer if he saw any similarities between the premise of “Arrival” and the current situation with Covid-19. 

“I feel like I go to the grocery store in the same hazmat suit that [Amy Adams] wore,” he said, chuckling. “It is increasingly relevant how vital it is for human beings to have and appreciate empathy. A person can sit down and watch a movie that they don’t feel is overtly directed at them, but it shows them how important empathy is, how it’s much more valuable to care about somebody than it is to hate them, and that, I think, was a key ingredient of ‘Arrival.’”

The evening continued with a conversation about breaking barriers in the industry. Samba returned to moderate the conversation with writer Sahar Jahani, known for her work on “13 Reasons Why” and “Ramy.” 

The conversation was light and informative, and then Jahani brought up a very interesting point about tokenization in the film industry and beyond. As a Muslim woman, she pointed out that it was interesting that she was called in to talk about representation in the industry, rather than the creative side, even though she herself is a writer.

“Let me be honest, but without hurting anybody’s feelings here, even this panel is about representation,” she said. “Sometimes I get hurt that I can’t be on the panel that’s about sci-fi or romance or comedy. That’s what I am, a comedy/dramedy writer, and I hope that one day I don’t have to do these panels where I have to talk about representation. It is important to me, and I’ll do it out of love and I’ll keep doing it, but I did notice that all of the other panels had really fun topics and mine was like, ‘representation.’” 

The weekend was a total success, thanks to the work of panelists, moderators, faculty members, and of course, the film students who worked on producing the event.

Kerry Stevens, a senior majoring in film and television who worked on the event, pointed out that although there were adjustments to be made to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, the Visiting Artists Series has always been livestreamed, so the online aspect of preparations was an element that the team expected.

“I do think that there is nothing comparable to being in the room with people where everyone is more comfortable with having a more candid conversation,” she said. “In my ideal world, we would go back to being in the room with guests. While technology is great, it’s a totally different feeling when you’re in the room.”

There was a consensus amongst panelists and organizers that a virtual event can be successful for a variety of reasons, and that even as things with the pandemic begin to improve, certain aspects of the virtual event could stay, even when events can be held in person again.

“We as a faculty have realized that we have some adjunct professors who are in Los Angeles, as well as excellent writers and creators and producers who don’t want to move to Chicago or fly to Chicago, but if they can do it online, they might think ‘hey this is fun, I’d like to do it,’” Riddell said on the benefits of virtual events and classes. “There might be future iterations of Courier 12 where a guest can’t be with us but we can still have a Zoom with them that we can project to the room. We want to get back to an in-person event, but we can also accommodate folks who can’t make it.”

Overall, this year’s Courier 12 Conference was a success. With interesting panelists, creative topics and large audiences, it was an informative and inspiring weekend that proved that the film industry is still very much alive and that creators don’t stop creating just because they’re cooped up inside the house. Hopefully, student audiences took that message away and will continue to work even amidst the pandemic.