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Script Lab fellows at Bread Loaf participate in an exercise in which they learn how to best pitch their finished screenplay to film producers. The weeklong Script Lab balanced one-on-one individual mentoring between fellows and advisors drawn from the film industry with group workshops that addressed everything from screenplay structure to industry networking.

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J-term Scenes: The Script Lab

January 29, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A few years ago, Ioana Uricaru, an assistant professor of film and media culture, was sitting in a faculty meeting when she learned that Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Inn—home to the Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf School of English—was to undergo an extensive renovation that would result in the winterization of the historic property. Uricaru recalls then-president Ron Liebowitz encouraging the faculty to think of projects and programs—both existing and yet to be dreamed up—that might flourish in the space. “And I immediately thought, ‘Script Lab,’” she says.    

What Uricaru had in mind was a weeklong intensive retreat for a small group of fledgling screenwriters. She had attended a handful of such labs (Sundance, Torino) herself, and had learned the value of one-on-one mentorship and the luxury of networking with film professionals far removed from the distractions of the industry in Hollywood.

And then, there’s the Bread Loaf campus.

For nearly 100 years, the locale has served as a summer gathering spot for aspiring writers and poets, a secluded place that allows one to focus exclusively on their craft. So, Uricaru thought, why couldn’t she make Bread Loaf a similar destination for screenwriters? A winter retreat where one could escape the pressures and distractions of day-to-day life and focus exclusively on their dream of writing a screenplay.

Uricaru’s idea gained traction, receiving critical support from the Ron and Jessica Liebowitz Fund for Innovation, which would cover tuition, room and board, and some travel expenses for six fellows to attend the inaugural Script Lab. Uricaru just needed to drum up an applicant pool.

 “The fireplace was key,” Uricaru laughs. She’s sitting in front of a crackling fire in an alcove just off the lobby of the Inn in mid-January; Emma Piper-Burkett, a screenwriting fellow from Portland, Oregon, sits in a chair a few feet away, tapping on her MacBook. She glances up from her laptop and nods affirmatively. “The organizers did seem to push the existence of fireplaces here,” she says, matching Uricaru’s laugh. “And that certainly was appealing—snow-covered woods outside, warm fire inside.”

Uricaru describes the challenges of marketing the very first Script Lab (thus the emphasis on snowy recreation opportunities and multiple fireplaces), but she needn’t have worried. She received more than 160 applications for the six fellowship spots. Each applicant submitted a full draft of a screenplay—no fewer than 75 pages—along with a personal statement and written responses to a handful of questions. “I would have been happy with 100 [applications],” Uricaru allows, adding that the quality of the work matched the quantity of submissions in exceeding expectations.

Uricaru says she was aided by her faculty colleague David Miranda-Hardy as well as a supportive cohort of Middlebury alumni in the film industry in getting the word out about the opportunity. These alums were also instrumental in recruiting advisors—screenwriters, directors, and producers—who would lead workshops and work one-on-one with the fellows, both on the craft of writing and the art and science of navigating the insular world of Hollywood.

Several of these alums—Ryan Koo ’03, filmmaker and founder of the website; producer Andrew Peterson ’87; writer Antonio Macia ’00—made the trek to Bread Loaf. Others, such as noted television showrunner Shawn Ryan ’88 appeared via Skype and worked diligently to help Uricaru entice other Hollywood veterans to travel to Vermont for the week. In all, 11 advisors joined the six fellows, as well as Uricaru’s winter term screenwriting class, for a winter experience that was the first of its kind at Bread Loaf, but certainly not its last.

Matt Jennings, Photo by Todd Balfour