Screenwriting Marathon

Robert McKee and his Story Seminar

Four years ago, one hundred and fifty people crammed themselves into a theater at Boston University to hear one man speak for three straight days, 10 hours a day. They heralded the weekend as being “inspirational,” “motivating,” and “captivating.” Many even claimed it changed their lives. Everyone agreed it was an amazing weekend, as witnessed by the standing ovation at the end.

Was it Tony Robbins? Henry Kissinger? The Dalia Lama? Not quite. Welcome to the world of Robert McKee—the most widely known and respected screenwriting lecturer in the world today. “Nobody in the business can afford to miss this man’s mind,” Quincy Jones is quoted as saying in the seminar brochure. British funnyman John Cleese, who has taken the course three times, says the Story Seminar is “an amazingly important course.”

Screenwriting 101 courses have always been available in media Meccas like Los Angeles and New York, however it’s just in the last few years that there has been an outgrowth of screenwriting courses available across the country. Several universities and graduate schools have added such courses to their curriculum, continuing-education centers continue to add more courses, and you can even jump on the Internet to find out the “how to” business of screenwriting Why the sudden upturn? McKee believes film to be “the defining art form of the 20th Century” and people’s love of it grows with every decade.

Back in 1996 when McKee brought his near legendary Story Seminar to Boston, over 25,000 students since 1984 had taken the course. The marathon class (Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 9:30am to 8:30pm each day) originated when McKee was on the faculty at the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Cinema and Television in Los Angeles. When he took the course public a year later, the response was phenomenal and McKee now teaches the course up to 25 times a year around the world, including four weekends a year in Los Angeles, two in New York and two in London. He has also presented the lecture in such cities as Paris, Barcelona, Vancouver, Hamburg, Helsinki, Rome, Sydney, Munich, Vienna, Zurich, Brussels and Copenhagen. Last October at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, the theater was so crowded (over 250 people) that those who registered as walk-ups were forced to sit in the aisles. It mattered not to the inspired masses, even after being informed in advance there were no more seats available.

A few things have changed since McKee’s last appearance in Boston four years ago. More than 35,000 students have now taken the course, his students’ accomplishments continue to be unmatched (they have won 17 Academy Awards, 105 Emmy Awards, 19 Writers Guild of America Awards and 16 Directors Guild of America Awards – That doesn’t even include the totals from this year’s Oscars), and in 2000 McKee returns to the Boston area as the successful author of a bestselling book.

In late 1997, McKee authored Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. The book spent over 20 weeks on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list, and continues to sell so well that almost three years after it was first published the publisher has no intention of releasing it in paperback. The book, currently in its 8th printing in the U.S. and 10th in the U.K., has become required reading for film and cinema schools at such top universities as Harvard, Yale, UCLA and USC. In January of this year, it won the prestigious 1999 International Moving Image Book Award, selected from more than 300 entries from 15 countries. Writer Dominick Dunne has said he turns to the book for “inspiration.”

McKee, a Fulbright Scholar, who maintains a whirlwind schedule writing his own scripts and books in addition to his heavy seminar schedule, also is eagerly sought after as a consultant by major film and television studios. In March, McKee was invited to speak at ABC Headquarters in Los Angeles to its Fellowship writing group. The group represents ABC’s top writing talent for the network’s television and film projects, and Susan Leeper, Vice President of Comedy Programming at the network, says all new writers in the ABC program are required to take the Story Seminar. When time has permitted, McKee has also consulted professionally for Paramount, TriStar, Disney, Hollywood Pictures, and Touchstone; and he’s helped develop software for Microsoft and Sierra On-Line.

The seminar also attracts a never-ending number of A-list talent: Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Drew Carey, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway, David Bowie, Quincy Jones, Carol Burnett, Gary Sinise, Betty Thomas, Brooke Shields, and many others have all taken the course. Academy Award nominee and director Spike Jonze was seen at the Los Angeles seminar last month. And Kirk Douglas took the course when he was a spry 80 years of age.

How and why has one man become the eye of the hurricane for screenwriting? McKee believes the answer is simple—what is imparted over the course of 30 hours during the Story Seminar is merely the tip of the iceberg of his knowledge. His uncompromising presence, and the convincing authority with which he speaks, is born “from the confidence you have when you have bothered to do research and study. With knowledge, your doubts fade.”

McKee’s [] return to Boston promises to be quite an event for all. But is it realistic to think that by taking the Story Seminar you can write a screenplay or novel that will sell for a million dollars? As McKee bluntly says in his course, “It won’t happen to you.” What’s realistic, he says, is this: take the course, read the book, dedicate the next five to ten years of your life to the art of screenwriting and storytelling, and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a chance of success. McKee is insistent that if you are truly a good writer, everything you write will sell. But to be a great writer, you must master the art form. “Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules,” he says. “Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. An Artist masters the form.”