There are a lot of screenwriting contests/retreats out there, but only a handful are worthwhile. CineStory is one of them. It's a contest combined with a retreat. If you place as a semifinalist or higher, you get invited to the retreat. This ensures that everyone else at the retreat is a serious writer and lets them gear the sessions for more advanced writers than a typical conference would. The retreat takes place in Idyllwild, a fun and kooky mountain town a couple of hours outside of L.A. The other great thing about CineStory is that it's small - only around 20 writers and nearly that number of mentors (industry pros). That means an excellent ratio of writer to mentor. And they rent out an entire inn that is the focal point so it feels like a temporary community.
The retreat is mainly made up of "informals" and one-on-ones. The informals are Q&A sessions on a variety of topics. Everyone's lounging on couches and a couple of mentors riff on a topic and invite questions. It's much more laid back than a typical lecture. More like hanging out in a room and listening to pro writers/managers/producers give their perspective on the industry. During the retreat you have three ninety minute one-on-ones with different mentors. And they actually read your entire script beforehand so they are prepared with notes and career advice. The one-on-ones are incredibly helpful but can also be quite intense. It can take weeks to process everything from the retreat and I wasn't sure how I felt about the whole experience for a while, but now I'm glad I did it. It's kind of like getting notes on your script but also getting notes on why you want to be a writer and doing a gut check to see if that's what you really want to do. No one's there to stroke your ego, they're there to help you get better and improve your script.
Pretty much all of the informals were good, but now now I'll talk about some of my favorites. The most fun one was The Photo Challenge. You drew a random photo from a hat and then had to make up a pitch on the spot about the image. It was helpful for teaching you how to pitch on your feet and people came up with some really entertaining pitches in a short amount of time. There were also some great Fly On the Wall pitch sessions where other mentees pitched and we got to listen in on the pitch and hear from the mentors on what went well and what didn't. Any informal with Phil Eisner or Joe Forte was always entertaining and informative. Phil is a bit of a wildman and has some crazy stories about the business and a unique perspective on life. Clea Frost and her dedicated staff do a great job of choosing sharp industry pros and interesting topics.
The best part of CineStory were the nights after the official day's work had concluded. All of the mentees and mentors had dinner together and then drank wine and played pool (or at least a game involving a pool table - sorry, inside joke). Then the walls came down and it was just people hanging out. My buddy Jason and I had fun drinking bourbon and smoking cigars with producers and managers and just shooting the breeze. That's when you realize that these pros are just people - funny, smart people. Same goes for the fellow mentees - a group of bright, driven writers who crack each other up. I still stay in touch with many of the writers I met there.
So if you're looking for a screenwriting contest/retreat that gets you facetime with industry pros, honest notes on your script, and the opportunity to make great new writer friends, you want to apply to CineStory.