Screenwriting groups can be formal or informal, large or small, meet regularly or meet irregularly. There’s no RIGHT way to run a screenwriting group, but let me suggest a method that is tried and true, and forged in the halls of UCLA’s graduate screenwriting program.
Starting in 1980, a screenwriter and screenwriting teacher named Lew Hunter started teaching a series of “434” courses at UCLA in which graduate students took their script ideas from concept to finished first-draft over the length of one-quarter, or about three months. Lew later wrote a book on the writing concepts outlined in this course, and I can’t recommend reading it enough. “Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434” is a seminal book on screenwriting, and one that many writers and writing teachers have been influenced by.
I myself was a graduate student at UCLA, and since finishing the program, I’ve participated in several writing groups based on the 434-structure. The problem with a self-run screenwriting group is that it’s NOT a course; writers will drop out, stop writing, or begin to short-change themselves by showing up for meetings without any new pages. The most important choice you’ll make in starting a writing group, therefore, is WHO will be in it. If your purpose in starting a group is to make friends, or to spend more time with the guy you have a crush on—it’s not gonna work out. The people in your group should be SERIOUS WRITERS, and preferably people you already know and who have completed prior screenplays. Ideally, you want 6-8 writers in your group for reasons I’ll get into below.
After you’ve picked you team:
1) Pick a day and time every one or two weeks that everyone can plan to meet, and stress to the group that your meeting should be a PRIORITY. If one person doesn’t show up, everyone in the group will be negatively affected.
2) Decide WHERE you are going to meet. A quiet, professional space is ideal. Avoid coffee shops, or other places where you will be overheard.
3) Choose a certain NUMBER OF PAGES that everyone will commit to bring to the group. If people overwrite or underwrite, that’s OK—but deciding beforehand on a page goal will inspire everyone to write and participate. I recommend 10 pages.
4) Write your pages. If you are starting this group yourself, it’s IMPERATIVE that you complete your pages. If you start to slack off, the whole group will follow.
5) Meet at the preplanned time, and decide who’s gonna have their script READ OUT LOUD first. The writer cannot participate, but should instead LISTEN CAREFULLY to his script being read. One person should read the “business” (all of the descriptions and transitions) and everyone else should split up the roles between them. Once the group has decided on their parts, read through the entire 10 pages.
6) After the reading, the writer should remain QUIET and take NOTES while everyone else says what they LIKE and DON’T LIKE about the script that was read. It’s important to say both—even if you HATED or LOVED the script. Everyone should be constructive in their notes, and only when the group has completed their feedback should the writer ask questions.
7) Once you’ve completed the first read & feedback session, rotate around the group and do the SAME for every other writer. This is why 6-8 writers is the perfect number for a screenwriting group—there are not SO MANY that your meeting lasts for more than 3 hours, and not SO FEW that their aren’t enough people to read the roles in everyone’s scripts.
8) Wrap up & confirm the NEXT MEETING TIME. This step is important. If it’s not written in people’s schedules, it will be very easy to blow off the next meeting as the date approaches.
Again—there is no perfect way to run a screenwriting group, but the 8 steps above are the best method I’ve found. HEARING your own script read out loud is a great way to improve—but HEARING and READING other people’s scripts will also help you to recognize new approaches to writing, or bad habits to avoid.
The last step I’d add to this process can only be accomplished with a VERY COMMITTED GROUP. If you’ve found the right people, try to set a FINISH DATE for everyone’s script. Decide beforehand that everyone will wrap up their first drafts in three or four months, then use your weekly or bi-weekly meetings to move toward this goal. Setting a deadline will inspire everyone involved to keep up with their peers in the group, and to cross the finish-line together. And if you can tie in your screenwriting schedule with a program such as Script Frenzy, even better.