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Jessica Tanner Completes Internship With Cinelou Films, Wins SoCal Screenplay Competition

One day, aspiring screenwriter Jessica Tanner may look back on the summer of 2016 as the season that jump-started her professional development. In addition to completing an industry internship at Cinelou Films, the School of Writing for Film, Television & Digital Media M.F.A. student also won the inaugural Southern California Screenplay Competition. 

Already intent on pursuing a writing career, Tanner took an introduction to screenwriting class as an undergraduate at Loyola University Maryland and ended up loving it. At Academy of Art University, she found the mix of industry expertise and financial aid she was looking for in a graduate school.

“The best part of the Academy is that the [instructors] are already in the industry, so they know just what to teach us, like how to market ourselves and how to break into the industry,” said Tanner. 

She secured a summer internship as a script reader at Cinelou Films, which focuses on producing critically acclaimed films driven by auteur directors and powerful performances. Cinelou’s first venture, the 2014 film Cake, earned Golden Globe, SAG and Critic’s Choice Award nominations. Upcoming Cinelou releases include The Yellow Birds, starring Jennifer Aniston, and The Comedian, starring Robert DeNiro, Danny DeVito and Harvey Keitel. 

Tanner’s primary task was to help tackle the pile of scripts sitting in the Cinelou offices, waiting to be read. She would read a script and provide feedback, known as coverage. “Coverage is the script reader’s critique of the whole project,” Tanner said. The synopsis, evaluation and commentary provided in the coverage enable the production company to decide whether to pursue the script.

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M.F.A. School of Writing for Film, Television & Digital Media student Jessica Tanner. Photo courtesy of Jessica Tanner.

“At one point I was doing at least two coverages a day,” said Tanner. The experience exposed her to many scripts and a number of different writing styles, and taught her how to spot issues within a script. “I learned a lot about the business aspects of producing a script,” she said.

Occasionally, there was a break in the routine. For example, Tanner and her fellow interns got to watch the Cinelou film Mr. Church before its September release. “It was the first movie I’ve seen with Eddie Murphy in a serious role, which I thought really showed his acting ability,” she said.

In mid-September, Tanner learned that her screenplay, Colorblind, had won the first-ever Southern California Screenplay Competition, which writer and director Theo Davies established to discover fresh new writing talent “I was in shock,” she said. “I remember struggling with it because it was my first feature film, but I learned a ton.”

Colorblind originated two years ago as a class assignment. Set in the 1970s, it tells the story of a headstrong young African American woman who has aged out of the foster care system. After learning that her birth parents are still alive and living in California, she sets out from the Deep South to find them, becoming involved in the Civil Rights Movement along the way. 

Input from fellow students helped Tanner shape the story. “One of my classmates gave me the idea to set the film in the ’70s,” she said. Tanner embraced the idea and the challenge it presented.

“If you’re writing a period drama and you haven’t lived in that decade, you really have to research so that the story and the dialogue will come across as authentic,” said Tanner.  “I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to research the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement, the war, everything that was going on at the time.” 

Tanner is excited about the exposure her script will receive as a result of winning the competition. She is now working on her second screenplay.