The name Tonia Kempler popped up in a recent conversation, and when I dug deeper, her tenacity and contest successes compelled me to reach out and learn more. She writes features, TV pilots, shorts, comics, web series, and graphic novels. That's my kinda writer.
An excerpt from her bio shares her recent successes: "... No. 1 best-selling comic, multi-award winning short films, placement in Page Awards, The Austin Film Festival, and The ScreenCraft Fellowship among others. Tonia is an inspired Top Tier Roadmap Writer and an active 51/50 international workshop member with the Academy of Film Writing. In addition, Tonia is an industry script reader for the Austin Film Festival and Cinestory."
I wanted to know more about her contest strategies and the screenplays that are getting her attention.
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman: Tell us a little about yourself and your projects.
Tonia Kempler: I currently live in New York, though I grew up in Georgia. My family still lives on St. Simons Island, near Savannah. It’s very much a south steeped in the lore and practices of the Gullah Geechee, storytellers of the Low Country (the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina). Growing up in this atmosphere probably explains my love of occult stories and macabre worlds. This personal connection drives my concentration on supernatural horror/thrillers, and dark comedies, including features, pilots, shorts, web series, podcasts, and more recently graphic novels. I gravitate toward world-building and very visual narratives with strong female protagonists.
My passion project at the moment is Secrets. A dark, absurdist comedy TV series based on the Low Country culture of my youth. Imagine the campiness of The Addams Family crossed with the sexy magic of Charmed and the rom-com hijinks of Meet the Fockers. An estranged daughter from a family of haints and boo hags (spooks in the Gullah Geechee lore) brings her fiancé home to meet her eerie family. The pages are getting rave reviews, and I am putting my all into this one.
I also enjoy stretching into new directions in my writing. I am currently working on an unscripted show, and I am having a blast putting our team together and editing our sizzle reel. The show follows a well-known jewelry designer who takes broken pieces, heirlooms, etc. and transforms them for the clients. Each episode centers on the story and the heart behind the client and their heirloom. A good comp is The Repair Shop on Netflix.
I am also writing a feature, which is a coming-of-age thriller set in the rugged, picturesque Clayoquot Wilderness area above Vancouver Island. The mood and pacing is slow and a touch tragic. The life of two isolated teens who have been lifelong friends frays as they attempt to cover up an accidental murder, leading one to discover a disturbing truth about the other. I’m not banking on a happy ending, but we’ll see where the pages take me.
Short film also intrigues me. I am thrilled and honored that my first effort at a horror short, Leora, has been selected by 28 festivals and counting! It has been a whirlwind of really positive activity and wonderful recognitions for the film, including Best Horror Short, Best Director, Best Writer, and Best Editor. The reaction and the experience were so encouraging, I am already working on a second horror short.
Outside of film, I am releasing a comic and podcast in January based on one of my TV series scripts. Tabu is a supernatural, dystopian drama set in the Amazon rainforest in the year 2098. It follows a female scientist searching for a lost colleague who disappeared along with an exploratory mission stationed at an outpost in the Amazon. Our protagonist wakes to find that everyone has vanished, except for nine of her colleagues who are all in a trancelike state, unable to communicate. The chronology of the first season unfolds in reverse, gradually revealing the lead up to present day and the awareness of a devastating biological war that occurred several generations prior.
Jeanne: You've had great contest success. What makes a screenwriting contest stand out to you? How do you decide which ones to enter?
Tonia: My plan of attack for competition season starts the year before. I set my focus for the new year and map out what competitions are the best fit for each project or script. For instance, this year I focused mainly on Leora, a horror short film. I concentrated on horror festivals, and submitted several horror scripts along with the short film. I made sure to have polished scripts and I sought out lots of feedback from the horror community the year before entering festivals. I made sure I was ready. It’s important to plan ahead and be patient. It’s hard to think a year out, but it’s worth the structured approach.
Of course, some competitions fit different projects better than others. I enter competitions and festivals with different intentions or goals. Sometimes it is to get notes and see how the pages are landing with readers. When seeking feedback, I enter early enough to digest the feedback as I jump into editing the polished draft. Once I feel confident about the pages, I will submit to The Page Awards, The Cinestory Foundation, and The Austin Film Festival, among a few others. The Austin Film Festival is a staple. Nothing beats the one-on-one networking at the Driskell Bar – whether in person like we used to or virtually in the time of COVID-19! Executives and writers alike let their guard down and the conversations spark lasting relationships. I have this competition with myself each year: I try to outdo the previous year’s placements. This year I had nine scripts place in Austin.
Jeanne: Nine!? That has to be a record!
Tonia: Austin has a special place in my heart. It was the first competition I entered years ago and I placed with both scripts I entered that year which happened to be The Tabu podcast and the Leora short script, The Child.
There is also a strategy about when not to enter, based on what I have ready at the time. For instance, I did not enter Nicholl Fellowships this year since my focus was not on features in 2019 and the features I did write were horror. However, this year I have written two features better suited for Nicholl and plan to enter them both in 2021. My focus for 2020 was on directing and writing a handful of web series and shorts.
It was important to me this year to support film festivals that were forced to go virtual due to our temporary “new normal.” The virtual networking has really been great. Each festival had opportunities for filmmakers. Mile High Horror provided a live read for finalists. The Director of the Nola Horror Film Festival, JT Seaton, arranged virtual meet-ups and Q&As for all of us each day of the festival. I built a few really great relationships as a result. Ironically, I am not certain this would have occurred in person, at least not the same way. Of course, nothing beats attending a festival in person and seeing your film on screen. I am sure we are all hoping to go back to normal next year, but the virtual experience did provide a unique setting for conversation, and everyone seemed more than eager to go with the flow.
I encourage filmmakers and screenwriters alike to check out The Film Festival Circuit. Mikel Fair, the Festival Director with Film Festival Circuit, which includes Austin After Dark, The Oregon Shorts Film Festival, The Portland Comedy Festival, Oregon Scream Week, The Austin Comedy Festival, among others, was truly a bright light during this pandemic. I am excited for the upcoming Poe Film Festival. This is one I really wanted to attend in person — next year!
Jeanne: Which of your scripts has been doing the best in contests, and why do you think that one has jumped out to readers?
Tonia: I have nine scripts in various competitions and festivals at the moment. All nine placed in the Austin Film Festival and Oregon Shorts Film Festival (Film Festival Circuit). Different scripts are winning or placing as a finalist in different festivals. I specifically targeted horror film festivals for the horror shorts. Two horror shorts, Lucy and The Child are doing well. I like to call them horror with a heart, where there is a genuine emotional hook and not just jump scares and gore. I’ll know how this lands with judges when feedback starts rolling in.
Jeanne: What do you think helps make a script stand out?
Tonia: Formatting and proof-reading are critical. Both are easy things to get right and nothing will hurt a script’s chances more than not being attentive to spelling and grammar. Another misstep I often see as a reader is the failure to launch the story in a timely way. Another common flaw is a passive or inactive protagonist. Make sure we know whose story we are following and make sure their journey is clear in the first pages. Make sure the reader experiences and gets invested in the consequences of the main character’s decisions and obstacles.
Jeanne: What's the biggest mistake writers make when entering contests?
Tonia: We put too much weight on how well we do in festivals and contests. We have to remind ourselves that feedback is subjective. Many readers are writers, finishing one script at a time just like the rest of us. If you don’t place or get the notes you had hoped for, try not to let that hinder your momentum — listen openly but just keep writing! Too often, we let another’s opinion of our work stall us out. It’s okay not to place in a contest. Finishing a draft in the first place is quite an achievement. Congratulate yourself on your efforts and the courage it took to submit your pages. You’re already ahead of the game!
Jeanne: Any tips on waiting for the results to come in?
Tonia: Keep busy! Jump into another script. Adapt a current script into a graphic novel. Time flies when you are busy.
Jeanne: What advice do you have for contest-winning writers to make the most of that success?
Tonia: Network! Meet the Festival Directors. Do all the Q&A’s, even the virtual ones. You never know who you might meet in a virtual break-out room or at a panel. Reach out to the other filmmakers. Follow them on social media. Comment, promote, and share works by fellow writers and filmmakers as well as the festivals. Be gracious and grateful. It’s a smaller community than one might think. And it’s a welcoming community. I’ve built great relationships just being present and asserting myself. I have several short films in development with directors I met through virtual meetups during isolation. If you’re a filmmaker and you’ve had a film chosen as an Official Selection or a Finalist, don’t rest on your laurels; follow up on your recent success and keep up the momentum with new work! If you are a screenwriter, attend as many events virtually as you can. Filmmakers are always looking for shorts to produce. Make posters of your projects for sites like Film Freeway and have a headshot ready to go. If you place, this will be on the festival websites. I can’t stress enough to be prepared. You never know what may come your way!
Tonia Kempler lives in New York, though her roots run deep in a rural south still steeped in the occult traditions of the Gullah Geechee and the animism of the Cherokees. Surrounded and empowered by the lore and practices of these mystical cultures, Tonia leans toward macabre worlds with isolated, damaged, yet capable and empathic female leads. This personal connection drives her concentration on supernatural horror/ thrillers, and dark comedies, including features, pilots, shorts, web series, podcasts, and more recently graphic novels. Her approach to storytelling and understanding audience engagement is fortified by a career in the Music Industry, including concert production and managing Grammy Award-winning producers, engineers and songwriters. Recent accomplishments include a No. 1 best-selling comic, multi-award winning short films, placement in Page Awards, The Austin Film Festival, and The ScreenCraft Fellowship among others. Tonia is an inspired Top Tier Roadmap Writer and an active 51/50 international workshop member with the Academy of Film Writing. In addition, Tonia is an industry script reader for the Austin Film Festival and Cinestory.