Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Winning The Kairos Prize

I had been aware of the Kairos Prize for Spiritually Uplifting Screenplays for years.  I never entered because I have never been much of a fan of screenwriting competitions.

Screenwriting contests are almost always comparing apples to oranges.  In the past, I have only entered contests with very narrow parameters like the Slamdance Horror Competition, where my script "Desecrated" was a semi-finalist, and the Baltimore Film Office's Screenplay Competition, where my scripts "An Italian Restaurant" and "Eradication" lost in two successive years.   I know, I know:  No prophet is welcome in his own hometown.  (Don't get me started about the Maryland Film Festival....)

Trish, on location in Australia.
Last year, however, my longtime reader and advisor, and one of the best writers I know, Trish Schweers kept emailing me notices about the upcoming Kairos Prize.  She said I should enter the contest since the subject matter was definitely my oeuvre.  I was impressed by her vocabulary.  I was also impressed by the fact that there was also a $50,000 prize.  That's a lot of money for a screenplay competition.   That's a lot of money, period!  So, on September 16, 2011, I decided to break out my well-worn credit card, plunk down the required fifty bucks, and enter my eight-year-old faith-based script "I, John" into the contest.

Here's the logline:

An obscure comment by Jesus Christ near the end of the Gospel of John had led many people throughout history to think that the beloved disciple would remain on Earth until the Second Coming.  "I, John" addresses that possibility when the comments made by a severely-wounded homeless Holocaust survivor while under anesthesia in a hospital start a chain reaction of speculation that he might indeed be the immortal Apostle John.  It is an uplifting, heart-warming fantasy suitable for the whole family.

Back to our program, already in progress:

"I, John" was my first and only spec script written directly for the independent, faith-based market.  I wrote it with the intention of producing and distributing the film myself.  However, as I studied faith-based films, I came across a few films by David A.R. White and Kevin and Bobby Downes that I liked.  I decided to see what they thought of the script.  They liked it -- particularly its sense of humor.  They did, however, have one problem with it.  David said he and Kevin liked to produce movies they could also star in, and there wasn't a role for either of them in this script.  David asked me if I would write a Christian version of "The Big Chill" for them instead.  My answer was yes, provided I could bring my friend Tim Ratajczak along as a co-writer.  David's said yes, and Tim and I found ourselves writing one script after another.  "I, John" was put on the shelf.   Forgotten.  Until....

On January 14, 2012, I received an email from Kairos Submissions that I had been named one of the seventy semi-finalists.  Wow.   That was great.  If that was as far as it went, I would have been delighted.  Still, I started researching the competition online.  Some of them had produced features.  One of them had been a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.  That's a pretty big deal.  I was no shoo-in.

On February 1, 2012, the names of the twelve finalists were announced.  Here they were:

Paul H. Boge of East St. Paul, Manitoba, CAN for MULLI
Bret Eugene Boyer of Scottsdale, AZ for TEXTING WITH GOD
James M. De Vince of Wallingford, CT for THE BASKETBALL
David (Nicholas) Hartmann of Mason, OH for A DOLPHIN IN OUR LAKE
Bryan Lake of Stevenson Ranch, CA for BOB
Jeremy David Lee of West Hills, CA for ROCK POINT DRAW
Jacalyn S. McLeod of Lee's Summit, MO for HOUSE OF HOPE
Clark McMillian of Bowie, MD for INVESTMENT IN TIME
Sean Paul Murphy of Baltimore, MD for I, JOHN
Lizanne Southgate & Alan Sproles of Visalia, CA for FIFTY SEVEN CENTS
Marcus Webb of Stamford, CT for AND THERE WAS LIGHT
Amy Williams of Marina Del Rey, CA for HALO THEORY

I was on the list.  To be honest, I had never really considered the possibility of winning until I reached this level.  Now it was real.  And exciting.  The next day I received word that I was being flown out to Hollywood for the gala awards ceremony.  Not only that, they were flying my lovely wife Deborah out as well!  I was so happy they were including her.  Deb had accompanied me to a number of film festivals around the country and a few premieres, but she had never had the chance to go to Hollywood for one of the film shoots and experience the quote/unquote glamour of the movie business.  Now she had her chance!  I was as happy for her as I was for myself.

Now the real speculation began.  Winning was a distinct possibility.  The key question was whether they were going to fly all the finalists out to the ceremony or only the three winners.  I went on Facebook to see if any of the other finalists had written on their walls that they were going to California for the ceremony.  (Fortunately, some of them had very low privacy settings.)  No one I had identified said they were going.  Then again, neither did I.  I didn't mention the trip either on Facebook.  If other finalists weren't being flown to California, I didn't want to hurt their feelings by letting them know that I was being flown there.  (The irony is that, despite all my research, I was never able to identify my two co-winners.  One of them wasn't on Facebook.  The other had a very common name.)

My wife and I preparing to leave for LA.
Boy, I really gained a lot of weight since I died.
(See my earlier blog, "Me, Post-Death")
Meanwhile, the details of the trip kept getting better and better.  First we were given airline tickets.  Before I could even write and ask for a recommendation where to stay, I was told they had a room for us at the Universal Hilton Hotel in Universal City.  They also had ground transportation to and from the airport arranged and an itinerary filled with cool events.  I had hoped to meet up with some of my west coast friends during the trip, but that wasn't going to be possible.

But was I a winner?  I finally got a definite clue.  I researched the Prize and discovered that David DeVos, the director of my film "Marriage Retreat," had received honorable mention in the contest years earlier.  I immediately called him and asked him whether all of the finalists were at the ceremony or only the winners.  He said there were only four of them at the ceremony.  That was reassuring.  That meant I was probably a winner.  Unless they offered another honorable mention award this year....  Nothing was written in stone.  Upon arriving in LA, we even tried, unsuccessfully, to worm information out of the limo driver!

The first time I found some waiting for me at the airport with a sign.
An arrest warrant, yes, but a welcoming sign, no.
They had a great room for us at the hotel and they invited us to order room service.  Deb and I had a nice romantic meal that proved unnecessary since a nice fruit basket arrived soon afterwards.  The MovieGuide folks, headed by Dr. Ted and Evy Baehr, really know how to make people feel special.  In fact, I can honestly say that everyone I met with MovieGuide was terrific.  Not only the members of the organization itself, but also its backers and supporters who had also flown out to Hollywood for the annual awards gala.  Deb and I got spend a great deal of time with them on tours, cruises and at events.  They were all fascinating and very friendly.

Yours truly with William J. Murray, son of the noted
atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
On the tours, Deb and I were constantly trying to figure out who our fellow finalists were to no avail.  We didn't get to meet Amy Robinson and Nick Hartman and his lovely wife Janel until the night of the gala itself in the hotel lobby while we were waiting to be led to the red carpet.

Nick & Janel Hartman, Amy Robinson, Deb & myself
Just like my wife and I, they were also wondering if we were the winners.  I told them about my conversation with David DeVos and expressed my confidence that we were the three winners.  They seemed delighted and relieved.  So was I, until we started walking over to the red carpet.  While we did, I spotted Clark McMillian, another one of the finalists.  I recognized him from his pictures on Facebook.  Maybe it wasn't just us three....

An instant camaraderie developed between us writers.  Once we got to the Awards ceremony I don't think it mattered to any of us who came in what place.  That may seem strange to some, but, you must remember:  We are writers.  We labor in obscurity.  Even the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood are unrecognizable to the general public.  This was a rare event that, chances are, none of us would ever experience again.  I had gotten my money's worth watching the smile on my wife's face as she walked down the red carpet in front of all of those photographers.  It didn't matter whether I got the twenty-five thousand, the fifteen thousand or the ten thousand dollar prize.  My colleagues felt the same way.

Clark McMillian with America's Favorite Fatman.
Fortunately, Clark, Amy, Nick, Janel, Debbie and I were all seated at the same table.  It gave us time to swap stories about our careers and experiences.  Clark was a Marylander like myself.  He already had a film produced called "Prayer Life."  I hadn't seen it yet, but it was already on my Netflix queue.  Nick, Janel and Amy were all, like my wife, from Ohio.  Amy was actually from my wife's hometown of Austintown.  They went to the same high school!  Talk about a small world!  We were also joined at the table by Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton, two former Kairos Prize winners.  The next day they would hold an afternoon seminar to advise us newcomers how to best exploit our wins.  My director David DeVos was also at the gala, as well as Byron Jones, the former PureFlix partner.

The gala was quite impressive.  There were a number of important executives from various studios and production companies present.  I had made sure that Deb had a number of discs with .pdfs of scripts on them in her purse.  We did not, however, attempt to hand them out.  MovieGuide had already sent the winning scripts to the studios.  Plus, we were told it the gala was a no-pitch zone.  We would be getting more than enough attention.

Byron, Clark, Deborah, me, Nick and Amy.
(Janel must be taking the picture!)
I found the MovieGuide organization very impressive.  I was familiar with their website.  It is a place where parents can check out the content of films.  They had reviewed a few of my movies and they sent me to the dictionary when they said that my film "Hidden Secrets" had "a very slight antinomian tinge."  Ooops.  Sorry about that!

There are a number of websites that evaluate films for parents, but MovieGuide is different than most of the so-called "gatekeepers."  Most gatekeepers have an openly adversarial relationship with Hollywood.  They're all stick and no carrot.  MovieGuide views itself as a resource for Hollywood.  It spends a good deal of time and money analyzing movie-goers and the box office every year to illustrate their contention that films which reinforce traditional values make substantially more money at the box office.  They don't want to flush Hollywood down the toilet.  They want Hollywood to be more successful.  They encourage shows and movies which reflect this ideal by giving them substantial monetary awards.  There philosophy seems to be working.  At their first award ceremony twenty years ago, the only film that hit their criterion was "A Trip To Bountiful."  Now sixty-percent of films released to the theaters have some sort of positive or spiritually uplifting content.

Finally, the moment of the truth came.  Time to award the Kairos Prize.  I was the 2nd Runner-Up, a polite way of the saying 3rd Place.  $10,000.  I quickly made my way to the stage.  I hadn't prepared a speech since I thought to do so would be presumptuous.   Fortunately, I did manage to get a few laughs.  That said, my main concern wasn't my speech.  It was my pants.  I did not get a belt or suspenders with my tux.  I was counting on my cummerbund to hold my pants up, but it did not prove worthy of my trust.  I had to keep one hand on my pants at all time to avoid a Janet-Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction.  This was particularly important since the event was going to be televised on the Hallmark Movie Channel.*

Yours truly giving his acceptance speech.  Looks like I have
boldly removed my hand from my pants for a second!
Nick Hartman won the $15,000 Runner Up Prize, and Fitch High School's own Amy Robinson won the big $25,000 prize.  I couldn't be happier for each of them!  Clark was the fourth place winner.  It was a great time.  The best weekend of my life.  Nick, Amy, Clark, Heather, Kate and myself have frequently been in contact since the gala, evaluating each other's pitch letters and sharing information.  What a great group of people!

I want to thank Dr. Ted Baehr, MovieGuide and the Templeton Foundation for making this all possible.  It has been a true blessing!

BTW, in case your wondering, when the check arrived, it was normal-sized.  Not a huge one like they give out for Publisher's Clearing House.

Back home with the award and the check.

*Someone please remind me, in the event I get nominated for an Academy Award, to get suspenders!

Be sure to check out my exciting faith-based memoir:

Read some sample chapters:
Chapter 1 - A Photograph
Chapter 2 - My Death
Chapter 3 - Childhood
Chapter 4 - Saved!
Chapter 5 - The Promise
Chapter 6 - The Mission
Chapter 7 - Mission Accomplished

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