Thrills in an elevator up to the 34th floor

September 26, 1997

THE LAST recipient of the John Cleese screenwriting award was Peter Dowling, a 28-year-old assistant animator from Manchester. A year after the investment by Mr Cleese, Dowling has an agent and a film contract for his FBI thriller, entitled The 34th Floor.

Without the investment from Mr Cleese, Dowling believes it would have taken him far longer.

"Winning the award was great," he said. "There was no way I could afford to spend a whole year writing without it. On top of that I was able to go to the University of Southern California which is the entrance to the industry."

The course itself held no secrets for Mr Dowling, who had already written a number of film scripts. One entitled Wipeout, which has already been bought by Metrodome he describes as a sort of Die Hard beneath the Caribbean. But the contacts he made on the course were vital.

A synopsis of films written by students on the masters at USC are made into a list at the end of the course. Hundreds of agencies call up to subscribe to the list and check out the new talent. For Dowling it was a Fulbright connection that led him to a potential buyer for his script.

"A Fulbright friend of mine put me in touch with MGM who liked the script so much they put an offer on the table," he said.

"Before I could accept everyone in town knew about it and I even got a call from a studio telling me that if Spielberg didn't get a look at it, he'd be very angry. It was just crazy."

"In the end Arnold Kopelson of 20th Century Fox, who was the executive producer of The Fugitive and Outbreak, saw the script and made a higher offer so I sold it to him."

Dowling discovered the award in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. He was interested because it was an award specifically for screenwriting.

Unlike the Fulbrighters on the MBA courses, the film writers are not selected by their academic qualifications. Instead they submit a screenplay and are grilled by a panel.

"The grilling was terrifying as William Goldman who wrote All the President's Men was on the panel. I told him this wasn't a whim and I was going to get there but if they gave me the money they'd just be helping me on my way."

Mr Dowling is looking forward to the future. He has already been booked for rewrites on his movies and is looking to get the film rights on a number of his favourite books.

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