Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Red Planet Prize 2008

There's just under 4 weeks to go until the Red Planet Prize deadline. Open to everyone, the major difference between this year and last, is that the competition is specifically looking for tv series ideas and scripts. I imagine there is a good, if somewhat sad reason for this, in that broadcast opportunities for television one-offs are becoming less and less frequent. (Although having said that there have been three on tv recently so I will talk more about this on Sunday in my regular slot.)

But for the time being, let's concentrate on the Red Planet Prize and tv series writing. Now as I have mentioned erm, once or twice, on this blog, I got to the final twenty last year. And I have received support and mentoring from the good people at Red Planet ever since. So it goes without saying that I seriously recommend entering this comp, because even if you don't win it, it could still be enormously beneficial.

Assuming that at this late stage, people are beyond the idea stage, a couple of things have still come up in conversation with a few writer friends that could be quite significant. Namely, whether to write a standard pilot, which is traditionally the first episode of a series, or do a back door pilot, which would set up the world, the characters and the concept, but its plot would function as a stand-alone story. This enables it, in theory, to be made and broadcast as a one-off, which is far more common in the US than here, where loads of pilots are made, shown but then comparatively few are picked up.)

I should point out that I have not spoken to anyone at Red Planet or Danny Stack, a key organiser, about this. So these opinions are purely my own and should not be seen as any hint about the comp itself!

But the important thing to keep in mind is that Red Planet are looking for a returning series. It's no secret that that's the holy grail for tv, and especially ITV, at the moment. And having already delivered Moving Wallpaper and the albeit short lived Echo Beach for them, I'm sure Red Planet would love to further their relationship with ITV and provide what they desperately need. Tony Jordan is on record saying that wouldn't it be nice if they got a Bafta winning series out of the Prize.

Therefore I would personally lean on the side of a traditional pilot, complete with first ep climax/cliffhanger. That doesn't mean you can't close off one or two of the subplots, or even go for a 'story of the day' set up. But there should be strong, continuing, series elements and the big stuff, the reasons we are going to tune in next week, should of course be left open. Also, if this is going to be a series, or even a sitcom, characters should obviously not go through massive arcs and change dramatically in one episode. The thing needs legs! And consider this, courtesy of another Alice Charles article, in conversation with Ellen Sandler.

Says Sandler, "It used to be that if you were a new writer, you were told, 'Do not write a pilot.' It's true that you still can't sell an original pilot, but now it's become the spec of choice to read. People want to read original material. They'd rather read a pilot than a feature because it's shorter. And yet you still answer all the questions - can you develop characters? Can you tell an original story? Can you write brilliant dialogue? That's become the spec of choice."

She's predominantly talking about the US, but it's true here too. It worked for Marston Bloom, whose spec went one further after being picked up and turned into Harley Street. So even if your pilot isn't lucky enough to win the Red Planet Prize, you may still have an excellent calling card script on your hands.

Good luck!

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