Thursday, 11 November 2010

LSF 2: 50 Ways Into The Industry

The title of this session was a bit of a misnomer. Because although the panel gamely came up without 35 ideas on index cards, the session became more of a general discussion and we only actually went through a few of them. That didn't make it any less interesting though.

It began with the panel introducing themselves and talking a bit about how they broke into the industry, although it soon became clear that there is never usually one big break. More likely there are a couple of breaks at different stages, and that staying in the industry once you have got in is as much of a challenge, which is something I think resonates with a lot of people.

Moderator and Writer-Director Jonathan Newman took quite a common route. He made short films. Less common though is the fact that he has now turned not one, but two, into feature films soon to be released.

Consultant and talent scout Shirani Le Mercier took a different route, but one more common to those working in development or on the production side of things. She sent CVs, lots of CVs. About 150 she reckons to be anything, assistant, tea maker, whatever. And funnily enough she got 3 job offers - after 5 months of rejections. But once in she worked her way up from there, doing much the same thing to get to the jobs and positions she wanted to be in.

Back to the writing side of things and Stuart Hazeldine made shorts, wrote a spec (kind of like Die Hard on the London Underground,) worked as an extra and hustled as much as he could. And the hustling never stops. Even once you're in. Because it's like you're starting from scratch each time. (I think the entire panel concurred on this.) Even if you are at the top of your game, like Aaron Sorkin for example, he's still got to chase the next great project and battle it out with, I don't know, Steve Zaillian lets say. They don't rest of their laurels because people rarely come to you. They or their agents are busy hustling.

Screenwriter Marc Pye wrote and wrote and wrote. Whatever he wanted to. Short stories, TV specs, novels, features, shorts. And then guess what - he hustled. He barraged (politely, that's important,) a script editor on a soap until he eventually got a shot. And then he did the same thing to try and get on The Bill, pitching idea after idea, getting rejection and rejection, until he finally got a break. He stressed the importance of building up a body of work. You've got to have more than one script because you need to be able to answer the inevitable question - what else you got?

Also on the panel was Paul Trijbits. He spoke more about what screenwriters should be doing rather than his own career (but did mention how being invited to run the Film Council's Premier Fund was a fantastic opportunity and experience.) There was a bit of a debate about what the emphasis of the screenwriter should be. Most of the panel had talked about the importance of networking but Paul disagreed slightly. He affirmed that at the end of the day a good script (and to be fair it probably has to be better than just good) is your best tool. Networking, hustling, etc, shouldn't be at the expense of sitting at your computer and writing scripts. That was what producers and agents are for. But I think by and large at the end everyone had agreed. That for writers the priority has to be the writing. But in a working day you can spare an hour to make phone calls, send emails, etc. For my money I think there has to be some networking and contact making. Otherwise you can be the most prolific writer on the planet. It won't make a difference if you don't know anyone to send them too.

And when you do meet people it's important to have a good logline ready. A broad idea of what the film is about and the tone. You need to be able to distill it like this because if you can't no one else will be able to. Shirani suggested a good pitch contains genre, target audience and a 'this meets this' to put them in the right frame of mind. The consensus was that this could be quite dangerous though. You tend to get people just crossing the two most fashionable films of the moment but there is usually a uniqueness to them that you can't and probably don't want to mimic. My own opinion is that describing your project to be in the vain of something else is normally okay. It's a very economical way of getting the feel of your project over to someone. But use it with caution.

A couple of other points worth mentioning. It's so important not to send stuff out in haste. We've all done it. We make a new contact, we've got a script, and we just want to get it to them. But if it's not ready, they will notice. And you only get one shot. Jonathan told the story of how one of the Farrelly brothers (Peter I think) saw his short, called him up and was interested in turning it into a feature. Jonathan flew to LA and was sent in to pitch with Fox and Dreamworks. But in truth he had no idea at that stage how to turn it into a feature. They had no story. And the opportunity was lost. It was a chance with two massive studios that never came again (at least with that project.)

By the same token don't submit something and say in the covering letter that so and so thinks it's really good. Because it begs the obvious question - if this person or company like it so much, why didn't they pick it up?

As the session came to a close there was a bit of last 10 minute scramble to talk about some of the ways in the panel had come up with. These included soap Shadow Schemes (don't be precious about this. Even with Marc's soap track record nothing is guaranteed,) internships at a production company, working as a PA (this might be better for someone interested in producing or development, rather than writing,) and Stuart Hazeldine's idea of writing a spec sequel to an existing movie.

I have to be honest I'd heard people say this before, but never actually met anyone who had done it. Stuart wrote a sequel to Blade Runner, and wasn't worried about being sued - because he had no money anyway! It got him a lot of meetings and people still ask him whatever happened to it today. Even more significantly, having demonstrated he could write in that universe, he got a job adapting another Philip K Dick short story. (I notice on Stuart's wikipedia page that he wrote a sequel to Aliens 3 too - so it's obviously a tactic that appeals and works.)

I would say to also use this one with caution. It can be cool but it's limiting. This can be your passion project, or your comfort project. A bit of go to writing when you're burned out and can't write anything else. But it shouldn't take the place of coming up with your own, original scripts.

So for writers 50 Ways in at the end of the day boiled down to about two. Write the best screenplays you can - and then find the right people to get them too.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up Jez, cheers!

Jez Freedman said...

you're welcome. more to follow soon!