Wednesday, 28 September 2011

New Year

Tonight sees the onset of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. So I just wanted toLink wish everyone a happy and healthy new year, and thank you all for reading my blog over the past 12 months.

Also, at this time of year we ask people we may have upset or offended over the last year to accept our sincere apologies and forgive us for any hurt caused.

I'm aware that a large part of what I do is give feedback on scripts that are very personal to the writer - and although I try to be as careful and delicate as I can be with my words, if I have said anything that has caused any hurt please accept my apology.

But this is a screenwriting blog so let's not get too heavy. Let's end the year with a screenwriting resolution - courtesy of Danny Stack - and make next year the year to end all script formatting problems!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Pitching & Bitching

Last Wednesday a group of Red Planet Prize finalists met up at Kudos HQ, together with Tony Jordan, Alison Jackson, Simon Winstone, Vicki Delow and Camilla Davies from those two companies. We were taking part in a pitching workshop, a chance to hone our pitching skills, something screenwriters absolutely need to do, but don't often get the chance. I've often said that practicing pitching, for example with friends or even at college, is a lot like taking penalties in training. No pressure - no problem. But in front of a packed stadium - well, did you see Rooney hilariously fall on his butt last week? However this was somewhat different - as the practice session was taking place in front quite a panel of industry experts.

We weren't there to pitch our own projects, it wasn't about that on this occasion. So the brief we got was to pitch Hustle, as if it was our own idea and a completely brand new show, and yes... to the man who actually created it. And then that same man would give us feedback. No wonder pretty much everyone asked for a drink before we got started. But we all did a really good job and it was both great fun and really educational. After we were done, Tony gave us a few tips based on his years of experience. And I'm sure he won't mind me sharing some of them with you guys. (NB: These are my interpretations of his words and the notes we were given - and should not be directly attributed to Tony Jordan or anyone at Red Planet or Kudos.)

Think about who you are sitting in front of. Some like the more conversational, relaxed approach, whereas others will still want a back and forth conversation, but might be a little more focused and business like (for want of a better word.) A lot of this comes from experience, but try and do as much research on the person you are about to meet beforehand and obviously pay attention to their body language during the meeting.

Be a Writer. Be the creative guy. Just because you’re going into a corporate office to meet a business person it doesn’t mean you have to turn up in a suit with a briefcase. They want to meet you because you are a writer. Keep it informal, relaxed and be yourself. My own rather more limited experience suggests that this is truer of TV than it is for film, (especially in LA, as you may have seen in my write up of the Alan Denman lecture.) In film they still expect you to dress like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, but possibly expect a more business like approach.

One of the questions I hate the most is Why Now? How is the idea relevant to the times we are living in now? This can be really tricky, but it's important and sometimes easier than others. Ironically enough, just as it's coming to an end, Hustle is more timely than ever. But whatever the idea is, work very hard to have an answer to this question prepared before you go into the meeting.

Don’t overkill the idea. A pitch should be able to convey the heart and soul of a series within the first 30 seconds. You want to make the listener ask questions to find out more. Keep it clear and brief. There’s no need to go into details about episodes, the twists and turns of the series - or even the characters - unless you have a concise, clever, universal way of doing it. (For example a couple of people at the workshop likened the characters of Hustle to modern day Robin Hoods - Mickey is Robin, Danny is Will Scarlet, Stacey is Marion etc, which is archetypal and everyone will 'get it' immediately.)

Own the idea - it’s yours. Don’t read anything out. Keep it fresh and spontaneous. Exude confidence and passion for your idea. Frames of reference provide instant clarity. It’s often better to give singles references to convey the tone (for example Tony mentioned a few times that Hustle was basically Ocean's Eleven on TV,) instead of merging two or three together, eg. ‘Sex in the City’ meets ‘Spooks.’ That can look like quite calculated and unimaginative. (Again this is quite a British thing - I'm led to believe that they love all that this is this meets this thing in the States.)

Bear in mind Broadcasters are looking for ideas that will meet the specific channel requirements at that specific time. You love the idea, and you’ll try to get them excited about it too, but if it’s not for them it's neither the end of the world, nor is it necessarily any reflection of the project itself. It's more important to just enjoy the experience and keep the door open for the future. So whatever you do, do not try to persuade them this project IS for them when they have said it isn't. That's like saying they haven't been smart enough to get it, or they are being an idiot. That's not very clever - and in any event, no way are they going to change their mind (even if it's just on principle!) Just accept they are not interested. Be gracious because it's a small industry where everyone knows everyone and talks. So it’s worth building and maintaining a good reputation.

If it looks like the broadcaster is bored and is thinking oh my goodness this is rubbish, don’t be afraid to stop halfway through and acknowledge this. In fact, maybe the idea has only been in your head until now and saying it loud has made you realise oh my goodness this is rubbish. Fess up. Be open and light hearted. They will thank you for it and want to see you again. As opposed to if you keep going on and on. Next time your name comes up in their diary don't be surprised if you end up seeing an assistant. (The caveat to this is to be absolutely sure about what they are thinking. That can be tough but what you don't want is to end the pitch or say oh that's rubbish isn't it - and actually they were quite into it.) But if they have lost interest and don’t want to know any more, use the few spare minutes to have a chat and build a relationship. This particular idea may not be for them but you want to leave the door open, so use the small talk wisely.

And during that small talk try to glean useful information. What are they are looking for? At what stage do they like to get involved in an idea? Do they like loglines? Fully formed treatments? How do they like to receive pitches, post or email? (So down the line you can send an email or a letter and reference ‘you know you said you liked X, well here’s my new idea... etc.)

Monday, 19 September 2011

Channel 4 Screenwriting Course 2012

You may well have already heard this elsewhere, but just in case, applications are now open for the Channel 4 screenwriting course 2012. CLOSING DATE FOR SUBMISSIONS: Tuesday November 1st 2012.

Full details can be found at:

or at:

And remember Janice Okoh made it onto the course last year so don't forget to check out her blog.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Breaking Into Hollywood

Last night I attended the Breaking into Hollywood presentation by Alan Denman. It was two and half hours long - and overran. Comprehensive doesn't even begin to cover it. Alan has been in LA for around nine years and the purpose of this course is to distill that experience into a one evening lecture and give the rest of us the shortcut and benefit of this experience.

I can't possibly go into too much detail in one blog post - simply because there was so much detail. But the evening covered things like the layout of LA, where best to stay, the need for a car and the pros and cons of renting against just buying one, parking regulation, how to eat well but economically, important visa information and of course, where and how to network. Things like The Table and Britbreakfast that I'd never heard of. Free screenings that go on all the time, where, if you're watching Social Network for example, Justin Timberlake and Aaron Sorkin might turn up to watch it with you (true story.) Info about agents, managers, entertainment lawyers, the list goes on and on.

Do your research and prep before you even get on the plane. Figure out who you want to meet and how to get to them. It's much, much easier in LA than it is in London. Take plenty of quality business cards with you. Have a US mobile phone because you'll need to be contactable at all times. Be polite and respectful when networking and everyone is really friendly and helpful. But if you have a cynical, pushy or arrogant attitude, no one is going to give a damn. You're just not that important.

One thing that really stood out for me was that writers in LA are far more industry savvy than here. You're expected to know about things like budget, finance, actors, sales, territories, target audience etc - i.e. the practical nuts and bolts of filmmaking. That's in addition to having a verbal logline on tap that will get people excited, before you even get to the polished script you've got on your laptop. If your pitching a project you should probably have a short 1-4 page business plan to go with it that covers this sort of thing. Everything in LA is geared towards commercial movie making. That doesn't necessarily mean high concept, but it does mean it's treated like a business and movies need to make money (even if most still don't.) The indie scene is far more prevalent in New York. But even then, it's probably best to leave your gritty, kitchen sink drama in England.

This is a practical course. It's geared towards people who are genuinely interested in going to LA - not necessarily to live - it might be for 2 weeks, 2 months or multiple trips every few months. But before you do I would seriously urge you to get in touch with Alan. He also offers residentials, either scheduled like the upcoming American Film Market or any time throughout the year tailored to what you are looking for. You'll probably even be invited to dinner. You need to be brave out there. Introverted is going to be a waste of time and money. But so is just turning up, script in hand, and having absolutely no idea what do to or where to go in this huge city. Get in touch with Alan. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

On September 22nd, during BAFTA's Screenwriter's Lectures series, Souvenir Press are re-publishing an updated version of The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer's Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay - by David Howard & Edward Mabley. And they asked me to review a copy for this blog. My first thought was ooh, me? How kind. (So lesson to all, beware the vanity and flattery of the poor screenwriter.) My second thought was, ooh, free book. (See first lesson.) So I immediately agreed... And then immediately regretted it. What if I hated it? I'm not going to say nice things about it if I don't believe them to be true. Oh goodness, am I going to read it, hate it, and then have to politely (or not so politely) send it back and apologise? So it was with some considerable relief that not long after beginning to read it, I thought my word, this is actually quite good. By the time I got to the end, I'd forgotten about the review and was just enjoying reading it.

I should explain. I believe there should come a point in a screenwriters life where you basically don't read screenwriter how to books any more. You should read scripts, and just write, write and write some more. And then get loads of quality feedback. Because they can become a distraction. A couple of years ago I sold all my screenwriting books except Vogler's Hero's Journey and Mernit's Rom Com masterpiece. I now have Tools to complete a trilogy. Because there should also be a point in a screenwriters life where you read everything. Gobble it up. For me it was at college, helped by the fact that the library meant I didn't have to pay for Seger, Aaronson, Field, Goldman etc, etc.

The Tools of Screenwriting doesn't have cool, funny industry inside stories that both amuse and shock. There are no anecdotes about what the munchkins got up to on the set of the Wizard of Oz or why there are no bras in outer space for Princess Leah to wear. Tools is exactly that. It gives you a clear run down of the tools you'll need to generate a good screenplay. Reading it won't make you a great writer. In the same way reading a great cook book will not make you Masterchef. But it will give you a description of the ingredients you will need, tips about how to use those ingredients - and then it's up to you. The chapters are short. There is no padding or fluff to this book. It's just a workers guide. It breaks down into four sections and I'm going to list the chapter headings to give you an idea of how the book approaches its task.

The first section is titled About Screenwriting and contains the chapters The Screenwriter's Task, Stage Versus Screen, Adaptation, The Auteur of a Film, The Screenwriter's Relationships and A Cautionary Note. This is the background info. This is about where, as screenwriters, you might find yourself within the industry and what your job might entail.

It then moves on to Basic Storytelling. Chapters include What makes a "good story well told," The Division into Three Acts, The World of the Story, Protagonists Antagonists and Conflict, Externalizing the Internal, Objective and Subjective Drama, Time and the Storyteller and The Power of Uncertainty. This section really gives you the fundamentals of how to construct a screen story. What methods and techniques are at your disposal.

The third section digs a little deeper. Screenwriting Tools. The chapters are Protagonist and Objective, Conflict, Obstacles, Premise and Opening, Main Tension, Culmination and Resolution, Theme, Unity, Exposition, Characterisation, Development of the Story, Dramatic Irony, Preparation and Aftermath, Planting and Payoff, Elements of the Future and Advertising, The Outline and the Step Outline, Plausibility, Activity and Action, Dialogue, Visuals, The Dramatic Scene and Rewriting. This is where you start to earn your bread a little bit more. Writing a basic, linear screenplay that works is a good start. But are there things you can set up on page 20 and pay off 50 pages later? Twists are great when they come off but is dramatic irony, letting the audience in on something the characters don't know, more engaging? Does the story world make sense and is there narrative logic behind even the craziest of ideas? Like I said, the chapters aren't long. It's more like the book is a bite size accumulation of the tools of the screenwriting trade.

The final section is an analysis of several feature films, including ET, Some Like it Hot, North by NorthWest, Citizen Kane, Witness, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, Chinatown, Annie Hall, and more. If I had one complaint about the book it was probably this. An update to include films of the last ten years would've been good. Instead of Annie Hall how about 500 Days of Summer? Instead of Streetcar maybe Crash? What about Little Miss Sunshine or frankly anything by Pixar? But it's a small complaint and to be fair the films chosen are absolute classics. If you haven't seen most of them and want to be a screenwriter, it's probably time to sign up to Lovefilm or something.

I realise all I've mainly done is list chapter headings and this is probably the weirdest book review of all time. Souvenir Press may well be regretting the day they sent me the book. But in closing, all I can say is, if I ever start teaching on a screenwriting course, I would definitely use this as my core text.


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Another quality course

The Authoritative Guide to Writing – And Selling! – a Great Screenplay

Sat-Sun 24th and 25th September, 10am - 5.30pm Central London

The seminar comprises two intensive, interactive days, designed to focus your creativity, your screenwriting skills and improve your networking.

It's run by two very experienced practitioners: Producer/Script Editor Philip Shelley (Waking The Dead, BBC; Inspector Morse, ITV), who also runs the Channel 4 Writers Course and the website, and Screenwriter Philip Gladwin (Trial & Retribution, The Bill (both ITV ), who also owns and runs the Screenwriting Goldmine website.

If you’re a screenwriter who is looking for new inspiration after the summer slowdown, and if you want to learn some very specific and highly effective techniques for writing – and selling – a great screenplay, then this two day workshop is for you.

If you are interested in finding out more, and seeing some of the excellent feedback we got from our inaugural course in July – please follow this link for more information:

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

London Screenwriters Festival: Group Discount!

If you're planning on going to the London Screenwriters' Festival (and why wouldn't you be,) but haven't bought your ticket yet, sign up to become part of a group booking and you can get £66 off. *

Organised by Janice Day, the Group Sales Ticket Co-ordinator, if you email with JEZ FREEDMAN in the title, she will send you back the discount code.

I've booked my ticket and like last year, I hope to attend on the Friday until early afternoon and all day Sunday. Look forward to seeing you there.

* I'm not taking any commission for this discount. Just helping Janice spread the love in these tough times.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Back to work people - short courses to look out for in September

I'm back - safe and sound - it's September, and as ever, things are ready to kick back into gear. On that note, there are three courses coming up that I want to tell you about. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of short courses. I think they promise more than they deliver and are usually quite expensive.

But I met Alan Denman about eight years ago at the old London Screenwriters Workshop when I attended a course he gave about the Hero's Journey. It was an early step on the road to becoming a screenwriter. Alan splits his time between London and LA, doing what most of us are still working towards. And he's here in London giving three courses over the next month.

September 10-11: FROM PAGE TO PRODUCTION. For writers and producers - learn how to produce your own screenplay.

September 14: BREAKING INTO HOLLYWOOD. An evening seminar for those wanting to kickstart a career in LA.

September 17-18: GET IT SOLD, GET IT MADE. How to write scripts that will attract producers and financiers.

Click on the links for more info about Alan and the courses - and go to You Tube for a series by Alan called the Screenwriters Salon for an idea of what you'll get at the courses.

I should be at Breaking into Hollywood so if you decide to join me, come say hi.