Monday, 27 December 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I'm in New York on our annual vacation to spend time with my wife's family. And it's snowing. Hard. We're talking big boy snow here. None of that namby pamby stuff that shut down England and nearly caused us to miss our flight.

Anyway, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who takes the time to read this blog. I hope it's been entertaining and informative, and I will try my best to maintain it during the coming year.

Thanks also to those who have allowed me to read their work and have asked me to give feedback in order to take their projects forward. I've done my best to both call things as I've seen them, tell it like it is, not shirk on asking the tough questions, but hopefully all in a manner that has only helped and not offended. The service, and the prices, will stay the same for as long as it can.

Finally, let me wish everyone a happy and healthy new year, and success both personally and professionally in 2011.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Always the bridesmaid

Here's how the conversation went.
Me - "Mum, I didn't win but I got shortlisted for the Red Planet Prize."
Mum - "Again?"
Me - "Yeah I get to go to the workshop and stuff."
Mum - "You did that last time."
Me - "Yeah, but... There were like over 1500 entries and I got into the top 20 or so."
Mum - "Very nice."

Although I've made my mum out to sound like a typical Jewish mother who'd rather I'd been a doctor, it's a very large injustice. To be fair she was actually made up for me but she is so desperate for her baby boy to do well there was a certain de ja vu about this news. I can't deny I was equally desperate to go one better this time. But in the cold light of day, I'm really proud of getting this close again. I hope it demonstrates a consistency in my writing and I'm looking forward to another trip to Flitwick in the New Year.

Who's with me??

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

LSF: My roundup

It seems strange still talking about the London Screenwriters' Festival when the event feels like it was a million years ago already. But having written (what I think is) the most comprehensive review of the festival found anywhere on the net, I thought one final post summing up my thoughts might be useful with one eye on next year.

In Hollywood, or throughout the film industry for that matter, everyone wants to copy the last big thing. Whatever smash hit there has been, the studios will be looking for their own version of it to do next. It's rare however for anyone to attempt to redo something that hasn't worked. However great the Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival was, ultimately it was forced to close. That's not a criticism of anyone involved with it. As I think I've said before on this blog, in large part it was due to circumstances that weren't under their control, like lack of sponsorship and government funding cuts. Nevertheless there is no small degree of lunacy in thinking okay so that's gone, but we all loved it and we need it, so let's do another one. But that's essentially what David Chamberlain, Chris Jones, Lucy and everyone else involved, did. So all credit to them for having the guts to do it, and then the skill to do it so well.

Why go to the festival? For me I'd always wanted to go to Cheltenham but knew I couldn't. So this was a chance I didn't want to miss. The list of speakers was excellent and so many people I knew; other writers, bloggers, reading clients etc, were going that I wanted to be part of it. A strong aspect of being a screenwriter is being 'known.' Without a doubt the primary way to do this is through writing screenplays and sending them out. But in addition to that you have to get out and network. You have to get your face known. Ultimately, that doesn't matter if you haven't got quality scripts to back it up. But by the same token, as I've said before, if you write brilliantly and have no one to send the work to, what's the point? On more than one occasion when I introduced myself to someone at the festival they said they'd heard of me. I know, I just read that sentence back. So I know I sound like a prat. But that's not what this is about. It's not an ego thing. It's a marketing thing. A screenwriter is a product. And it's easier to get someone interested in a product if they've already heard of it (hopefully good things!) So the networking side is very important. And it goes hand in hand with the sessions I chose to go to.

I picked the ones I would attend based on two criteria - education and networking. The Editing session was a purely educational exercise as it was an area of the filmmaking process that I didn't know much about and it was very interesting. So to the Sustaining one. Cos basically we're all broke when we start out and it was a good question to try and answer. On the other hand, I didn't really expect to hear anything new at the Gatekeeper session. That's not being disrespectful. It's just that I'm a reader too and have been around in the industry for a few years now and I think it was a (very useful) session for newer writers. But I attended because I wanted to see Lucy and Danny again, and meet the others on the panel for the first time. Similarly with the Tony Jordan and Nicola Shindler seminar. As interesting as it was, I attended more to make sure I got the chance to speak with them (having met them both previously) than the actual content of the session. Some were a bit of both. So for example, I was intrigued educationally what the 50 ways in would be, but also thought there were one or two people on the panel that I really wanted to meet.

So next year when thinking about what to pick and what you'll miss out on, maybe break it down into two questions; what do I hope to learn, and who do I want to meet? I reinforced current contacts and made more new ones in one and half days than I've done the rest of the year.

One final thought. Get to sessions early and get to the front. I also used to shrink into the back rows. That's a waste. Because the people who are most likely to be there early are the speakers. And they will probably be hanging around, getting miked up, waiting for the session to start. If it's appropriate go talk to them then. Afterwards you might not get a chance because everyone will want to. But you stand a better chance if you're in the front row.

The London Screenwriters' Festival returns in 2011. And they've already got a special offer on the ticket price all ready for Christmas. Click here to pay £24 a month for 10 months (total of £240)

Sunday, 5 December 2010

LSF 7: In Conversation with Tony Jordan & Nicola Shindler

If Editing and the Script was the most educationally beneficial session for me personally, then this was probably the most entertaining. It featured Tony Jordan and Nicola Shindler, two people who put writers at the heart of what they do. With Tony it's less surprising, because at heart he himself is still a writer, who just happens to run a company. With Nicola though, it's a philosophy that she readily admits has contributed an enormous amount to the success of her company. A lot of people in the industry pay lip service to the writer being at the centre of the creative vision, far fewer actually do it.

  • Nicola started out as a script editor, a job she never knew existed - you just don't do you if you're not in the industry? - because basically she just wanted to work with writers. And she set up her company for much the same reason.
  • What inspired Tony was the same then as it is now - the audience. If you can imagine you're at Wembley, and something exciting happens, and you get an oooh or a roar from the 80,000 strong crowd - well imagine that when 26 million people are watching Eastenders laughing or crying at the same, that's a massive turn on.

Whilst Tony and Nicola are at the top of their game, both agreed that it never feels like that. All you have is what you are working on at the moment. There are never any guarantees that the next thing will get commissioned or you'll be working next month or next year. Tony said he had his last three ideas turned down.

Q: How does the landscape look to you at the moment?

NS: It's difficult because budgets are getting lower all the time and it's hard to make things for less and less money. And there are less and less hours to make things for. But actually Nicola felt things are better now than they were five years ago because television seems to be opening up again in terms of taste and what people want. There was a period where things were getting quite restricted - so very high concept material was being looked for, or things that copied previous successes. But it feels now that people are more open again to writers coming in and not immediately knowing that this is a twelve part series for this type of audience - but they've just got this script that's great and we'll then find a home for it. And because there's less money and less slots, that's not always a bad thing in terms of making smaller ideas work.

TJ: The way the industry works, and new writers get pissed off about it and rightly so, is everybody is terrified to put their head above the parapet. So if a broadcaster makes one of Tony's scripts and it bombs, their job's still safe because they can turn round and say it was a Tony Jordan script, how was I to know? But if they commission a script from a new writer and it bombs, they took a punt and therefore they pay with their job. That's why they like writers with a track record. But he agreed with Nicola. Three or four years ago briefs were quite restrictive and your pitch had to be a different kind of pitch - that this is this, it will attract this kind of audience, for this slot, this is the what the first episode's about, here are the character arcs, and it will all be defined right from the outset. But now there's more freedom to go into a meeting and say this is the idea, we're not quite sure what it is yet, but run with it from there. For example Tony had a conversation with a broadcaster for what he thought was a series, and came out the meeting with it being a two-parter (although he wasn't sure if that was good business or not!)

NS: You have to put in the work. Like Tony who worked for years on soaps, generating ideas all the time. You have to learn your craft. In any job you work your way up. You can't just be expected to be given a BBC 1 series at 9pm.

TJ: As a writer you spend your life staring at a computer screen. You write a script, send it out get it rejected, put it away, start another one, send it out, get it rejected, and so on. The beauty of long running series is there's an instant reaction to your writing. Your script is on screen in two months. That gag on page 11 that you thought was hilarious, and it dies on its arse, if your stuff isn't made you never know. So Tony did 200 episodes of Eastenders and it was kind of like handing in his homework. Because when he watched it he could see that didn't work, or he thought those scenes would cut together in a certain way and maybe it didn't come across, or whatever. It's feedback in a way that new writers don't get. All they get is rejection letters that don't help.

Both Red Planet and Red do try to give some feedback on scripts they reject, but Nicola noted that sometimes people get very cross... when you're trying to help them. I found this staggering but not too surprising bearing in mind I'm a script reader too. It's just not cool. It means these people will probably never want to work with you, ever. So even if you vehemently disagree with the feedback you get, don't be an arse about it.

Q: What are the new opportunities for new writers at the moment?

NS: There are still the soaps, although it's hard to get into them. The Writers' Academy, Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Coronation Street, although they are quite tough.

TJ: The Writers' Academy has made things tougher. In Tony's day they ran Shadow Schemes and he didn't think this was the case any more. I should point out though that Tony's actually mistaken and I know for sure Eastenders still does run one, although the format may have changed a little from when Tony was there. But the Writers' Academy, as brilliant as it is, only takes 8 writers that are guaranteed episodes of Eastenders, Doctors, Holby and Casualty. So those shows know they are getting at least 8 new writers every year. And if a number of them do well, they'll stay. So it's tough to get on. Even getting on the Academy is very tough and the ones that do can often have written for TV before. So that initial gig is very, very tough to get. It's always been hard but from working with new writers there is the sense that it's harder than ever now - there's just nowhere to go.

Q: So can there ever be too many writers?

NS: Well there can be too many people calling themselves writers, which is a different thing. You know that saying about everyone's got a book in them or everyone's got a story to tell - is absolute bollocks really. You're born a writer. It's a specific hard skill and there's a madness to every writer she's worked with that's specific to writing. There's a way of thinking, of working out stories in your head, a solitude, which is such a specific way of living, that it's not for everyone who wants to get into it. And again it's about putting the work in. You get people who say I've got a great idea but I'm not showing it to you because you might steal it. Or I'll give you a treatment but not a script - but you've got to write and write and write and put your heart and soul into it.

TJ: Red Planet takes unsolicited scripts and talks to new writers, because Tony still remembers what it's like starting out and it's horrible. But he does get people who come to see him with a 3 page treatment or an outline for a major new series - and they want him to invest in it. To commission a script, to go to a broadcaster, to use his contacts to sell it, to do all that. And they've written 3 pages. So Tony will ask for a script and they will turn round and say well I'm not writing for nothing. That doesn't go down too well. A writer writes. It's in the title. What they'll also say is I've talked to a lot of other companies and there's a lot of interest. Please don't do that. What you need to do is write the script, and then rewrite it. Tony doesn't want to see it until it's like your tenth draft, and you've done all you can and you're really proud of it. Then he wants to read it and if he share's that belief, he will use every contact he has and never let it rest and try and get it on screen. That's the way it works.

NS: But you have to invest your time in it first of all. The thing with ideas is that they could go either way. If you're very experienced and Nicola knows your work and your take on things, then she'll get how the idea will evolve. But if she doesn't know you or your work, then you have to give. To give of yourself.

Q: You're two of the few remaining companies that take unsolicited material, at the expense of a great deal of time and money. Why do you do this and what are the benefits to you?

TS: The reality of it is most of the television in this country is written by a little network of old farts. There's about 8 of them, including Tony. (His words, not mine!) And he never understood that until he started producing, when he used to go to broadcasters to put a show together and find the writers, they'd say can we give you a list. And it's the same 8 names on it every time. And these writers always have stuff in development, they're always working on about 8 different things at once. And they do that because they are on the list. And because Tony understands that, he said that the future of his company rests on him finding the new generation of writers. And to find them first. If he can find them, and before anyone else does, and make them feel part of the Red Planet family, and mentor them and help them with the scars and bruises he's picked up himself along the way, then that list that goes round will all be writers that came through Red Planet, and they'll bring him their stuff first. It's kind of a long term plan which makes perfect sense to him. Because the other problem with the 8 old farts is that they are usually hard to get because they are so busy. And if you do get them you don't get their full time because you are one of 8 things they are working on. Whereas if you can get a new writer, who is passionate and dedicated, you get 100%. And it's worth noting that Red Planet are making an 8 part series next year from a writer who came through the Red Planet Prize - and it will be the first thing they've had on TV. So it can happen!

NS: Her first job at the BBC she was led down this staircase. And the BBC as part of the license deal has to read everything that comes in. But no one had done it for a few years and that was her job. She became obsessed with getting rid of that pile. The truth is of those scripts only about 2 went anywhere. But you might find work from a writer with an interesting voice, who can be mentored and worked with etc.

TS: As he said earlier, broadcasters, rightly or wrongly, want a safe pair of hands. And he is perceived as a safe pair of hands. So the beauty of Red Planet Pictures is he can go to a broadcaster with work from a new writer and he can act as the insurance. He can say if it all goes pair shaped he will step in.

Q: How easy is it for new writers to hold onto their original voice?

TS: You have to. It's vital. And it's not about arguing over every single line of your script because then you just become a pain in the arse that nobody wants to work with. Tony's technique was to ask himself a question about every note he got; does it fundamentally change what he was trying to do with the script? If the answer is no, just agree to it. And you'll be a joy to work with for the first 17 pages. But when you come across a note on page 20 that really matters, that changes the heart and soul of the character and story, you can say I just can't do that. If you do that on everything by the time the crucial one comes along you're just being awkward. But if you just do it then you see them go whoa. And they'll say okay then let's leave that. And the reason they do that is because nobody knows anything. So if you pretend you know something it really freaks them out. They'll be like whoa, he knows something!

NS: I should point out at this juncture that Nicola thought Tony may just have damaged so many careers of people sitting in the room! Her basic point was that they are not all that stupid and they only gives notes if they genuinely think it will improve the script. She has found that the best writers she's worked with suck up notes. It's the ones who are neither here nor there that are a bit defensive about notes. Obviously as a reader as well as a writer, who works with other writers giving plenty of notes, and receives them too from my writers group etc, I agree with Nicola. But there's unquestionably bad readers and script editors out there to (just like there are bad writers, directors, producers, plumbers, whatever.) And it these guys you have to be wary of and probably deploy Tony's tricks of the trade. (And to be fair to Tony he did clarify the point that there are good and bad ones, and you just have to be careful.)

There were then some questions from the audience but not much new ground was covered. One I should point out from Janice Day was about whether there is a certain ageism with writers. Whilst Nicola conceded that stories about characters of a certain age could be harder to get away, both she and Tony were adamant that if the script is great, it really doesn't matter who wrote it, let alone how old they are.

Sadly that brings to the end my write ups from the festival. I've now covered all 7 sessions that I managed to get to over the one and a half days I was there. Just imagine what people who were there for all three crammed in. I hope you've enjoyed them and found them useful, and there will probably be one more post on the subject bringing together my thoughts on the festival as a whole and a writers approach to it thinking ahead to next year.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

LSF 6 : Meet the Gatekeepers

Meet the Gatekeepers was a chance for most of the writers in the room to put a face to and get an insight from the people most likely to read their scripts. Chaired by Evan Leighton Davis, the panel included Jamie Wolpert, Sarah Olley, Alex Mandell and probably more familiar to you all, Danny Stack and Lucy V Hay.

So what is a gatekeeper? It's not people to keep writers out. Honestly. It's most likely to be the initial filter facing your script. There's too much material floating around for the execs and producers to read, so they will use readers. Readers will write a synopsis, a report, and typically deliver a verdict like Pass, Low Consider, Consider and Recommend.

So what are they looking for and how do writers get through this initial pass?

JW: His job has been mainly to find writing talent as opposed to projects. Most people he has worked for have more than enough projects already on their slate. But what there's a deficit of is really talented writers they can bring to them. So an original, strong voice, a real depth and authenticity to the writing. His big thing with scripts is that the vast majority of the ones he reads have series of scenes that are either a story scene, a character scene or a twist scene - and if you watch really good TV, all of those are happening in the same scene. And a writer who can do that, even if the overall script is a mess, is someone he would want to meet.

DS: The companies he has read for want to know two things - is the writing any good and therefore is the writer of interest? And is this project something that they would possibly be interested in making? They look at the front sheet of the report first, and maybe last. Does it say Pass or Consider etc - and then the premise Danny has written of your script (note not yours. His. That's how clear it has to be cos someone else will be interpreting it.) And most execs just read that and if it doesn't do anything for them they won't read any more. Some might read the synopsis (again the reader has written it, not the writer. So the plot better be clear,) and actually think this is interesting after all and decide to read the first 10 pages or whatever, to see for themselves. But that's pretty rare. The main things Danny's looking for is originality, style of writing, is it commercial, is it a genre film? And the more you read the more you realise that so little is out and out original. What hasn't been done before? So much is derivative that it's hard to come up with something truly original. But that said, you can still stand out by doing whatever it is you are doing, really well.

ELD: What the execs he's worked with really want to know is; if I pass on this project am I potentially passing on something that will be a really good bit of business? If I pass on this will I lose my job if it goes elsewhere and does really well? If I pass on this project and don't meet this writer, am I passing on what could be a really considerable piece of talent? People work with the same people over and over again - and relationships tend to be long term. As Tim Bevan said, he managed to get Richard Curtis and that relationship drove much of Working Title's business in the early years.

SO: The commercial potential is really important. Has it got a new hook that will raise it above the other stuff that's out there? Can I imagine the poster campaign on the tube? Horror was a really important genre but it's saturated the market now - so there has to be something fresh to make it stand out. The biggest thing for her is structure. Because if a writer can't structure a story properly there will be too much work to get something off the ground.

LVH: The biggest problem she sees is with structure. Secondly, character. A lot of writers seem pretty good at evoking a mood and dialogue. But dialogue is probably the least important thing. Structure and plot are probably the most important thing because there are so many ways in which it can go wrong. If characters aren't following an arc of some kind it's very easy to get bored. Structure is not a miracle cure despite it being a script buzz word not that long ago. And whilst we don't want tick the box screenwriting, everything should have a beginning, middle and end, no matter if you call it three acts, 21 steps, whatever, whatever. Otherwise it can kind of all unravel - especially after the initial set up.

SO: If a writer sends a script in and the structure is a mess, but they have brilliant characters and a strong voice etc, it might be that she still wants to meet them and get to know them. It's just that they probably aren't ready to come in on something being worked on now.

JW: Obviously structure is vital. But the 'what' isn't as important as the 'why' and the 'how'. He'd much rather find an interesting voice in a jumble of a script, because you can sort out structure. It's harder to sort out lack of character or story. If it's not there it's not there. But if a writer has great characters, dialogue, setting etc, structure can be worked out together. That's what he does as a script editor.

AM: There are two schools of thought. The US and the European. US is more focused on the structure and European more on character. If you have a story, and character building from that, that's half the battle. Dialogue comes last because it can be changed easily. The first 20 pages are crucial. If you've got a mesmerising opening then you've got someone hooked. Of course you then have to keep the interest, the pace etc, but if you've got them hooked they will finish the script. If you don't deliver in the first 10-20 pages they probably won't read any more. From a studio point of view high concept is also really important. That one sentence log line that makes you go I want to read that.

JW: In TV high concept has probably had its day. Even in film, in this country, your high concept idea will still probably feel like a diet version of something else. The big thing for him was the distinction between Plot and Story. Story is what happens and why. It's the meaning of the thing. Plot is the order those things happen. So the example he heard from Paul Abbott is that the Plot is the King and Queen die - the Story is that the King dies and then the Queen dies of a broken heart. If you have an interesting story with interesting characters, you can mess around with the plot until you find the best way of telling that story. But that's not to imply that structure isn't important. If it's near impossible to follow what is going on then people who don't have to read the whole script may well not bother. Readers have to because that's their job. But a producer doesn't and might not.

ELD: What are the shortest cuts to antagonise readers; what makes your heart sink quickly?

JW: "I'm in my twenties and a drink a lot and club a lot and here's a story about me and my mates drinking a lot and clubbing a lot." And it's relevant to anyone else how? You might be great and the dialogue might be great, and in fact he read one recently which was, but he didn't care if the character got the girl or not because the writer didn't care if he got the girl or not because he was with a different one every night. Autobiographical is great but it's got to have a meaning. Your life is not necessarily interesting to someone else just because you've written it down. There's got to be more to it.

SO: Don't try and tell someone the whole story in one massive email. Keep your approach brief. If a writer has a lack of market awareness and you don't know what your audience and genre is, that shows you're not really aware. Also not knowing your central conflict, what's it about - and a vagueness; so is this a rom com, a thriller, TV show, film? That's pretty annoying.

LVH: A sense of audience is really important. So many scripts seem really conflicted. She sees a lot of stuff that appears to be for children and yet there is loads of swearing in it. It's really important you know who you are writing for and what the restrictions are. And the other thing that really bothers her in scripts is rape being just a beat in a story. Not against stories about rape like The Accused or The General's Daughter, which are important films. But rape that happens to both female and male characters as just something that happens and isn't it shocking but now lets move on to the real story. And it's not great.

JW: Second to drug addiction that's absolutely true as the most overused plot device. The number of times he's seen a script where a female character's motivation was because twenty years ago she was raped - and the glibness of it is really offensive. If you are going to use something that emotive and difficult, you have to really use it and honour it. Changing the subject. When sending in a script you also need a sense of perspective. Readers might have over a hundred scripts sitting on their desks so don't send an email two days letter asking if they've read it yet and what their notes are. He once had a writer send in an 180 page script in iambic pentameter and when he hadn't read it a week later, was asked to send it back with an apology.

DS: First thing a reader does when picking up a script is flip to the last page and see how long it is. So if it's a feature and it's over 120 pages that's a bad sign. If it's a TV hour and it's over 70 pages, that's a bad sign. And then scripts with basic formatting issues are a bad sign. Everyone seems to have Final Draft these days which is great but scripts still come in with green font, and dialogue centred, and scene description centred. And notes to the reader; "dear reader please consider... or please press play on track 2 on the accompanying CD in scene 2.... or did you enjoy the chocolates that came with the script..." All true apparently. Chunky paragraphs of descriptions, even in the most pacy written scripts, are also just visually still a turn off. Keep it lean.

ELD: Exposition would be top of the list. It's incredibly lazy screenwriting. Characters telling each other or asking each other things they blatantly already know just because the writer wants to convey the information to the reader. It's a massive turn off. Another pet hate is too many characters introduced in a rapid period of time early on in the script. It might be late at night, a reader has read umpteen scripts that day, and the last thing they want to do is double back on pages thinking who is that again?

AM: Loads of characters with the same or similar sounding names. Because you just lose track of who you are referring to the whole time.

ELD: Audience again. So important. Knowing who the audience is. And not kidding yourself either into thinking (and stating) that this is for absolutely everyone. Everyone in the whole world will want to see this movie.

Just a few final points that arose in the session:

The majority of the stuff you read as a freelance reader you wouldn't take to anyone else. But all the panel, and I would echo this, were clear in that readers want more than anyone to find great scripts and writing talent. And if they do they will hook them up as best they can. Because as well as it being quid pro quo, you also want to be connected to the next big thing, to say yes I know them or we helped get that off the ground. Because it does you no harm and you might want to work with them in the future somehow.

Don't send out stuff too early. What you send out should in your opinion be the final draft. (It won't be, but you have to see it like that at that stage.) If you know there is stuff still to work on, there's no point. Obviously this particularly applies to companies and producers, but even if you are sending something to a script consultant. If you know some areas need work, you are wasting your money. Send stuff to them when you've done all you can, and you can no longer see the wood from the trees, and you really need help now and a fresh pair of eyes to take the project to the next level.

Readers will have favourite genres just like everyone else does. And writers often feel that they might get unlucky or a bad report if their script happens to be in a genre the reader doesn't like. But as Lucy pointed out, she hates vampires cos they have been done to death, (my bad pun, not hers) but counters that with the fact that one of her all time fave specs had vampires in it. She's not a fan of Sci-Fi but has read some brilliant sci-fi scripts. With good writing it doesn't matter. And in some ways it's better to impress the non fans of that genre as opposed to those who love it and may want to make apologies for it. I totally agree. I hate horror and would never pay to go and see one. (I did once cos my mate was booking the tickets and for some reason booked Stigmata rather than American Beauty.) But that said, one of the best specs I've ever read was a horror script that was bloody scary even to just read it on the page.

For new writers this session was probably the best and most informative one I went to. So many scripts fail for silly, basic reasons and the more writers who cut that out, the more the overall quality of the slush pile rises, the better for everyone. But what's interesting is look at what the guys say is the priority of what they are looking for. Some emphasise character, some structure, some a strong authorial voice. But you don't get to choose your reader. How are you going to know which one you are going to get? How do you know that if your structure is really tight but your characters could do with work, that you'll get the reader who will empathise with that. Or what if you have something really interesting to say but haven't done so with clarity at the moment. Will you risk the reader being more interested in one than the other? The answer of course has to be no. And so - as obvious as it may seem - the overall answer to what are people looking for in a script, is that it is good. In. Every. Single. Area.

That's really, really hard. But that's what it takes. And if it was easy, we probably wouldn't need or want seminars like this one.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

LSF 5: How do I sustain myself

This was the shortest session I went to, still just over an hour though, and a tricky topic to cover. It was chaired by Ceri Meyrick and featured Deva Palmier, Phil O'Shea and Martin Gooch - and the panel decided that sustainability in this industry could mean creatively, financially and psychologically - and they would try to cover a little of each.

Deva decided not to chase the cash. Through the Guiding Lights scheme, Gurinda Chadha mentored her for a year, and she was faced with the cash question very strongly. She had meetings for the directors lab at the BBC and made it down to the last nine. They picked eight, and you guessed it, she was the one to miss out. It made her think about what she wanted to do and when she asked why she was the one to miss out, the answer was that although she had clearly done her homework, they knew she didn't really watch and love Eastenders. And she didn't. It wasn't for her and it saved her time. She could've done with the cash, but she went back to Gurinda and had a long chat with her about what she should be doing and how she should be spending her time. She'd been doing teaching but that was taking up a lot of her time. So her solution was to get an extension on her mortgage, upgraded her flat, and got in a flatmate who pays for everything. She does a little cash job at the ICA lab, answers the phone a bit, but most of the time writes, and it's understood that she is allowed to do that.

I liked Deva a lot. There is a passion and integrity about her. But when I later asked the panel if anyone had ever taken a job for the money, they all said of they had. Even Deva. She admitted that had she got onto the BBC programme to direct Eastenders, she definitely would've done it. And she has made some stuff where her heart wasn't in it. But now, right at this moment in time, she's not doing that. Now she's only doing what she passionately wants to do. It's right for her, now. Martin added that when he directs commercials of course he does not think they are works of art. But when you can get ten grand for the gig, which then pays for you to attend the whole Edinburgh fringe festival, then it's worth it.

Interestingly, Ceri picked up on this point. The biggest problem she comes against is writers who feel they should work on continuing drama but don't really love it or want to. They feel, and are often pushed by their agents, that they need a Doctors credit because then you'll get to do Eastenders and then you'll get to do Holby and then you're off and running. But if you don't love those shows it's a complete waste of time for the writer and Ceri. The power of 'no' is really important and you keep control of your creative career - and it gives you a creative boost if that's not what you want to do they you shouldn't be doing it.

This was, unsurprisingly, immediately pounced on by someone in the audience because as well as meaning this is turning down potentially a career sustaining amount of money, we all know that by and large, it's also the only way in. Ceri insisted it wasn't the only way in - which of course it isn't, not 100% - but it to most new writers it doesn't feel like that. Certainly not the writer in the audience who was invited into the BBC on the strength of her spec, that was tonally similar to an existing show at the time which she loved, and that this person at the BBC mentioned maybe putting her up for - but only after she's done a bit of Doctors, a bit of Eastenders, a bit of Holby etc, etc. Suddenly it would be about six years later before she would get a chance on the show that was the reason she was in the meeting in the first place. No system is perfect and of course giving new writers shots at existing high profile shows is never really going to happen. But I think it would be nice if - certain - development people recognised the enormous frustration this causes. That said, there are exceptions. Writers who have not wanted to write continuing drama and stuck to their guns, writing original stuff and have eventually made the breakthrough. Deva knew of one at the ICA lab and I can think of a few off the top of my head too. Not many though.

The flip side is that working on continuing drama gives you a massive learning curve, and the important flying hours (basically actual productions of your work on TV) to hone your writing. And to get a show of your own or higher profile shows, you need this. So again we have this tension of writers being told both that going for continuing drama if you don't love it is a waste of time, but actually it's the best learning experience you'll ever have. And as Ceri admitted, statistically it is the best way in - it's just not the only way.

Phil gave the sound advice to those starting out, who are passionate about being screenwriters, is that you make a list about what is really essential. So a roof over your head, food to eat, and if you have family they are looked after too. And after that you just keep writing. There is no point sleeping on the street because you've taken six months off to write a script you then haven't sold. You might hear those stories but they are so rare - and I would add, completely insane.

Phil plays safe. Experiences peers and colleagues of Phil's have had is that someone gets interested in your project, say off the back of a treatment. But they haven't got any money to buy it or develop it. So you decided to borrow money from the bank to give you the time to write the script, which you do. But when you take it back to them they say sorry, it's not quite what we expected or we're not interested now, or something similar in the meantime has come out. And now you have a massive overdraft to pay off. So be careful. Plenty of writers have day jobs. It's not the end of the world if you spend forty hours a week working somewhere. You've got the rest of the week to write. What Phil didn't specify - but it's there in the subtext - is that hang on, that just leaves evenings and weekends. Yep. That's the trade off. You can pretty much forget about a social life. And that's hard. I can tell you from experience that it's very hard. I see my wife because I live with her. But since I took a part time job just over a year ago, I rarely see my friends any more. I don't feel good about that and it's tough. So this thing of ours is not something to get into lightly. (Fortunately Jews have Shabbat, one of God's best creations - a day when we're not allowed to work and get to spend time with our family and friends. I seriously recommend it for everyone. Just pick a day, Saturday or Sunday are the obvious ones, when you don't even turn on your laptop. And no sneaky email checks on your phone. I'm sure you'll find it extrememly refreshing.)

If you do break in, that's great. But as Phil noted there are plenty of writers and directors who for whatever reason just had that one opportunity. Just check out IMDB for example. So don't rush to give up your day job. Get a few episodes under you belt first. Writers can go for a year without getting a paid gig - same as directors and actors etc. The difference and perhaps slight advantage we have is that we can and must still be writing our own projects in that time. But of course you also have to make sure your house doesn't get repossessed. Creatively, Phil always has a least ten projects on the go, all at different stages. So a couple of scripts doing the rounds, some treatments, working on new stuff etc. You have to send a lot of stuff out because producers don't come to your door.

Martin has wanted to be a filmmaker since he was five. He later set himself the target of writing a feature film script each year, which he has kept up and is now at thirteen. Some are good, some are bad, but he did accidentally manage to sell one to a guy he met in a pub that flew him out to Hollywood and bought his script. He actually loves the making of films and became a writer almost by accident - because no one was writing the short films he wanted to make. But he found that he loved it, and was amazed that so many writers, even on his MA hated it like it was tearing their soul apart. He thinks you've got to love it and look forward to it. He sets aside whole days when he writes and loves it. Above all, Martin thinks that working in this industry isn't really a job, it's a lifestyle. You wake up and you're thinking about your film. You go to dinner and you're thinking about your film. And so on. I agree with Martin, to an extent. But I think it's also really important to think about other stuff, important stuff, too. I'm not sure workaholicism is ever healthy, regardless of the profession. And just on the other point, there have of course been many tortured soul writers - so don't feel too bad if you're one of them!

Martin loves walking onto a set and just making stuff. He makes everything, commercials, music videos, any old crap, for money, and it's not all great but it's an incredible experience. Sustainability as a writer can mean having another discipline. He knows writers who are camera men, loaders, runners, and extras. Just being on set you learn tons - as he did watching Spielberg as an extra on Band of Brothers. And you are also making contacts, which is incredibly important.

Finally a couple of what not to do's. Firstly from Phil. Writers will see in the trades and on the web that the BBC or this company or so and so is looking for this. And they'll think great I'll write that. But realistically, by the time your script is going to be ready, that ship would've sailed. Don't worry about stuff like that. What he's always done is write what he wants to write and at some point or other you will find somewhere to place it. That may be from someone looking for something or competitions, like Phil did when he won one of the Film Council's 25 words or less pitch things a while ago. I would echo that. Any success I've had in comps has been with scripts that I've written quite some time beforehand. They were just scripts I wanted to write and then bunged into a competition.

And the last word to Martin - which basically breaks down like this: you only get one bite of the cherry. Don't send stuff out too early. It will only get read once and if they don't like it they won't read it again - no matter how brilliant the rewrite has made it. The script is now tarnished and you might have blown a really good opportunity with a great contact by just not being ready yet. And how do you know if it's ready yet? Get feedback. Lots of it. Deva once had a meeting with a key person at Film Four but Gurinda told her to cancel it - because her script simply wasn't ready. That can be hard to do. You might think it's ok, you'll pull it off in the meeting. Better to take it now and get my foot in the door whilst I have the chance. But you'll only end up then getting it slammed in your face if the script is not up to scratch.

Did the session cover how does one sustain themselves? I'm not sure. But as a topic that was probably the hardest one on offer. It was also the last session of the festival, so everyone was knackered. But I think it's a credit to the panel and the audience participation that meant there was still a great deal of interest and useful advice.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

LSF 4: Writing Comedy

This session was chaired by Paul Bassett Davies, and featured Dean Craig together with writing team, Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil and they took on the ambitious task of tackling this broad topic and trying to find some sort of universality to it.

It was felt that comedy has to come from a place of truth. There has to be an element of the familiar that people can recognise - but then a twist or a surprise, something the audience hasn't thought of. Because if they can see it coming, it probably won't be funny.

One possible secret of comedy success is re-incorporation, which came from Patrick Marber. This is where the real craft lies. You seed something early on and it pays off later in an unexpected way. Quite a good tip if you are stuck at your ending is to go back to the first twenty pages and see what else you have set up that you can then pay off. If you have an A plot, B plot and C plot - the C plot is often a running joke about an object. So look at your script and see what physical objects have been used, and think about how you can bring them back in a comedic way.

Dean, probably the most laid back person at the entire festival, wasn't convinced about rules and such. He mostly follows instinct. If it makes him laugh etc, etc... But he did agree that if things had an element of truth they are much more likely to be funny.

You have to believe in what you are writing. A crucial point is that comedy is often very character specific. For example when things happen to characters in a drama, thriller or even horror, the initial reactions at least will be very similar no matter what the character. At the beginning of Panic Room Jodie Foster could be anyone. But with comedy, something that happens to one character may not be that funny if it happens to another character. Think about what that particular character is going through and what is it about that character that makes this situation funny? This doesn't necessarily apply to sketch comedy, which is generally purely ideas led. But anything longer than that and it's well worth considering.

When Kevin and Andy work they brainstorm ideas, don't limit themselves, throw anything in etc. There will come a time when you have to censor, and reject things and rewrite. But it's always easier to rewrite than it is to come up with the initial ideas. Because in the first instance you have to get the work out. John Vorhaus noted in his book, The Comedy Toolbox, that writers should expect to see the 10% rule. In other words, when thinking of and pitching ideas, if you want to come up with ten good ones, you will probably need to have a hundred. And even then you'll find that when they have all been rejected you'll suddenly come up with something in the room that is the one they go for. This is staggering when you think about it. The amount of material, ideas, concepts that have to be generated. But this is what makes comedy so tough. Concept wise, drama for example can be okay. Some might find something interesting, others won't. But with comedy the reaction is immediate. You either laugh or you don't. And part of doing comedy is about putting yourself out there, going for something, and it may not catch everybody. The same scene in a movie for example may be people's favourite, or their worst.

When writing sitcoms, it's always a problem in every episode one in the first five minutes to establish the characters and get the story going. You see a lot of scripts where the characters come on and almost literally say to the view hello I am so and so, and tell a joke to illustrate their character. But five minutes in and nothing has actually happened in story terms.

It's also always handy to have a social structure. If you think about who your main character is, it's useful to have people above them and people below them in the pecking order. So you have people they can give orders to and people who hassle them. Even if it's a family scenario. Put your main character in the middle, who is often the most normal one and the one the audience can relate to (30th Rock, Seinfeld) and then surround them with more eccentric characters.

The session was then thrown open to questions from the audience and the first one was about swearing in scripts. This was particularly interesting because most script readers are put off by it, yet it is still very common to see a lot of it. The reason being it's just not done well enough. It's thrown around for impact, but of course the more you do something the less impact it has. And I've found, probably unsurprisingly, that the younger the writer, the more swearing there'll be. That's possibly cos younger people generally swear a lot more than older ones. You just have to ride the bus round where I live to notice that. And there is probably the influence of things like Skins and The Inbetweeners too. The consensus in the panel was that there is probably too much of it, but when it's done well it can make the dialogue pop. But it has to come from character and should probably be inventive. The obvious example is The Thick of It. However when you get the sense that the writer is just sticking in swear words instead of actually telling a joke, it just becomes bad and lazy screenwriting.

The next question was about structure, and whether comedy structure differed from say, drama? It specifically referred to feature films and the overriding opinion was that it essentially didn't. But something interesting did crop up in that there is often a danger that comedy films are less funny in their final act. In a three act structure, when you say what's that film about, it's normally about what happens in act one. So take The Hangover for example. It's a film about a stag party in Vegas with a few guys and they wake up with no recollection of what happened the night before and have lost the groom. And now they have to find him. So the end of act one is often a very funny moment and quite often the very first idea of the film. Once you get to the end of act two, and it's a crisis point for all the characters, it's very easy to slip into drama. And then in act three you're dramatically paying off the emotional threads you've set up at the start - and there tends to be less laughs. And what you have to make sure is that there isn't no laughs at all in act three. You need the heartfelt moments. But make sure the laughs are in there too.

Something that had been picked up from Robert Mckee was that comedy is possibly the only genre where you can get away with having a scene, or scenes, that don't further the plot - if they are funny enough. Richard Curtis often goes back over a script he's written and looks for the funniest scene and then just extends it. A great example of this is the press junket in Notting Hill. It doesn't advance the plot in any way shape or form but that sequence is one of the funniest in the movie. But a cautionary word too. This has to be used sparingly. By and large you absolutely have to keep the story moving forward. You can't string a bunch of funny scenes together that don't do this, and then defend them because they are funny. One or two maybe, but probably no more than that. And it can happen that you have a scene that you love, think is really funny, but doesn't help the story at that juncture. You've got two choices then. Cut it - or cheat a bit and find a way to make it integral and work for the film and story as a whole.

But one final comment. Try not to take the so-called rules too seriously. For example comedy does tend to be more dialogue heavy and that can work. Sometimes things work and no one knows why. And vice versa. Two great examples in a couple of the biggest films in the last year or so. The Hangover has no central character. Up is a film about an old guy with a house with loads of balloons, talking dogs, a kid and oh yeah, the first ten minutes are really sad. Can you imagine trying to pitch those to a studio?

In conclusion, I once heard Gary Lineker talking about the difference between strikers and midfielders. A midfielder can be brought into a club, plays okay, a few nice touches here, and couple of good passes there, etc, and the fans will think he's alright and give him a chance. But with a striker, even if his all round performance is good and better than the midfielder, he will be judged purely on his goal tally. I think so to with drama and comedy. A drama can have nice moments. It can do a bit of everything, make you laugh, cry, whatever. And like I said above, some people will like it and find it interesting, and others won't. Comedy will be judged and defined but how many people you make laugh and how often. How many comedic goals do you score? It's probably the hardest thing to do. Both on the football pitch and in a script. It's tough and it's risky. But very often, with high risk comes high reward.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

LSF 3: Editing and the Script

Not long before the festival I was speaking to last years Ustinov winner, Clare Tonkin, who works for an Australian broadcaster. She mentioned how access to the production side of things, especially being able to observe the editing suite, was a real insight that she could learn from and bring back to her own writing. So this session, given by Eddie Hamilton and Chris Jones, was an absolute must for me. And I think from an educational point of view, it was the one I got the most out of.

I know lots of writers, a few directors, and a fair few producers. But no editors. And Eddie was clearly a very smart and enthusiastic one. He began by talking about how he broke into the industry. He made student films but got turned down for three film schools. He ended up doing a job he hated and decided he had to give it up and really go for what he loved doing. And he discovered at a young age, messing around with videos etc, that the combination of the technology, the storytelling, and being able to spend hours working at it on your own, meant he really fell in love with editing film. So he got a job as a runner in Soho, asked the editors hundreds of questions, and taught himself to use Avid etc.

Eddie had read Chris's filmmaking book, discovered via his website that he was making a film, and asked whether they were looking for an editor. He lacked experience but had a great attitude and enthusiasm, and it was ultimately this that got him the job. After that he hustled for work, met Matthew Vaughan, which led to work on Mean Machines, Kick Ass and now the latest X-Men movie. Eddie admitted to working on films that haven't always been great (see Swept Away) but nevertheless was always able to learn something from the experience. And if you do good work, stay professional, and don't fall out with anyone, you can get recommendations and a leg up for the next job. And basically that is how the industry works.

Eddie has read tons of scripts. If it's for a job, and he knows the director well, he might read it quite early in the process. But he'll also read scripts from friends etc and approaches screenplays differently to writers or even directors. The first questions are who is the target audience? Who will pay money to see this? Because at the end of the day it's a business. And if you make films that no one wants to see and lose money, it's going to be harder to get the next project off the ground. Eddie trusts his instincts when it comes to script, how it's working, and how developed a project is. And you ask questions like how dense is it? How sharp is the dialogue? Is it clear who the main character is? And these are the same questions writers, readers and script editors should be asking.

But film is created in three stages - written, shot and edited. It's three steps where the film is re-invented and made. However one common question is why does a finished film often look so different from the finished script? And Eddie's answer was quite revealing. By the time the film reaches the edit suite, the script no longer matters in a way. Because all you've got to work with is what's been shot. And if for some reason things went differently on the shoot than expected (and that can be anything from the weather forcing an interior shoot rather than an exterior one, or an actor having a bad day, or co-stars lacking chemistry,) that's still all you've got to work with. What may have been on the page is gone. So you have to try and craft the best film possible from the material.

It's not the technology available that matters. For Eddie, all that matters is story and character. When he's looking at the material that's all he's thinking about. And if for example something hasn't quite worked in the shoot, an actor didn't deliver or whatever, then you may have to find a way to minimise the focus on that character. It can happen that whole characters get cut out of the finished movie. Sometimes a relationship isn't there in the material. Can you help this in the edit? If the answer is no, you may have to re-shoot scenes or shoot additional material.

By the same token, it's only fair to say that good actors and good performances sometimes means dialogue gets cut. For example working with Toni Collette, she's such a good actress, and there's so much going on with her, that she can convey something in one line instead of the half a dozen that were in the script. But writers shouldn't necessarily feel bad about that. The dialogue sometimes has to be written out like that for the reader, and then ultimately the actor, to understand the intention. But if this intention can then be conveyed in less dialogue, so much the better. (I would add a caveat to that, as a script reader, that writers shouldn't fall back on this as an excuse for writing reams and reams of long winded dialogue. It should still be as sharp as you can possibly make it. But just be aware that good actors can bring something extra to the table.)

Interestingly, and perhaps sadly, Eddie repeated what Tim Bevan said, that producers will often greenlight a movie too early because they need the production fee to survive. And I'll repeat what I said then. That I believe this is the single biggest reason movies fail in this country. I have no idea what, but we must do something to try and change this.

Eddie sees his job as holding the hand of the audience from the very first shot. What is the tone, character and story? Tone is so important because audiences want to know very quickly what story they are settling in to watch. How can I best elicit the emotional responses you want from the audience by choosing what shot you want and how you cut them together. (Music is also really important in this respect.) This also felt similar to what Bevan had said and keeping the audience and what you want them to feel at the forefront of your thinking is a lesson many writers still need to learn. And a lot of films don't work because the tone is not right or unclear.

There are many tales of films being completely re-conceived in the edit - most famously Annie Hall. But if the writer, director and editor are working well and functioning as a team, all anyone wants is to make the right choices to make the film as good as possible.

A couple of final comments from Chris to close. In the creative process everybody filters through their own life experience. When you ask for opinions some might say no way would anyone say or do that, whereas others will say that's exactly what I'd say or I know someone who has done that. I think writers have to trust their own voice and be true to their vision, as long as it's not at the expense of narrative logic and plausibility.

By the same token, when thinking visually, it's important to remember that human beings are meaning making machines. And when we see something on screen we can make it mean a huge amount in a second. But it's really hard to do that in a script. Because all you have available to do that are words. It's not exactly new but I don't think I've heard a better description of film as a visual medium than this. That is what, ultimately, it is all about. And it's the writers who are best at using their words, as economically as possible, to create the visual images in the director's mind, so that they find their way into the shoot, that means that when the material reaches the edit suite, what you want to achieve is still there.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

BAFTA Screenwriters' Series

This dropped into my inbox yesterday - and the fantastic lineup certainly looks worth checking out.

We asked six of the film industry’s leading screenwriters with credits including Atonement, The Devil wears Prada, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Reader to give their opinion on the craft, the films they have written and their career so far.

The result is a series of exclusive videos, clips and profiles providing a fascinating insight into the discipline and culture of screenwriting. We are really pleased with the series and have been getting great feedback.

Hope you get a chance to take a look and that you find the series insightful!

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!

Monday, 8 November 2010

LSF 1: In Conversation with Tim Bevan and Michael Gubbins

The London Screenwriters' Festival opened, appropriately, with Tim Bevan, the head of the most successful production company in the country.

The conversation took the form of a history of Working Title Films, which was very interesting, particularly for those looking to establish their own company in the industry in this country. But for the purposes of this blog entry, I've picked out the bits most relevant to screenwriting.

Bevan admitted that in the beginning, script development was quite incidental. They just had to get the next film made and were never allowing the development process to take as long as it needs to. An Indie is in the terrible position of having all their money in development, but your income is dependent on getting a film made, because that is where you get your fees from. And because getting the thing on becomes the be all and end all, you forget a little bit about the quality of the thing. (I actually believe this is the single biggest reason why movies in this country fail - which I think I got from Phil Parker, but can't recall for sure.)

Bevan came to the conclusion that you need capital. Because you have to spend money on developing a script and at the end of that process, be able to take a long hard look at it, and if it's not good enough, to chuck it in the bin. And an Indie doesn't have the luxury (and my guess is that 98% of the producers and companies in this country don't either.)

Bevan felt that there was a lack of ambition in British movies - partly because of money - but he realised that audiences wanted to be entertained. At Working Title they think about the audience from Day One. What's the genre? They made mistakes early on with films that fell in between. Now a marketing person sits in on development meetings. Ultimately they have to sell this. It shouldn't be based purely on that. Bevan doesn't believe that a marketing person should run a studio, but they should be in the room.

But the question in the first development meeting isn't a sales or commercial one, it's is there a good story here? The only thing Bevan expects to see in the first draft is - is there a decent story in here? What you want to see is a narrative running all the way through the script. And in the first draft the narrative is normally very up front. Script development is about getting the characters to carry that narrative. And so throughout the process the characters evolve and become more and more important.

Notting Hill is set up as an overtly commercial movie - but Billy Elliot isn't. But there is something in the middle of that movie about aspiration and emotion, and father and son relationship, that affects people all around the world. And Bevan believes this is the key. That what one is looking for is the emotional core, whatever the movie is; funny, serious, a Richard Curtis movie or United 93. It's the emotional core that appeals to audiences.

So the three questions Working Title asks is; are there characters, is there a story, is there emotion?

Bevan stated that he didn't think people went to the cinema to have their own lives reflected back at them. They go because they want to escape for a couple of hours. Maybe it's a serious movie. But all great cinema is slightly heightened. So if Notting Hill is two feet off the ground, most films are at least two or three inches off the ground.

When you go to the movies you either want to laugh or cry, be frightened or spectacularly wowed - and these are all emotional responses. (Which interestingly, also, in a loose way, correspond to comedy, drama, horror and thriller.) And if you don't get that emotional response it's a disappointment. If you don't have an emotional connection with something it seems to be a little bit pointless.

I've never understood the criticism Working Title gets. There was some talk about the Working Title 'formula' (which Bevan said if that means making 200 million dollars on a movie then it was a formula he was all for.) But there is a tendency to associate the company purely with sugary rom coms. It's true they had a run of films like Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually, About a Boy and Bridget Jones - all very successful movies that I can watch over and over again, especially when I feel unwell or it's bloody freezing out. What's wrong with that? But the company also provides a home for the eclectic cinema of the Coen brothers, as well as movies like Elizabeth, Frost/Nixon, The Interpreter and Atonement.

Of course not everything they make is great. But that's not what this is about. The sniping about a perceived philosophy of filmmaking I think comes more from a place of jealousy. But not listening to one of the most successful producers of all time surely comes from a place of stupidity.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Free Networking The 21st Century Screenplay: An Evening with Linda Aronson An Evening with Linda Aronson

If you weren't able to make it to the London Screenwriters' Festival, or did but are having withdrawal symptoms, you might wanna check this out.

Thursday 11 November 2010
- 7.00 for 7.30pm

If you want to read about the things the other screenwriting books don't tell you, you couldn't do better than Linda Aronson, award-winning screenwriter, novelist and story editor, whose book
Screenwriting Updated stormed into the best film schools and universities around the world.

Her latest book The 21st Century Screenplay brings even more insights.

Linda was one of the stars of last weeks London Screenwriting Festival so we're delighted that we've been able to get her for a very special Euroscript networking evening while she's on one of her rare visits to this country.

Linda Aronson is expert in the fundamentals and also highly advanced techniques, from the basic story sentence and character development to how to handle flashbacks and non-linear storytelling.

Her session at the LSF was one of the most popular and she teaches regularly around the world at top schools such as NYU and Berkeley.

If you didn't see her at the festival, now is your chance, and if you did, then now is your chance to hear even more.

She has also promised to have copies of her brand new book The 21st Century Screenplay which updates Screenwriting Updated and adds a great deal more.

Linda will be in conversation with award-winning writer-director Charles Harris.

Come and learn, and ask questions, drink, chat and mingle.

Booking essential. Our events are often highly popular - please arrive in good time to ensure you get in.

To book your free place click here now - you will need to give separate email addresses for any friends you'd like to bring along.

The Green Man
383 Euston Road
London NW1 3AU

Opposite Great Portland Street Station

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Channel 4 Screenwriting Course 2011

Still recovering from the London Screenwriters' Festival and chasing my tale a bit with following up on things from that and other commitments too. I write too slowly so I'm rubbish at taking notes (I was one of those kids who got extra time in exams - suckers) so I recorded all the sessions I went to instead on my handy little mp3 player. As I listen to them again over the coming days, on the train, bus, car, whatever, I'll jot down the juicy bits and report back.

In the meantime, in case you've not heard about this already, check out what looks like a really cool competition from Channel 4.

All the details can be found here.

Deadline is Friday week, the 12th, so don't hang about!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Biggest Screenwriters' Festival discount in town!

It's hard to believe there are now less than 24 hours to go until The London Screenwriters' Festival. Unsurprisingly, according to Charles Harris in a Euroscript email sent out yesterday, tickets are almost sold out.

So if you are still undecided, I just wanted to remind you of the biggest ticket discount I know of going. Most are offering around £30-£40 off. But the glorious Janice Day can get you a whopping £75 off! Just go to buy tickets and enter janiceday as the discount code, and voila, a full three day pass for £224.

I honestly think under £75 per day for this festival is an unbelievable bargain. So unbelievable that if I was you I'd book fast before the organisers find out what Janice has done and put her in the naughty corner.

And if you do take advantage of this discount - please don't forget to find Janice and thank her. An obvious place to do this would be at her Networking session at 6pm on Friday in Room B
Whilst I think it's incredibly important for writers to support the festival, this isn't exactly a charitable venture. When we talk about supporting something, it often implies an altruistic decision. But this is business. Pure and simple. If you're a screenwriter, at whatever level, and you want to be taken seriously, you need to be part of the industry. This is one weekend out of 52 where you can choose to be at the heart of it. What you'll get back is far more than what you put in.

It's not cheap. There's no getting away from that. And these are tough times. But we have to choose how we spend our money. I don't think a ticket should take the place of rent/mortgage money or food on the table. Nor do I think it should replace money you have earmarked for charity giving. But other than that, what else is more important to you? Is that big weekend out boozing going to further your screenwriting career? Should you go to that restaurant or can you save that money by eating at home and putting it towards the cost of a ticket? You might want to look good at the festival, but is that new outfit a priority right now or can the money be used elsewhere? Holidays are important, but can it wait for future savings, and use the money now instead for the festival?

Are you just talking the talk or are you prepared to commit, and walk the walk down to Regents Park and meet everyone you will ever need to meet for a screenwriting career in one weekend?
I always hated the Cheltenham Festival. Why? Because I was jealous. I knew I'd never be able to go. For various reasons, (and it wasn't the money) as much as I wanted to, I would never be able to be a part of it.

So I for one was delighted by this new festival being in London. I know that makes it harder and more expensive for non-Londoners. But sorry. Film industry wise London is the LA of England. It just has to be here. And so for the first time I will be too! So come and say hi. I imagine I'll be the only one there wearing a yarmulke! And because of the Jewish Sabbath I will only be there Friday up until about 4pm ish and all day Sunday. But hey, it's something. It's being part of something. And that's better than nothing.

Which one do you want to be?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

National Student Film Association Free Screenwriting Competition

This dropped into my inbox today. As ever, one should always do their own checking.

National Student Film Association Announces Free Screenwriting Competition

Today the National Student Film Association (NSFA) invites all student film-makers to submit their short film scripts to the National Student Screenwriting Competition. The competition is run in partnership with the BFI and boasts a host of professional judges including BAFTA winner Asitha Ameresekere, the organisers of the London Screenwriters' Festival, and board members of Euroscript and Women in Film and Television.

The competition is aimed at UK students of all kinds who are looking for a career in film but have not yet had the chance to present their work to industry professionals. Not only does the competition offer fantastic prizes such as a mentoring meeting at BAFTA as well as BFI and IMAX vouchers, but students will also have the opportunity to get their scripts read by two members of the high calibre jury.

Competition judge Asitha Ameresekere commented, "This is a fantastic opportunity for students to expose their work to members of the industry and gain invaluable experience in the competitive screenwriting business. I am very excited to be part of the NSFA competition and look forward to supporting outstanding new talent."

The competition is hosted online at Circalit, an online platform for aspiring writers, where all the entries will be visible to the public, and talent scouts will be paying close attention to the winning writers.
Raoul Tawadey, CEO of Circalit, commented, "The NSFA are doing student film makers a great service by connecting young artists with industry professionals. Starting a career in film can be a difficult process and the gap between writing your first screenplay and seeing your work produced can be very daunting. I hope this competition and the work that the NSFA are doing will give students the opportunity to kick start a career in the film industry.”


Screenplay submissions can be up to five pages long and of any genre. The deadline is the 7th November 2010. For more information please visit,
Franzi Florack!/NSFAUK
About the NSFA
The National Student Film Association (NSFA) is the UK’s largest student organisation to promote student film across the country. Founded in the summer of 2009, the NSFA is a non-profit, democratically elected organisation which aims to aid the production and distribution of student films. The NSFA actively seeks to help student film makers in producing new films by promoting cooperation and collaboration at a national level and by working with student film events to improve the quality of talks and workshops they are able to offer. Once a year, the NSFA helps to organise Screentest, The National Student Film Festival, and gives out the National Student Film Awards.