Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Brit Film #1: In the Loop

Whoa, was it really 3 months ago that I wrote this post, introducing a new strand analysing the recent upsurge in successful British films? That didn't quite take off did it. But better late than never, here is the first of what will (hopefully) be a series of blogs. Just to recap - the idea will be to look at the British films over the last 18 months or so that have been successful and of course to examine why they worked. Success in this industry is defined in so many ways. So for the purposes of this blog, it's my call really. But I will hopefully explain why I think it is so.

Admittedly, I'm starting rather gently with probably the easiest film to look at on this yet to be fully compiled list. In the Loop was probably the easiest film to make too. By that I don't mean the actual making of it per se; writing the script, raising the money, shooting it, etc - all of which are a continued nightmare of twists and turns seemingly no matter what the project. But because In the Loop is a movie spin off of an extremely successful TV show, The Thick of It, conceptually, everyone pretty much knew what they were getting. That's massively important and it's a leg up that cannot be underestimated. It's why book adaptations are so popular. It's why comic book adaptations are so popular. Not to mention video games and of course sequels of all of the above. Everyone lives in a state of fear of what will and won't work - in other words, what will and won't make money - so if it's 'worked' in one medium, it's that little safety net that helps studio bosses sleep at night.

So I doubt selling In the Loop was that hard. The problem would be, how do we make this British TV show travel? Because for a British film to be properly successful, domestic box office takings is never going to be enough. And of course here came the very savvy decision to not make a quaint British film about a leadership election or something like that - but to comment satirically on the single biggest defining thing of this century - the global war on terror. With America's invasion of Iraq extremely unpopular with both the young, i.e. the biggest cinema going audience, and the predominantly liberal left that makes up the majority of the film industry, this was a project that would hit the right notes here and abroad.

The film itself is kind of like the Malcolm Tucker show. He dominates the movie in a way he never did in the early TV series. Now, I don't know much about acting, but I did hear that shouting, whilst you'd think that would be hard, is actually a lot easier than a quiet, nuanced performance. Not to denigrate Peter Capaldi's tour de force in any way whatsoever, but on that basis the real star of the show is Tom Hollander's Simon Foster. We watch as character after character crumbles in the face of having to take a moral stand against something they don't believe in - and yet only Foster seems to feel bad about it. The movie is almost entirely dialogue driven (you can find a review of the script here) and most of us don't have the luxury of a brilliant TV series to act as a kind of prequel/pilot/something or other. So I'm not sure I recommend trying to mimic the style. But it's the content that helped this find an audience and resonated with people who saw it. On the one hand it's quintessentially British - and on the other hand it's zeitgeist enough for everyone around the world to get it. So whilst I realise it's a really general point, when thinking of the screenplays we write, there is definite value in making them reflective of the culture we know best - British. But at the same time, what is it, what's the one thing (or more than one thing) that will make it accessible to people abroad; for example a universal topic, theme, or character emotions?

So what makes this a success? It's pretty obvious isn't it. It got nominated for an Oscar. Best Adapted Screenplay to be precise - which is an interesting choice bearing in mind the 'adaptation' came from a TV series and much of the script is improvised. But nevertheless that nomination is a valuable industry stamp of success - and anyone who says otherwise may be being a little disingenuous - that opens many doors for those involved. According to Christine Langan, Head of BBC Films, In the Loop was made for £4 million. Internet figures suggest it only took around $7 million at the world wide box office. So by no means a commercial success. But tellingly, Armando Iannucci's next film has a budget of $20 million. A bigger budget is of course by no means a guarantor of success. Sometimes the studio interference you get because of it means it's quite the opposite. But one thing is for sure. You don't tend to get given more money if your previous movie has been deemed a failure.

Monday, 16 August 2010

A Meme: It All Started When... How I Got Into Screenwriting

So I'm not quite sure how these meme things work, but Michelle tagged me to write a post on how I got into screenwriting. There wasn't really one moment as such, but this is how it came about:
I've always enjoyed writing stories. Always. Even at school, whilst lagging behind in those horrible maths workbooks etc, writing stories would regularly get me good marks. And although I didn't realise it then, I was probably writing fledgling screenplays. Because long, flowery prose never appealed to me. My stories had short, quick descriptions and lots of dialogue!

When I went to Uni I studied English Literature, and it was there that I started to think seriously about Story; how stories work, how they are constructed, etc. At this point I was still hedging my bets between journalism and screenwriting - so I did a Post Grad Diploma at Birkbeck College where I could take modules in both. I quickly discovered journalism wasn't for me. When told that if a couple have just lost their child in a road accident and you have to be able to knock on their door and get the story, I knew I was in the wrong classroom. I also realised I didn't want to tell other people's stories, which is basically what journalism is (kind of.) I wanted to tell my own. Moreover, I absolutely loved the screenwriting modules. What I was writing was absolute garbage - but the form seemed to come naturally. I can't remember when exactly but at some point I bought Final Draft and still use that same one today.

So it was more gradual evolution than moment of inspiration. Like I've mentioned previously I went on to do an MA Screenwriting and had a brilliant time. I was sure I'd made the right choice and there was nothing else I wanted to do. And there still isn't.

I think most of the bloggers I know have already done this - except one... Yes that's right, David Melkevik I am tagging you! And I have no idea how. Oh and whilst I'm throwing this tagging lark around, lets throw Lisa into the mix too.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Where do we go from here?

I've been thinking about this post for a while, since before the announced demise of the UK Film Council. But that seemed to crystallise certain things for me. Nevertheless I wasn't sure how to phrase this and thought it may come out wrong. So before we get going, this is in response to my own thoughts and to questions I get asked by new writers (even though I still consider myself one of them.) Some of the things I talk about are meant to be hypothetical. I'm not advocating anything, and I am certainly not in a position to influence anyone that matters in the industry. I am just asking questions - to myself as much as anyone else.

A question you often hear is can screenwriting be taught? You'll find different opinions all over screenwriting websites and blogs. I did an excellent Masters at London College of Communication. So you'd assume I'd answer yes. And that's true to a certain extent. Let's take cooking and music as two analogies. I can't cook or play a musical instrument. But if I invested as much time in either of those things as I have in screenwriting, I would expect to be able to do it to a certain standard. But I doubt I would ever be as good as someone who is born with a natural gift for it either. By the same token, if we take two people who were born with a natural talent, and one actively does things to learn more (tutors, courses, reading, whatever) and the other just relies on this natural talent, I would imagine the one who is being taught will progress to a greater standard at a greater rate.

But there are courses and there are courses - and there are books and there are books! I'm not a massive fan of these one day courses, or even long weekend things. I'm not naming names but they are often expensive, have become an industry in and of themselves, and you don't learn anything you can't get out of a book or the Internet. You might get a quick hit of inspiration, and if you can afford the fee, then fair enough. But most writers are broke, at least at the start and for a long time after! So I would tend to advise to save the pennies. Often one of the best benefits of these types of courses are not what you learn, but the chance to network. That's a different beast but it's still worth hunting down free or cheaper specific events to go to.

I believe that as an educational tool, the best courses are degrees, undergrad or postgrad, over a year or two. You get a chance to grow as a writer, to mix over a long period with other writers and to develop relationships that will last throughout your career. But you have to have the time and money to do one of these - and if you don't, I'm not sure it's worth trying to replace it with loads of one day courses. Because you can get so much from websites, blogs and books these days. But be careful of the books too. There are literally hundreds now and some of them are terrible. Again, use free websites and blogs first, and research expensive books before rushing out and buying a sack full.

Next question you hear a lot is: When do you give up? Wait, what? We haven't even started yet and we're giving up? But I get asked this a lot and I ask it of myself a lot too. I don't need to repeat what Danny has said, so just go here instead.

Because I believe, and this is the essence of this post, that there are too many screenwriters around today. And there are simply not enough jobs to go around. Not enough screenworks, TV or film, and radio too, are being produced. So a lot of people will not be able to earn a living out of their chosen profession. Ben Stephenson or John Yorke, I can't remember which, said as much in the recent WGGB podcasts. This is a bit worrying, surely? But what the answer is I have no idea.

However the next question is that despite the swell in numbers of screenwriters, despite the plethora of courses and books and websites and competitions and schemes and on and on and on, the general consensus is that the spec market is absolutely flooded and the overall quality of the slush pile is not getting any better. Why is this?

Recently I found myself watching And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story. Don't ask me why. That's another story. But at one point Sonny says in voiceover "I suppose every jerk who talks english thinks that he can write a screenplay. It was damn hard, let me tell ya." And I burst out laughing. I think every screenwriter should get that printed on their business cards. But although I wouldn't quite put it like that, it has an undeniable ring of truth that doesn't apply to our earlier food and music analogies. If your food tastes awful you're gonna know pretty quickly. If your music sounds terrible people are going to tell you to shut up. But creative writing - that seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

And most screenwriters, myself included, are not doing enough work. We are not doing enough drafts. And that is the single, biggest reason why the market is flooded and the quality doesn't get any better. I see it time and time again as a reader. I'm not talking about work that comes to me through my own feedback service. That by its very nature is to help with development. It's supposed to be for early drafts. I'm talking about stuff I read from companies or producers. Because if it has reached their desks, no way should it be anything but extremely polished. And if it's not, you are going to get found out. But most screenwriters don't know their drafts are not ready, because they are not getting good, honest feedback. (Or maybe any feedback at all.) Screenwriters usually fall between two stalls. Some think everything they write is awful. They are not the problem because they are not burdening the industry. (They have their own problems that they need help with, through feedback, because everything they write is probably not awful.) But there are other writers who think that everything they write is brilliant. And I'm talking about first drafts as well. And those are the ones that are rushing their scripts out to the nearest company or scheme or organisation that are still reading unsolicited scripts (and to agents too) although these are getting fewer and far between - for the very reason that they are completely swamped. So the writer, who has spent six months working on their screenplay, doing half a dozen drafts or more (and I think as a rule of thumb you need at least six) getting feedback every step of the way, and producing a really good piece of work, has to wait months and months for someone in the industry to read it - because these guys have to wade through the pile of scripts that were written in two weeks and are a pile of garbage. If it was a boxing match it wouldn't be allowed. Or something like that.

And so recently I've been wondering what if. What if every single body in this country - from organisations like BBC and UKFC, to production companies, to individual producers, script editors, et al - all said okay, from 1st of January 2011 until the 31st of December 2011, we are no longer accepting or reading any new scripts. They are going to use that time to actually get through the pile on all their desks, in a calm, considered manner, so they can sift out the rubbish and actually concentrate on the few that show promise. They can get those writers in and work with them, actually developing their project, without the pressure of knowing that the next time the post arrives it's going to contain another twenty scripts. They can spend the year making a few great projects they already have in, without having to deal with more and more coming ithrough the door. What would actually happen?

(This if you haven't noticed is the hypothetical bit. It's obviously ludicrous, would never happen, and is cutting my own nose of to spite my face. But hey, I just can't help but wonder.) And what would the rest of us do then? Well, we would write. But we would write without the pressure of trying to get the script done as quickly as possible so we can get it in the post before the (invisible) competition beats us to it. We would know we'd have a whole year to fully develop a project (or two, max) so that when the 1st of January 2012 came, we'd have really cracking projects to approach the refreshed, slush pile free, market.

And what would happen if those writers, who are not doing enough work, who think it's easy peasy to bash out a screenplay, whack it in the post, and get a three picture deal, knew that they literally could not send their masterpieces to anyone for a year? Do you think they'd bother any more? If there's no carrot at the end of the stick, will they just take up another 'hobby' that they think is the next get rich quick scheme? Would it be a mass culling, a sorting out of the truly committed writers, from the people just playing at it?

Like I said, I have no idea, it's all hypothetical, I'm not advocating anything, and I don't particularly want any hate mail. I'd rather just provoke a debate, or at the very least get people thinking. I doubt I'll manage either. But at least I managed to finally write this blog, and get it out of my head. I might sleep a bit better tonight. And that in itself would be a result.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Run Mckee Run

I've been a bit quiet of late. I know that. I have my reasons, but they are personal. Nevertheless, apologies to those kind enough to regularly read this blog and hopefully things will get back to normal soon.

In the meantime, and if you haven't already been made aware of it by David Lemon, there is a new blog in town ready to (rightfully) gobble up the readership of the rest of us.

D'you know what makes a good writer, at least at the beginning when cutting ones teeth, or in mafia parlance, making your bones. It's being able to write for a long running series, take the same characters and basic plot formulas as everyone else, and still stand out from the crowd. It's the same as really good chefs I suppose. Two cooks can have the same ingredients and recipe and come up with wildly different standards of dishes.

And the more TV you watch, the better you'll get at spotting them. This is what happened with Sarah Phelps and Eastenders. Before the episode even got to the drums I got pretty good at predicting a Sarah Phelps episode. And I started noticing pretty early that the episodes I enjoyed most of Clocking Off and later on Shameless, were all written by Danny Brocklehurst.

And Lisa Holdsworth definitely fits into this category. When I saw her name alongside the written by credit of things like New Tricks, Waterloo Road and Robin Hood, it was pretty safe to say it was going to be a good episode. And the good news for us is that now she's got a blog. Because like James Moran, she is one of the few bloggers (myself very much included) doing what we are all aspiring to do. Write for cool TV shows on the regular basis. (And if the debut blog post is anything to go by, it's going to make for some interesting and thought provoking reading!)

So whilst I hope to get back to blogging more regularly, you're probably better off reading hers anyway. But, erm, please come back here too. Please.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Free Short Screenplay Competition

Dear Jez,

I hope you're very well.

I thought readers of your blog might be interested to hear that we've just teamed up with Hollywood director Alex Merkin, to host a free short screenplay competition this month, where the winning screenplay is read and reviewed by Alex. It's a great opportunity for all screenwriters to enter and we would really appreciate it if you could help spread the word by posting about it on your site. You can find more information below.

Kind Regards,


Alex Merkin to Judge Short Screenplay Competition on Circalit

3rd August, 2010 - Circalit, the premier social networking site for screenwriters, are offering a chance to get read and reviewed by Hollywood director Alex Merkin. Alex rose to fame in 2006 after directing critically acclaimed short film “Across the Hall” starring Adrian Grenier, which he later made into a feature film with Brittany Murphy and Mike Vogel. A positive review by Alex, could give your screenplay unprecedented exposure and invaluable feedback. Circalit is proud to have Alex on board as a guest reviewer, and encourages all writers to enter the competition by visiting:

http://www.circalit.com/projects/competitions to take advantage of this free opportunity.

Richard Davis

Competitions Coordinator