Sunday, 26 February 2012

A penny for your thoughts

Number 26 in the LSF session: Another 50 ways to break into the Business was - No money, no work, no £1 options, no deferred fees.

Bernie Corbett, perhaps unsurprisingly given his position at the Writers Guild, was pretty dogmatic about it, stating don't do any work unless you're getting paid. However there was the caveat that there are some grey areas especially when you're starting out. But in general he believes we are talking about a multi million pound industry where people get paid for what they do. He suggests a £1 option shows no serious commitment to the project. Producers will be taking taxis to meet financiers and buying dinners so why can't they pay you? Very occasionally, he has known producers to take an option on a film to stop it getting made, because they have something similar in development. A lot of producers live a fantasy life, hoovering up projects, when they don't have the skills, contacts, or experience to do anything with it. A lot of small budget projects will work on deferments and that means later on, not non existent. Get something in writing what will come back to you if there is a profit. Partnerships are more common. If you trust the producer then fine - but get something on paper. It will save a lot of lawyers fees later on.

Chris Hill suggested that £500 shows a certain level of commitment. He's been in both positions, and the £1 option is often there at the beginning and can be tempting to get the ball rolling.

Martin Gooch asserted that he works for free for himself and his mates - and anyone else has got to pay. Or at least get them to buy you are really nice lunch.

Danny Stack added that producers come to him with no money, but with a one page agreement that if there is to be any development money or other money, you get a slice of it. So there is a bit of a carrot there - they're not just taking advantage.

This is a huge topic and it's important for writers to know their options, know what their strategy is, and how to react in certain situations. I've been on both sides of this coin and there are so many factors to take into consideration. First of all, who are you dealing with? If companies like the BBC, Film4, Working Title, Big Talk, Ruby Films etc, etc, etc were offering £1 options or even a few hundred quid, I would be shocked. For organisations like this, who I'm not saying are awash with money because no one is these days, but nevertheless have a certain size and stature about them, to offer something like this, I'd be amazed and insulted.

So let's leave them aside. I'm talking now about indie producers. Not even necessarily small companies. But just independent producers. Keep in mind that at the first LSWF Tim Bevan said this:
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. 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.

I noted at the time that the vast majority of producers and companies in this country don't either, and I think that I heard from Phil Parker the belief that this was the single biggest reasons most British movies fail. Bevan also said that as a consequence of this, it's vital to have a slate. Because having all your eggs in one basket is dangerous and financially crippling, and you never know which project might be greenlit first. But it can cost thousands and thousands of pounds to develop and package a project, so what indie producers have the luxury of doing that for a slate of films without any going into production yet?

Like I say I've been on both sides. I've been paid a few hundred pounds for work and I also admit I've taken a quid (plus other luxuries like a few meals etc!) And do you know what, in terms of career investment and long term, the quid has been far more fruitful and indeed enjoyable than the short term benefit of the few hundred quid. The difference was one producer had no track record and the other one did. And I think for me this is the defining factor. I'm not belying the significance of a few hundred quid (and if you've seen my bank balance you'll know why.) But it's also not a huge, life changing amount of money. And if you tie yourself and project to a producer, that's it, for whatever the length of time the contract states.

So consider this. No one has any money. The world is broke. Many indie producers are as broke as screenwriters. We bring the script to the table. What do they bring? Do your research on who they are, what they've done, what their reputation is within the industry if you can, and whether you get on with them. If this all looks positive, think about where the - for example - £500 is best spent. If there is a finite amount of money in their account, they could stump it up to pay you, or they could use it, as Bernie says, to take key people out for dinner, or maybe fly to the Berlinale, or to Cannes, etc. (Okay to be fair they can certainly get the train or the bus rather than cabs!) But where is the money best being spent? If it's between a short term payment to you, or an investment into meetings and appointments that could help get your film financed, what's more valuable to your career?

I think a screenwriting career is always about the long game. Don't be exploited. Know your worth. Above all know who you are dealing with. But at the same time, getting on the ladder can be an important first step. And it might be that the quid you take now, can turn into something far greater later on.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

If 3 is the new 10, is 90 the new 120?

In the LSWF session Another 50 ways into the Industry, number 21 was listed as make the first 3 pages of your script amazing. The first three! Three?? What happened to the first 10!? Here are the notes I made at the time.

Vadim Jean said it used to be ten. But the slate is big and the spec pile is massive. And what it basically comes down to is do you want to know what happens next and that has to be captured within the first 3 pages. You're competing against everyone else, people who have far more of a track record than you and with scripts and a writer that he knows he can take to a broadcaster and get a commission. So you have to force him to read the whole of your script by having a brilliant opening 3 pages. This is even more the case in TV. In film it's easier to make a feature from a new writer. But the principle about the script remains true.

Martin Gooch added there isn't enough time to read everything. He picks up a script and flips to the back to see how long it is, which is something everyone reading a script does. If it's over 90 pages it's bloody hell. Chris Hill commented that he used to be a script reader and could tell within the first page whether it was going to be good or not.

Many of you would've found out this week whether you'd made it through to the 2nd round of the Red Planet Prize, based on the first 10 pages of your script. The BBC Writersroom still states, "Our readers sift all eligible scripts by reading the first ten pages. If the script shows potential, it will be given a full read. If not, it will be returned to the writer without any comments - this tends to be the case with the majority of unsolicited scripts."

So there is certainly still an industry standard connected to the assessment of the first 10 pages. But equally certain is that if you ask any script reader, they will tell you they know if a script is going to be well written within anything from the first to the third page. That's not to say there are any hidden guarantees that a script will be good from start to finish contained within these opening pages. Scripts can still go off the rails. The Act Two active question might not be quite right. A character's motivation can become wonky. And so on. But from a technical point of view, from how a script looks on the page, it's fairly easy to tell if a writer knows how to write yet or not. (I say 'yet' deliberately. Writing improves the more you do it. We all start somewhere and those first couple of scripts are bound to be a bit ropy.) But a well written opening few pages makes it far more likely, given the choice, that a reader will continue to the end.

And this generally accepted decrease in the assessment criteria may have had a subconscious knock on effect to the length of scripts overall. Because in truth, the shorter the better. There's a natural flow to stories and to tell them well, they have to be a certain length. But scripts need to be as tight as possible and anything extraneous should be cut. Normally, the scripts that can be downloaded online are very often longer than 120 pages, let alone 90. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the script available may not be the shooting script or even if it is, once the footage has been through the cutting room, it may just run faster. Modern editing is quicker than it used to be and so films tend to run faster than the script page count anyway. A classic example are the long, talky scripts of Sorkin and Tarantino, where the finished film still then tends to come in at a 'normal' length when finally shown. Also, scripts available online are from films that have been made, from writers and directors who get films made. The bigger names they are, the more liberties they can take which don't apply to the spec pile the rest of us are fighting against.

But if you've been following Script Club this year you might have noticed that even these nominated screenplays are shorter than ever this year. So far, Win Win has been the longest and that was only 120 pages. 50/50 is too, but this wasn't the shooting script, which is much closer to 90 pages. Bridesmaids is 109 pages and Young Adult is an incredible 82 pages. (Interestingly the film is just over 90 minutes so this is a rare example where the finished movie runs a bit longer than the shooting script.) Although unavailable online, I happen to know Midnight in Paris is 90 pages and next up in Script Club, The Descendants, is 115 pages. And that's from Alexander Payne, whose Oscar winning screenplay Sideways was certainly a lot longer than this.) Upcoming scripts include Hugo, which clocks in at 120 pages, despite Scorsese not being known for working with brevity of scripts.

What does this all mean for us, apart from the obvious that our scripts need to be as tight as possible? Do shorter scripts mean a lower budget? Not necessarily. But budgets are largely based on the number of shooting days. So leaving aside factors like special effects, or having lots of scenes but in one location (therefore eliminating the need to travel around with the cast and crew,) a lower scene count means fewer set ups which could - only could - mean fewer shooting days. That will save everyone money.

But I don't think this is the main issue. They are too many variables. More likely it comes down to the human factor. To save money, companies are far less likely to employ external readers these days. Or, like Vadim, the people in charge like to read the material themselves. But even in these troubled economic times, the spec pile is not getting any smaller. It often feels like there are more and more screenwriters each year and - at the moment certainly - less and less money and jobs to go around. Because of cuts or out of choice, fewer people are reading an increasing amount of material. It therefore stands to reason that as far as they are concerned, the shorter the better. Obviously, it simply takes less time to read a script that is 90 pages than one that is 120 pages or more. If you've got a pile to get through in a days work, the shorter the scripts the more chance there is to do that. It's human nature therefore to favour shorter screenplays. And this might translate into getting a better, kinder report that goes to the reader's employers. I know that sounds weird, and it might very well be unfair, but what's better - to take a chance betting against human nature, or to leave as little to chance as possible and keep your script as tight as it can be?

You might be asking well, if there is no money around and no jobs available, what's the point anyway? It's true it's tough. I've heard a lot of people say it's tougher than ever. But stuff is still getting made. So the question needs to be what strategy can I be using to best help myself in the current climate? And I'll try and talk a little more about that next time.