Monday, 29 November 2010

postheadericon The Cold Shower (London Screenwriters' Festival – Pt.3)

How to break in and build professional connections

In the session Should I write a spec script? Kate Harwood explained how desperate BBC editors could become when trying to hold on to talented new writers. A frustrated audience member asked; ‘If you’re desperate for writers and there are all these writers here desperate for work; what’s going wrong?’. Obviously there’s a disconnect here somewhere, but to me its fairly obvious what it is – money. Not just at the BBC, but in the industry as a whole; there’s limited money to invest in development and even less to invest in developing new writers.

In his session, Tony Jordan lamented the loss of a writers’ shadowing scheme that operated on Eastenders. This would run through the year allowing writers to follow the scripting process and write their own shadow version of an episode. Since their script wasn’t going to be broadcast there was room on this scheme for writers of varying experience. In his opinion, replacing this system with the Writer’s Academy is an example of how hard it is for writers these days to break in.

Say the Academy takes eight writers and they each get to write broadcast scripts for a number of shows. This does two things – it ties up a lot of new opportunities into the hands of a few writers. It also raises the bar for those applying to the scheme. If they’re expected to write broadcast scripts then the BBC will want to select very strong, fairly experienced writers. Therefore its almost not a new talent scheme at all.

Kate Harwood wasn’t 100% sure if the shadow scheme was still running and I’ve heard of similar schemes on other BBC shows, so maybe some still exist, (worth looking into). With budgets being cut on every front though, we can only expect investment in writer development to decrease, at least in the short term. Where screen agencies were sometimes able to give promising new writers development funds simply to hone their experience or spec script, this sort of opportunity is becoming limited. The regional agencies themselves are about to be merged into three hubs; north, central and south in a bid to streamline costs. Profit squeezed indies have less to feed back into development, some talent schemes are disappearing. I say all this not to put a downer on your day, but just because all writers should be aware of the reality of what it looks like from the other side of the table. Regardless of whether they’d like to or not, most producers don’t have funds to invest in developing new writers. Mostly they need to find writers who’ve already put in the leg work and can hit the ground running.

For me this is the disconnect; the source of the chasm between producers and the majority of emerging writers; the considerable time and money it takes to turn raw talent into skill and experience. There are a few things we can do about it, such as campaigning wherever we can on the importance of investment in all aspects of development. But in terms of what every emerging writer can do for themselves:

1. Invest in our own development
Any career needs a degree of personal investment; whether its years of practice and training, or capital up front to start a business. Deciding to make a business investment in your own development as a writer could help tackle the creeping suspicion that you’re wasting your time when you write a spec script. Every business needs R&D, test runs, equipment, so this perspective may also help justify investing in a ticket to a festival, travel to a networking opportunity, or a script editor to work with. Obviously it depends if we realistically have any spare money or time to invest. But until a writer has developed enough for someone else to put their cash on the line, we all need to make that mental leap for ourselves. Talent may be an unknowable quotient, but even Mozart put in thousands of hours of learning before he was recognised as a child prodigy. To bridge the chasm and become someone producers want to talk to, we inevitably must bear the initial financial risk and invest in our own period of talent development.

2. Understand the development process and the perspective of the producer

Tony Jordan shared an interesting insight on this subject (and bear in mind this is a writer/producer who actively supports new writers). He said he’s not interested in seeing a three page treatment for a TV series from a new writer. He wants to see a script. Not only that but; ‘I don’t want to see it until it’s the 10th draft and you’re really happy with it and proud of it and think it’s the best you can do’. He’s come across new writers who balk at this, but look at it from his perspective: Is this a man who’s lacking ideas of his own, or access to established writers with great ideas? Why should he back your proposal unless he can see your talent to deliver? The same is true for any creative company; they won’t be lacking ideas and much of what they develop may well originate in-house. What all producers need, however, is relationships with talented writers who can deliver.

As Andy Briggs and Daniel Martin Eckhart pointed out in their panels, its all about being ready when a door opens to you. Maybe someone likes a script you wrote, but what if they want to see more? Do you have a few more you can pull out of the draw? What if someone actually wants to hear some of your ideas, do you have plenty up your sleeve if they shoot the first couple down?

Obviously the ideal is to be paid to develop our ideas from a three page treatment, but it’s rare until a writer earns their stripes developing their speculative projects and putting in work on other people’s material. There are one or two golden opportunities that come along, like the recent Shine competition. But, they had 700 entries and you can bet that the winner has put in their trench time elsewhere.

So where are the opportunities for newer writers to cut their teeth? Well, low budget productions of all kinds always need emerging writers because they can’t afford the established ones. The pay won’t be great but at least it may be something and you’re gaining experience and a credit along the way. Breaking in at this level, the burden of proof is not quite as strong. You still need some track record and sample scripts to prove that you’ve mastered the basics and that you have some flair and voice, but you won’t be expected to be perfect. This is because your share of responsibility is likely to be small. There'll be a supporting team around you to guide your work and take over if you can’t deliver. This is also the principle of many high profile, ‘entry’ level writing opportunities such as a first slot on Eastenders or winning the Red Planet prize. People will take a chance on you if the risk is small and there is a back up plan firmly in place.

Risk aversion is the natural inclination of producers and commissioners where jobs and sometimes even companies can be on the line if they don’t come up with the goods. Development is expensive so funds must be invested as securely as possible in projects and writers with the best chance to deliver. Understanding the producer’s perspective and problems seems an invaluable tool for a writer. They’re not the enemy guarding the gate, but are constantly looking out for viable new investments. Its up to us to become the reassuring solution they so desperately seek.

3. Learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff
Historically producers have not been known for their deep understanding of the writing process. If you listen to any established writer they’re all able to reel off entertaining experiences of dealing with teeth pullingly painful development input. In recent years there’s been some investment in development training for producers and decision makers; to some extent increasing your odds of meeting a producer who understands what you do. Some producers have natural creative instincts, some are writers themselves and some simply respect the writing process. When you’re out there meeting people, making relationships and getting involved with projects, how can you tell if a producer, or what they’re offering, is a good bet?

There was plenty of advice on this score at the festival. An excellent tip from Julian Friedmann’s session Should I produce?, concerned dealing with option agreements. Opinion varies on whether new writers should accept £1 options on their scripts. As an agent, Julian is clearly against them and I’d tend to agree that if a producer is any good shouldn’t they be able to get together a bit of cash to pay the writer? If there’s little or no financial risk for them, where’s the incentive to get working on your project? However, as much as worrying about the price of the option, Julian suggests you also discover how many other projects the producer has on their slate and where yours is likely to sit in their priorities. Is it better to be paid a small amount by a producer who will leave your project on a shelf, or practically nothing by someone who’s putting everything into getting it made?

A couple of years ago I attended intensive producer training at Cannes with U.S. producer Robert Nickson. He said he would only pay $1 options because he would then invest $10,000 in trying to get the thing off the ground. Rather than just feeling grateful when someone wants to option your script Julian advises writers to assimilate some of that producerly thinking, evaluate producers as potential business partners and don’t be afraid to negotiate different types of agreement. As long as you’re realistic about what each party is bringing to the table there could be partnerships to be made.

Putting aside big companies that we’d all love to work with, how do you evaluate the up and coming producers and directors you meet, or smaller independent companies you could build long term relationships with? Obviously you’ll be interested in their connections, track record, knowledge and ambition. What about their passion and vision; do they know what kind of projects they want to make and how they intend to go about it? Are their passions similar to yours? Also, fundamentally for me, how much respect do they have for the writing process? A producer may not be creatively strong themselves but do they recognise this and work with others who can support this aspect of their business? Do they understand the importance of writing and development to the whole production process and prioritise it wherever they can?

As Nicola Shindler said in her session, if you look at the success of her company its no surprise to learn that she puts writers at the heart of what she does. For Tim Bevan Working Title’s success is also evidently built on realising the importance of development, having a varied slate and working closely with writers through all stages of production. In these lean times, newer producers may not have a lot of money for development at first. But if you want to spot the new Nicola Shindlers and Tim Bevans coming up, a healthy respect for the importance of development and an ability to work with writers might well be qualities to put on your shopping list.

As you build these relationships with producers, directors and development people, how do you recognise who has this knack? How do you know which notes to take note of and which to ignore? Festivals are always full of great tips on this score. However, as this is a subject of great passion for me, I think it’s definitely got to be one for another day!

(In the meantime, if you’re interested, I wrote an article on the development process for Twelve Point a while back which you can read here )
Tuesday, 23 November 2010

postheadericon News of a Buffy Reboot

I was just musing a couple of days ago, wouldn’t it be nice if one day, (many years), in the future, I could be involved with a reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t get carried away by TV that often, but back in the late 90s, when Season 2 started to bite, (excuse the pun but if you know the show you know what I mean), I became a passionate follower. Having never really bought many films or TV shows previously I bought all seven seasons on video, (yes VHS!), and then again on DVD. It’s a show that I know and love better than any other so far. It would be, for me, like getting to work on the Doctor Who reboot after having adored it as a child.

However, no sooner has this idyllic thought popped through my head than I read today that Buffy is already scheduled for a ‘re-imagining’ in movie form! You can read the article in Screen International here

Now the show only ended about six years ago and was a massive hit with a still loyal fan base. Warner Brothers and Atlas Entertainment obviously hope to cash in on that fan base and on the teen/vampire mania of the Twilight series. Of course the idea of a Buffy movie franchise is good in principle but there are a few things that really define the Buffy universe for its fans. Is this project likely to please them or piss them off?

Well the first thing sending fans across the internet into a rage is the fact that creator Joss Whedon will not be involved in the project. Now if you want to look at a writer with a voice, you could hardly ask for a better example than Whedon. The humour and turn of phrase that was a trademark of the series was unmistakably, individually his and had a big influence on many shows that followed. Can someone other than Whedon himself update this style while at the same time retaining the core voice that people loved? This seems unlikely. Now, this would be fine if we were talking far into the future when times have fully moved on, (like, for example, updating The Avengers for 2012). Time would then be ripe to have a ‘re-imagining’, but this show is still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Another aspect of Whedon’s clear voice was his ability to perfectly balance the humour of the show with a genuine depth of emotion and emotional truth within the conflicts at stake. Yes the story had a supernatural fantasy setting, but the personal conflicts; involving issues with parents, peers, first love and betrayal, or dealing with our own desires and failings, were recognisable to any teenager or twenty something. When your heart is breaking for the first time it really does feel like the world is going to end and for Buffy it actually is. Although the show was always able to share a knowing joke with the audience about its own flaws and conventions, it was never tongue in cheek about the central emotional struggles of its characters. This helped create an audience that actually cared. Getting the balance exactly right; between knowing humour and emotional truth would be a sizable challenge for any writer.

Another thing that made Buffy what it was – it was set in a high school. The more she ages and the further she moves away from this basic principle, the more you’re messing with the central premise and strength in the idea. Buffy is essentially a girlie cheerleader forced to face up to the unimaginably huge responsibility that she alone can save mankind from the forces of evil. How do you deal with life when one minute you’re worrying about your prom dress and the next you’re having to stab your date through the heart? This gets you into all the juicy stuff about growing up and becoming a woman; about letting go of childish, romantic dreams and learning to stand on your own two feet. No surprise that more of Buffy’s core audience are women, or, perhaps, that the writer set to pen the reboot is a woman who watched the show as a girl.

The problem however is that in this new version, apparently, Buffy is not going to be a high school student anymore. To me this is not a good sign. The fact that the named writer; Whit Anderson, is a newcomer with no apparent writing credits also seems a bad sign. As others have noted; in her inexperience is she likely to have the strength of vision, or the clout, to withstand potential pressure to take the franchise the way of the Twilight crowd? – Essentially a story about a girl who's clinging so hard to her childish, romantic dreams that she acts much like a daughter to her wise and ancient boyfriend!

Buffy and Twilight are two very different animals. If this new movie messes with that it will alienate the loyal fan base and may well not be able to pick up the Twilight crowd on the other side. The danger of making a hash of it; not capturing the core magic, the premise, the themes, the voice, all seems a little too great. Even a young Whedon couldn’t get his vision for Buffy onto the screen in the original film, where it became twisted by various more powerful influences. For his opinion on the reboot read here.

For all I know Whit Anderson may be wildly talented and visionary. This may turn out to be a fantastic film. But the first signs don’t seem that good. I think its too soon. Buffy spawned a legion of shows attempting to cash in on the same magic. None of these have really come close, bar perhaps True Blood and Being Human. But by now don’t we all have vampire fatigue? Even the most die hard fans? Aren’t we all putting our vampire and werewolf related stories on hold with a view to digging them out down the line? Perhaps it would be ideal if they could do that with the Buffy reboot too. And by then, some years in the future, maybe I could be in the running to work on the new series!
Monday, 22 November 2010

postheadericon Wearing two hats at the London Screenwriters' Festival - Pt.2

So its three weeks post-festival and I'm sure many of us are continuing to make new contacts from those three days, corresponding or meeting up with people we connected with. Last week I met up with fellow speakers Jamie Wolpert (top, last minute addition to the Meet the Gatekeepers panel) and Chris Hill (Writing for Young Audiences). Both, I discover, are lovely people who I fully intend to induct into my clan!

Weird link - both have been news stand extras in different feature films; Jamie as a vendor and Chris a customer! (and we all turned out to be NFTS alumni)

Turning prior aquaintances into proper connections was a main highlight of the festival, where I enjoyed hanging out with writers and developers including Catherine Skinner, Tim Clague, Danny Stack, Lucy Hay and Evan Leighton Davis. I caught up with old pal and one man literary machine Andy Briggs and got to meet other entertaining writers like Daniel Martin Eckhart, comedy writer Nathaniel Tapley and Alice D. Cooper. In the bar on the Friday and Saturday nights I also enjoyed meeting American/slash/northerner James De Marco and sharing a jar with fellow festival veterans Piers Beckley and Dominic Carver.

On the first day Tim Clague was my guide to discovering ‘the secret room’, or what should more properly be called ‘the containment area’ - its basic function being a place where speakers can be coralled, before being led to their sessions. If you didn’t have access you can rest easy in my report that most people only passed through here briefly. It was a good place to get a coffee though and possibly run into someone interesting. I had a chat with script guru Linda Aronson and on the last day met the panellists for Writing for European Markets and USA as they gathered to plan their session. (This was a panel I actually suggested on a survey that came round many months ago – so go me!).

My festival highlights among the sessions include Writing for Young Audiences – an area where I felt qualified to join in the interesting discussion. Also listening to Tony Jordan, Nicola Schindler and Tim Bevan. Its always great to get tips and insights from the big hitters.

By the time our Meet the Gatekeepers session rolled around toward the end of the last day I was ready to take my turn on a panel. Before we started we thought we’d have trouble filling our 90 minute slot, but the time sped by and it seemed like we only scratched the surface of the topic, (perhaps a posting for another day). I ended the festival making a number of further good contacts from within our audience.

For me writers' festivals are primarily about building connections and sharing inspiration and insight. Apart from the genuinely fascinating topic of the writer’s voice, the other relevant issue of the festival for the emerging writer is of course; how to break in, form relationships with producers and work with these relationships once you have them. Where one subject is as welcome an indulgence as a warm bath, the latter is more like a cold shower. Its not exactly pleasant, but potentially invigorating, to confront the reality of the challenge ahead and be sure battle plans are firmly in place.

This was supposed to be the subject of today’s post, but to avoid a blog of infinite length; more shortly.
Saturday, 13 November 2010

postheadericon Wearing two hats at the London Screenwriters’ Festival

You could say I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of Screenwriters’ Festivals, having attended the last three in Cheltenham and this year’s BBC Writers' Festival in Leeds. I’ve found my way in as a development producer looking to build relationships with writers, as a freelance consultant; assessing scripts for the Script Market, but this year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival is the first time I’ve been on a discussion panel and joined the illustrious ranks of the speakers! This of course brings with it the delights of a free pass into ‘the secret room’ where speakers gather, as well as a chance to get your oar further into the three days of industry conversation, (and we all like a bit of oar putting don’t we, or we wouldn’t be writers and producers).

Another thing that was different this time was that I recently had my first professional script writing gig – (a whole episode to myself, not just storylining!) - so I was wearing my writer’s hat at the festival almost as much as my producer/script editor’s. I straddle the divide if you will, like some sort of colossus! – a perkily attractive and normally proportioned colossus of course, but you get the idea. I also occupy the middle ground between delegate and speaker. More delegate than speaker really, (I was only on one panel on the last evening), you could think of me a bit like a double agent stealing inside the inner sanctum and bringing back news from the front. And if I’d thought of this idea sooner I could have actually got some green room gossip, but this at least gives you a picture of my perspective on things.

So in my two hat wearing capacity, what did I glean from the London Screenwriters’ Festival? Well plenty of relationship building primarily and inspiration. But for the emerging writer I think it mostly boils down to two key issues. Firstly, finding, developing and protecting your ‘voice’ as a writer. Secondly, finding a way to network, break in and form relationships with producers and decision makers and work with these relationships once you have them. I figure this might be covered in two blogs, starting with the writer’s voice.

The Writer’s Voice
When I was first starting out from Film School, a fresh faced writer/director, I was annoyed by the vagueness of the idea of a writer’s ‘voice’ and didn’t know what it meant. Having since read, analysed and provided notes on hundreds of scripts I’m no longer confused. I definitely understand what this is. I may even be beginning to get an inkling of what my own voice might be. People perhaps assume we all know, so you don’t often get a clear explanation, but I think its worth defining. For me a writer with a clear voice is someone whose unique passion and perspective is always evident in their writing. It might be that they regularly return to similar themes, ideas or genres, or that they have a particular identifiable style of storytelling, or perhaps it can be seen in the types of characters and character voices they explore.

For an obvious example you might look to someone like Charlie Kaufman, who most often explores stories from an off centre, psychological perspective, (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine etc.), or Richard Curtis who, without realising it, actually managed to write the same core story in two hit films, i.e.; young man, with a group of quirky, supportive British friends, falls in love with an unattainable American girl who keeps coming in an out of his life… Even if you only read one script from writers like these, their unique passion and perspective; their voice, is still all over it. I can think of no better example than reading Diablo Cody’s Juno when it was doing the rounds and how vividly her fresh, unique, comic voice jumped off the page.

Finding a writer with this quality is gold dust to those holding the purse strings. At the festival session; ‘Should I Write a Spec Script?’, both Kate Harwood and Ollie Madden were clear that this is what they’re always crying out for and that writers with a strong voice would immediately be gobbled up and showered with opportunity. Some may have kinked a dubious eyebrow at this, but the fact is that finding and honing your voice while also developing you craft skills as a screenwriter is a big challenge, often unpaid. Many, except the most exceptionally gifted or determined, are going to fall by the wayside before they get close. As Daniel Martin Eckhart, on the same panel, put it; we all need to invest the time and energy to exercise our ‘writing muscle’. He wrote and rewrote 10 spec scripts before eventually landing his first paid screenwriting gig. In that time he discovered that his passion was for writing crime thrillers.

The advice from this panel, (and plenty others I’ve seen), was don’t try to write the genre or style you think is fashionable, but write what interests you. If you know the type of films or shows you ultimately want to write; start exercising and honing that muscle now. If you don’t already have an obvious passion; try different things out until you find it. Find out if you love writing breathless action sequences, or quirky regional characters, a certain kind of comedy, or twisted, psychological drama, or if there are themes and ideas you feel most passionate about exploring in different ways. We should use our spec scripts (as well as any kind of paid writing work we can get!) as time to experiment and find this voice. Most of us probably aren’t going to sell our spec script to Warner Brothers for $2million, (although this is a possibility as recently happened with The Hangover). However, we may create something that can open doors.

One of the most eloquent advocates of the writer’s voice is Tony Jordan who also had a session at the festival with Nicola Schindler. For Tony, a writer’s unique voice is the most precious thing they have and it must be protected. Although our own scripts may be the place where we can hone our voice, this unique quality should be present in every script we write. Sitting at home watching Eastenders, or even listening from the kitchen, Tony Jordan can recognise the voices of different, experienced writers on the show. Their individuality comes through and they are able to write lots of episodes precisely because they always find a way to express themselves within their scripts. Tony says that if you lose this quality you’ve lost your most valuable asset as a writer. I suggest that if you lose this; what are you writing for anyway? You may as well be writing instruction manuals.

So the festival has assigned us a mission to find and explore our writing voice. And according to Tim Bevan we should not shy away from being culturally and regionally specific. This is because culturally specific, English language films go down well with the worldwide audience and this is where British films make more of their income; rather than the U.S.. So, if your voice comes from the Welsh valleys, an inner city Chinese community, if you straddle two disparate cultures like some sort of devilishly handsome colossus, the unique, authentic detail you could bring to your work may well be what stands out. Apparently, it’s mid Atlantic, culturally non-specific material that’s harder to sell these days and thank God for that. Who wants bland, ‘everyman’ when we could have a window into something unique?

Next blog; more from the festival on how to make professional relationships and how to work with them once you have them to ensure you protect your unique writer’s voice. Also, perhaps a bit more on my personal experience of the three days and the interesting people I met. In the mean time if you have the chance to get on with the mission, God bless your luck! I know as well as anyone it can be hard to find the time and discipline amidst work and family. But if you’re like me, writing is like a passionate affair. You want to find a way to get back to it and be with it. You know it’ll be hard work once you’re there, but it’s worth it for the highs. I want to get back there soon. Maybe you do too.

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Sarah Olley
Hello. I'm a UK based script editor, development producer and writer working in film and TV. You can visit my professional website at: and the developers' group I co-host and organise at:
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