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 )


Piers said...

Just a quick thought about Robert Nickson: If he's got $10,000 he can spend trying to get the film off the ground, he can spare $200 for the writer.

That still leaves $9,800 to get the film off the ground with. And I would not anticipate that extra $200 being the difference between a go and a no-go.

My warning bells would ring very loudly for someone who tried to option something of mine for a pound.

A hundred quid (plus a proper contract setting out what the writer will get paid if the film goes into production, and when) seems to me like a reasonable half-way house.

A hundred pounds is just a sign of good faith. And it's something that anyone who's half-way competent as a producer can afford.

Sarah Olley said...

Yes I agree, you might be worried if they couldn't afford a few hundred as a show of good faith. Perhaps in Nickson's case he means he's going to invest 10K worth of his time doing breakdowns, budgets, packaging etc. rather than 10K in actual hard cash. I also know he only goes with camera ready scripts so he'll know pretty quick if something's a goer. However, in general I still agree with you and Mr. Friedmann!

Sarah Olley said...

Another thing about Nickson is, as far as I recall, he only takes a short option. So he breaks it down, sees if its a goer and if not hands it back to you fairly fast. Personally I'd be OK with that arrangement if I knew I was in the hands of a pro and I was going to get a good pay out if it went into production - (more than getting £100 for the script to hang around under option for a long time without an all out campaign behind it) - Then if it didn't work for him I could pick it up and go elsewhere.

That was something I meant to put in the original post - the importance of negotiating the length of the option agreement and any renewal terms. How long is it going to be tied up with this producer and what are their odds of getting it made may be things to weigh up as much as £1 or £100, because in the end both are small potatoes compared to the rewards if it gets made. (Now if we were talking an option fee of £1,000 or £10K...)

Daniel said...

Good post, Sarah ... and a great name for your blog - guess you're more creative than I am - I went with the basic "Write, write, write" but heck, I guess that's my writer's essence right there. Continued success to ya!

Sarah Olley said...

Thanks very much Daniel! Encouragement very much appreciated. Now I'd better take the advice of your blog title and get another post up before too long!

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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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