As a script reader, you don’t usually meet the people you read for. For example, I read for Miramax for two years but never once met good ol’ Harvey (but I was often aware of his presence in London given the mood and behaviour of the staff). I met the, gasp in awe, Head of Development once but generally you deal with the Assistant, or if you want to be polite (and I suggest you do), you can call him the Development Co-ordinator.
In some companies, you may deal with the development execs indirectly as they could be nearby when you’re filling your bag with scripts. When this occurs, it is great to get into a casual chat about the weather, the spec pile and/or any writing ambitions from yourself that they need to know about. Usually though, these innocent chats focus on the general state of the spec pile and what writers should be doing to make their scripts more appealing. And more often than not, the weary exec will sigh about his number one gripe: concept.
The screenwriting training market has had a definite impact on the quality of scripts that are being submitted to the spec pile. Most scripts try to employ a serviceable three-act structure and generally try to follow the screenwriting adage of ‘less is more’ in their description. But this has only raised the standard from ‘poor’ to ‘mediocre’. Development bods don’t seem too perturbed by this mediocrity if the script contains one crucial aspect above the other contenders. A killer concept. Or at the very least, something in the idea that they can work and develop into a killer script. Development, after all, is their job and they’re quite good at it too so all they need is a good idea, an exciting concept, a promising premise, to get the script process moving.
But what makes a good idea? Well, how long is a piece of string? High concept ideas are obviously the ones with the most commercial potential so this is what production companies are after. The Film Council is promoting high concept and genre with their 25 Words or Less Scheme and the UK film industry is desperately trying to find a niche with appealing and solid concepts.
Most ideas sound okay when they're pitched but usually are reliant on the telling of the piece (in outline, treatment or script) to be really sure that it's something worth developing. What execs are after is that 'yes!' idea where they can instantly recognise the appeal and potential without seeing a single word of your script. One of my own scripts was optioned with a quick verbal pitch by the exec to his boss who simply replied: "yes, I'll have that", and to date, I don't think he's ever read the script.
Last year, Working Title made a solicited call-out for high concept ideas, inviting writers to come in to pitch them their best. As you might expect, they received a lot, literally hundreds of face-to-face pitches. I think in the end, they put about three or four in development. Does this mean that the other pitches were off-brief? Maybe, maybe not. I got an invite to pitch and I gave it my best shot (it was genre, it was high concept) but they rejected it after a few months’ consideration. The exec who received most of the pitches did tell me that a lot of the ideas were just ordinary or familiar or too personal (‘it’s about this postman in Wales’).
Of course, writers have to stick to their gut and conviction with whatever story they’re trying to tell. If it’s not high concept, so be it. If it’s not an easily definable genre, well heck you’re the storyteller, you know what you’re doing, right? Right. And then there’s the nagging insecurity of ‘well, everything’s been done before, there are no new ideas’. I don’t subscribe to that one myself. While there may be only 36 plots or whatever that a writer can follow, it’s the way your concept and characters are treated around the well-established format of storytelling that will elevate your work into fresh and inviting fare.
It’s all in the idea. It’s all in the ‘what if?’. That’s the springboard into a surprising world full of complexity, challenges and fun (and for the writer too!). A good idea and pitch could be all you need to start your screenwriting career well before you’ve sat down to bash out 110 pages of story. If the development execs love the concept, they’ll help you with the rest (or boot you off and get someone else to do it). That, as they say, is showbiz.