Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The System

Well, with a little nudge to the script editors in question, I got my rejection from the BBC this morning. Here’s what they said: “Huge apologies for the delay in responding to your submission - we were slightly overwhelmed by the number of pitches that came in (over 2,000!), so it's been taking far longer than we originally anticipated to get back to everyone. I can inform you, however, that we have now decided on the final short-list and I'm afraid that your pitches haven't been successful on this occasion. We are trying to respond personally to everyone who submitted an idea, however, so you should receive a letter from us in the next few days.”

As a writer, and as a new writer especially, constant rejection of your work inevitably leads to indignation and frustration that the system is all wrong. ‘How can I get a TV commission if I don’t have an agent - how can I get an agent if I don’t have a TV commission?’ ‘The script reader clearly missed the point, what was he, twelve?’ ‘This is heaps better than most of the stuff I’ve read on-line, are they nuts?’

A not-so reassuring thought: it doesn’t get any easier when you get an agent or when you get your first commission. Everything gets harder. However, while the frustration and disdain for ‘the system’ may well be justified on some occasion, and it’s certainly flawed, inevitably it exists to protect itself from the talentless hacks that make a lot of noise (empty vessels and so on, those who threaten lawsuits/violence), and to leave that tiny gap of opportunity open to those who really can write. It may not seem like it but y’know, the system does work.

Take for example Paul Farrell’s journey from submitting a spec script to the BBC writersroom right through to writing a commissioned episode of Silent Witness.

A couple of years ago I read a spec script for Miramax which I was very taken with. It was a low-budget UK comedy-drama but it was original, warm and funny, and not without a delicious dark streak. It’s one of the handful of scripts that I’ve given a double recommendation (Writer: Recommend, Script: Recommend).

Luckily, with only slightly less enthusiasm, the exec agreed with my assessment and called the writers in for a meeting. He pointed them in the direction of ICM, bigtime agents. And then, I believe, ICM said we love the script but we need to see more. “What else have you got?” The writers went away to write another script with the promise of high level agent interest. I don’t know what’s happened to them but both the exec and I sat back with some satisfaction: the system worked.

And I suppose, on a personal level, the system has worked for me too. Optimistic Reader asked about my script that won the BBC Tony Doyle award and how it’s developing, and I’ll talk about that at more length soon, but before all that, the script served me well in getting meetings and nabbing my agent.

I started script reading in 1999 and I read like a maniac. Night and day. Ten scripts a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes books too. The whole point was to read what was out there, recognise what was good and bad, and raise the quality of my writing to the highest professional level. By 2003, I had written a couple of good scripts but now I felt I had to write something that was original and expressed my voice clearly. I wanted to write a good sample script that demonstrated I could create an interesting situation and setting, and take the characters on an emotional and dramatic journey. So I wrote ‘Run For Home’ (the script that would win me that Tony Doyle award).

It’s a low-concept domestic drama that I never expected to get made but would hopefully get some attention because of the writing. And it did. It impressed my agent enough, along with my other work, to want to take me on, and the script was a good sample to get me in the door of Doctors. It’s proved a solid and reliable sample ever since, and after winning the Tony Doyle award, I've been lucky enough to have it optioned by Parallel Films, one of Ireland’s leading production companies (they just produced Breakfast on Pluto), and with hunky Irish actor Liam Cunningham attached to star.

By the way, winning the Tony Doyle award was an extremely close call between two other terrific scripts, one by Ruth McCracken and the other by Martin O’Brien. I was particularly envious of Ruth’s writing and thought her script was sure to be the winner (we were given the shortlisted scripts before the award ceremony) but Liam Cunningham was on the jury and championed Run for Home all the way, er, home. Coincidentally, I wrote it with Liam in mind but had no idea he was going to be on the jury. But that’s another story.

Looking back on the whole experience thus far I can safely say this: the system works. So don’t give up and don’t take no for an answer. Keep writing. Constantly improve the quality of your work. Be professional and dedicated. The system will recognise your efforts soon enough. It may be 2036 before they do so but hey, the system might work but it’s not perfect…right?


Dominic Carver said...

2036??? Blimey, I'll be drawing my pension then.

I know what you mean though. I graduated from Bournemouth University in 2001 with a BA (Hons) in Scriptwriting for Film and Television and spent the next year trying to get an agent or prodcuer interested in my feature Sins Of The Father. Unfortunately this was around the time of Snatch and as my script was set in gangland Birmingham no one would touch it because the genre had been overplayed. I did receive some good comments on the script though and it was also one of 54 scripts out of 227 to be chosen for a second read in the Oscar Moore Foundation Screenwrting Prize 2001.

I then spent another year writing a comedy feature before discovering that only around 40 or so films are made each year in the UK, a very small percentage of the thousands of scripts submitted to production comanpies every year.

I became disillusioned with writing for the following year before I decided to concentrate on directing my efforts towards writing for TV. I've spent the last year and a half writing a 90 minute drama as my calling card script, as well as devising and writing an episode of a drama series and an episode of a sitcom.

My new direction seems to be paying off even though I still haven't sold anything yet. I'm getting a lot more interest in my work and a lot more requests to read my scripts. My calling card script was requested by a well know production company in December and as of yet hasn't been sent back.

The system does work you just have to know HOW it works. Writing For Television by William Smethurst has provided me with some valuable insight. Thinks are looking up :-)

Tim Clague said...

Danny my man. You know me. My advice is always to use the system. not let it use you. If it fits your agenda then of course use what you can. If it doesn't then go in a new direction.

What do I mean by that? I mean think about what you want, what you really want. If it is to get your film made and seen then maybe on-line is the way (no distributor / agent required). If you have a film and you want it distributed then you could apply to festivals for years - or you could get some DVDs in the post to companies. It works!

In summary - find your own way. If you find a new path - there is zero competition (rather than 2000!)