This is a long post, first about BBC Films, then about trying to turn inspiring vibes into practical ways to progress your career.
At the Screenwriters’ Festival, David Thompson gave a talk about BBC Films, what it is, what it’s about and what it’s looking for. Mr Thompson has been Head of BBC Films since 1997, and has steered its films towards international and domestic success. At the beginning of his talk, he said that they were definitely looking for more comedies. This genre is the toughest to do but potentially the most lucrative, and they’re not seeing any comedy scripts. Or good ones, anyway.
BBC Films make between 6-8 films a year. They like to get behind original, authored work. They don’t want to jump on genre trends or ape someone else’s success. They like to back new talent, and they especially like writer/directors, and Mr Thompson stressed that: “development is the heart of what they do”. They have a £10m budget, £1.5m goes to development, and they raise up to £60m in co-production (which they’re entirely dependent on). If you want to submit scripts, then the BBC writersroom is the best bet, although you could try emailing stuff to Ed Rubin or Beth Richards (sorry guys), but, naturally, sending scripts via an agent is always the most welcome.
He showed a clip showreel of some of their films. These included Cock & Bull, Bullet Boy, Dirty Pretty Things, Shooting Dogs, My Summer of Love, Mrs Henderson Presents, Confetti, Billy Elliot, Notes on a Scandal. He did concede that BBC Films had a bit of “miserabilist” reputation, and that it had a strong TV film tradition, but they are definitely interested in high-concept genre material. The more appeal, the better, basically.
Mr Thompson said that filmmaking is not just dialogue; images are just as important, and that story, above all, is what matters the most. He likes risky, edgy stuff, and that all their commissions had been a roller coaster ride of commission, production and release. He talked about Confetti as an example. The excitement of getting together with the director, and her improvised approach to the comedy, and then the interest it gained at Cannes, which was euphoric, only to have the film panned by critics and not do very well. He’s very proud of the film, and it goes down well with audiences, everyone laughs (the clip was funny), so it’s disappointing when a project is not fully embraced by the audience and critics.
He went on to say that writing a film is very much a team process. He’s looking for all types of films. Films that have elements of achievement or a celebration of the human spirit have a better chance of working. They don’t do short films, really, but encouraged people to check out the BBC Film Network and YouTube for getting your shorts out there.
At the end of the session, someone told me that David Thompson is leaving BBC Films, but his talk was amusing and entertaining, if a little generic in its core advice (although it was part of the New Writer days, so no complaints).
Everyone is in agreement that the Screenwriters’ Festival is time well spent. The four days of schmoozing and seminars, specifically tailored for the UK, is fast becoming unmissable for the wannabe and professional screenwriter.
However, there is a tendency to die of encouragement at events of this type. Everyone speaks with a passion about who they are and what they’ve achieved, and how you can do it too, so it all sounds accessible and available as long as you keep at it. A handful of generic advice or encouragement will only get you so far. There is a basic truism being applied to each bit of advice but the hard-hitting realities can often go in a different way altogether.
For example, take these nuggets of advice/encouragement:-
“Talent or good writing will always find a way”. For most people, this actually means: “you’re screwed”. The competition’s too fierce, and you’re going to get swallowed up.
“It’s really hard”. This really means: “I’ve had two divorces, an ulcer, and I couldn’t pay my mortgage for 10 years, but I wouldn’t let my screenwriting commitment slip, and finally, I made it”. A lot of personal relationships and friendships are hit by a writer’s desire to succeed. “It’s really hard” doesn’t accurately sum it up. It's a never-ending slog of rejection and frustration, not to mention it being emotionally draining and physically demanding (yes, physically demanding; who hasn't stayed up all night with headaches, or had a bad back, or put on weight, or lost weight?).
“We’re always open to new talent”. There are varying degrees of ‘new talent’ that range from people who are unknown, to people just breaking through, and people who are making a living out of writing, but you may not have heard of them. David Thompson gave his example of ‘new talent’ as working with Andrea Arnold on her debut feature, Red Road. That’s Andrea Arnold, the very same ‘new talent’ that won an Oscar for her short film, Wasp, and had the industry lining up to work with her. While Ms Arnold is unquestionably ‘new talent’, she’s far ahead of the ‘new talent’ of Simon Smith, bank clerk from Shrewsbury, who’s just written his first spec. Mr Smith doesn’t exist, I made him up to illustrate my point, which is: make yourself recognisable as ‘new talent’, create a profile, do something that will catch people’s attention (win an award, do a short, etc), don’t just wait to be spotted as ‘new talent’ because the BBC writersroom asked to read the whole of your script, or whatever.
“We want to see good scripts, and find good writers.” This is extremely encouraging, especially if they say they’ll accept unsolicited material, but the reality is that the quality of your script should be extremely high to get their attention, especially if you’re an unknown. Everyone wants to read good scripts and find good writers but the first part is wildly subjective and the latter is harder than you think, partly because of the subjectivity involved, and the stress a new writer can find himself in when he’s trying to create more work. Take the encouragement and opportunity while you can but don’t go bombarding people with your scripts just because they said they would read them, or if someone suggested sending an email. Do more preparation, and polish that script, and get it independently reviewed, and try to improve it, and once you’re satisfied that it’s the best it can be, THEN you send it in, not a moment before.
Sorry, don’t want to drag the vibe down, but we’ve got to be aware of the pressures and practicalities involved, not just for us, but for everyone in the industry too. We can take heart and optimism from the encouragement and many insights that the Festival provided, but there was one piece of advice that practically became the theme of the entire four days, and this was it:
Don’t be a writer. Be a writer/producer. Or a writer/director. Take more control. Be more proactive. Take responsibility for your work. Embrace the system. Work hard within the process to cultivate better work and positive relationships. Don’t whinge. Get on with it. Get ahead.