Monday, December 22, 2008

UK TV Specs

In the US, it is common practice to write spec episodes of existing television shows in order to convince producers that you should be let in to a writers' room. The system works like this: if you want to write for, say, House, then you write a spec episode of Battlestar Galactica, or Desperate Housewives or anything else that ISN'T House. The producers of that show want to see that you can write but they don't want to read your take on Hugh Laurie mainly because of legal reasons. If they don't like your script but then use a storyline that was similar to your episode, then you'll get all huffy and want to sue. Writing spec episodes is a big deal for new writers in the US, and a lot of time and care goes into the process as it may lead to a big break.

Over here, writing a spec episode doesn't hold the same currency at all. If you write a spec Dr Who script and send it to Casualty, they won't care how good the writing is because the script isn't applicable to them, and, more crucially, you're an 'unknown quantity' as a writer. If you write a spec Dr Who script and send it to Russell T Davies, well, he won't read it, because you might sue if he uses something similar to your episode. Of course, you could charm and hustle Russell to read your Dr Who script and convince him to take you on. It has been known to happen (a writer being hired based on the spec ep they wrote for the producer's show), there's always an exception, but generally, in the UK, if you want to get ahead, you have to write an original spec script. Your own idea, characters and story.

Producers and execs in this country want to know what your 'original voice' is like. But even if they're impressed by your work, a commission may still elude you because the next thing they want to know is if you're been through the system, and if you're able to cope. In other words, they prefer it if a writer has experience and has been through the mill, i.e. the process of going through 1st draft, notes, 2nd draft, all the way to production. That's why they'll be more inclined to go with someone who's had a credit or two on Doctors, or has done a notable radio play, or theatre piece.

This might sound like it's pretty pointless to write a spec episode of your favourite show. Well, it's not. It all depends on what you want to get out of it. Regardless of what a producer may think in terms of actually hiring you, a spec script will always be a writing sample, and if it's fairly decent, then that's always going to leave a good impression. And, on some occasions, you may be asked directly to write a spec episode of the show that you're trying out for, like EastEnders, or Not Going Out.

When I was fresh off working on the set of Black Books (1st series, god, almost 9 years ago!), I decided to write a spec episode, naively thinking it would be snapped up by the producer for the second series. The producer liked it, complimenting me on getting the tone and characters right (when she had seen many spec scripts that hadn't, apparently) but they were going to use two experienced writers for the 2nd series, and my episode wasn't going to get a look in. Still, the script has served me well as a general sample, especially if a producer, agent or exec wants to read a good batch of scripts from your portfolio. I've put the script up on my site (in the blog download section), in case you want to have a peek. Looking back, it's a bit on the short side and patchy in places but it's not bad, all things considered.

So, if you're just starting out, it may be helpful, and indeed fun, to write a spec episode of your favourite show. Let your excitement and imagination run free, and get your portfolio underway before moving on to your own personal stuff, where your 'original voice' can shine.

To end on a more festive note: if you're not really bovvered by the Hallelujah hoopla that's been going on, here are a few other tracks that might spice up your Christmas playlist: James Brown - "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto", Stevie Wonder - "One Little Christmas Tree", The Beach Boys - "Little Saint Nick".

HAPPY CHRISTMAS! Don't eat too much, now.

17 comments:

Kevin said...

Thanks so much for answering my question, Danny. Very informative. It's really night and day, the two communities.

Hope you have a great Christmas and yadda yadda yadda 2009. :-)

containsnuts said...

A fantastic blog, thanks very much!

Antonia said...

Thanks fot this, Danny.

I am slightly confused (doesn't take much) but you said don't send a script that's applicable to a particular show, or one that isn't applicable, but send an original script, that shows your voice etc. But that may not be applicable either?

Danny Stack said...

Ha, I've confused myself! Basically, an original script is what will get you noticed, and get you work. A spec episode of an existing TV series might serve you well as a general sample (for agents etc) but if you've written an episode of Holby and then send it to one of their producers, then they might not read it because of the tricky legalities, and such.

Hope that clears it up!

Michelle Goode said...

What a fantastic and insightful blog entry for us UK screenwriters. It can get very confusing reading on the internet about spec scripts, as most of the time it is American advice. I really appreciate this helpful series you have written and the lovely Robin Kelly compiled a list of links to each one, so I will be reading up on those I missed out on before I discovered your most excellent blog. Thank you again and Merry Christmas!!!

Neil said...

Glad to hear that, cos I don't like any Brit TV shows at the mo really. There are non that I would write a decent script for. Got plenty of my own ideas however....

thanks for the blog!!!

Neil.

Antonia said...

That's cleared it up, Danny! Thanks.

Neil, if you got the chance to write for a Brit show, I bet you wouldn't turn it down!

Louise Pennington said...

Yes... a script editor on continuing drama liked my original script enough to ask me to meet him, but it sort of boiled down to me having no TV credits (aka experience), so no joy so far. Ironic, but nice, that a director of the same show wants to direct a short of mine, so maybe... In the meantime, have a fab Christmas etc and thanks for all the great advice!

Neil said...

Antonia - hell no, I'd snap that opportunity up like that *makes clicking motion* But nothing takes my fancy at the mo. we can't be picky though (until we're all rich and famous that is).

leehamilton51@hotmail.com said...

Excellent post. I wonder if you could maybe expand on this topic a bit more tho? Say you wanted to submit your own original spec script idea, how much info are producers looking for? Do they want outlines for each episode in the series? How many full episode scripts do you submit? Basically, when do you stop?

Cheers.

Danny Stack said...

Hi Lee - this post might have the answers you need. Happy with any follow-up Qs if necessary. Cheers!

Nick said...

Hi Danny, Great post but the link to the Black Books script does not work - it just says "temporary error" when I try to download it :(

Danny Stack said...

Hi Nick. That's weird, it works fine for me! Don't know what to say, 'cept try again maybe...

AspiringWriter said...

Hey Danny,

I was wondering if you could answer this question: If say you sold a one hour spec pilot, and the BBC bought it and got you on as exec-producer and writer, maybe under a more experienced showrunner, would you still own the concept of the show? Would you get backend money for syndication, DVD sales etc..? What kind of control could you expect? and have you recently read any spec pilot scripts which you think cwould sell?

Danny Stack said...

Hi Aspiring Writer. At the very least, it sounds like you should get a format fee for creating the series, which means that every time someone writes an ep for your show, you get paid an agreed sum (usually some percentage of the writing fee). This, and everything else you mention, would be determined by your agent's negotiation skills. There's no set answer really as it will vary depending on your clout and experience.

As a new writer, you might not get a lot of say or control but you should be able to negotiate the very minimum monetary and creative credit that you deserve.

A lot of the Red Planet entries were pretty damn good, and I can see a few of them working well, but we shall see...!

sghsfh said...

Danny,

Speaking of Red Planet, is it likely to be the end of January before we hear?

Danny Stack said...

Yep, we're still aiming for January, and to announce a winner sooner rather than later.