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The Long Distance Screenwriter, Part One

First off, hello to everyone I met at the weekend! I had a brilliant time as always, though many apologies both to Elinor (I threw coleslaw over her) and MA David for the coughing fit. Whoops.

So: onto my notes since that’s why everyone’s really here…

Stand Out Scripts. In no particular order then, largely because my notes are in chaos: Adrian took the morning session and talked about three main points that make out “stand out” TV scripts. These were

– Originality
– Controversy
– “New Realisation”
– High Concept

Originality is straight forward: it’s that elusive quality all us writers face – just how original is our latest original idea? How many times have we had a flash of inspiration, only to find it’s central to the latest blockbuster/soap opera/whatever. Nuts. Controversy is an interesting one; something often overlooked in my opinion by writers. Issues are issues because people want to talk about them, explore them, get right into the heart of them. Putting an issue then at the heart of your script can only be a good thing. I wrote a script about child abuse and yes, some readers hated it, but only one out of the many, many Readers who read it didn’t understand what it was about. Controversy is a good thing.

New Realisation was the one I hadn’t thought of before; Adrian explained this might be to do with arena, the philosophy behind the script or issue, structure (in terms of the “story telling format”), the ability to change minds or give viewers an insight into something or someone they have never seen or thought of before. If you can tap into this special *something* you could be on to something. For example: I read a script about what it means to be a Working Single Mother recently. Nothing too remarkable about that you might think, until you factor in the point this particular writer is male. Reading the script, I was blown away by his insight – because I experienced everything this man wrote about! The guilt, the struggle, the juggling. It was all there. And you know what? I recommended the screenplay.

High Concept is interesting, since it was traditionally thought of as movie fare. Movies were all-singing, all-dancing; TV was gritty, realist and DEADLY SERIOUS. There’s been a blurring of the lines though in recent years; high concepts are now behind much of British TV drama – LIFELINE a recent, good example. The supernatural in particular has crossed the line from the movie world and into TV; mini series are not all about murder mysteries and health scares any more. You needn’t stick to writing your ninety minute features just because you like to explore the more “out there” concepts in any case.

Goal Setting. Adrian insists that writers who get made make goals and I agree with him. This does not mean making goals along the lines of “Well, I’ll give it fice years and if I’ve made no progress, that’s it for me.” Rather it means working out what you want and making a series of smaller goals in the short term that will help you achieve that goal in the long term. No one gets anything handed to them on a plate in this game. You have to work for it and this takes time. For me, my goal is getting my own TV Series, so I have to decide just what route I need to take to achieve this. Getting short films made would perhaps gain me some attention, but it possibly isn’t quite the right road for me at this juncture in my career since I already have an agent. So I need to really buckle down, polish up my specs and get my agent to target all those existing shows in the hope I can gain some work on an existing series. No one will give an untried, untested writer their own drama series, out of the blue, no matter how great their spec is. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of development money. Why risk it? You have to be patient, but equally you must be realistic too.

Agents. Having an agent is not a 100% must in TV – one of the afternoon panelists, Louise Ironside confessed she hasn’t got one since she’s “too busy” to find one (what a nice problem to have!); however, I get the impression one is hampered without one. Adrian talked us through the “Big 5” agents and how they like to be approached:

The Agency. These guys like Adrian’s “agent pack” idea.
Curtis Brown. They like writers to be pro-active and well-researched, contacting the relevant agent best suited to that writers’ style.
PFD. They prefer recommendations from producers and/or course tutors and have recently taken on an MA Screenwriting Graduate, not only because of his fabulous writing, but his great personality and motivation! So it’s not just what’s on the page, remember.
Tessa Sayle Agency. They like the agent packs, but also invites to screenings, readings or personal recommendations are good too.
Dench Arnold. This agency is “always looking for the next masterpiece” so welcome the agent packs Adrian has designed.

For a comprehensive list of literary agents, click here.

Agents liaise alot with TV people and Adrian told us about the “favourite” agents TV people like to work with:

At ICM, Cathy King, Michelle McCoy, Jessica Sykes and Josh Varney all came highly recommended; favourites from The Agency included Faye Webber, Norman North and Bethanne Evan; Curtis Brown’s TV champions are Tally Garner, Nick Marsden and Ben Hall. Smaller agencies that have also proved popular with TV people include MBA, Cecily West, Val Hoskins and London Management.

Agents told Adrian that when they are approached by potential clients, they not only like scripts to “reek of polished prowess”, but the candidate to as well! They ask that the potential client put themselves in the Assistant’s position and appreciate it takes time to read scripts (often this work is undertaken out of hours!). They also mentioned that there was nothing wrong with phoning, but that there is nothing more annoying that writers outstaying their welcome or asking for advice about their career! So you’ve been told…

Tomorrow: Part Two where I detail the many opportunities and websites Adrian recommended. See you then!

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14 thoughts on “The Long Distance Screenwriter, Part One”

  1. Yep, I’m a Londoner. Well, I live here. Hi Liz!

    Thanks Lucy – this is precious stuff. I’ve recently been losing a little faith in the Agent Pack paradigm (only in terms of the short script’s inclusion) from talking to a couple of people. But if these agencies like it, then that’s clearly the end of the matter…

  2. thanks for that – it’s so much easier to just sit here and read your notes than fly all the way up there!

    Will you getting to the bit where you give him a piece of you mind in Pt 2 then??

  3. You’re welcome guys – though all this is down to Mead Kerr really!

    And Martin, I did as you said and had a MASSIVE go at Adrian for being completely useless and he hung me by one leg off the battlements of Edinburgh Castle (the giant he is), but got out of it by blaming you for making me do it. So start rinning!

  4. Question. So what exactly is it agents do if they don’t find you work, other than take 10 per cent after you’ve done all the hard work yourself?

    Other than the unfortunate fact that most production companies won’t even look at your script unless you’re represented, wouldn’t you be better off without one?

    And – assuming you are fortunate enough to get an agent, what next? Do you approach production comapnies, ask if they’re interested in the material and ( if they say yes) get your agent to contact them? Or, as in some cases they won’t even accept ‘unsolicited queries’ (weird), would you need to get the agent to contact them first?

  5. Hello Anon!

    Despite popular belief, agents *do* do work: lit agents are still one of the best places to get read (even if they don’t take you) and some offer very good feedback to the newer writers. Certainly I was helped a lot when I first started by a number of agents who kindly gave up their time to both encourage me and steer me in the write direction (arf arf). They also negotiate things like translation rights to books, films etc and handle all the legal stuff like contracts once you’ve got your work.

    But in answer to your q’s – yes, it would seem you have to chase after that work yourself as a scriptwriter. In my experience too I’ve asked prodcos if they’re interested in seeing my work – and then my agent has sent it in for me and I know other writers have done this; as for “no unsolicited queries” I don’t think I’ve ever come across a prodco that operates this policy, though I’m sure some do – presumably the agent would have to approach on your behalf.

    And finally, you are definitely better off with an agent than without one, even if you secretly think yours is rubbish and doesn’t do anything (and I do know some writers who think this). It’s like a club – those who are represented vs. the squillions that aren’t. Even a small lit agent’s only going to take on a few clients a year, which means you’ve already beaten off a load of people, which *may* seem more attractive a company looking for a writer and/or spec. But of course, in this biz there are ALWAYS exceptions.

  6. Welcome Anon – always happy to help. If you have any other questions and can’t find an article on it, email me and I’ll see what I can do.

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