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Guest Post: The Story Engine 2010, Pt 1 by Helen Bang

The mighty Helen Bang has been off to The Story Engine again — here’s part 1 of her notes from this year.

State of the Nation

Panel: Malcolm Wright, ITV, Michael Chaplin, writer, Barbara McKissock, producer

The recession has affected television drama – advertising revenue is down and the BBC have had to cut because of the contribution required to the digital switchover. Much less is being commissioned and there have been cutbacks in development. Treatments are being commissioned, but whereas previously they moved rapidly to script, this is no longer the case.

Michael related how he had a 6 page treatment with a star attached. Barbara Mackie liked it so it went to Controller Peter Fincham. He liked it but said he wasn’t going to make it. There are rumours that he is considering the worth of the star to the network. Having a star attached is usually a good idea but can backfire.

There seem to be signs that commissioning is picking up again. ITV had a good year with ad revenue owing to the talent shows. Cancelleation of The Bill has freed up some money.

What do they want? Returning series. Short term serials running across a week. Eg Five Days, Accident (Horowitz). All are crime-based. A 3-5 day event with a big hook to bring the audience back.

Focus on story, story, story. It’s difficult to get character-led pieces taken seriously.

By and large you’re better off if you can attract a star to your project.

Michael is working on a returning series for Hat Trick starring David Mitchell, one of the ‘now’ comedians.

Single TV film – very, very competitive. They are expensive and have no guarantee of a big audience.

He was asked to adapt a book – it’s not enough just to like it. The protagonist is a 15 year old boy, which is problematic, but there are good parts for established stars as the estranged parents.

Is there a market for new writers with original ideas?

Contact a producer whose work you like. Write and say so. The indies may be a better bet.

The Academy, Doctors etc. The best way into television is still the soaps.

Also consider writing for other media; radio, stage, novels. KEEP WRITING.

Barbara McKissock: Monarch of the Glen, River City, England Expects….

She spoke about the film industry. 120 films were made last year. Cinema audiences are bigger than in the 1980s. In 2008 British films made £2.8 billion worldwide, an important industry.

Bringing films to an area is attractive for economic development. The UK film industry is still quite buoyant. 87% of jobs are in the London area as is 97% of the distribution. Writers have an advantage because they can live anywhere!

The big companies have Hollywood connections. Also television companies such as Company Pictures and Kudos are also making films.

It’s worth researching which companies are making low/micro budget films.

Advice? No more teen horror! But the best will get made.

Disstribution – very difficult for microbudget. 18% get a theatrical release, the rest go to DVD. Don’t second guess the market. The producer must be passionate about the work.
Get investors to back you, not for financial gain, but to help you in early days of career.

Most movies are still made in the USA. You need to get the film out digitally. There is shrinking public funding and distribution.

Be different. Aim high and make it your mission to find a producer to work with.

Learn to love your reader.

Panel: Barbara McKissock, Ludo Smolski, Danny Stack.

There are two types of reader’s report; coverage which is for the production company and anonymous and usually more critical, and feedback which is for the writer and makes suggestions for development.

Read lots of scripts. Learn to recognise good ones.

Have an original voice – be different from the other stuff out there. has a feedback section where you can review other scripts and post yours for review.

Common problems:

Not saying up front where the script is set.

Having bulky paragraphs.

Being too chummy with the reader (can work but often doesn’t).

Biopics are good for spec scripts. Especially if the famous person’s story is told from a different POV.

If you want work as a reader, do sample reports of scripts and send to companies.

Ludo reckons he read 100 scripts before he really knew what he was doing. In one year he read 1000.

No guarantee given.

Panel: Lisa Holdsworth, Danny Stack, Gavin Williams, Claire Malcolm.

Danny: Had been doing script reading. He got rejected everywhere. Getting an agent was key but doesn’t define you. He recommends getting a profile going by having a blog. His first TV credit was the amazing adredeeny brothers in 1006. He had been freelance since 2000. In 2004 he won a new writing award. He was pitching on Doctors but his script wasn’t on screen until 2006.

You think the system will respond in a certain way but it doesn’t.

Gavin: He had written a fantasy novel. He was involved with New Writing North and got a bursary. He worked in Yorkshire TV drama dept on a shadow scheme. He was commissioned for Urban Gothic. Original work got commissioned but not made. He didn’t realise that this was a problem. Then Carlton merged with Granada and the projects died.

He met lots of people who liked his scripts but didn’t want to make them. At a low point he got sent to Dole School and dumped by his agent. He tried getting into computer games but it wasn’t for him. He continued networking and has just written a play which is being performed shortly.

He likens the industry to finding your way around London when there are problems on the Underground. Okay, so that way’s closed, but I can go up here and change there and so on!

Lisa: had worked in factual TV. Was a PA to a producer and got a break on Fat Friends. It took 6 months to write this, she was sacked as the PA and her house nearly got repossessed as her money ran ou. She took maternity leave NHS clerical work.

She didn’t have a body of work and the Fat Friends script was embargoed. Then she got work on Emmerdale. She was trying to earn a living while people were asking her to write for free.

Having now got a long list of TV credits she’s stopped working on Waterloo Road in order to write a new calling card script. You’re only as good as your last thing.

Danny: recommends having a practical plan. A goal for a year, two years etc. Eg, get an agent, be writing for Doctors by such and such a date. You have to sell you rself, it’s not your agent’s job. Networking – essential. Things come through strange connections. You must watch television and have an opinion of what’s on. Join the online community – it prevents isolation and can be like working in an office.

What kind of writer are you? If you don’t want to do TV then don’t. You must know if you love it or not, you can’t fake it.
Good stuff there as always, Helen — looking forward to part 2!

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