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Feature-Length FEAR

Over the last few years I’ve seen a considerable reduction in feature-length screenplays in the spec pile. Instead, there seems to be a plethora of TV pilots – nearly always 60 minute returning dramas, though the odd sitcom too.

Now when I started over ten years ago, I hardly ever saw TV scripts at all. If I did, they were usually “feature-length”, movie-of-the-week type scripts, rather than 60 page TV pilots. Generally speaking, the pile was made up of 90-120 page movie scripts, with the odd short film (often quite long for shorts, in the range of 20-30 pages) thrown in for good measure (the short films I see now are generally MUCH shorter, 10 pages or less).

Of course, much has changed in the last ten years or so – and not just in terms of the internet and social media, which are chockfull of information and help for screenwriters. When I started, there seemed to be quite a lot of hostility directed towards writing for television, especially continuing drama by up and coming writers; this has changed the most sharply it would seem, with many many new writers DESPERATE to make it into the hallowed world of soaps, especially since the launch of such schemes as The BBC Writers’ Academy. It would seem many have realised continuing drama to be a “training ground” for those wanting to write their own TV series eventually, with many others wanting simply to write for favourite shows, which are now heavily celebrated in a way they didn’t seem to be before.

Similarly, genre film has risen to the top of the pile, whereas low budget drama was very much the name of the game a decade or so ago. Potential film festival acclaim it would seem has been eclipsed by the pull of potential commercial success: Brit genre successes of the last decade like 28 DAYS LATER, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and ATTACK THE BLOCK are just the tips of the iceberg. The advent of digital filmmaking has meant production companies can make films on very low budgets in ways they couldn’t before – and audiences have voted with their feet, getting behind many indie productions.

Yet in comparison to a growth of TV scripts, feature scripts – even dramas – seem at a premium in comparison to their huge numbers ten years ago. Why?

Feature scripts have great currency in the industry. Whilst TV producers may well look at feature scripts when considering writers for TV jobs, Film producers don’t *tend* to look at TV pilots when considering writers for film jobs in the same way. And why should they? A TV pilot proves the writer can get to 60 pages, fine – but a whopping potential 30 pages is “missing”. You can see the psychology. How does that Film Producer “know” the writer can handle the much larger (not better) plot construction of a feature?

When I ask Bang2writers why they are not writing features, some common responses are:

“My ideas are better suited for television” (really? TV is increasingly high concept. With series like THE FADES, ASHES TO ASHES, DR WHO, HUSTLE, SPOOKS et al Is there that “much” of a difference in subject matter now? I would argue it’s a structural difference in how they play out more).

“I just love television so much.” (Fair dos: if television is your medium of CHOICE, then go for it… Though *could* one of your ideas get you *in* to television via film? Could be worth a thought).

“I’m scared of 60+pages”.

And this final one is the one that affects writers the most I would wager. The Three Act structure over 90-120 pages TERRIFIES many of the writers I’ve asked. Many describe Act 2 as a “wasteland” or fear that not having a very obvious main plot/sub plot (or even three or four strands as in continuing drama) will mean their story will “dry up”.

Yet fear is all it is – and yes, if you write a feature perhaps in the first instance you will make mistakes with structure and story. But you will have done the same with your early TV pilots – and you didn’t let that put you off! So why not do what you did back when you started those – your research, into structure? There’s a whole section on it in The Required Reading List and plenty else on this blog… Google “movie structure” and you will find loads more. Go for it!

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3 thoughts on “Feature-Length FEAR”

  1. I've had THE FEAR for a long time, ever since ditching a decidedly lame-arse feature project for the capstone of my screenwriting MA. Inevitably, I replaced it with the pilot script for a 60-minute drama.

    In an effort to overcome THE FEAR, I'm now a student on a feature film screenwriting night class. An extended development process and enforced deadlines *making* me face my feature-length nemesis (ooo-er).

    1. I think writing TV scripts as a sample is a great idea – especially if you actually want to work in television. But if you’re not sure or want to have a portfolio with a little more currency (don’t forget the great features contests too), then I’d say features is the way to go.

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