Friday, 29 June 2007

Preparation for next year's Writers' Academy starts now...

... that I've received an e-mail telling me I didn't get through this year. Best of luck to Piers and Paul, who are into the next stage of selection - I hope you both go all the way to the final eight.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

You win some, you lose some

I was going to post with the nice news that I have made it to the last ten in the Euroscript Screenplay competition. But before I could get finger to keyboard, Euroscript put the shortlist in their latest mailing, and posted it on Shooting People. So, everyone probably already knows. Thanks to all who have posted or emailed me their congratulations. Much appreciated.

I'm bowled over by this news. As I hadn't heard about it for a while, I just assumed I hadn't got anywhere. Hooray! The winner and two runners up will be announced on Tuesday at Cheltenham; alas I won't be there. I could only afford to go for two days, and I plumped for the latter two.

My plan of winning the pitching competition to get another two days at the festival has not worked - I didn't make the final ten for that one. It's probably just as well: I'd have had to beg the Day Job for some last minute leave, and I'd have had to get up in front of a crowd and pitch, which - I must admit - was making me feel a bit apprehensive (read: scared stiff).

I would like to have been in the audience for the final pitches though, but I'm sure they'll be blogged about, or covered in ScriptWriter magazine. In the meantime, there's Lucy's competition for all the pitches that got away. I want to do a bit of work on mine before submitting it - is that allowed, Luce?

Oh, and a non-writing PS: My young lad started walking this week. He can go a few metres in a controlled way, without holding onto anything. It's amazing.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Slight Return

Apologies for the break in transmission; unfortunately, this is not because I’ve been on holiday like some other folks out there in Blogland (chance would be a fine thing!) but because I’ve been tremendously busy. Which is nice. Things what I have been doing:

Having meetings. I have been lucky enough to have three meetings in the last week. Two were for short film projects that now seem to be a definite go. The third meeting was for a feature, and I’m keeping everything crossed. I’m too superstitious to add anything more at the moment.

Preparing for the Screenwriter’s Festival. I’m going for the second half. I’ve entered a script into the market, and I’ve submitted a pitch (if it makes the final ten, I can go for the first two days as well – if the Day Job lets me have the time off).

Getting the best rejection I’ve ever had. The BBC Writers’ Room got back to me about my radio play. It got two reads, and I was given some very positive feedback. They don’t want to develop that idea, but they want to follow my progress and have solicited my next script, as and when I can send it in. As far as I can tell, this is as far as I can go through the system without being put in touch with a producer. So, I’m happy, and raring to go on my next spec radio play.

Watching last Saturday’s Doctor Who every (thirty-something, male) writer seems to be blogging about it, and with good reason. It was a very good show in a long recent run of quality episodes. And it had the return of a character from the series past that made my inner-fanboy do cartwheels. If none of this means anything to you, then you’re probably a grown-up. How does that feel?

Preparing for the Script Factory Storylining course this week. It’s tomorrow and Thursday, and Sir Jason of Arnopp will also be there. It involves breaking down the story beats for the first 8 episodes of “Harkness Hall”, a fictional soap opera developed by the tutor Yvonne Grace. I have received the series outline document, and am currently getting to know the central characters, and working out ways to melt them.

Things what I haven’t been doing:
Writing the – hilariously delayed – third part of my Digital Shorts diaries. But it will come. I predict another week of quiet, and then I’ll be blogging every day again. TTFN.

Friday, 8 June 2007

“Nike should sponsor the Hollywood sign”

Event: Raindance Open Evening / Q&A with Mark Mahon

Date: Tuesday 15th May 2007

Venue: The Gibson Studio, London (off Oxford Street); Gibson as in guitars – there were guitars, and posters of guitar heroes, everywhere. Cool. Also, the evening was sponsored by Cobra, so there was a constant supply of samples for the thirsty. Home-made scones are great, but this place has free beer. Hooray!

The Set Up: Elliott Grove, founder of Raindance, was our host for the evening, and - as anyone who’s met him will tell you - he is the consummate showman. Introductions to film training institutes have no right to be this entertaining. And, as a Canadian, Elliot is keen that us reserved Brits network with each other as much as possible; he halted proceedings early on and urged everyone to turn and introduce themselves to their neighbour. “You don’t have to touch each other, though,” he added. “This isn’t California.”

Raindance has three main areas of activity: a range of training courses, the Raindance Film Festival (since 1993), and the British Independent Film Awards (since 1998). Additionally, they arrange events and screenings, and are in the process of starting a Raindance TV station on joost. Details of all these were discussed by various members of staff.

And there was a raffle. Everyone was given a ticket free on arrival, and prizes of Raindance training CDs, and places on courses, were given away. What an absolutely genius idea!

I didn’t win anything.

The main part of the evening was then taken up with a Q&A with Mark Mahon, debut writer- producer-director of ‘Strength of Honour’, an independently-funded feature starring Michael Marsden and Vinnie Jones. The trailer is here, and this is Mark’s website.

Mark started off as an actor, but had to give up after an industrial accident, which left him in a wheelchair for two and a half years. It was the accident that prompted him to start writing. He learnt by doing, rewriting his work over and over to improve it (his rule of thumb is never to show a screenplay to someone else until he’s done at least eight drafts). Later, he went to Raindance courses to develop his producing and directing skills, and he was very complimentary about the standard of training he received. He wrote for eleven years before his major breakthrough, winning a Hollywood screenplay competition. Interestingly, it was a competition he hadn’t entered!

Mark recommended US script analyst services such as ScriptPimp or ScriptShark. He used such an analyst, and the commendations he received there, to attract a cast and backers for ‘Strength of Honour’. Having made a name for himself through this route, he thinks the Writers’ Guild of America – he’s still not sure – must have put forward one of his scripts for the award. When telephoned about his nomination, he needed a lot of persuading that he wasn’t the victim of a prank. In the end, he went to LA more for a holiday than anything else, only to find that he’d won.

Winning the competition got him invited to many Hollywood events and parties, but he was frustrated that his career still wasn’t making any progress. Rather than wait for Hollywood to dish him out a project, he decided to write a feature he could achieve on a modest budget. He raised the money privately, selling profit shares to private investors.

After years of effort, things seemed to come together quickly. The screenwriting award was won less than three years ago, the ‘Strength of Honour’ script was completed 15 months ago, and the film completed only days before Mark gave his talk. But it was hard work – Mark estimates that he was working an average of twenty hours a day during shooting. The film was launched at Cannes on the 24th May.

The key to all this, he tells us, has been a good script. That’s what will attract high-calibre talent to a movie without vast amounts of money. And also, it seems, a lot of ‘can do’ spirit. “Nike should sponsor the Hollywood sign,” Mark said at one point, “And underneath the letters it would read: JUST DO IT.”

Value for Money?: Another free event, with as much free beer as you could drink . Oh yes. I showed restraint, though, as I had an early start the next day. This also meant that I had to rush off, and I missed what looked to be a lively networking session after the Q&A. I’m sure I shall be going to another Raindance event soon to make up for this.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Screenwriting and Scones

Event: Screen South Information Day

Date: Monday 14th May 2007

Venue: Friends Meeting House, Brighton. A church hall, basically, but a nice one with free refreshments including home-made scones. This is a first - I have never before been to a screenwriting or filmmaking event where anyone has provided home-made scones. God bless the Quakers.

The Set Up: Screen South periodically hold these events across the region. The morning session involved brief talks / Q&A sessions from various speakers (see below). Lunch - not provided, alas! - was at 12:30pm, and the afternoon was taken up with individuals’ one-to-ones with a Screen South representative. Upon registering, one could book this interview, the first step towards applying for funding. Registration started at 9:30am. I got there at 9:35am, and I almost missed out on a slot, they’d filled up so quickly. So, first piece of advice is to get there early.

The speakers

Screen South: Jo Nolan, Miranda Robinson, and Vanessa Cook each spoke about the agency, its aims, its production and development department, the funding awards available, and how to apply. I’m not going to repeat a lot of this information, as it’s available from their website. But a few points of interest:
  1. Database: if you are working in film in the region, and you haven't already done it, get your details in the database on the Screen South website. If you’re looking for local crew, this is the place to look.
  2. Digital Shorts: the scheme will be running again in September / October. There will a roadshow when the scheme is launched, which will visit Brighton and other places.
  3. RIFE (Regional Investment Fund for England) awards: funding that’s available throughout the year. Small awards (up to £500) run to monthly deadlines; large awards (up to £5000 for an individual, £10000 for an organisation) run quarterly. Application forms and guidelines are available from the website, and the application process will involve an interview or interviews with different panels, depending on the amount sought.
  4. Production funding: there is no production funding available through Screen South (except for specific strands like Digital Shorts). But the situation is being looked into, and this may change.
  5. Training funding: Screen South would expect an applicant to have approached Skillset first before applying for training costs from the RIFE awards. Skillset can cover up to 80% of training costs (see below).
  6. Distribution funding: Applications can be made for funding to take completed shorts to festivals.

The most interesting section for me was a discussion about the typical path for a writer to apply for feature film development:

Stage 1 - Apply for £40 from the Small Awards fund to get script coverage from a reader that Screen South would arrange. This will be a 2-3 page report, and will take approximately two weeks. If you have already got coverage of this kind, you can submit this to Screen South, and – if it is to the required standard - you may be able to skip this stage.

Stage 2 - the coverage will be the basis of a redraft of the screenplay, which would be expected in no less than six weeks. This draft can then be submitted for an in-depth Script factory report (£80, again applied for from the RIFE small awards). This will be a 5-6 page report, and will take approximately six weeks.

Stage 3 - Another draft, and then the writer can apply for funding for a script editor to work with them to develop the material. After that, the writer will need to get a producer attached to the project to apply for further development funding. Screen South can provide advice on getting a producer, where the film sits in the market, and tips for moving it into pre-production.

Lighthouse: Sarah Flint, CEO. Lighthouse is one of the key regional partners to Screen South. Twenty-one years old this year, they provide professional development support for filmmakers, screenwriters and artists. Some training is available to all, some selectively based on an application. Sarah talked about some very exciting schemes coming soon, so keep an eye on their website. Successful last year was the ‘Guiding lights’ mentoring scheme. They hope to be running this again in 2007.

Lighthouse also hire out equipment, and rooms for meetings, events or screenings. Monthly, they hold their own networking events (a write up of a recent one is here).

Skillset: Rachael Duke, Film Fund Manager. Skillset has a film fund, and a TV freelance fund available, bankrolled by lottery money. The list of accepted training courses is on their website, and is quite extensive.

For training up to £800 in value, Skillset can pay 80%. Applications can be made at any time in the year, but you must have written confirmation that you’ve been accepted onto the course when you apply, and they cannot fund courses retrospectively. It’s worth planning ahead if you’re going to apply, to ensure you have enough time for the application to be processed – on average it takes four weeks per request.

You need to have demonstrable professional experience in the field for which you’re getting training; they can advise you on eligibility if you’re unsure (contact by telephone or e-mail).

BBC Writers’ Room: Paul Ashton’s session was covered in detail here.

One-to-one: Mine was at 3:30pm, which gave me time for a long lunch at The Hop Poles where I planned out the details of what I wanted to discuss. The interview was with Miranda, who I already know from working with her on my Digital Short. She answered my many questions helpfully, and we talked about the feature project. I left feeling very positive about my next steps.

Value for Money? It was free, so a big, fat YES. In fact, if you have a project that qualifies, these people can give you money. And home made scones.

Definitely recommended.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Writers' Guild "Meet the Agents" Event

I'm not going to post a detailed write-up of this event, as the Guild have put up their own here. But it was my pleasure to meet, or bump into, many a blogger there: potdoll, Lianne, Daniel Alexander, Frances Lynn, and Martin Adams - who doesn't yet have a blog despite many of the others on that list, and me, hassling him to start one up (you know it makes sense, Martin!).

The article quotes some statistics near the end about numbers of new writers getting taken on by each of the four agents in any given year, and they do seem a bit depressing (the statistics, not the agents); but, the main thing I took away from the night was: to get representation, one needs to work and work to make one's script as good as it can be. And that, of course, is what one needs to do to get it made too.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Paul Ashton Q & A

Over the next couple of days I’m going to complete the write-ups of all the recent screenwriting events I’ve been to, including the Writers’ Guild ‘Meet the Agents’ event, where I got to meet many lovely bloggers. Yay! But first, I thought I’d post on this as it’s probably the most useful to my reader(s) - Paul Ashton, development manager of the BBC Writers’ Room, had a brief slot for questions and answers at the Screen South Information day last month. Here’s a summary:

Paul first talked briefly about BBC Films, as it was a film agency gig. The bottom line is that BBC Films do not accept unsolicited scripts. If you don’t have an agent, or if you haven’t a producer or production company (with a track record) attached, then send your script to the Writers’ Room in the first instance. If you do have these attachments, still don’t send the script to BBC Films, but contact them to arrange a meeting. [NB: Since Paul made this statement, there has been a shake up in BBC Films instigated, so the situation may change.]

Moving on, Paul urged new writers not to overlook radio as a medium for new writers. In his opinion it is closer to film than, say, TV. Radio has lots of slots for one-off dramas, and so writers don’t need to fit in with an existing format, and can realise an original vision. Strands like the Friday, and Saturday Plays, and the Wire on Radio 3 are home to some more challenging and extreme pieces.

For radio there are two other routes aside from sending material to the Writers' Room: an in-house producer, or an independent producer or production company. When I asked Paul later about sending material through these routes, he repeated the standard BBC policy of not sending material to in-house producers, as they will only redirect it to the Writers’ room. But many other sources have told me that an introductory letter to a BBC producer doesn’t hurt at all, and having a producer champion your work will obviously mean it stands a greater chance of a commission that sending a script in cold. As for independent producers, Paul said it was fine to try that route. But he added that independent radio producers only have a certain amount of slots that they can bid to fill, so you may find that they are less receptive to new writers.

Paul was asked an audience question about what percentage of submissions are successful. About 20% of all submissions to the Writers’ Room are given a full read, and the remainder are rejected based on the first ten pages (they call this ‘sifting’). Of those, it is hard to say how many go on to be made, as it differs depending on what is being applied for. Radio wins out again here, though: 25% of Radio 4's afternoon plays must come from a first or second-time writer.

Another audience member asked what material the Writers’ Room will consider, particularly in regard to short scripts? They will read them, but only as an example of the writer’s work; and they would need to see more material than just one short script: a minimum of 30 pages/minutes as a guide. There are no shorts being shown on the BBC currently, but this could change depending of the tastes of the commissioning heads.

Are spec scripts for existing TV shows accepted? No. Paul wants to see something original from a new writer. But if you want to write for Doctors, say, send in an original piece that’s roughly similar in tone – don’t send in a wacky sci-fi plot, for instance. The BBC Writers’ Academy will mean that it is a little more difficult for untested writers, who aren't in the academy, to get scripts on continuing drama shows, but the Writers’ room will always support writers that they think are producing good enough material.

Do one-off dramas by new writers get shown on TV? No, this doesn’t happen. But there are ways and means that a new writer’s vision can get to the screen. Recently, two different writers’ scripts that started off as original pieces were adapted for the last Silent Witness series. Other new writers have got to write for shows such as Inspector Lynley or Daziel and Pascoe. The only BBC show that Paul feels is invitation only for writers is – you guessed it – Doctor Who.

Finally, Paul was asked if he could define good writing, and what he is looking for in a script. Here’s his thoughts:

  • Knowing the medium (Tv, film, radio) and knowing the genre
  • A good hook in the first 10 minutes
  • Bold and vivid characters that you want to spend time with
  • A lot of story packed into every minute, so that your script isn’t slow
  • Original thoughts: don’t just serve up what you think the market wants
  • Good dialogue
  • A story that starts in the right place
  • Focussed storytelling

Paul was full of useful information, and stayed long after the lunch break had started answering personal questions from eager writers. If you have the chance, I would recommend attending an event where he speaks.