Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Continuing Drama

As the world and her husband will already know - the BBC Writers' Academy 2009 is open for submissions. It's a great opportunity, and the eight places per year are hotly contested; but, it's only open to those who have previously been paid for their work (full details of entry requirements, as well as much other useful info, is available via the BBC Writers' Room blog).

The way it works as I understand it (and these things could well be liable to change, so don't take my word for it) is thus: to enter, one needs to provide evidence of a professional commission, a sample screenplay as an example of one's work, and a completed application form (which includes a few '500 words or less questions' to answer just like any other big corporation's application forms). A long-list of applicants is invited to a second round of workshop-style interviews, then a shortlist is invited back for a more traditional interview, before the final eight are chosen.

No one outside the Academy knows quite which criteria are used to judge. No doubt it's important to perform well on an application form and in an interview. But, like any other big corporation's application process, there may well be people more 'in the frame' than others because of their progress in writing (for any medium) to date. All those submissions have got to be set against one's track record. So: 'write well and get noticed' would seem to be the best advice. Which is useful, as it's the same advice required to get any other screenwriting gig, not just the Academy.

I've been doing my best to write well and get noticed, as ever, but I'm not exactly holding my breath this year. My work is good enough, but I don't feel I've proved myself sufficiently in 'der industry' yet. Having got peer feedback on my TV drama pilot script 'Life Support' recently, I'm now reworking it for possible use as a sample script for the Academy. But I'm still undecided about whether to enter or not, even now with the deadline fast approaching (May 5th is the final date for submissions).

I'm lucky/unlucky enough to have a day job that pays well; all things being okay, there will be a new member of the Perry family arriving just before the Academy starts in September; and, there's a worldwide recession. It may not be the best time to be taking up a trainee position which then leads to work by commission (and that's what it is: a job, a fantastic job, but a job nonetheless and it should be considered as such). Yes, I am suffering the usual permie person's anxiety/wish fulfillment fantasy about going freelance. I probably wouldn't get it, but I don't want to get it and then have to turn it down.

Now, most people are probably wondering why I'm worrying about this stuff now. And they are probably thinking 'Nothing ventured...' and 'It doesn't cost anything to enter'. But this is not true, alas. It costs you time. To be prepared for the Academy, a person needs to be watching all those shows. Now, that's 375 minutes per week as as starter, and it's not passive viewing, it's study: working out the format, the structure, the character arcs, what's happening, what's not happening, and why. Getting hold of scripts and series bibles would also be useful, if you can.

On top of that, there's anything else you might be wanting to watch on TV that helps put the Continuing Drama shows into context (it's probably good to have a wide and current experience of other BBC drama productions, and continuing dramas on other channels minimum). Then, there's reading the trades to keep up with industry goings-on, and doing your own writing to hone your talents and get towards that magic 10,000 hours. Then there's the day job, if you have one, and the family commitments you might have. And – you know – eating and sleep, and all those other things that fill up the day. It is a killing schedule. I know – I've done it twice now in 2007 and 2008, and neither time did I feel I'd done it justice.

So, it's not exactly free to enter. But all that research will undoubtedly make you a better writer, so it's never wasted. But maybe there are better ways to use this knowledge, rather than going for the Academy. The training is of a very high standard, and you're paid to do it. But there are many other routes that other people have taken to get their work on TV. Of course, they're still open to you if you apply and don't get in. And there's no guarantee the academy will run indefinitely. This could be the last one, for all I know. As you can tell, I've gone back and forth about this one. I remain undecided for now.

For different takes on this subject, check out some of the screenwriters on my blog roll, who have gone through the selection process to different stages, and have written about it: Paul Campbell, Danny Stack, Michelle Lipton, Piers Beckley to name but four.

And - good luck!


Lucy V said...

Not true - if you LOVE the shows they train you for, it's "free" since you'll be watching regardless of Academy selection.

Paul Campbell said...

Tricky, ain't it?

And, Lucy, there's devotion to CD and there's devotion to CD. With only so many hours in the day, it would be a rather peculiar and strangely blinkered individual who could honestly say that their first choice of viewing consisted entirely of EastEnders, Holby City, Casualty and Doctors.

Wouldn't it?!

Stuart Perry said...

Lucy - I watch all the shows periodically, love two of them, and am very keen on a third. If I were to get an interview, I'd have to be honest about that.

But even if one loves all four unconditionally, there is a difference between watching for pleasure and watching for study. A difference that takes an investment of time and energy. I'm sure, as Paul can probably attest, that the effort to do the research is nothing compared to he effort to write for the show, but it shouldn't be underestimated.

Preston Garrett said...

Couldn't agree with you more Gentlemen.

If you get to the interviews, you won't be asked to sit and sing the praises of the shows. You'll be asked for analysis: what isn't working, and how would you fix it?

Eastenders is practically a religion to my sister - she can talk you through the storylines and the characters until the cows come home. She knows which stories have worked for her and which ones have fallen flat.

But ask her what she would do to fix those storylines and it's a different (much vaguer) answer.

Ask how her new story would impact on the rest of the characters and suddenly it all gets complicated.

And she realises: it's a lot frickin harder than it looks!

Piers said...

Apply. It'll be both fun and useful.

It will also remove the need for me to come round your house and set fire to you.

Stuart Perry said...

People are always wanting to set fire to me nowadays. I must be doing something right!