So, the biggest screenwriting event of the year just happened! For many of us screenwriters and development/production professionals, it’s an event we highlight in our calendars, anticipate and then appreciate post-event for the energy and inspiration it gives us to keep working towards achieving our dreams and goals. This year was no different.
Friday kicked off with gusto. Whilst one side of the spangly new addition to the festival – a sexy marquee – oversaw a fantastic café, super slick registration, information and book stalls, the other side formed a large session room meaning that there were even more sessions than usual to choose from throughout the three days. Not an easy task when there are so many great speakers and topics to choose from.
Out Of The (Telly) Box: The Bigger Picture
The first session I chose to attend was chaired by the wonderful Barbara Machin, and the panel consisted of the mighty Tony Jordan, BBC’s Kate Harwood, consultant Laurie Hutzler and David Leland. The subject discussed was how TV works today and the importance of innovation. In a day and age where Internet streaming forms part of an increasingly large percentage of the audience, TV output has had to adapt to these needs.
Internet streaming is good news for statistics; no longer do stations need to rely on predictions or delayed information because every little detail of our viewing experience can be analysed. Laurie made us aware of how Netflix can see exactly how long we watch shows, even at what point we pause, and this information feeds their service delivery to us and their commissioning process. Of course, the issue of binge-watching also came up – these days an audience are hungry for content. Kate said that the BBC may head towards having iPlayer-exclusive content because online players are evolving to be considered as channels in their own right.
Fresh concepts and unique [writers’] voices were the two main pieces of advice that were relayed in this session. Tony Jordan is renowned for his innovative approach to TV; taking risks and being persistent with his passion for the shows he’s written and the ideas he wants to pursue. Kate also spoke highly of some of the recent drama output and its quality and originality. She likes to see a unique voice in a script/pitch, and the way to do this is to write with passion.
Tony Jordan In Conversation With Lucy V Hay
I’d been looking forward to this session for weeks, and it didn’t disappoint. Tony’s a wonderfully frank and encouraging writer who both entertains and inspires his captivated audience. Tony believes in passion projects and persistence with a good dose of innovation thrown in for that X-factor dimension.
In fact, he’s King of innovation. Remember the episode of Eastenders that had exterior locations for the whole episode? That was Tony. Remember the longest ever tracker shot across the square? That was Tony. Dot’s award-winning monologue episode? Tony. Echo Beach and its accompanying show Moving Wallpaper? Tony. Although he did express regret that he hadn’t managed to persuade the channel to air it on two different sub-channels; he reckoned it didn’t work so well back to back.
Tony advises us to write what we know FIRST. Research hard, and write a world that you understand and can write with authority. Don’t try to second-guess and write what people/corporations want. Do this, and you won’t have a career. Tony emphasized the importance of a writer’s voice, even if you write for soaps. You should be able to watch an episode and know exactly which writer wrote it, even though the characters will be consistent.
Tony’s super supportive of writers – he set up the Red Planet Prize with this in mind. Tony ploughs his own money and time into supporting new writers through this competition and also recently through creating kits for young disadvantaged kids to use to make their own films. But as much as Tony wants to help and support writers (indeed he plans to do so via the next competition, in conjunction with Kudos, from which he’ll select strong writers to be mentored) he does warn against being cocky. “If you start a pitch with ‘I’ve seen a gap in the market’, I’ll throw you out of my office!”
Tony’s writing process? After a suspiciously OCD-like routine of winning three computer games before he can start writing, Tony gets down to the nitty gritty and after days of building up to the writing of his script he will sink into the zone and will feel all the emotions. In his trademark cheeky way, Tony told us he basically “vomits and spunks all over the computer”.
Now, if Tony can be as bold as to describe his writing process via such an intense graphic as that, it just goes to show how he has made such a huge success of his career. This is a man who doesn’t let anything get in his way, who persists, who keeps innovating, who keeps writing and who freely lets his voice saturate his work.
The Comedy Broadcasters: What Do They Want Now?
This session was all about comedy output. Chris Sussman, commissioning editor for the BBC comedy department, and Saskia Schuster, commissioning editor for Sky comedy, started off by giving us an idea of the kind of content their channels attract. With more channels than ever before, there’s more variety, but this didn’t stop Chris and Saskia from emphasising the need for fresh voices and different approaches. Chris was particularly adamant that dysfunctional family sitcoms and comedies about parents moving in with kids or vice versa were firmly off their wish list.
The biggest difference between the two channels’ approach to new comedy material was access. The BBC have the BBC Writersroom to sift through new talent and they also test their pilots, whereas Sky don’t test pilots and therefore operate on a less risk-taking basis. Sky don’t accept unsolicited scripts, so you need an agent if you want to pitch directly to them. Sky’s commissioned comedies go straight to series, so you really need to impress them. However, Saskia reassured us that Sky are aware of their lack of support for new writers, and are looking into rectifying that in the coming year.
Chris and Saskia’s comments about material echoed those spoken by Tony Jordan. Write what you want to write, rather than what you think commissioners want. They want to see your voice come through, not an imitation of comedies that have already aired, or that feed off of trends. Genres go round in circles, and samey ideas are common, so keep writing – the more material you have, the more you’ll develop your voice and the more chance you’ll have of striking gold. Ultimately, the script trumps all. Get that calling card written and polished.
Both Chris and Saskia kept emphasising the need for an agent, although Chris did say that calling cards and BBC Writersroom can help get new/unrepresented comedy writers noticed. But it is, of course, difficult to get an agent. Other things to try include making your own stuff, and inexperienced production companies can work with other production companies to co-produce work. Co-productions are welcomed, but be aware that a British angle is needed for British comedy. Also, be aware that comedies with a team of writers can be tricky regarding consistency of voice/tone.
BBC Writersroom: Empathy for Heroes and Villains Alike
This session, led by BBC Writersroom development producer Henry Swindell, was an introduction – for those who don’t know about it – to the BBC Writersroom and what they do. We saw a picture of the huge amount of scripts that they receive, and also glimpsed a do-this-and-we’ll-think-you’re-a-weirdo photo of a very bizarre submission that had been elaborately assembled (with what looked like a load of yellow piping encased within a box) to gain attention. Only things like that never get the right sort of attention. But it’s OK – the submissions will soon all be done online, so the days of sending in wacky submissions are well and truly over! The next submission window will open soon, so watch their space.
Henry then went on to talk to us about empathy. No matter whether you have a hero or a villain as your protagonist, we need to like and empathise with them in some small way in order to invest in their character and their story. Empathy is a key factor in achieving this, and can be created by having a ‘save the cat’ moment in the script’s opening. A ‘save the cat’ moment is one in which a character does something nice, or kind; something that allows us to respect or admire them in some way (even if it’s just a small amount). We saw some clips of successful save the cat moments and a clip of a TV show that didn’t have one of these moments in its opening. It was clear to see the powerful effect empathy has on an audience’s ability to invest in a show.
What’s So Funny? The Essentials of Comedy Writing
If you come to the festival, you simply must not miss out on a session with Luke Ryan. This guy – Executive Vice President of Disruption Entertainment, which has a first-look deal at Paramount Pictures – is so full of energy and information that even a 90-minute session like this one almost wasn’t enough to cover everything we were being taught.
We started out by looking at sales information. Out of the top 100 grossing films, only two were comedies and they were quite low down on the list. This shows how important budget is. You also need to think about concept. A high concept idea should be able to be conveyed in very few words. Think about your title in this respect – will the audience *get* what it’s about straight away?
Success is measured by how funny a comedy is, but choosing to go and see it also relies on concept – what it’s about – and who’s in it. But the bottom line is, comedies are cathartic for an audience because laughing is a defence mechanism.
Again, empathy was cited as an important element in the script’s opening if a character is dislikeable. It’s also important to think about how characters will react comically: comedic (physical discomfort/mental) or emotional (overreactive/underreactive) pain?
Jokes occur as different beats. Single beat jokes include incidental comedy and physical stuff that happens. Then there’s two beat jokes, and three beat jokes use the rule of three which consists of three funny things with anticipation beats in-between them.
We also looked at structure, particularly setups and payoffs. A set piece has a number of setups, anticipatory beats and a payoff. We watched some clips of Hot Tub Time Machine in order to make sense of these initially-confusing pieces of advice and identified a six-beat sequence.
We then went on to learn 21 different things that are always funny. It was pretty hard to keep up with the list, but here’s a few of them: comic suspense, embarrassment, “not going to do that”, gross-out scene, invasion of privacy, stupidity, anarchy, comic reveal, mistaken identity, vulgarity, comic repetition and turning someone’s words against them.
Next time, I’ll be talking about the second day of the festival and will recap what I learnt in the day’s sessions: “How to drench the page in theme and cinematic imagery”, “The writing British cinema cookbook”, “The use and abuse of narrative structure”, “Character camp” and “Writing gangster movies: a great tradition of British success”.