Monthly Archives: June 2014

What Writers Can Learn from 4Screenwriting by Xandria Horton

One of the things that I love about Script Angel is its focus on opportunities for new writers, so the blog seemed an obvious place to summarise my recent experience as a Shadow Script Editor on Channel 4’s talent initiative 4Screenwriting – with some thoughts other writers can take from it.

4sw logoWhat is 4Screenwriting and why is it brilliant?

4Screenwriting is a broadcaster-affiliated talent scheme run by highly experienced script editor Philip Shelley, currently in its 4th year. For each year’s twelve selected writers, they are given six months to take an idea through two drafts of a commercial hour (46’) script, creating the first episode of a series or serial (ideally with Channel 4 in mind). The course also has a script editor training element; allowing shadow script editors a chance to develop their skills by working to industry-proven script editors.

The writers get a “sandbox” version of a script commission, with a small amount of funding, set deadlines and opportunities for notes from their script editor team at each stage – as close as you can get to a real script commission, without the production element.

Once the course is completed, writers can use their spec script as a calling card in the industry, creating a buzz with literary agents and production companies who are keen to be across talent coming through and hopefully resulting in meetings that further their careers. Success stories are numerous, most recently with alumni Anna Symon and Cat Jones, who have both gone on to write for primetime TV series.

So, with insights from me and my excellent fellow shadow script editors Carissa Hope Lynch, Harriet Davis and Joe Williams, I’ve pooled some tips writers can take from our 4Screenwriting experience:

Working with the professionals

The scheme introduces writers to the process of working with a script editor, which can be strange for writers used to working alone. It also introduces to writers the concept of the dreaded deadline!

What can you learn from this?: whilst you may have in place trusted feedback-givers, there’s really nothing like the impartial and constructive notes you will get from a good script editor or industry-proven consultant. In terms of meeting deadlines, it’s important that you make all and any writing deadlines you agree to. However, if something happens that is beyond your control, the best way to handle it is:

1/ to flag this as soon as possible to the appropriate person;

2/ tell them realistically what you can deliver and when; if one element is more urgent than the others, can you prioritise this and deliver within the original time frame?;

3/ agree a new deadline and move heaven and Earth to make it!

Network a.k.a. ‘it’s good to talk’

The scheme provides opportunities for writers to talk to others at similar points in their career, which can be greatly useful, both personally and professionally.

What can you learn from this?: Meet with your writer peers! Find or start a writer’s group on Meetup (they are all around the country) or attend events such as The London Screenwriter’s Festival or BAFTA Rocliffe and seek out friendly faces in the opportunities to mingle.

What’s in a TV idea?

Unsurprisingly, some ideas will only really reveal whether they will work in a series or serial format – if at all – after some exploration, so some writers had to use backup ideas or go back to the drawing board to find the right idea to progress to script stage.

What can you learn from this?: If you want to work in the industry, it’s essential you’re across British output; it’s as simple as that. Whilst it won’t ensure that every idea you come up with is a bona fide TV idea, you’ll get industry knowledge as to who is making what, and watching TV widely (UK, US, internationally) will develop your instincts on which stories intrinsically work in a TV format and which may be more suited to film or theatre. Even if it’s just the opening episode of every new series, it’s really useful to watch TV as broadly as you can.

Also, if you’re ever in a pitching situation (e.g. pitching to a producer for an episode commission on an existing series or pitching to a production company your own series ideas), however married you are to your favourite idea, it’s always useful to have a couple you’ve worked up a little as well in your back pocket, just in case you need them!

Writing to act breaks – a punctuation metaphor

For 4Screenwriting the brief was a script that would fit within a Channel 4 schedule, rather than a BBC full hour slot, so it was a new experience for many writers to write to ‘act breaks’.

What can you learn from this?: how this works this will vary depending on your story (and your broadcaster). However, we came up with a useful way of thinking about the shape of the story with act breaks:

If your story is a paragraph and each scene is a sentence, how you utilise punctuation is a great metaphor of writing to act breaks; ending those sentences before a break to ensure that the viewers’ interest is piqued. What’s the screenwriting equivalent of scene ending with a ‘?’, an ‘!’ or a ‘…’?

Many thanks again to the input from my fellow shadow script editors on this article; to the very brilliant and experienced script editor I worked to, Jamie Hewitt; to the three brilliant writers I was lucky to work with; and of course to Philip, for tirelessly working to make the course go as smoothly as it does each year. If you ever see him at a 4Screenwriting networking event, he won’t miss a moment to connect a writer to agents and production companies that might be useful to them. 4Screenwriting is a brilliant experience for writers and script editors coming through – long may it continue!

 

 

The Bottled Water Tour of 2014 by Tony Lee

A very warm welcome to writer Tony Lee who is guest blogging this week on his experience as a Brit doing the meeting-rounds in L.A.

So a couple of weeks ago I was in Los Angeles for an entire week, partly due to the fact that I was a guest at the Gallifrey One convention but also for a variety of meetings, catch ups and get togethers across Los Angeles. This is my second year of solid meetings and I thought I’d talk a bit about them, and what I did – and more importantly what I learned.

First off, if you’re having meetings, make sure they’re booked. Don’t just rock up to a door and go ‘hi, any chance of a chat?‘ as cold calling doesn’t work in the main, as most production companies are on studio lots. Which means a studio security to get through first. That said, there’s every chance of being able to cold email someone going ‘hi, I’m in the area on Tuesday, any chance of a chat?‘ as long as they know you. How do they know you? Well, the chances are you’ve already spoken to them at festivals, conventions, networking days or even (as a couple of my friends have done) mild stalking on LinkedIn. Get to know them. Get a dialogue going with them. Then, when you’re in the area, let them know.

Now, here’s an important thing, don’t bother booking months in advance. These guys don’t know what they’re doing next week. So let them know a few weeks beforehand that you’ll be around, and then attack again a week before, nailing down some times. Don’t give them the chance to set the stage, give them two or three options.

‘Hey, I’m around on Tuesday. What’s best, 11am or 2pm?‘ If they say they can’t do Tuesday, ask if they can do Wednesday. If they can, offer to move things around so that they can be seen. Work to their schedule, but within your constraints.

It also helps if they know your work, or have seen your work. If they’ve never seen a single thing that you’ve written, rocking up with five pitches only shows you can pitch. Have a screenplay finished, something that you could even have sent in advance, as well as other ideas and pitches in your pocket.

Don’t be star struck. It’s difficult, I know. One of my meetings was upstairs from Aaron Sorkin on the Warner Lot, in a room with walls laden with movie props and awards. Remember that they’re willing to see you because you might offer them something they need. They’re not being a charity case here, they’re looking for product and you have some. Be confident. Drink the bottled water – trust me, you’ll need it.

Never sit in front of a window, if just gives them distractions. If you’re in a cafe or a Starbucks, lean in so that they unconsciously lean in as well. Don’t shut them out of the process, let them contribute to the story and take their notes on board – they might know better than you.

Now. The pitch. There are people out there who have done so many of these, and the things they always tell me are almost the same as what I was told in sales school twenty years ago. First off, people buy people. More importantly, within the first few seconds someone will decide if they like you or not. And if they like you, they’ll humour you more, allow for more mistakes. So, don’t walk in like a bulldozer. Talk to them, get to know them. The chances are that during this part of the conversation, you might learn that the pitch you have? Totally not right for them. This gives you ammunition.

The thing I tell everyone to do? When in LA, hire a car. Driving in LA is super easy. Yes, there are buses and cabs, but having a car (I’ve found) is an instant ice breaker. How is it driving in LA? How big is the car? Play up the Alien in Los Angeles, it’s an icebreaker. But more importantly, you give the impression of a writer who’s confident and comfortable in LA. Producers like that.

Never be late for a meeting, so before you confirm everything check the distances on Google Maps and double the time it says. That’ll give you enough time to arrive and get five minutes to plan your day. Learn what ‘Validate’ is – never pay for parking if you don’t have to. Try to keep your meetings in the same area, a bulk of Production companies are in Burbank, which makes things easy, but Burbank is a big place and you might accidentally find yourself on a Freeway. Not good. And one of my days was Santa Monica – Burbank – The Valley – Glendale – Sunset Strip. Plan for delays!

Have plenty of business cards, and never be shy in giving them out. You never know who’s going to be in the meeting. Ensure you have a working phone with a data plan, as well – meetings often get moved on the fly and if you have to wait for wifi to get your emails, it might be too late. I have an unlocked iPhone and I have a T Mobile US Sim. Every day I use it I pay $3, but I get unlimited calls, texts and 4G data. So I’m good to go.

If it’s a lunch meeting on site? Don’t eat a large breakfast. On one day I made the mistake of expecting a very light lunch and had a breakfast with some friends at 9am at the IHOP. That’s INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PANCAKES, and should give you an idea of how big the portions are. At 10am I leave for Dreamworks and my lunch meeting at 12pm. But while driving I learn it’s now been moved to 11.30am. Which isn’t a problem to get to, but when we arrive I learn that Dreamworks give AWESOME lunches, full buffet affairs – and I’m two hours from a stupidly large breakfast. I ate light. And felt bad.

Always always ALWAYS find out what else the producer is up to, you never know what you can get involved in. One of my meetings ended with them talking about a series of books they’re reading and discussing which one of these books would be a good fit for me to adapt into a film. Another is working on a series involving a set of books that are my favourite books ever, so naturally by the time we finished discussing those, he knew that I was enthusiastic, quick with ideas and flexible – without a single word of any of my projects being spoken.

Enjoy the time between meetings. Look around the local sites. One of my meetings was at Hollywood and Highland, so I took some time to visit Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Two of my meetings were on the Warner Lot, and after the second of these I was able to stroll around the lot itself, watch some filming, visit a couple of stages. All of this reminded me exactly why I want to do this for a living.

Don’t kill yourself, but pack the time in. Explaining to a producer that I had twelve meetings in three days showed a) I was busy but also b) I was in demand. The fact that many of these meetings were PURELY because I was only around for three days is irrelevant.

I had twelve meetings between Tuesday and Thursday. One was a catch up at a comic company. Three were with television companies. One was an independent producer I met at San Diego who wants me involved on a project he’s doing. The other seven were with film companies who wanted to hear about my movie ideas. Of which I had one scripted, and one in treatment. Of those seven, five wanted to see the treatment when it was finished. Four wanted to see the film I’d finished already and three had other projects that, down the line I could be involved in.

If I get nothing from these, I still walk away with the same amount that I would have had if I hadn’t gone to them. And that’s what you have to remember. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And as I play the post-meeting email tennis, I know that I gave it my best shot.

Tony Lee is a New York Times #1 Bestselling author of comics, books, audio adventures and screenplays. Find out more about Tony’s work here and follow Tony on Twitter @mrtonylee.

 

Reader-Proof Your Script – The ‘X’ Factor – by Xandria Horton

Since joining Script Angel, I felt I should take some time here to introduce myself. Only polite really, since if you buy a Script Analysis Report, you will be getting notes from me on which elements of your script are working well and suggestions for things that can be improved in your next draft.

ten out of tenThere are lots of good ‘Reader-Proof your script’ blog posts out there*, designed to ensure your script will get past the dreaded script reader, but this blog has the ‘X’ Factor. The ‘Xandria’ Factor.

Now, obviously I’m not claiming I have anything near Simon Cowell-levels of money or power to greenlight your project, or that any audience participation or buzzers are used in my script development**. But I do have experience with both juggernaut companies who produce hit TV series and films across the globe and the plucky new indies who have clout through their gumption and know-how. This has given me a brilliant insight into the ideas that get across the commissioning line and those that don’t. Outside of Script Angel and with my Script Reader hat on, I am only one of a series of gatekeepers that a writer needs to excite with their script, which includes producers, film funding agencies and TV commissioners. Scary!

Most scripts by their very nature start their lives as precious, personal and intimate stories you nurture in the dark, only bravely unveiling them once you have expended hours of sweat, tears and toil. We particularly appreciate this at Script Angel, and so here are some tips to reader-proof with the ‘X’ Factor, based on things I have personally found can help – or hinder – your story.

Give your story the best intro that you can: are you starting page 1 of your script with one of these openings?

  • The start of a protagonist’s day, from when they are asleep in bed;
  • The main character’s answerphone message or a message left for them that gives large amounts of exposition;
  • A flashback (a historical human sacrifice or ritual that curses something to lay dormant until modern day or a detailed unveiling of the protagonist’s childhood trauma);
  • A dream sequence – particularly one that is interrupted by an alarm signalling the start of the protagonist’s day;
  • An arresting opening scene that then jumps back in time 24 hours / 1 week / 3 months earlier, which can imply that the writer wants to script to start with something exciting, and knows deep down there’s not enough story in the beginning of their script.

Obviously, you may find brilliant, original and inventive ways of making any of these tropes work, but these are frequently used and can therefore be a ‘red flag’ to readers in terms of how original or fresh the ideas appear to be. Of course, we hope that we’re wrong, but first impressions are important.

Bechdel Revisited: this is all about ‘intros’ in description. Whilst bad characterisation is by no means limited by gender, one virtually unique problem to female characters is an introduction along these lines: “JANE (20s), attractive, walks in”. Whilst contradictions, conflicts and desires virtually ooze out of the best comedy and drama characters, if the first and/or only thing the script has told us about your character is that she’s pretty, all this tells us is “THIS CHARACTER EXISTS TO BE A LOVE / LUST INTEREST”. As the brilliant former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland says, “Prettiness is not a rent [women] pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.” What else do we need to know about your female character? Do they need to be attractive?

Tell me where I am, when I am and who I should be following: a script opens with several people talking around the dinner table. How do we know who is your main character? And, more broadly, how do we know when and where we are? Of course, there’s getting the world established and there’s getting the story going, but the more you write, the easier it will be to find a balance.

Keep me oriented in the script: one skill that can really make a script a joy to read is a writer who keeps the reader oriented in their story – even giving each scene a clear opening image. Think visually, without prescribing the camera angles unless it’s needed to follow the story. This will make action setpieces (car chases, fights etc) a real pleasure to read, and the best are usually simply written.

Don’t write the story you think I want to read: and by this I don’t literally mean me, I mean that you’re writing a script based on a recent success (Breaking Bad, Happy Valley, Peaky Blinders) rather than the story you are actually interested in. This is part of developing your own voice, which takes a lot of work. However, you’ll only ever write your best spec script once you’ve developed a style that is truthful to you. Obviously, many writers will want to write on established series or soaps, in which case you will aim to keep an element of your own voice but ensure that your writing fits into a pre-existing tone and structure.

Remember that I want your script to be good: I think it bears repeating; whether it’s developing a script through Script Angel or even being a dastardly reader, I want your script to be good. I will be willing it on from page 1; I will ignore that typo on page 4 if there aren’t three more by page 12***; I will look for the trail of story breadcrumbs you’ve left and try to make sense of any small plot or character questions I have, in quiet confidence that your story has me in safe hands and all will be answered to my satisfaction. And I’m no different to any other reader. We rejoice when we find a character who feels truthful and interesting and we can invest in their journey; and we want to go to our producer friends and bosses to tell them that we’ve found a script they’ll want to make.

So next time you’re thinking about submitting a script, ask yourself the age-old question: does it have the ‘X’ Factor..?

*If you’re looking for a couple of those other good articles, here they are:

http://www.writersstore.com/bulletproof-your-script-against-reader-rejection/ http://www.bang2write.com/2012/09/7-things-readers-can-tell-about-your-script-on-page-1.html

**Currently. Of course, that could be the Next Big Thing, who knows.

*** Which implies that you’ve not taken the time to read it over before sending it out, which can be frustrating. However, if you’re doing a last-minute rewrite on a shooting script, unless it changes the meaning, we will be more forgiving!

Xandria Horton is a Script Analyst for Script Angel. You can find out more about Xandria’s script feedback services here.