Wednesday, June 13, 2018

FREE IS NOT AN OPTION

I was going to write a report about the BBC TV Writers' Festival this week but have instead decided to explore a profoundly important subject raised during the Meet The Drama Commissioners session.

When it came to questions at the end of the session a writer broached the topic of working for free. The Drama Commissioners - Piers Wenger (BBC), Victoria Fea (ITV) and Anna Hargreaves (Sky) - appeared entirely oblivious that it was even a problem and were insistent that all writers that came to them received payment for their work. That writer then went on to ask the audience who is now or has ever been asked to work for free. Every writer in the room, including myself, put their hand up. It was a watershed moment.

The Commissioners seemed genuinely shocked to discover that writers were being asked to work for free by Indies. Piers suggested that when Indies are set up, they have several hundred thousand pounds available for this very purpose and writers should never feel pressured into working for free. The Commissioners really couldn't believe that (a) it was happening and (b) it was so rife. It was a very sobering moment for them and us.

Now I have in the past advocated working for free to help further your career.  I want to clarify what I've said because I believe the two situations are entirely separate. When you are starting out as a writer to help get your name out there, you can offer to help producers by reading screenplays for free. If there's a young, upcoming director who is looking to make a short film it is perfectly acceptable to offer them your screenplay in exchange for a credit and copy of the finished film. These examples cost very little of your time but go a long way toward showing your willingness to collaborate, your skills and your reliability.

What isn't acceptable is the practice of Indies telling a writer they like their work and then asking them to write either a treatment or a pilot episode before they will consider it. Writers, especially new writers, then feel obliged to do so because they want their work to be picked up and their career to progress. They feel under pressure and are worried that if they refuse, they will appear awkward and that the interest in their project will be dropped.

This work is not to be confused with writing spec screenplays where a writer writes a pilot episode of their own making and then sends it out to directors, producers and Indies in the hope someone will be interested in it enough to at the very least option it. What we are talking about here is taking a pitch to an Indie and then being asked to complete extra work unpaid to get the project ready for shopping around. This is wrong! Writers have bills to pay like everyone else and should be paid for everything they do, including any prep work to get a project ready to pitch to broadcasters.

The problem with agreeing to do this work is that if the Indie then sends the treatment or script the writer has written for free out to broadcasters and gets a resounding no from them, the project is dead and the writer doesn't get paid for their time and effort. They've done all of that work for nothing, and now they can't even take that project elsewhere. The Indie might have saved a few quid, but the writer is now out of pocket.

I've been guilty of working for free or a deferred payment in the past, and I'm currently writing a treatment and series bible for two separate Indies and not being paid for either. I know I shouldn't, but like other working writers I feel under pressure to do so, and I'm worried that if I say no there's the threat I'll be kicked off one project and be told 'no thank you' form the other. The possibility I might lose either or both of these opportunities is genuine and is an obvious concern to any freelancer who is between projects.

These are producers I have known for a while, get on well with, am very keen to work with and I haven't agreed to do the work for free on a whim. I decided to polish the feature treatment because one of the producers wrote the initial version and I knew the other producer has been actively pitching the project to investors and has already had a lot of interest. I'm developing the series bible with another Indie on the understanding if they don't option it, I have their permission to take it elsewhere. It was an idea I was going to develop anyway so am happy to have someone else's input while creating it. I've made a calculated risk with both. They may or may not pay off, but I genuinely believe that they will, or I wouldn't have agreed to work for free. 

However, by doing this and not insisting on payment, I am acutely aware I am adding to the problem. While writers (especially new writers) continue to work for free, the practice will still exist, and some Indies will continue to exploit writers. So as a writer I have decided, once I have completed these projects, to make a stand and in future, I will not write for free regardless of any promises or who asks. 

In an ideal world, if every broadcaster and commissioner insisted on positive proof writers had received payment for their work before they agreed to read it, it would stop the practice in its tracks. It would halt the exploitation of writers and aid talented new writers to launch their careers.

What are your thoughts?

Happy (and profitable) writing!

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

BBC CALLING

Today I'm off up to London for the annual BBC TV WRITERS' FESTIVAL organised by the BBC Writersroom. The line up this year is as always breathtaking and includes festival regular and multi-award winning Jed Mercurio and the legend that is Steven Moffat. I can't wait!

The BBC Writersroom is a great resource one often overlooked by writers. They have offered some great opportunities of late including chances of paid training with the Doctor Who script department, the Holby City, Casualty, Eastenders and Doctors shadow schemes, their drama and comedy windows and all the fantastic opportunities they offer on their webpage. I can never understand it when writers moan that the BBC ignore new writers and it's just the same old names that pop up on the credits week in week out. This isn't true.

Let's face facts when you start out as a writer you hope your work will be snatched up or you get work on existing TV shows and it can often be frustrating when it doesn't. The bottom line is, shows are looking for great writers whose work is not only at a certain level but who are also willing to collaborate and learn. Because of the tight production deadlines, producers don't have time to hand-hold inexperienced writers the work needs to be completed quickly and reliably. The reason most new writers don't get their work picked up or get work on existing shows is that their work isn't up to scratch and producers aren't confident that the writer won't struggle.

The best advice I can give is to get your head down, work hard at your writing, always seek to improve it and your screenwriting knowledge and make use of all the opportunities available to you. This way you stand the best possible chance of being picked up for a show or if you're fortunate, get a show greenlit.

So keep the BBC Writersroom open on your desktop and remember to check in every day. You don't want to miss out after all.

I'll report back on the festival next week.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK

Notes can be daunting. They don't become any less so the more experienced you become as a writer.

Your notes will either come directly from the producer or via a script editor assigned to work with you. I've worked as both a writer and a script editor and have seen the process from both sides, so I know the importance of clear communication. It taught me a lot in a very short space of time, the biggest lesson of all was knowing not to be afraid of asking questions if I was unsure about something.

 'Why the f&%k have they said that?' There will always be notes you don't quite understand or aren't able to get to grips with. Most writers don't want to appear stupid by asking what they think might be obvious and the temptation is to plod on, work your way through the notes and hope you've covered everything you've been asked to. But the simple fact is if you do get it wrong because you haven't asked for clarification then you are definitely going to look stupid and all most certainly unprofessional.

A writer I worked with as a script editor had an issue with a lack of confidence. It was her first writing gig and she was clearly nervous. The draft she had written before I come on board lacked clarity and punch. It was my job to guide, encourage and make sure she knew exactly what was expected of her. We initially had a long Skype conversation where I went through all of my notes, asked her if she understood and told her if she had any questions, no matter how absurd they might appear to her, to just ask and I would happily explain them to her until she was confident she fully understood what I was driving at. She assured me she was OK with everything and if she did have any questions she would ask.

The next draft she handed in wasn't much of an improvement on the first. She was very close to being kicked off the project all because she hadn't asked me a single question about my notes. So we had another long Skype conversation. This time I wouldn't let her go until she had asked every single question she had bouncing around in her head. I had to push her to ask at first but the more she did the better she got at it. At the end of the conversation, I was very confident she now understood what was expected of her. She even emailed me additional questions over the course of her next rewrite.

The thing is, whoever the person is giving you notes, they are on your side. Writing is just the first step in the collaborative process. Everyone is working together to produce a piece of media they can be proud of and others can enjoy. No one is working against you, even if at times you might think that's the case. A script editor is there specifically to answer your questions and help you produce your best work. Any script editor who complains when you ask a question or a hundred of them isn't doing their job properly. Never, ever be afraid to ask and if you're still not sure ask again.

And the writer? She learned to put aside her nervousness and ask as many questions as she needed to. She eventually turned in an epic final draft and it was a delight to see her confidence skyrocket during the process.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

BLOG REWIND - PERSEVERANCE

As my fellow writers have suffered quite a bit of rejection over the last week, with the BBC Writersroom Drama and Red Planet, I thought I would repost a past blog about perseverance, first published on the 19th November 2014. Enjoy... and remember, you are not alone.

Some days it's hard to keep going when all you want to do is curl up into a ball and hide under the bed covers... but those are exactly the days you should keep going! Perseverance is the key to a successful career, without it you're writing solely for yourself.

I read a question on the interwebs the other day, from a new writer asking if he should send his script out to more than one production company at a time. Let's put it this way, you send your script out to one producer, the producer takes three months to read it and get back to you. The news isn't good, it's not for him. Then you leave things another month as you recover from the rejection, before sending your script out to another producer. That means the maximum copies of your screenplay you send out is three... in a year... that's not good, is it?

After you've done your research into which production companies best suit your screenplay, send copies out to as many as you can, then go write another script. If you receive a rejection then have two other producers in mind to send your script to the very next day. Don't keep bombarding the same producers either, send them a screenplay and if it's a no wait a month or two before sending any new work.

In essence, your work should be produced and sent out in a constant stream, stalling on this leaves you with no opportunities to create, and it's those opportunities that will keep you going. Persevere and you will be rewarded.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW - EVERYBODY WORKS IN SALES by NIRAJ KAPUR

You're probably thinking, 'Why is Dom reviewing a sales book on his screenwriting blog?' You may even be thinking I've gone slightly mad in doing so. I can assure you I haven't. The reason I'm reviewing this book is that as a writer you HAVE to sell yourself and your work and there's some great advice in these pages that all writers should be implementing on a daily basis.

Truth be told, Niraj's book is actually less about sales than it is more about personal development. All of its lessons, if rigorously applied, can help anyone succeed regardless of the industry they work in. These are life rules everyone should know of and live by.

Niraj breaks his teachings down into twenty-seven handy little lessons, such as; Learn your craft and keep on learning every day - Don't let money rule your life - Caring - Dealing with difficult people - Adapt to change - Taking a break - Dealing with failure - Dealing with bad luck. Even with these few examples, you should already be seeing why this book could be so valuable to you.

Dealing with failure is a big part of being a writer. You'll be rejected again and again, even when you've 'made it'. Dealing with bad luck is also something you should know about and be prepared for. Bad luck happens to everyone and it can be extremely frustrating when things fail especially when they are beyond your control. Adapting to change and learning more about your craft every day is as important as being a good writer. It's all there in this book just waiting for you to pick it up and start learning how to sell yourself to others and gain an advantage over your fellow writers.

Personally, I think the most valuable lesson in Niraj's book is - Do more than what you get paid for. This links back to what I was talking about last week, about going that extra mile, proving you're better than all those other writers out there and why you should be the first choice in every producer's mind.

I did spot a few spelling mistakes in this book and the layout did cause me to become a page-blind after a while, especially when I tried to read several chapters in one sitting. It's an easier read broken down into small chunks without losing your place and it can be used as a handy reference guide you can easily dip in an out of.

Niraj kindly gives examples from his own life to back up every lesson, showing not only how these lessons can be applied but also how they work in the real world. There are even interviews in the back of the book with people who don't directly work in sales but who do use sales techniques in their daily lives. Overall, it's a solid book with a lot of valuable lessons within its pages and one definitely worth investing in.

Happy writing!


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

When you're a new writer it's easy to concentrate on what others can do for you, how they can help move your career forward, help to get you your first commission or get your work made. But if you really want to be noticed it's well worth reversing that thinking and asking yourself, 'What can I do for others to help them?'

Make yourself available for others. Offer your services without conditions. Give of your time freely. This is the quickest way to build strong relationships and have people remember you for all the right reasons. Go the extras mile so they will never forget you.

How can you do this? There are several ways. You can contact production companies and offer to give feedback on screenplays for them for free. Yes, it will cost you time but it's time well spent and by doing so you'll have a foot in the door. Start with the smaller companies or the newly established ones. The larger companies will most likely already have a reader or a team of them in place.

Why do you think you see the same names pop up on the credits of TV shows time after time? It's because those writers have made a reputation for themselves as reliable people who are great to work with. They are sought after and get regular work. Producers know when they go to them they will deliver. So if that production company you have been reading for for free are suddenly in the market for a new writer, who do you think is going to be high on their list? Don't you think that's worth unselfishly giving up a few hours a week to help someone else?

The same goes for more established writers. I'm not saying they should work for free, far from it. Established writers have paid their dues and should always be paid correctly and fully for their work. However, there may be the occasional time when doing a favour for a friend is a good idea. Making the time to write up a six to eight-page treatment for a producer you know well and have worked with before when you're very busy with other projects will be appreciated. They will remember you made time for them and will think of you in the future.

There are the usual things you can do to get yourself noticed as above but to go the extra mile you need to think outside the box, find or create new avenues to get yourself noticed and to show how helpful and valuable you are and can be. For example; this morning I went on to a producers' network page on Facebook and offered to give feedback on a screenplay for anyone who was interested. I plan to only do this for the first person to get back to me, and yes for free, as I'm not overly busy this week. It's two to three hours out of my week. It's nothing really, but the producer who takes me up on that offer will be grateful and remember that I put myself out to help them.

So think more about what you can do for others, not what they can do for you. Don't promise what you can't deliver. If you can spare two, three or even four hours a week then give it without reservation. And if you promise something, make sure you deliver.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

ASK & LISTEN

Write what you know is a saying I hear often. While this is true, it is also important to ask and listen, especially if you're pitching to a specific production company.

Most writers will send their screenplays in blind. They won't even bother to check to see what the company has made, is currently making or actively looking for. If you're happy with your work being quickly and easily rejected then this is fine. If however, you want to give your work the best chance of being considered you'll need to do some research. That research is will come in two forms.

1 - Look at the company's back catalogue. This will help to identify the type of films they favour and also help to avoid sending in screenplays that are too similar to something they've made before. They may prefer crime thrillers so sending a rom-com isn't doing you any favours. If they have made a film with a plot that's very similar to your screenplay's it's a good bet they probably won't be interested in making yours. You must bear in mind that companies receive several screenplays a month similar to other stuff they've made, especially if their film or TV show was very successful. Thinking about what you're going to send already puts you way ahead of the majority of writers.

2 - To give yourself the best chance of your screenplay hitting the mark it's worth asking the company what they are looking for. Email is great, phoning is better. It's easy to ignore an email and let's be honest everyone responds well to a nice friendly voice on the other end of the line. Once you know for certain what they are interested in you won't be wasting your time, or more importantly, theirs.

To give you an example. I recently researched a production company, going through their back catalogue to try and decern the type of feature they might be interested in. After feeling pretty confident I knew what that was I emailed them a pitch for a feature idea.

I received a 'no thank you' email from them yesterday (03.04.2018). Despite this, I was delighted to discover they really enjoyed my idea and work. I'm also very grateful to them for going a step further and not only telling me what they are actually looking for but for also giving me examples I can go away and watch. Now I have a better idea of what to send them in the future and I can tailor my pitches to their current needs. What could be easier?

Don't waste your time and just settle for sending out any old script, make sure you know exactly what the production company is looking for and it will really make you stand out.

Happy writing!