Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The world does not owe you a living

There's been a lot of bellyaching on screenwriting forums like Shooting People about the UK Film Council restricting entry to its 25 Words Or Less contest to those who already have an agent. One side of the argument seems to run along these lines: the UKFC is a publicly funded body, therefore it should open the contest to all of the public. The other side points it's not as if 25 Words Or Less is the only opportunity on offer. The UKFC has other funding opportunities that don't expect applicant writers to already have representation, and there are plenty of other publicly funded bodies that run schemes and contests to encourage new writing.

This debate feels like a larger version of the arguments some students have on the MA Screenwriting course I'm currently completing. There are those who see the course as a place to learn, to hone their creativity, increase their skill base and do some networking - all in a safe, enclosed environment. Others give the impression they believe attaining the MA will provide a free pass into the film and TV industry, like Willy Wonka and his golden tickets. It's as if they believe the MA course gives them some entitlement, as if the film and TV industry owes them a living for showing up. Bollocks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You want to make a living, you've got to earn it. You want to get respect as a professional writer, you've got to earn that too. Be professional. Never miss a deadline. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Not just money, but time. I want to write TV drama, so I try to watch the first episode of every new TV drama that's broadcast. Last week ITV launched Talk To Me, a steamy relationship drama made by Company, written by Danny Brocklehurst. It's compulsive viewing, beautifully shot and something of a guilty pleasure.

Last night ITV kicked off The Time of Your Life, about a 37-year-old woman who wakes from an 18-year coma to discover how much everyone's changed - except her. It's another relationship drama, but with a reverse twist on the time travel nostalgia buzz of recent hit series Life on Mars. It was fun and had some great moments, but I'm not sure it did enough to make me come back for more.

BBC1 launched Jekyll on Saturday night, a drama from Steven Moffat that updates the Jekyll & Hyde story created by Robert Louis Stevenson. I enjoyed the opening episode in its own right, but also a case study in how to establish mysteries and create misdirection in the audience's mind. The title personalities of the lead character gave actor James Nesbitt plenty of fun, and there was a creeping menace to events hinting at darker deeds to come. I'll be back for more Jekyll.

Studying TV writing also means watching shows you don't enjoy. I'm not going to name names, but one British medical drama in the last week had me groaning in pained disbelief as characters spouted opinions and exposition in the crduest, most on-the-nose manner imaginable. Sledgehammers offer mroe subtlety than this sequence, yet the rest of the episode was fine. What went wrong? A last minute rewrite, a scene that didn't get the attention it deserved during the script editing process, or perhaps something else?

When continuing dramas go awry, the audience rarely knows the real cause. All the viewer knows is that their favourite soap or serial has gone a bit skewiff. Characters start spouting dialogue that doesn't sit well in their mouths, perhaps because the actor meant to say those words has been fired or quit or is in hospital. Whole storylines peter out to nothing, or magically disappear after eight episodes, because they were summarily dumped after one block. The audience doesn't know the real reason, all they see are the consequences.

Sorry, this post has been rambling all over the place. But there's one thing I'd like to say in conclusion. Actually, it's more of a question: how many real people do you know who ever say the word lothario in conversation? It was all over the trailers for BBC1's Sunday night drama series The Chase last night, and it popped up again in Talk To Me, also on Sunday night. Does anybody say lothario in the real world, or is it just on TV? Perhaps I'm not moving in the right circles.


Lucy said...

Actually I said "Lothario" the other day, I really did! But to be honest I think I'm a bit of a ponce and I'm a tad unconvinced that it's said much in general convo.

Love TALK TO ME. It's got a real buzz of sexual tension and guilt to it. Exactly what you need for a series about infidelity and betrayal.

I enjoyed TIME OF YOUR LIFE - possibly because I'm female and I thought the actress who played Kate was BRILLIANT at emanating a teenage girl, which of course I was not so long ago. When her old boyf makes that big speech about how he thought he'd never love anyone else, but he does and says simply "You will too" and she says, "You fucking WANKER!" Genius.

Everything you say is too true, David though about 25WOL. No one gets the golden ticket yet so many expect it...

Dan Fitch said...

'Lothario' is the single word inscription that I plan to have on my headstone.

Jason Arnopp said...

Funnily enough, I just watched the final episode of Talk To Me today, for heat. Generally speaking, it's about as simplistic a drama as you can get, but it works, because the love-triangle is so timeless and the performances are pretty good.

I prefer The Time Of Your Life - thought that first episode was excellent, especially. The writer has plenty of fun with Kate's view of modern life, and I also like the balance of humour and the whole underpinning murder thang... It's relatively unusual to see a drama combining light chuckles with something quite dark...

The 25WOL thing? You have to see it in a positive light: just makes me want to get an agent all the more, so I can enter it next year...

Piers said...

Jason - you've had a book published, which makes you eligible to join the WGGB, which makes you eligible for 25 Words or Less right now.

Mine's a pint.

SK said...

Is it not more the Catch-22 aspect of the business that people object to? You can't get an agent without a contract; you can't get a contract without an agent.

So competitions like this are seen as a possible way to get on the carousel, by getting notice from an agent so you can get a contract, or getting a contract so an agent will take you on (because they can then start making money off you straight away).

Restricting it to people who are already in the loop makes it a little pointless. If a public funding body is going to try to help people become screenwriters, what's the point of restricting its search to the pool of those who have already got into the game? It's only helping people who are already in the screenswriting circle.

This is also possibly the thinking behind the people on the MA course? It's not that they think that they should magically get success because they have done the course, but rather that they can't see any other way in except by the course -- so, having pinned all their hopes on this way of proving their talent and getting inside the circle, to be told that actually they ar ejust as much on the outside as they were when they started is bound to provoke a negative reaction.

A lot of people naturally rebel against the truth is that it's so random; in Paul Cornell's words, 'every writer's story of how they got into the business is mad. There is no career ladder, so we all had to grab ridiculous chances. In my case, it was Moffat having read my Press Gang review in the Guinness Book of British TV and introducing me to his producer.' They want a formula they can work towards, like becoming a doctor or a lawyer, where there's a set way to go about it -- those sorts of people are going to turn up on screenwriting courses, seeing them as the equivalent of a BVC or a medicien course. They aren't going to like that you can't make it happen in that way but have to just be ready to grab chances that may, or may not, ever come your way.

Lucy said...

But SK - you can get contracts without an agent and you can do vice versa, too (though possibly the latter's more difficult, I did the former).

Being in "the loop" does not mean you get more chances automatically - you still have to chase after them. Which is why schemes like 25 WOL are a godsend. Just because you have an agent does not make you successful, the impetus still lies with you "making it", like before.

What's more, you can enter for the Development Fund at the UKFC and the money given to you to develop your film is exactly the same as 25 WOL - ten grand. So if you want that ten grand and can't apply for 25 WOL, why not go for it? If you don't ask, you don't get as my Mam always says... : )

SK said...

Well, personally, I'm not interested in this particular one (if I wanted I'd try to blag a WGGA membership on the strength of prose work) because whatever talents I may or may not have in the realm of writing, I don't have any in the area of production and I wouldn't have the first clue what to do with ten grand if I was handed it on a plate and told 'go and develop something with this'. Take it to Jessops, probably.

It's probably a matter of perspective: to those outside, the step into the loop looks insurmountable and everything else seems easy, because it's so far away. But once you've made that step, it sudenly seems like the simple bit and the new challenges are the really hard ones. Obstancles in front always look more daunting than the ones you've left behind.

Alistair said...

As a fellow student on that MA course Dave, I think I have to say I've only met one or two people over the last 2 years who've thought like this. The vast majority, you and I included, have been writing for a long time before we came to the course and know the reality of the situation. It's hard work, talent, luck, good ideas, hard work, skill, networking, and yup, hard work that will make the difference in the end.

The MA teaches us the craft skills of screenwriting. The application of those skills to such a degree (no pun intended) that producers, script editors, commissioners et al sit up and take serious notice is down to us.


David Bishop said...

You're absolutely right, Alistair, and my comments were probably guilty of painting with too broad a brush.