Right, here’s my report from the Screenwriters’ Festival 2008 at Cheltenham. I got to quite a few sessions, though some clashed and quite a few staged outside the main tent were swamped. Hopefully other bloggers will fill in the gaps from what I missed. As you’ll see, I didn’t take copious notes, Here’s what stood out for me.
BARBARA MACHIN: The creator of Waking The Dead gave the opening address, encouraging all screenwriters to embrace nerve, verve and fervour as their watchwords. She said the industry faced troubled times and all too often this encouraged a play it safe mentality. Writers should give audiences something they didn’t even dream of.
Machin said US drama seems bolder, different and fresh in the way it tells stories. But in the UK audiences for a show like Casualty have slumped from peaks of 21 million to an average of seven million. Where once the show made 12 episodes a year, now that number is more like 48. TV drama is an artform, but the length of time it takes to create often sees process often invention. Inventive storytelling needs to be effortlessly brave.
Machin said the industry was scared of frightening the audience, when all that matters is enthralling the audience. It’s not just US TV drama that can have unshackled, inventive storytelling. Compare Desperate Housewives to The Street. Both set in a single road, telling the residents' stories, yet both can be compelling drama.
She suggested showrunning was the way forward, where creative riches could be unlocked. Fear-ridden writing does not make great storytelling. In the past writers came from other media and had the courage of successes in those other media. All too often pragmatism trumps flair. Audiences need to be nurtured, be made excited.
Machin accused the industry of dumbing down drama. She wants TV that demands audiences pay attention. Drama has to be the most exciting thing in the room. She encouraged writers to rise up and be brave. Be inspired, not just market savvy. Dare to dream.
DEBORAH MOGGACH: A novelist and screenwriter, she talked about her experiences of adapting both her own work and that of others for film and TV. She said novels are often all about nouns, while a screenplay is about verbs. Situations and solutions in screenplays are often more conflicted and active than in a novel. When she adapts one of her own stories for the screen, there are like two different lives being lived.
Moggach said an important trick was giving scenes time to breath on screen, despite the enormous brevity required in an adaptation in comparison to its source material. There’s so much plot to pack in, so much that must be cut, yet the writer must leave time for actors to react on screen, leave room for silence.
Moggach has adapted The Dairy of Anne Frank into a five-part TV series for the BBC. She said it was quite a job to find a shape to each episode. All had to have their own complexion, be funny, tragic and complex. Talking about Pride and Prejudice, Moggach confessed to having a terrible memory, but this helped her forget previous adaptations such as the mid-90s BBC TV version.
RED PLANET: Tony Jordan took the stage first thing on Wednesday, along with blogging legend Danny Stack and the writer who won the first Red Planet Prize, Joanna Lee. The prize was launched at last year’s festival and Jordan kicked off the second running of the competition. He described the contest as a red herring, devised to help his production company find the next generation of great TV writers.
Jordan aims to build a family of writers for Red Planet, describing his company as writer-led. If a writer gets a show commissioned via Red Planet, they will executive producer of their creator, write several episodes, get input on the others – have a full involvement.
The 2007 Red Planet Prize had few parameters, but this year’s incarnation is more focused. As before, writers are expected to submit the first ten pages of an original screenplay. But this time it must be the first ten pages of a pilot for a new TV series. Short films, radio plays, screenplays for features or stage plays are not eligible.
In addition to the first ten pages, writers must include two other things: an application form [downloadable from the Red Planet site] including disclaimer; and a one-page outline of where the series is going. Deadline for entries is September 30th 2008, and – according to the website – only one entry per person.
Jordan said the vast majority of last year’s entries were TV scripts, hence the narrowing of focus this year. Keeping the entries down to ten pages of script makes assessing them a more manageable process, for obvious reasons. Once all the entries have been read, an unspecified number will be invited to submit their full script.
From these a winner will be chosen, getting five thousand pounds, representation by a leading agency and also a commission from Red Planet. Runners-up will receive mentoring from Red Planet – workshops, encouragement, etc. Last year’s winner is getting her script developed as a biopic for BBC4.
Danny Stack gave some top tips and things to avoid, based on last year’s entries. Start telling your story on page one, don’t be languid in your pacing. Scripts need to grab a reader. A nice turn of phrase helps, as does good use of subtext. Show there’s something happening. Turnoffs are familiar situations and superficial writing. It’s crucial to nail the tone – thrillers must be thrilling, comedies must be funny.
Jordan advised everyone to write from the heart, focus on stories they want to tell, not second-guessing. [Jordan also sucks his own blood, as he showed after discovering he’d cut his hand before coming on stage.] He stresses how crucial it was to start scenes late and end them as soon as they stop mattering – when it’s over it’s over.
He also passed on a tip that had served him well on how to make dialogue better. Keep taking words away from each sentence, one at a time. So long as the dialogue still makes sense, it will be better – shorter, tighter, pithier.
Jordan wants to love a character from their first sentence, their first appearance. Fro the outline, don’t bother detailing every plot twist for the next few episodes. Talk about the characters, their world, the area of the story. Entries can be for series or serials. Jordan said 30 or 60 minutes was fine [the Red Planet website stipulates 60 minutes only]. He was happy to see sitcom scripts, if they were funny.
Jordan suggested the outline talk about the entry’s tone – maybe throw in a movie reference or two. For Hustle, it was a modern take on Robin Hood, with parallels to films like The Sting. He suggested it was better to hit the ground running in your first ten pages, while setting up core characters over the whole 60 pages, rather than front-loading the script with exposition. Half a page, even a line can be enough to nail a character.
There’s a blog to accompany the competition, a place for entrants to keep tabs on progress.
LAURA MACKIE: ITV’s director of drama addressed a packed tent yesterday. She noted 11 drama series launched by the BBC and ITV last year, yet only three returned. A thousand projects were submitted to ITV last year, yet Mackie didn’t feel spoiled for choice. New series need to be original, ambitious and inventive, yet also mainstream and commercial – an approach she called having your cake and eating it.
Mackie believes ITV viewers are too smart for reheated project or clones of material on other channels. She cited Britain’s Got Talent as a classic ITV show, particularly its optimism. Dramas for ITV have to have heart, someone for whom the audience can root. Audiences don’t just want comfort viewing in tough times. When pitching a new series, she suggested explaining it as if telling an anecdote.
Less is more when it comes to pitching, sometimes a couple of lines can be enough. Your series needs to stand out from the crowd. Mackie prefers to read an idea first and – if she likes it – then have a conversation with the writer. Talk costs nothing. She enthused about the Voicebox Writers’ Studio, a venture to foster new writers established by Paul Abbott.
Mackie cited dramas that had excited her: Cracker, Cutting It, At Home With the Braithwaites, Life on Mars. The latter two were examples of shows that took familiar genres and gave them a fresh twist. The family relationship drama of Braitwaites was enlived by its premise; what if you won the lottery and didn’t tell your family? Life on Mars juxtaposed modern policing with 70s methods.
Clarity is not a dirt word. Make your pitch irresistible. You’re better to get it right than rush to meet a deadline, there’s millions at stake. Mackie said it was no surprise so many series failed, as too many get commissioned too fast and are under developed. In the current climate you can’t busk a series, something she admitted British TV drama had been guilty of doing. Make drama good as it can be, not just good enough.
A dazzling first episode alone isn’t enough. Mackie said there should be environment where attention gets lavished on subsequent scripts too. Standards have to be high through a series, otherwise tumbling ratings are inevitable – you have to deliver on your promises. ITV prefers to spend more developing fewer series, giving them the time and money they deserve. Mackie believes you can’t create drama by committee.
The protagonist of a TV drama doesn’t have to be nice, but they must engage the audience – witness the success of House, Doc Martin, Cracker. Research can help development but it can’t replace creativity. Nobody aims to make bad TV. Mackie believes tone meetings are a great innovation. Location is crucial to establish a sense of places for a drama series. Be proud of good work, even if it isn’t a hit.
SCRIPT BITES: Not having been to the festival before, I don’t know if these were a new innovation – but they’re a great idea. Essentially, guest speakers sat at a table in the main dining marquee for half hour stints and attendees could ask them questions directly. Some were swamped, others easier to be part of, but all offered extra opportunities for access and answers. Hopefully these will be retained for future festivals.
I sat in on a session by a coach called William Pennington, who helps creative people develop strategies to make the most of their potential. If that all sounds a bit hippy dippy, well, it wasn’t. He cited examples of strategies I’d unwittingly adopted by a process of trial and error. Best of all was an old quote by Graham Greene: ‘writing is a habit’. Write at the same time every day and you’ll be productive.
Pennington stressed the need to create time and space in your life to write. Some of his clients go so far as to keep everything related to specific projects in different boxes, right down to the mug they drink from while writing a particular script or book. That’s making compartmentalisation literal. He also suggested voluntary VAT registration, as it creates the illusion you turnover more than seventy grand a year and makes you seem more professional to clients.
I went to other sessions, but my flailing migraine precluded note-taking. All in all, I’d say the festival was a worthwhile experience [especially since I got a free pass as a guest speaker]. Would I go back next year? It’ll depend on the guest speakers, my workload and finances, but I’d definitely be up for another trip to Cheltenham.