Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Red Planet Prize: progress report for August

Tony Jordan announced this year's incarnation of the Red Planet Prize at the start of July. Short version: submit the first ten script pages of an original TV pilot. Last year you could send in almost anything, but the deadline was only two months. This year those looking to enter had close on three months to make ready. The prize remained the same: £5000, representation and a commission from Red Planet - all for no entry fee. Bit of a no-brainer, right?

Well, two months have passed and I've walked away from two projects I'd intended to submit. The first felt derivative and shallow, so that got binned after wasting a month of my time. [It's not like that was all I did in July, far from it, but still the days slid by.] The second project I'm still intending to take further, but recognised I couldn't get it ready in time. A feature screenplay is no small undertaking, but it's a finite story.

Developing a TV pilot is so much more, IMHO. You've got to develop an ensemble cast, all with their own compelling tales to tell. You've got to interweave those stories, creating resonance via juxtaposition, contrast and counterpoint. You've got a whole world to create, one that can sustain multiple episodes, that naturally generates stories and conflict. You want visual ways of telling all those stories too, not just people talking in rooms.

Last year I submitted two entries [only one is allowed this year]. One was the opening episode of a drama serial, TAKING LIBERTIES. The second was the pilot for a continuing drama series set in Glasgow during WWII. I developed FAMILIES AT WAR as the final project for my screenwriting MA, and flung that into the Red Planet Prize at the last possible minute. Looking back at the first ten pages of that script, I'm not surprised it didn't make the cut.

When applying to the BBC Writers' Academy this year, I dug out Families At War and gave it a thorough rewrite. Stripped out several redundant characters and storylines that did little beyond duplicating each other. Crucially, I cut the pilot script in half. That kept the focus on the two families at the heart of the drama, a significant improvement on the diffuse original version. Still very much a soap, but far more efficient and streamlined.

[Ironically, my writing sample may have been too soapy for the Writers' Academy. Bold and daring trumps familiar in getting people's attention at the BBC. Lesson learned.]

Having ditched my first two efforts for the RPP this year, I decided to give FAMILIES AT WAR another chance. Could I make the script more visual? Was each scene pulling its weight? What scenes had I left out that would add depth to the key characters? Did every character in a scene need to be present? Being in mind the RPP first round only requires the first ten pages, how could I make those pages pop? What was the most powerful ending I could find?

Happily, I had all sorts of epiphanies along the way. Scenes got swapped round, new ones added, others cut altogether. Fresh conflicts arose, as did a new character. And the ten pages now ends with a massive turning point that affects every character in the pilot. New ideas came to me that would never have crossed my mind a few months ago, let alone this time last year. Fingers crossed, the new FAMILIES AT WAR is a significant step forward.

But I'm not sitting on my hands. Two trusted scribes are reading the first ten pages this week for feedback. I'll see what they have to say, where more improvements can be made. After that I'll reach out to other industry professionals, see what else still needs honing and finessing. Getting the first ten pages is hyper-important, but the whole script needs to deliver on the promise of its opening. Plenty more work to be done yet, I suspect. Onwards.

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