Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fiesta! #2

At an event dedicated to screenwriting it is, perhaps, hardly surprising, that things come in themes. Yesterday had themes, for me, of how to write treatments.

Today's theme was quite definitely showrunning.

We opened with the announcement of this year's Red Planet Writing competition, I wasn't going to go to it but I'm glad I did. The rules and requirements have changed since last year and we have a longer lead time: 60 minute pilot for a new TV series. Deadline: 30th September 2008. Send only the first 10 minutes and a 1-page summary, plus the registration form from the website.

It was amusing when Tony Jordan suggested he'd given more time because people are unlikely to have such a thing lurking in their drawer. Well, everyone I spoke to did ... including me.

I sent "Monsters" to the first Red Planet competition last year and got nowhere. But this is two drafts further on so I shall send it again.

The prize is once again worth having: £5000, guaranteed agent representation, and the opportunity to showrun your show, if it's picked up by a broadcaster. Wow.

Better than that: Every entry that's worth turning into a series will be taken up. In other words there might not be just one winner, there could be 2, or 3, or 4 or more. If Tony likes it, he'll back it.

Tony shared the stage with Danny Stack who will be reading most of the entries and he had some words to say about common problems with last year's entries (see the link) and the winner of last year's competition who's show was a single currently in production for BBC 4.

I stayed in the main tent for the following session from Laura Mackie, Head of Drama for ITV, in a talk on how writers can help increase the success rate of drama. It has to be said that ITV has done really badly with total bombs like "The Palace" and "Rock Rivals" - honestly they only had to have asked me before they started. I thought they were stupid concepts guaranteed to fail, but apparently everyone in ITV development thought The Palace was a guaranteed winner.

Anyway, neither were Laura's fault since the lead time is so long she wasn't in the job when they started. Part of Laura's solution is to give writers more time to develop the scripts because often they aren't, and also to instigate a form of showrunning. She cited "Pushing Daisies" which I'm guessing she purchased for ITV (and I love Pushing Daisies), where the creator had three series mapped out and knew how things in series 1 would impact the end of series 3. Even if they never got that far.

Consistent creative vision.

And hints for authors:
  1. Watch the current output and don't duplicate it.
  2. Take into account the identity of the channel. (ITV = optimistic, but not "Sunny Delight")
  3. In a pitch, "Less is more". One line will do. In fact she hates being pitched to, she'd rather just talk.
Surveys show that nowadays you have to grab people in the first 4-5 minutes. She gave us the openings of the pilots of two highly successful shows: "Cracker" and "Cutting It". Just to illustrate how good an opening can be. (And they were good, I hadn't seen either, though I'd watched Cracker and enjoyed it immensely.)

Most important: They want returning series.

See the theme here? Red Planet wants returning series entries, ITV (and BBC) want returning series ... and returning series are best when they have show runners.

I wasn't interested in the next sessions (Notes don't bother me, good or bad, I don't write horror and I'm not the collaborative type.) So went to have lunch and waited for the mini, round-table "scriptbite" session with Ed Clarke from Kudos, which is responsible for some fantastic TV (Life on Mars, and Hustle, for example). The table was crowded and, unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the sewage truck emptying the toilet block nearby. It was very noisy and most people couldn't hear him.

Then the bomb struck: He was from Kudos Film and not Kudos TV. And people drifted away, partly because they couldn't hear and partly because he was film and not TV. Then Tony Jordan turned up for a round-table session and the other tables emptied to hang round him - 10 tables wouldn't have been big enough. But Tony loves a crowd.

The first afternoon session was "Show runners" featuring (ahem) Tony Jordan, Barbara Machin, the writer James Moran (Severance, plus Dr Who & Torchwood scripts) and Philip Shelley, who I now reveal is my script consultant.

I'm not going to go into huge detail on this because not a lot was actually said even though a lot of words were used. In brief: We probably don't want the US model of Show runner (an employed producer who works nightmare hours and is responsible for everything), what is seen as the British show runner is the "Guardian of Creative Vision" with the power of an Exec Producer (which is essentially the title they have) will probably have been the show's creator, first writer and oversees anything to do with maintaining their creative vision in the show: A coherent, unique, writer's voice.

They would be involved in all creative areas (costume, casting, set design, music, writers, directors) but not in the day-to-day management.

All jolly good stuff and well-received.

I had arranged to meet Philip Shelley after this, so I did. Good meeting, not a huge amount of new stuff came out of it - except he commented that the current incarnation of Monsters was probably good enough to snag me an agent (with his recommendation) but it's preferable to make it as good as possible.

And he's concerned that if I'm really good at SF (which apparently I am) he's concerned that I may be rubbish at other stuff, like my rom-com, Une Nuit a Paris. He may be right, he has the experience to back up that kind of assertion. But I need more than one script to prove I'm not a one-hit wonder and my SF blockbuster (which I discovered I am permitted to write yesterday) won't be ready for a bit.

After that I was barely interested in anything else. I'd had a nagging headache all day caused by my walk yesterday and lack of proper sleep. So I came back to my room and slept for an hour. Then return to the fray for another hour and a half. And had a chat, with others, with James Moran, nice chap. He explained how good it was to be slightly famous, being invited to Dr Who conventions and being treated with awe and respect, but able to walk down the street without being stared at.

I could live with that too.

What's on the turntable? "River" by Joni Mitchell from "Blue". Another singer I absolutely adore, I even like her much maligned "Mingus" album.

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