Thursday, July 03, 2008

Fiesta! #3 (It's a wrap)

And then it was over but not before this happened (oh, quick disclaimer on behalf of the kind people who gave their time to talk to us - this is my take on what they said, it may not perfectly reflect their intended meaning):

"Making a few bob from writing" by Mike Gubbins, the editor of Screen International. Rather more useful than the patronising atrocity perpetrated on the first day. Mike is humorous and well-informed, as one should hope.

His first point in the packed room was that he was pleased to see that the writing fraternity were mercenary enough to want to make money, rather than merely suffer for their art. Writing screenplays is a business but right now there is less money around and the market is changing. But this wasn't one of those "web-hugger" talks -- as he said, there is no business model for the web currently.

Instead he described what is actually happening in the market. The big media companies are reducing their output to the "guaranteed" blockbusters and not producing the mid-budget movies that they previously did. Instead they are assisting in the backing of "local" movies, basically national movies with a strong sense of Place. And then working to give these international distribution in order to make the money back. It's already happening and it's already working.

So what do you write about?

Well, if you see a bandwagon then it's already gone. If there is any obvious anniversary, someone is already doing it. Just don't bother with bandwagons and anniversaries.

Being in his position allowed Mike to do some research. He went round to the commissioning execs of major companies and organisations and asked them what they wanted to see:
  • Comedies that are funny
  • Thrillers that thrill
  • Dramas that are dramatic
  • Theatrical adaptations (see note above about bandwagons)
  • British teen drama that teens will watch
  • Horror that scares
Important note, the preceding list must be read recognising the inherent irony. Remember William Goldberg: Nobody knows nothing. Basically they have no idea. A word that kept cropping up is "edgy" it has to be edgy but not gritty. It's not clear whether there is actually any understanding of these terms.

The most significant films to appear this year (internationally) have been by writer-directors, or writer-director-producers, and occasionally writer-director-producer-actors. They are works that have not been compromised in their creative vision.

Don't try to second-guess the market. Don't try to produce "what the public wants". Your market (as a writer) are the people who buy films. And they don't really know what they want (edgy but not gritty). So write what you want, and don't compromise your vision.

Followed by the packed "The Colour of Writing" with the great Terry Pratchett, the wondrous Nigel Planer, with Vadim Jean who adapted both the Hogfather and The Colour of Magic for Sky.

What can I say about this? It was primarily about Vadim's adaptation of the books and his methodology which is to take the original source and dump it into Final Draft and convert the entirety of the book into a script, then start editing.

It was wonderful to see Terry Pratchett, he's a writing hero in more ways than one. Some people don't like what he writes, fine, but for me he is witty, intelligent, satirical, and very human.

Nigel Planer is an acting genius, his humour is so dry that sometimes people miss it. He has read the unabridged version of Terry's works as well as appeared in the Sky productions. During the session he did some readings from the original scripts and the original books which were then compared and contrasted with the way they turned out on screen.

Where I have a problem is that the adaptations were not, in my opinion, as good as they could have been. This is not to say I did not enjoy them, I did. But that was more a love of Pratchett and a desire to see them "real" than the quality of the adaptation itself.

To be honest, from my viewpoint, Vadim's explanation of how he does the adaptations explained perfectly why they are not good. While a respect for Terry Pratchett is all very well, the production of a good result should be more important.

Vadim quoted the brilliance of The Lord of the Rings adaptation as being his inspiration for following the Pratchett originals closely. And said he'd read LOTR four times as a youth. Unfortunately that too demonstrated that he was clearly unfamiliar with LOTR (only four times?) because Peter Jackson took some huge liberties with the source material BUT they were liberties that made it work as a movie. Oh well.

I then skipped the next sequence of sessions, though apparently Kay Mellor was very good, and I shouldn't have missed her - as she's the creator of Fat Friends I should have known. (One other session was a "pop-psyche"method of script development, yeuch, I hate pop-psyche. Reminds me of leeches.)

The afternoon started with "Jane Tranter" Controller of BBC Fiction. This was a very honest and very revealing interview by David Pearson.

And after the first five minutes I felt vindicated. Let me explain: You may be aware that the Guardian newspaper recently did an "expose" on how all the power over BBC Drama is invested in Jane Tranter and that it is horrible place to work (anonymous sources) and various other unpleasant things. On Shooting People I was the only person to stand up and say "rubbish" because I know (a) how the media works and (b) how people who think they've been slighted can behave. I knew it was just media b*llocks.

The first point was that although Jane is in "control" of over £250 million in spend on Drama, and yes she has to greenlight stuff the truth is this: She's not the final arbiter (there are others higher than her); and stuff has already been filtered and approved before it gets to her anyway. Plus she's been doing the job for 8 years, why start complaining now? (Just because the BBC has started succeeding, goodness, the media wouldn't try to attack something for being a success would it?)

We were also treated to some interesting facts:
  • The BBC drama output is 550 commissioned hours per year (excludes "bought in")
  • The BBC employs at least 500 writers in a year, (that's the minimum)
They do 26 new singles every year, so there's a huge opportunity for that (like Joanna Leigh's "Sam J" the winner of last year's Red Planet competition).

And they launch a fair number of "returning" series, unfortunately they may be the victim of the success of returning series because if they work, there's less room for new ones next time around. They have to make decisions on when to retire existing ones based essentially on "Are they saying anything new?"

They want a mix of big and small budget returning series. See the Red Planet competition this year.

Jane Tranter is fully in favour of show runners, in the British style, so you can see that there is a concordance between what everyone at the top of the TV tree are saying. What she most seriously objects to is the fact that TV is not seen as a legitimate art form - "it's only TV".

Good stuff and I have say that there was a marked difference between her and Laura Mackie from ITV - Jane Tranter exuded confidence where, I'm afraid, Laura seemed fundamentally uncertain.

My final session for the whole event was Phil Parker presenting "What do script consultants do?" Phil summed it up as "help the writer find the story". Phil has excellent credentials and he is employed by major companies to help fix scripts and he only chooses projects he likes.

But here's an interesting thing. As mentioned Joanne Leigh won the first Red Planet competition last year with a story about Samuel Johnson (Sam J) and the first dictionary (actually an interesting story). But Joanne's script had been developed with Phil Parker as her consultant; she had done Phil's MA course in screenwriting.

Please understand this is not a criticism, and it's not "cheating". Production companies want finished scripts. So, unless you have a natural genius for writing, you could probably do with getting some help too, because you're up against scripts that have been honed to professional standards.

I personally know how valuable a professional script consultant can be to truly bringing out the story in your work, and ensuring you focus correctly. And I will be entering my script-consulted script into Red Planet this year.

All professional writers have script consultants even if they are employed by the production companies. And as Phil Parker said: It [writing] doesn't get easier.

He made an interesting comment at the beginning of his session, he was one of the people that got Robert McKee into the UK. At first McKee's talks were attended by writers but within a few months the audience was replaced 80-90% by execs and commissioners, non-writers who saw McKee as a quick fix.

Phil finished by making some comments about what you should write: Write about human emotion because that is universal; use a light touch (with occasional humour); and be original.

And that's a wrap.

I spent some time saying goodbye to some of the great friends I made at the event and I'm already saving for next year.

I'm not the greatest networker in the world, pretty poor really, but this was an amazing event, it was comfortable and friendly, you get to see people and find out things that you might not otherwise learn.

And it's unique. Definitely worth it.

What's on the turntable? "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E." by Pulp from "Different Class"

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