Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fiesta - Day #3

Shall I start by saying I'm tired? Seems a bit obvious and repetitive - this time I was woken by someone in the room above me stomping in at 2:00am and I came completely awake - even thought it might be time to get up.

It wasn't.

I tried really really hard not to be the first person in this morning and I think I wasn't. I was still the first person to pay for a coffee ... the nice coffee-serving person knows what I like now. (Fat double-shot mochachino with plain chocolate and no chocolate dusting.)

As the noble Piers has already mentioned we were into TV territory today in a big way with lots of bigwigs from the BBC plus Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes co-creator Ashley Pharoah.

(Ohmigod, the cursor has disappeared, that's rather disconcerting. Ah, sorted it.)

My first stop was the Web Thriller session with the mighty, and self-effacing, James Moran (Severance, Dr Who, Torchwood:Children of Earth) with his director Dan Turner. Together (and with some other quite talented people) they have produced Girl No. 9 which is a 6 x 5min cop thriller. They showed us episode #1 (yes folks, we've seen it twice - they showed it again at the end) and then answered questions from the floor.

They told us that they did not know what the cost of production was - because they refused to listen whenever the Producer wanted to tell them - however they also pointed out that it was an expenses-only production. They also explained how liberating it was to produce something for the web, completely free from the constraints of the established distribution channels. This, interestingly, tied in with Simon Beaufoy's comments yesterday that smaller budgets increased creative freedom.

They do intend to monetize the product but the first showing, and for a period, it will be free - which follows Joss Whedon's Dr Horrible. You can watch it online for a fee or buy the DVD.

They are also using other platforms for distribution - like Twitter where the characters have their own accounts. There is already a fan base and the characters talk to the fans.


I went to the talk with Christine Langan, Creative Director of BBC Films. It was mildly interesting inasmuch as we learnt that if the BBC invests in a film they want some editorial control which reflects the BBC's purpose. And they don't accept unsolicited material from mere writers (well, you can't blame them for that) but will look at stuff submitted from agents or from production companies.

We had lunch and the bloggers indulged in enormous silliness and raucous laughter in the cafe.

I just could not bring myself to listen to Ben Stephenson, Controller of Drama Commissioning at the BBC. Why? I was tired and I'd probably heard it all before.

However I thought I'd try Kate Harwood, Head of Series and Serials at the BBC, on the subject of solving the problems of TV drama under the current climate. Can't say I was enormously impressed with that either. She compared the current situation with TV in the 70s when no money was being spent yet we had fantastic TV like Boys from the Blackstuff and Pennies from Heaven. And pointed out that it was just quality writing, and that's what we need now.

Yeah, I think we can all agree that quality writing is a good thing.

Finally there was Ashley Pharoah and Stephen Volk, in a session chaired by the same Kate Harwood, on the subject of Writin' USA.

Essentially it was about covering the differences, why the US are always trying to grab UK TV formats (although they also plunder Australia and anywhere else they can find stuff). Why those formats don't always work - and what it's like to work in the US compared to the UK, as a writer.

Life on Mars USA was cancelled after 17 episodes. Ashley thought that if they had been willing to listen to some of his suggestions it could have lasted longer. But he was not allowed to make suggestions even though, technically, he was a consultant.

On the other hand, The American Office has gone from strength to strength, but Ricky Gervais is Executive Producer on it.

The question arose: Are the Americans better at writing than the British? The consensus was that, at the top end, they are about the same but at the low end the US are slicker but not necessarily better.

In the US, a series must get to 100 episodes in order to break even (once they get to 100 they can syndicate and the money pours in) until then a series is always produced at a loss. This means that the pressure demands a certain formulaic (or perhaps stylistic) writing in order to keep up the ratings. The scripts are polished but, except in rare cases, unemotional.

Which means that the financial restrictions in the UK, limiting series to around 6 episodes, is actually a bonus to the quality of writing (cf, Simon Beaufoy and James Moran on budgets and creativity). However it means that a powerful 6-part UK drama which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, translates poorly to the US 100+ going-on-forever episode structure. (But comedy always operates under different rules.)

All three panellists agreed that they had heard US writers complaining that the US broadcasters look to the UK first for new ideas.

One of those is Being Human , the powers-that-are in LA cannot stop talking about it, one company got the format, the others are grinding their teeth and wishing they'd offered more. And that is a format that will work for long running series. (Though it'll be like Friends meets Buffy, I imagine.)

On a personal note I finally found out who I'm meeting for the ScriptMarket prize - tomorrow, I get half an hour with an important development person from Kudos. Exactly what I wanted. (Also, Monsters does fit the 100+ episode model, as well as the UK 6-episode model, I'm just so clever. Air doesn't, Tec does, Clones does.)

What's on the turntable? "Bambele" by Santanna

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