Monthly Archives: November 2009

SWF 2009: Julian Friedmann’s Submission Strategies

This was a very popular session as we all hoped to catch that piece of golden advice that will eventually get our scripts on Robert Jones’s or Jonathan Darby’s desk. And here’s how you go about it:

Calling card scripts

Write several good calling card scripts in order to demonstrate your skills and to show that you can handle different genres: one 30-minute episode of a series, one 60-minute script for TV, one 90-minute feature script. Have one script with lots of good dialogue.

Do not write a spec adaptation (unless you really want to set yourself up as an adaption writer) but consider taking a novel that’s out of copyright and transferring it to a contemporary setting.

Make sure your calling card scripts are as good as you can possibly make them. Get input from other writers (join a writers’ group) and send the scripts to a professional reader or script editor. Your career should be worth that investment.

Script / commissioning editors

You can follow who is commissioning what on the Broadcast Commissioning Index (however the grapevine has it that this will be turned into a subscriber-only service sometime soon).

Check the credits of TV shows for the script editors; if you find that the same name pops up consistently in episodes that appeal to you, write to that person to tell them you like their work / style and that you would like to work for them.

Broadcasters, producers and agents

You have submitted your spec work to a broadcaster and been rejected. Now you want to send it to an indie producer… can you do without mentioning the rejection? Julian’s answer is a clear “no” – that would be unethical unless you tell the indie it has been rejected by the broadcaster (which is why the Blake Friedmann Agency generally don’t submit client material to broadcasters until they have tried independents). It is possible that a good independent will add value to a script by way of a director and cast, which might make the broadcaster decide to do it.

Agents and producers are usually more interested in you as a writer than in your spec stories – those are basically just to prove you can write. Therefore your submission packet should also contain information about yourself – why you write and what your passion is.

You can find out about agents through various handbooks, but an agent who belongs to the Association of Authors’ Agents or the PMA is to be recommended. Julian suggests that even if you have an agent, don’t rely on them always doing the right thing – you must read the trades yourself and get out and network. And do not sign any agreement that binds you for a year or even longer.

Producers’ biogs are available from PACT (UK indie producers’ trade association). Check them out, build up your own database of production companies. When talking to a producer, try to establish your financial benchmark – join the Writers’ Guild and make that “visible”.

The Submission

Do not address your letter to “Dear Sir/Madam” but address them by first name. Try to get a recommendation. Make sure you research your target and what they’ve done, touch on that in your submission.

One effective way of writing selling treatments that you can use to submit is to break them into the following parts:

* One paragraph similar to the back blurb of a novel (possibly without the ending)
* Character biogs – five lines for main and two lines for secondary characters
* Statement of intent with personal info; tell them why you are the person to write this particular story
* Synopsis of max. three pages – make this visual and write it in the present tense to give a sense of pace
* Contents page at the front

(For more excellent advice on how to write treatments that sell check out Julian’s articles on

And finally, as for rejection…

… get used to it! And keep going!

PS This is my last instalment of SWF 2009 session notes. Next year you’ll all have to check it out in person – the festival is definitely worth it!


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SWF 2009: The Screenwriter as Diplomat

Oscar-winning writer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty) talked about the writer’s role in the development process. Screenwriter / consultant / lecturer Peter Bloore moderated.

Simon Beaufoy recalled how he used to walk into development meetings “prepared to be ruined” and indeed has had scripts “taken away” even after his first major success with The Full Monty (he cited Blow Dry as an example). However, his approach is different now: bearing in mind that the people a writer faces in these meetings are never stupid but always powerful, with powerful opinions, the writer must find a way to ADAPT others’ ideas while maintaining the core of his/her script. While you may not have the luxury of choosing your allies, the director and producer must understand this core, the soul of your script.

The key to a successful development meeting is MOMENTUM. It’s all about moving the script forward, and everyone should walk out of the room with something gained. While this is actually the producer’s responsibility, successful screenwriters are good at achieving this. Simon Beaufoy also maintained that the writer does not necessarily have to fulfil all development notes – in his opinion about 60% should do. (Note: in the “How to Be Good” SWF session Kate Leys and Rob Kraitt advised writers to make sure that nothing is “their fault” and comply with any and all notes. For a good write-up on this session – and two others – go to Margit Keerdo’s blog .)

Prompted by Peter Bloore’s question, Simon Beaufoy confirmed that going for low-budget films was a conscious decision he made after the Blow Dry disaster, naming his lowest budget film, This Is Not a Love Story, as his best creative experience ever. “Budgetary constraints focus the mind!” So he tackled the project backwards – starting with a budget based on a two-page treatment, then casting, attaching a director, then scouting locations and based on those writing the script in 10 days (yep, that’s what he said!), and another 10 days for shooting… In his words, there are vast opportunities for low-budget, crazy, interesting films and a specific UK voice in this area that needs to be protected.

Finally, Simon Beaufoy stressed the importance of preparing for development meetings. Ask to be given the notes in advance (argue that this will help focus the meeting); ask for ONE set of notes (otherwise you may have to deal with conflicting notes); and if you are given notes face to face after all, smile and say “great, can I get back to you on this when I’ve had time to think about it?”

So should we be worried by the fact that even an Academy Award winning writer is turning to micro-budget because he wants to maintain creative control? My answer would be: if you are crazy enough to write for big budgets, be prepared to lose creative ownership. It’s your choice. And if you’re lucky, you can protect that core of your script Beaufoy talked about. If not, make sure you retain the novelisation rights and write YOUR story as a book.


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La Vida Electronica @ SWF 2009

Presented by journalist and script editor Ellin Stein in discussion with writers Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars) and James Moran (Spooks), this session was designed to look at the use of technology in films. Given that e-communication is taking over real life, how do you portray character interaction other than by showing them typing or texting? How do you make this cinematic?

The discussion was supported by various clips ranging from old movies showing people writing and reading letters, usually with V.O., to brand-new student shorts with no dialogue but subtitled with the text messages the characters were receiving, and included a beautiful sequence from The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft conduct a classical two-person drama by phone.

Ashley Pharoah mentioned that in Life on Mars they played it as a joke that the murder photos can’t be sent by mobile phone.

James Moran described how in writing for Spooks, they went at it from the human side first and then used gadgets to create suspense and complications. (He also mentioned that they condense material for three hours into one… I believe that!) As to the problem of “showing people typing”, he offered the solution of having characters walk in with a print-out and then going off on to act on the info.

The issue of receiving information by phone or letter is by no means new. You can use a phone conversation to show people lying – saying one thing and doing another – but this works equally well with mobile phones or landlines.

There was general agreement that technology affects the plotting of thrillers. Characters can call for help on their mobile (and “Damn! No reception!” is a pretty lame excuse*). Moveable GPS prevent people from getting lost. Applications like Google latitude will allow your villain to track the hero as he or she flees.

On character level, technology can be used to show people’s isolation, or indeed to portray character by showing HOW they use technology.

The question was raised as to whether the lack of human interaction threatens to make stories less gripping. Ashley Pharoah’s answer was “not necessarily – just look at UA 93 when the passengers, knowing they are about to die in a plane crash, call their loved ones to say good-bye – that’s drama!”

The session ended with a nice little bonus when a voice from the very back of the room said (paraphrased) “We had some interesting reactions to using new technologies when we introduced Max Headroom”. The voice belonged to Annabel Jankel, writer of the Max Headroom TV series way back in 1985!

To sum up the discussion: modern technology does present certain limitations but also new possibilities, and it is up to us, the writers, to be inventive in the way we – or rather our characters – use it. I personally would have welcomed a bit more of a discussion about possible solutions, but I guess that also is up to us!

* On the topic of “no reception”, here’s a worthwhile read: “Anybody Getting a Signal?”


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Spec Scriptmarket @ SWF 2009

Another presentation by Simon Van der Borgh, together with Developer / Script Editor Jo Tracey.

SVdB started off by issuing a warning about “readers” – one should always make sure that they are “real industry professionals”. Then he listed common pitfalls and flaws:

* When asked “what is it about”, writers tend to tell the story.

* Often the main character does not really go on a journey or have a purpose. It is important you really know who the main characters are; what their needs and challenges are; what the obstacles and turning points are for them; and how they interact with others. All this must feed into the theme.

* If during the writing a secondary character becomes more interesting than your chosen protagonist, be flexible enough to move to the secondary character.

* A character should never be predictable (watch Chloé – this film takes you somewhere entirely different from where you expect to go).

* Your characters must be believable; they must live outside the movie.

As in so many other SWF sessions, the importance of GENRE was driven home – know the genre; know its history, where it comes from; research what else exists in this genre AND works.

Decide whether you want to explore / develop your story for cinema or TV – rule of thumb: feature films are generally about ordinary people in extraordinary situations (or vice versa!), TV shows ordinary people in ordinary situations. TV is also more dialog-driven. Final Draft users can check percentage of dialogue in tools > reports.

Know the TIME (they mentioned a script set in the 14th century where someone checked his wristwatch…) and TIME FRAME of your movie – rule of thumb: the longer the time frame, the lower the tension.

Know who you are writing for – use language that is appropriate for your primary audience – know who it is going to appeal to and why.

Finally: “Beware the fear of being understood” – screenwriters have a tendency to overcomplicate things when they should aim to “let the audience in”!

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Sales Agents @ SWF 2009: How I Sell Your Film

Second instalment of my SWF session notes…

Sales Agent Samantha Horley from the presented her view on what makes a film worth her while, given that budgets are coming down while upfront cost remain high, e.g. between £ 25-75,000 for a festival launch.

When deciding whether to take on a project (and, in Horley’s words, sales agents shudder when they hear the words “passion project”), they look at the taste of the targeted territories to determine whether it will sell. This is tricky as markets can turn on a dime and even festival successes like White Lightnin’ may not recoup their cost. The ideal scenario of a pre-sale is more and more difficult to attain, as especially the US buyers are spending less and less.

The salt. company gets involved at different stages, sometimes even when there is no film but only a script and perhaps a director or producer attached. They actually prefer to come in early – if a project is too packaged, e.g. with cast attached, it is difficult to “unpick”. If they get involved before the actual filming, they give input on the script, and help to find the right actors for the project. After filming, their activities include launch, delivery, release reporting, marketing campaigns, contracts and collections.

Samantha Horley mentioned two main types of deals, the “All Rights Deal” which includes theatrical, DVD, internet and all future means of distribution, and the “Minimum Guarantee”, which may be as high as 35% – or much lower, in which case the percentage of profits will be higher.

She stressed the absolute importance of knowing your GENRE inside out, as your audience will have high expectations, and presented the Salt list of genres as:
– action
– rom com
– thriller
– sci-fi
– high concept horror
– comedy
– horror
– drama
– period drama
– family (struggles in indie market)
– foreign language
Buyers don’t like magic realism – this would have to be studio / big budget.

Horley then presented Donkey Punch as a case study. Salt got involved right from the start, setting up a first-time feature director and a cast. While sales in the US were the highest in a long time, they were still disappointing after many excellent reviews. The title became the buzz– everyone wanted to read the script – but in the end it also became an obstacle and one of the reasons why it tanked in the UK, because guys had to explain the meaning to their girl-friends…

Horley drove home her point that as writers we must keep in mind that budgets are coming down and that we must know and be very specific about our audience. That means looking at comparable films and researching their audiences – which is also what buyers do; they work on spreadsheets, not on gut feeling (“this story is like film X, which sold Y in territory Z”). Also, in her experience, films too often go into production with imperfect scripts that have seen too few re-writes.

All this was pretty sobering, to put it mildly, and at certain points there was a sense of subdued outrage among the writers in the audience – such as when Samantha Horley talked about giving input on script or casting, shuddering at passion projects, or too few rewrites. To be sure, from the POV of a sales agent focusing exclusively on the commercial side makes sense. But personally I’d like to think there IS still room for passion projects… that doesn’t mean you neglect all market considerations…

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Simon van der Borgh’s Treatment Heaven @ SWF 2009

The recent Screenwriters Festival in Cheltenham offered a wealth of information and opportunities to almost 500 professional and pre-pro screenwriters. Here’s the first instalment of my session notes: Simon van der Borgh’s Ten Steps to Treatment Heaven, a very entertaining and useful presentation. Apologies if there seem to be only eight steps – I assure you it’s all there, I must have missed a heading or two along the way.

Your piece of gold, capturing: your film’s THEME = what is it REALLY about; EMOTION = why is the audience going to care about it; and PHILOSOPHY = what is it exploring for you and for the audience?

Reduce your story to the basic elements. Play around with different versions of the famous 25 words to explore different angles.
Work on character studies and act outlines.

1-page synopsis
Start with three sentences, one per act, and expand to a one-page synopsis with info about “what’s it about”, characters and genre. Your 25-word logline is the first paragraph of this synopsis, followed by the summary in present tense. Point out conflict and resolution. Mention the names of the main characters. Make sure you are in control – do not give the reader room to invent anything.

4-page outline
Expand the synopsis to four pages; include five or six key moments.

8-page sequence breakdown
Act I – 2 pages = 2 sequences (set-up & build dilemma).
Act II – 4 pages/sequences: introduce new characters, subplots, new challenges; explore the threat of the plot; a new force comes in (often love sequence); get back to the main story.
Act III – 2 pages/sequences.
Ask a dramatic question for each sequence – express it as a question for the main character.

Beat outline
Little known in the UK & Europe; 40-60 beats.
Describe each scene in two sentences. One for action, one in italics for the significance of the action = test whether the scene is justified. If not, delete. (Prompted by an audience question, SVdB softened this a little: remember that sometimes the characters – and the audience – need a breather.)

Remove the italics from the beat outline = basis for your 12-15-page treatment. Act I 3-4 pages, act II 6-8 pages, act III 3-4 pages.

Selling treatment
Unfortunately time ran out, so we did not get round to discussing this…

Q & A
Q: How to feed the backstory in to act II?
A: Use the main character.
Q: Should you use this to test the waters and possibly save yourself the trouble of writing the full screenplay, i.e. write it only when the treatment sells?
A: Absolutely. Use this tool to free yourself up to write the first draft.

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