We all know how difficult it is as a new writer to break into film and TV writing. Last October I attended aScript Factory panel discussion on writing for other media. I wrote a report about the event for thewritewords online writing community, which I'm no longer a part of, but, I dug out the report recently, searching for information on one of the opportunities mentioned, so I thought I would post it here. Some of the information is now out-of-date, so I've put my updates in italics. Each year during the Times BFI London Film Festival, Script Factory host SCENE, a kind of festival within a festival, dedicated to scriptwriting. Recognising that film and television offer limited opportunities for new writers, Script Factory drew together a panel of experts from radio, television and theatre to consider how writers can get their work produced and appreciated by the widest audience possible. The four experts were Abigail Morris, Artistic Director, Soho Theatre; Eileen Quinn, Director of Drama, IWC; Caroline Raphael, Commissioning Editor for Drama and Entertainment, BBC Radio 4and Kate Rowland, Creative Director, New Writing, BBC. Marilyn Milgrom, a Senior Tutor with the Script Factory, chaired the event, which took place at the Curzon Soho on 27th October 2005.
Script Factory took a break from running Scene this year, but I understand it will be returning again next year.
A little bit about the panellists and how they/their companies work:
Radio 4 schedules 13,000 programmes across 14 different genres each year. Caroline Raphael is responsible for drama, comedy, Book at Bedtime, Afternoon readings and poetry commissions. A large part of Caroline’s job involves sourcing comedy and as such she said she spends considerable time in ‘smoky rooms above pubs’ and camped out at the Edinburgh comedy festival, listening to comedians perform their work. Caroline also relies largely on her producers to bring in new writers.
IWC is one of the top ten UK independent production companies, though Eileen Quinn asserted that ‘independent’ is something of a misnomer – IWC and other independents are entirely dependent on the demands of broadcasters and distributors. Eileen emphasized that she is involved in the business side of the industry and her role does not involve seeking out and nurturing new talent and she will only read scripts via agents. That said, Eileen depends upon colleagues to alert her to new writers worth keeping an eye on, and will go to readings or performances based on these recommendations.
Abigail Morris took over as artistic director at Soho Poly in 1992 and has seen the company through financial strife to reopen in 2000 as the Soho Theatre. Soho Theatre’s focus is firmly on new writing and has a dedicated Writer’s Centre that receives over 2,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year. Soho employs a team of 20 script readers and all submitted scripts receive a written response. If Soho is unable to produce a script they will try wherever possible to feed the script into other avenues, such as radio or television.
Abigail Morris moved on from Soho Theatre early this year, replaced by Lisa Goldman.
Kate Rowland set up BBC’s Writer’s Room in 2001 to develop and promote the BBC’s new writing strategy across television, radio and film. Writer’s Room’s 8-strong team actively seek out new writing talent by attending performances, readings, watching short films etc. In addition to this team, Writer’s Room uses 8 freelance script readers. The script readers operate by reading the first 10 pages of a script, then passing it over to another reader. Scripts are then sorted into bundles – scripts that will get a full read, and scripts that will be returned without being read further. All scripts will receive some feedback.
Opportunities for New Writers
Radio offers by far the most opportunities for new writers to get their work produced. In addition to the Afternoon Play,Friday Play and Women’s Hour Drama, BBC Radio also broadcast short story readings, which Caroline Raphael believes new writers often neglect. Short stories should be approximately 2, 500 words to fill a 14-minute slot. For Caroline, writing good dialogue is the most important factor for writing for radio. Kate Rowland of the Writer’s Room has commissioning responsibility for The Friday Play on Radio 4 and The Wire on Radio 3. Both Caroline Raphael and Kate Rowland cautioned against ‘filling in the gaps’ for radio listeners, for example, dialogue such as “is that gun in your pocket loaded?”.
The Writer’s Room work a lot with theatre writers and the website includes opportunities in theatre as well as TV, radio and film. Kate Rowland said that the Writer’s Room champion writers they like and do everything they can to help writers get a commission. This can take several years but the Writer’s Room also offers writing schemes and initiatives. Soho Theatre produces about 6 new plays a year and the Writer’s Centre holds two competitions for playwrights, The Verity Bargate Award and the Westminster Prize. The Writer’s Centre also operates a Young Writer’s Scheme for writers aged 15-25. See my next post for information on the Westminster Prize.
In association with Channel 4, IWC run Coming Up, an annual new writer’s scheme. The scheme produces eight 30-minute films for television and is open to writers and directors without a primetime TV drama credit. In the first instance, writers should submit a script sample and a 1-2 page synopsis of their idea. Successful applicants will be fast-tracked through the development process, receiving support and guidance with writing first a step outline and then a first draft. Eileen Quinn works with the selected writers as executive producer. The films will be shot on digital and screened late night on Channel 4 and the intention is to produce cutting edge, boundary-pushing work. Details of the scheme are on IWC’s website, and the deadline for next year’s scheme will be announced soon. Eileen said she looks for writing ‘in pictures’ and a distinctive voice. Andrea Arnold, a participant in Coming Up some years ago, went on to win an Academy Award for her short film ‘Wasp’ and other Coming up writers have had work commissioned by the BBC.
Andrea Arnold's first feature film Red Road is in cinemas now and picked up an award at Cannes this year. Details ofComing Up for 2006 were announced in March with a deadline in April so I expect the details will go on IWC's website within the first few months of 2007.
Kate Rowland noted that the deadline for the Dennis Potter award, which aims to produce a single television drama for BBC 2, is coming up soon. Details will be announced on the Writer’s Room website.
This year's Dennis Potter Award was launched in January, so keep an eye on the Writer's Room website for updates on this early in 2007.
Do’s and Don’ts
All four women agreed that new writers should have a distinctive, unique voice. As Eileen Quinn put it, she is looking for writers who ‘have something to say and know how to say it”. Abigail Morris said she looks for honesty and integrity in writing. Kate Rowland is impressed by writers who can ‘think in scenes – no coming in and out of rooms”. Caroline Raphael advised writers to research their work carefully and to respect the intelligence of their audience. Asked what is the quickest way for a writer to ensure their work ends up in the bin, Eileen Quinn cited incorrect formatting and TV scripts written in play format. For Abigail Morris, the biggest no-no is writers who have had work rejected by film or television, and try the script in theatre without re-writing it. As for common mistakes writers make, Kate Rowland suggested over-writing and advised writers to avoid lengthy, prosaic scene descriptions. Eileen Quinn advised against sending completed scripts to production companies. She suggested writers should send a treatment or synopsis only, giving producers “less to say no to”.
All panellists emphasized the need for new writers to consider other media and the importance of having work produced in some format. Eileen Quinn commented that in her experience novelists and playwrights were often reluctant to learn the craft of writing for the screen. Kate Rowland noted that it is now more common for writers to move between different media, as opposed to the traditional way of starting off in radio or theatre and moving up to television or film. She suggested writers should be ‘tangential’ in their approach. Everyone acknowledged that getting work out there is difficult and takes commitment and perseverance as well as skill. The four panellists were very well chosen and offered differing experience and approaches.. What all the experts had in common was a genuine and palpable enthusiasm for new writing in all its forms. And nice to see an all-female panel of experts at the cutting edge of new writing! I hope that was useful (sorry it was so long!) and if any of the information is outdated now, do let me know.
Red Road The Devil Wears Prada Little Miss Sunshine Away From Her The Departed Stranger than Fiction Mean Creek Switchblade Romance Somersault Keane The Wind That Shakes The Barley United 93 Breakfast On Pluto
So far this year I've read
Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters Tilt (play), Ailis Ni Riain Comfort Woman, Nora Okja Keller The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan Stasiland, Anna Funder Starter for Ten, David Nicolls Night, Elie Weisel Silver Bay, Jojo Moyes Noise, Hari Kunzru In Cold Blood, Truman Capote Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Ian Harold Brunvand The Courage to Create, Rollo May Bad Behaviour, Mary Gaitskill If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland