The Artist, His Mother And The Run Down Seaside Town…

Posted November 28th, 2018 by Ben

If you are reading on Shooting People the chances are you are currently writing your debut feature film. Let’s face it, everyone is, so no matter if you’re reading this in the front of your cab or on a break before serving more flat whites, you’re still probably writing your debut feature film (or hope you are).

You are not alone. Or to make the same point less comfortingly, you are not unique. So how do you make your first script stand out from the crowd? Well, it helps if you know where the crowd is standing… (or sitting staring at a laptop).

An awful image.

Isn’t it just fucking awful what happens when type “writer” into google image search? When did “writer” become a synonym for “prick”?

I recently had the privilege of voting in the British Independent Film Awards’ Debut Screenwriting category. The BIFAs are committed to diversity and championing new talent; the entrants vary wildly in budget, ambition and quality and so offer a fantastic snap shot of our industry. Between us, my brother and I watched all of the 44 films from first time writers that came out in the last year (and that someone involved thought might be worthy of a prize…) So before you return to your unfinished draft you should be aware of some fascinating trends both on the debut writer’s page and beyond it…

Of those writers whose first full feature scripts became films in the past year, 95% were white, 84% were men and 78% were both. 25% wrote in partnerships (55 writers were credited), 73% were writer directors and perhaps more surprisingly 18% were writer actors. If this year was notable for anything it was the number of name-actors making their writer/director debuts.

With such a homogeneity of author, it’s no surprise that creative trends emerge. Just under a third of the films focussed on a young man, nearly two thirds of those a young man pursuing an artistic ambition. “Write what you know” was surely never meant to be taken quite so literally.

30% were set in London. More surprisingly 14% were set by the seaside, though I suspect that’s a quirk, like last year’s spike of films set on farms.

23% made the lead character question their sanity. 20% featured troubled violent men. 18% involved suicide. 11% involved women who are unexpectedly violent and an almost non-contingent 11% feature child abuse (mainly historic). 9% revolved around some sort of revenge for war crimes.

Lumping films together like this always sounds critical. To be clear, many tackle these themes with subtlety, eloquence and power. If you have to choose between originality and quality, always pick quality. However even truth sounds tired when repeated. The more a theme is worked the harder it becomes to make the material evoke a response and the easier it becomes to slip into cliché. This was especially clear in the 41% of films to feature terrible parenting. For every three-dimensional adult struggling to come good on their responsibilities, there were many more monstrous caricatures only there to justify the lead character’s own failings.

If the preponderance of bad parents felt lazy, what felt shocking was that of those there were two dads, two uncles and then 14 films about some truly awful mothers. This goes alongside 11 films (25%) where a father was shown in a positive light, either solving problems or quietly understanding in a way no one else did. All versus a single film that went out of its way to give us a positive view of a mum.

In the wake of #metoo it is notable that just under a quarter of debuting screenwriters are men writing about the negative influence of a mother (half of those in a run down British costal resort). And before we all throw up our hands and say how broken our system is, it’s worth repeating that the I in BIFA stands for Independent and only 30% of these films were made with any support from the British film industry establishment (broadcasters, state, mini-studios etc).

It is also worth realising that because of the turnaround time for most projects, I expect we have yet to see the impact of #metoo on the screen. These scripts are likely to have been amongst the last green lit before that tide burst. Even so, as you settle down to crack your difficult third act this morning, take a look at your own first screenplay. Does it have to be set by the sea? Is she really to blame?

  1. Jane Sanger

    I always enjoy reading anything you have written. I do wonder if this type of film is what sells and so reverberates through the industry. I mean someone had to fund them. So is this a popular theme? It is fascinating and as a female script writer should certainly make me stand out from the crowd. But oh dear, my first feature does include terrible parenting, but no seaside setting and an angst ridden and violent antagonist BUT oh Lordy, two women kick his butt into next week as the heroines.
    When I was judging The Monthly Film Festival I noticed trends such as domestic abuse and some sort of child abuse being common. However I think films in general show the dark side of humanity, I mean who wants to watch the sickly sweet Walton’s? Now you have brought to my attention how hard it is to be original, probably to do with sharing the one collective consciousness I shall try harder to think of something different. BIFA watch out!

  2. Glyn Carter

    As a white male living in a seaside town, I feel for once up with the zeitgeist!

    One question: was the single film showing a great mother written by a man or a woman?

    Second question: we might get the impression from Ben that all of the films were family dramas. What was the breakdown by genre? (Maybe the horror and crime films had been filtered out by the shortlisting process…)

    And for discussion: The weight subjects surely doesn’t reflect society… Might a plethora of films by men about (fictional) bad mothers be an extension of the same misogyny “me too” is against? The majority of writer/director/producers were male – how about the selection panel?

  3. Ben

    Thank you Jane!

  4. Ben

    Hi Glyn… the good Mum was written by a man.

    The genre breakdown does spike with “drama” (36%), though these weren’t necessarily “family drama”, more often the element of bad mothering wasn’t the focus, just a handy excuse as to why the artist was so troubled.

    (As an indication of the spike, the next most popular genre was “horror” which was only 14%, then “thriller” and “comedy” tied for 3rd place on 11% each).

    I think it’s worth stressing though that these films were all those entered not those selected. So at this stage the only bias was in the minds of the artists and financiers who made the films.

    However, as it happens cognitive bias is exactly the topic of my next post…

  5. Shooting People » Ben's Blog » The Stink.

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