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What ways are execs, agents and producers developing and sourcing new screenwriting talent?

It would be good to hear your views on this subject in reference to the film and TV industry.

  • Hiya, gosh it's a tricky one to break through as a writer. As you know, there are 10,000 or so new scripts each year, and it's certainly not always the best ones that get made.

    The typical route a writer faces to break through is to send spec scripts to production companies and hope they like it. The best way to do that is to really target films to companies, if a company has had a hit with all-female goofball comedies, they will be more receptive to more of those than war movies (unless you cross genres... interesting...). To even reach the producer, you'll need to get past his or her reader, and they will tend to be young often aspiring writers themselves. As they have so many scripts to get through, you can increase your chances with some simple actions - grammar and spelling is critically important in every single way - a writer is representing the pinnacle of language usage, and if errors make it harder to read a script it'll reflect badly. Formatting is hugely important, too. Different major studios even have small differences in formatting requirements, admittedly small British indies will be less finicky but a poorly formatted script makes it harder to read again. Remove all obstacles for the reader! Also, length - ~90pp for a cold script is where to start.

    Next, the first page needs to grab enough attention to lead into the next 10 pages, and by the end of those the reader needs to feel compelled to finish the story. That may sound glib, but that's also how films are sold - the first 10 minutes determines whether a market agent rep will request a full screener for offline viewing or not!

    Structure - particularly for studio films - everybody is terrified of being the one to approve a flop, so they use previously successful structures as a blueprint. "Save the Cat" started as an interesting academic exercise, then the author got big for his boots and started promoting it as the magic template. That means every reader is using its beats as a template (rightly or wrongly), and that's why every film feels the same. Get a copy (secondhand on Amazon or abebooks they're inexpensive) and whether or not you agree with it, that's the landscape you're working within and need an appreciation of.

    So, with 10000 scripts a year being written, that's how some get into production. There really aren't execs paying for developing talent when there are so many scripts to choose from without that cost. If they have to teach and train writers, they lose the originality they claim to be seeking.

    TV may be a bit different - and for them is all about the soap operas. They regularly recruit new writers and it's a great way to polish your trade. I'm sure others will have more detail, but places like BBC Writers Room would be good starting points as they'll have a heads up on recruitment. Writing applicants will be given a sample episode to write - they'll be told the story points to hit with which characters in the general story arc, and there may even be constraints like "needs 2 minute montage to music" in there. Soaps get a lot of stick, but they're the training grounds not just for writers but also cast, crew, directors, etc. One of our members here just graduated to directing a block of EastEnders, which is awesome. Dig through past posts, about 6 months or so.

    I don't know if that was helpful, it wasn't quite the question you asked but it's pretty much what I can suggest from what I've seen. You could see if Adam Ethan Crow posts, he's an emerging successful screenwriter here and he may even be worth a PM if there's nothing within a week. I know he's furiously busy with paid writing gigs and film-related travel, so is not on here every day.

    1 year ago
    • Hi Paddy,

      Good to hear your thoughts. I've read Save the Cat and a couple of the other known named texts, which have been helpful.

      Most recently, I've been writing more TV based screenplays, so it may be the direction I go in next versus the independent film route I've historically taken.

      But the challenge with there being so many scripts out there each year is pretty startling. And the whole gate keeper thing when it comes to producers and execs is a tad challenging though I will continue pushing through with it all.

      1 year ago
    • @Rickardo Beckles-Burrowes

      If TV is of interest, then really do look into the soaps - nobody dreams of being a soap writer, but it teaches real rigour and means you start conversations with "I've written 40 hours of broadcast TV drama" which means "you can take me seriously, I know how to deliver reliably". It's probably as close to on the job training as you can get in writing!

      1 year ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin I like a lot of the writing in soaps and have respect for the production turnaround of it even though I more drawn to drama.

      1 year ago
  • I'm not entirely sure that they are :)

    1 year ago
  • If, all else being equal, ones script has a one in two hundred chance of getting optioned, then clearly one might best be more than a writer. One might improve ones chances by being more producorial. The first success is statistically the most elusive because nothing succeeds like success. Innovative creative enterprise can shorten the odds conciderably. The business of business has never been as interesting and opportune as it is today. Whilst the big studios are still able to find big budgets, much of that expenditure is down to the gargantuan fees demanded by individuals and the proportionate distribution costs and methods needed to claw back a profit. Writers able to create stories that are compelling without needing the sort of budgets normally comensurate with running a small country and who understand the mechanisms and associations emerging beyond those of the traditionally entrenched, ought to do a lot better.

    Oh and another thing, soaps and episodic TV fictions are drama every bit as much as a one off feature.

    The mechanics of production are also changing. User friendly tools with vastly improved latitude in every facet are getting cheaper by the month. It's no longer the rocket science so jelously guarded by those whose lifetime investments are threatened by the metaphorical invention of self driving cars. Big changes are happening that favour the quick and the nimble.

    1 year ago
    • Thanks John for commenting. Are their writers who have been adding producing to their offering that you would name as watching or taking queues from in terms of best practice when having their work sourced by execs, agents and other producers?

      1 year ago
    • @Rickardo Beckles-Burrowes As I understand it, Tarantino benefitted from being part of Sundance Labs as a way of getting noticed as a talent. Seems, judging by a promo video I saw from a recent alumni of Sundance Labs that if you get selected, and can afford it, it's a good way to put yourself in the shop window... But it's only one way... Do you listen Jeff Goldsmith's Q&A podcast ... the breaking in stories tell you every which way writers have got their careers off the ground... Not many have talked about structured talent management outside of mentoring... :)

      1 year ago
    • Hi @Stuart Wright,

      I'll check out Jeff Goldsmith's Q&A podcast, so thanks for mentioning it.

      1 year ago
  • Some of the obvious and famous include George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Ken Loach and Quintan Tarantino. Then there's those who create great polemic dramatised feature docs too. It's a business that involves a lot of joined up thinking and a lot of joined up processes. It's not as trite a suggestion as it may appear to say that being ones own writer, producer, agent and business executive is very empowering. The sort of creative and learned worldliness required to write a compelling screenplay is also the same as that required to cause a film to become manifest in reality.

    1 year ago
  • The bad news John is that it is still 'bums on seats' that makes the dosh and that means 'names'. Pain in the arse but there you go.

    1 year ago
    • It's not bums on theatrical seats so much as it's bums on sofas with lap tops or 50" LED TV's. Increasingly they don't even need to pay a single penny to the producers for the privilege. So how the money is going to work is a whole new world that's already being designed by the next wave.

      I'll just repeat my earlier analogy; "It's no longer the rocket science (or entrenched reality bubbles) so jealously guarded by those whose lifetime investments are threatened by the metaphorical invention of self driving cars. Big changes are happening that favour the quick and the nimble".

      Those traditional 'box office' numbers are not telling the definitive story, indeed since the 70's they never have, and even less so today. It's the long tail after theatrical release and front loaded business models that make the dosh. For the big studio number crunchers the emerging dilemma is which is the most profitable with the least risk; big names that eat up more than half of big budgets, even as much as 70% in some cases (see the Tom Cruise fee scandal for one well publicised example), or lower cost emerging talent with effective marketing and publicity. Whilst some big names continue to have inertia, it's story lines and creative production content that are winning audiences. Viable photo realistic virtual reality is already a hundred times better and a hundred times cheaper in real terms than it was; and we ain't seen nothing yet!

      1 year ago
  • 'Whilst some big names continue to have inertia (?) it's story lines.....that are winning audiences' - oh how I hope that is true John! Have you any evidence of this? I still recall being somewhat depressed by Alan Parker having just finished 'Midnight Express' saying (something like) 'well that was the easy to get it distributed'. Is this any less true today? Of course he got it distributed all right but then he's a big name in the biz.

    1 year ago
    • Midnight Express is pretty ancient news Allan. We're now into an explanentially evolving period where 20th century models are increasingly outmoded. If those film makers and actors are going to rely solely upon the cartel of moguls for a viable career path, simple mathematics suggest that for the vast majority of aspirants the odds of having to rely on a day job are good.

      What is likely to happen is that a more balanced economic model will dominate where gargantuanism won't work. There's far too many distribution vectors for the sustainability of gargantuanism already and more of them to manifest yet. Because great films employing devices and winning performances, once the sole preserve of huge budgets, can now be produced at a fraction of the price and which no longer depend on the distribution vectors monopolised by a cartel of big companies, those quicker and nimbler outfits can make their own luck. It's likely to mean more people earning relatively normal incomes and less people earning gargantuan ones. The sources and reasons for funding projects will also evolve. The merging of further new interactivity derived from the business and techn ology models shared with the games industry is already revealing the future. A future much closer to the present than some presumption might be aware of.

      The giant dinosaurs who dominated the earth did so right up to the second they were wiped out. The less greedy and inefficient little mammals were quick and nimble enough to exploit the changes in reality.

      The importance of state funded entities such as Public Broadcasters around the world will increase. No doubt the corporatists, their apologists and familiers will make a bloody last stand. There's still enough turkeys voting for Christmas to give them hope.

      1 year ago
  • My problem with everything you say John is that it smacks of wishful thinking, something we're all prone to of course. The brave new world of the 'quick and the nimble' and a plethora of outlets is difficult to perceive. Where are you looking that I'm not? I have several short scripts that I would readily sink in excess of a grand in some sort of production (vanity production?) if I thought not so much that they might make a profit than if they got seen, somehow, somewhere by someone. Short film fests don't really do it for me. Or should they?

    1 year ago
  • Allan - they most certainly should. If you make a short film and post it on Youtube or Vimeo it will almost certanly get lost, unless it's uniquely topical or has a famous name attached. Even a Vimeo staff pick will probably get lost.

    A festival selection will be seen by the selectors and by attendees - most of whom will be film-makers who will have great advice and experience. And CONTACTS - I've linked up with potential buyers and even investors, not to mention actors and crew, via festivals.

    With a few festival laurels, your film has immediate "I'm not rubbish" kudos. You can't prove you're a genius, but get laurels for a few films, and you yourself have "I'm not rubbish" kudos. You get taken seriously. It's not vanity when you're plotting a pathway to a viable feature film.

    1 year ago
  • I know I'm way off topic here, so treat this as an anecdote from a rambling old dog in the corner, but festival laurels...

    A guy I met a couple of times and was familiar with online had a self-funded feature. Well done to him, no question, and it even had an ex-TV face to add credibility. He was frustrated with festival fees, many seemed little more than a sales channel to sell gala tickets. He set up his own soundalike festival "LA internet international festival of film" or something to that effect. He was based in West London. He set up pretty websites, he set up an entry process, he even has a couple of legit entries, but unsurprisingly his film won the Jury Prize and he had the laurels to prove it. The festival ran for exactly one year!

    Anyway, just flagging that laurels and festivals aren't the be and end all ;-)

    1 year ago
  • This is to John and Paddy - and anyone else who can bear me having a bit of a rant. I've just watched (and wasted approx one and a half hours) of complete tosh in the form of 'The Mirror Cracked' being an Agatha Christie story from 1980 filmed in olde worlde England (or something that vaguely looked like it.) So poor was it and in so many ways that I googled it and - wait for it folks - according to Wikipedia it made eleven million dollars! Mind you most of that must have gone on the cast. All past it to varying degrees in 1980 but still a mind-boggling list of names - Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Kim Novak and the list goes on. Presumably they were all cheaper being mostly not in the first flush and with Angela Lansbury as perhaps the worst Miss Marple in a pretty indifferent series of Miss Marple's nevertheless underlining the 'bums on seats' imperative. It is also perhaps the weakest of Christie stories, based according to Wikipedia on an actual incident in Gene Tierney's life.

    So OK John, it was 1980. The dim and distant. But eleven million dollars of bums on seats mate! Nothing else in the film accounts for that sort of money.

    1 year ago
    • Hiya :) Luckily we haven't stopped making overpriced crap and franchise reboots ;-)

      Couple of thoughts (internet is awful for me today so they're just from the top of my head) -
      * Yep, I'll bet cast costs for the ensemble were high even though they were fading, they still had strong recognition with the generation watching Miss Marple in the cinema
      * Hollywood lies incessantly and compulsively about budgets and money - if Return of the Jedi still hasn't shown a profit you know the accounting is pure filth. The only number you know is incorrect is the one they give the public.

      I may be way off the mark, just wouldn't seem atypical...

      1 year ago
  • Allan, 11 millions of bums on seats and million people voting Trump. Without mentioning (million?) people who watched Lalaland. Am I getting too old or is it real that our culture is deteriorating?
    Manipulated by the intense publicity, I cracked and went to see Lalaland. I ought to have the right to claim a refund.

    1 year ago
  • Based on WGA stats, there are approximately 200,000 spec scripts floating around Hollywood (based on a script latency of about ten years before people give up).

    Last year 75 spec scripts were sold.

    As my writing partner former detective Frank Hickey says, "Work the math, Sawyer. Work the math."

    I'm not daunted by those odds, but if you don't want to be in a business where your chances of success are nearly 3,000 to 1, you might want to pick something a little more secure.

    1 year ago
  • Claudette - I can't say how much it would take to bribe me to see Lalaland - well more than a tenner anyway, maybe a bottle of Glenmorangie, I could always get pissed at the same time - but it's the industry, the crap capitalist industry that determines what passes as culture in our society. The society that rewards honest hard graft, intelligence and creativity. Like Trump.
    It ain't gonna change Claudette. Sorry if that thought's just made you sob a little.

    1 year ago
    • The trouble with basing an observation of socioeconomic intelligence on the premis that the data being relied upon is not only accurate but also empirically comprehensive is that the mechanisms of those long entrenched mechanisms are only looking at their own proverbial naval.

      Estimates, and not very well informed estimates because that's the nature of the Internet, suggest that between forty and seventy percent of all 'commercially' created media is being streamed to users without them paying for it. Whilst establishmentarianists hiding behind a veneer of worthy morality cast wildly about for ways to police the Internet, the evidence of their success is not looking good. The issue of what's good or bad in society is very deep, but irrelevant to the facts as they increasingly affect the issue of the emerging economics and business models that are already dominant in terms of distribution. It's gone way beyond wishful thinking. How long it will take before there won't be enough luddite old coders like me willing to pay for unnecessory gargantuanism can only be guessed. My guess is that we're on an increasingly exponential curve with critical mass likely within five years.

      It might be the end of some people's world's; but new ones will be available for the quick and the nimble. It's a social and technology thing that's being reflected across the whole political economic artificiality so many of us believe to be a reality of emperical physics.

      1 year ago
  • I too was subjected to Lalaland as a DVD from BAFTA (the EFA are more technically advanced and all are sent as VOD). It didn't get past Sc1 as I was upset with the thought of people jumping around on my beautiful car!!! I have been told it didn't change much after that. Why do we at BAFTA have so many American films forced down our throats???

    1 year ago
  • John - I'm probably more pessimistic than you about 'society' (whatever that means) and as a former trade unionist (well, OK Youth & Community Workers Union, hardly from the Glaswegian shipyards like my dad) I'm a fair bit of a Luddite as well. Only one obliquely optimistic note to your somewhat depressing tirade - if you dig a bit I think you'll find most exponential curves usually collapse as they become evident and people eventually wise up. I think that's good news. Not sure really.

    1 year ago
  • I prefer to receive a synopsis, as often I don't make the decision the investors I deal with do.

    1 year ago
  • I am the co-founder of a production company/streaming service. We are using a screenwriters prize as a way of meeting new talent for our pilot season which starts in May 2018. I have heard of a few other companies who are recruiting in this way OR recruit prize winners from other screenwriting comps.

    1 year ago