(Updated: Jan 2013) I’ve had many unexpected opportunities down the years to get a big (or more focused) slate of my projects together and see many of them realised into productions. Potentially. Maybe. One day.
But finally delivering the goods – however much excellent preparation you’ve done – is always much more complex than writers and new producers wish it was. In this article I’ll break down the different opportunities I’ve had down the years to realise my slate of projects, and explain my experiences of why most great opportunities still don’t quite come off for scriptwriters and producers.
If you’d like me to do anything like this for you, email me at email@example.com!
Naïve early pitches
Now, when I was starting out, I was understandably confused as to how to go about things. I had a few ideas for TV or radio series which I thought might be exciting, but more importantly I was scrabbling for a foothold in the industry. I had various interesting contacts to pursue in the hope of getting a job or a commission, but only student radio experience and a minor BBC post behind me. What to do?
Well, to begin with, I was able to simply promote the success of the award-winning student radio series I’d helped found and run – conveniently aided by the legwork of the Executive Producer, who had also conveniently taken up a job in New Zealand at just the time when the promotional campaign he’d set up was due. So I got to run the campaign myself alone, benefiting from the opportunities that arose from it. Which they did. But I wasn’t sure if I was looking for experience, a job (as what?), or a commission to make a series of my own. When trails that had once seemed promising seemed to be going quiet, I would send a pitch to the professional in question to see if that got a response. But then I was too shy of rejection to actually follow up on those (let’s not dwell on whether these proposed series were actually any good). So that achieves the worst of all worlds – you’ve potentially given an idea away without even getting any professional feedback on it. But meanwhile one of these trails did lead to me scriptwriting for a BBC series, which was enough of a solution that it didn’t particularly matter. But lessons learned all the same.
Avoiding being too pushy and pitchy
Thanks to my former Exec Producer’s networking on our behalf following the Student Radio Award, I and a few colleagues got placements at Radio 1 – wow. I was determined from my previous experiences not to mess it up by pitching at people too much, and had a great week there – but actually I wasn’t pushy enough, because I never got a chance to go back, and the follow-up emails I sent didn’t get very far. I was actually rather quiet during that week – I did some very good work, and almost messed up other bits, I got my face around and networked widely in the organisation, but didn’t really get any tangible results from it despite the goodwill back. So, in these cases, it would have been much more useful to have had a single clear intended outcome in mind, and pursued whatever avenues might have brought it about.
At other times I’ve had placements at BBC WM and Maverick TV and made roughly the same mistake I think. No harm done either, but no risk, no reward.
Nowadays one of my web design clients is actually a successful and very busy production company who make series, programmes and films that broadcast widely. In due course, my good relationship there will be the best opportunity yet to discuss my slate of projects – but the ones that are relevant to that company only. I don’t intend to do that until I’m not in touch with them around any other work I’m looking to be paid for – but the fact that they still call me for general advice on web and video stuff is a good sign.
Do whatever’s put in front of you
Well, being busy, in demand, and paid to work in broadcasting or media is by far the best way to make a start – if you want to work in an industry, there’s no substitute for actually working in it. And as you’ll have seen on this site and Friendly Creatives, I’ve picked up a really varied set of commissions and experiences across the board. But the danger of being a successful (or, even worse, an unsuccessful) jack-of-all-trades is that your own identity is lost. Really, whoever you’re introducing yourself to, try to focus solely (or at least primarily) on the aspect of your work that’s most relevant to them. You can let the smalltalk further down the line show your range – but first of all you have to make a firm, clear and decisive impression in that crucial first 30 seconds.
It goes without saying that I’m pretty bad at this, in spite of having learned this lesson over and over. I have a saying – Clarity Breeds Conviction. The clearer you are in your mind about who you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going, the better you’ll communicate that, and the more clearly people will respond to it and give you the feedback you need in order to learn and move forward. And as for how you can take control of your career and bring the projects that mean the most to you forward, while you’re working in this way…
Let’s just say I’m still working on this.
“We’ll develop a slate for my investors together”
I’ve talked a bit about one of these mutual projects on this page, and as these discussions are still sometimes ongoing I’m not going to add much more detail here. So I’m going to generalise about lessons I learned from several projects like this which I was involved with over a few years.
Human beings – especially those in an industry of creativity and speculation like ours – are highly inclined to believe in hope, even against their better judgment; I’m glad that I’ve kept my expectations on the ground. Regardless of your field, sometimes you’ll be drawn in by someone who seems much more established and experienced than you are, and sometimes there seem to be lots of promises of imminent investment or productions or commissions for you or with you. The crucial point is to remain at most cautiously optimistic, to prioritise your immediate cash flow until anyone else has put the money in your bank account, and to accept that nothing in this industry EVER happens as quickly or decisively as you might like to believe it will. Follow your own gut instincts, stick to your guns, and if you turn out to be wrong, you’ll have learned a positive lesson. You’ll have a much more wholesome relationship with whoever you’re working with if you remain cautiously polite on the matter rather than sycophantic; stay on good terms because you never know when things might come together for you or someone else so that something forgotten suddenly happens and you’re needed to help bring it about. And don’t, ever, provide endless amounts of your time for free to help other people bring their projects forward, unless you’re getting something tangible in return – as a minimum in this situation, the ‘tangible’ thing you should demand is to see that your better instincts about flaws in the project will get acted upon.
At around this time I committed myself to only spending a maximum of 20 hours per year providing unpaid development assistance to any project led by someone else. I’ve stuck to it and I’ve not regretted that commitment for a moment. 20 hours of work is about three days’ worth, which you can spread across as long a period as you like, and if a speculator or producer hasn’t raised the money at the end of that time or made the optimum use of you at the times you’ve made available to them, they’re not likely to come through for you.
Nowadays, rather than being drawn into other people’s film or drama projects directly, I tend to request a modest script reading fee, provide my honest best advice in that reading, and trust that if I’m the right person for the job, the client will then see it and employ me to deliver it for them.
“I’ve got a hundred thousand pounds to invest in you”
It was the night of a wedding. My family and others staying at the same hotel ended up in the bar. Where a wealthy businessman my parents knew, whose career has fluctuated wildly over the decades, asked me to talk about my work and then said that.
Well, how do you react to that?
Especially due to my family and his (whose money this evidently was) were all around us at this drunken moment, I reacted cautiously. I was extremely surprised and very grateful, of course, but I stressed that I would not take the money unless I could be confident that it would be a good investment for him, in something that would be right for him. He was still buying me whiskies that night long after everyone else had given up on the night.
We did meet up several times and pursue discussions on the matter. And I did make some proposals. But at the time I didn’t quite have anything compelling enough – I still wasn’t going for the jugular with what my core proposition really was. But I used the opening as a chance to compile together a formal slate of projects, covering a wide variety of areas including business proposals as well as a variety of film, TV and radio projects – meaning that I’ve always had a professionalised pitch document ready to provide for my projects whenever the right opening has come along. But mainly, I suspect that this businessman was most interested in having a good drink and a natter, both of which we much enjoyed.
Nothing came of it. Though formalising my slate was a step forwards.
“Conform and submit”? – Get an agent.
As writers, we’re told to commit endlessly to our craft and submit our superbly polished scripts through all the correct and traditional channels. You need to get an agent and it’s then up to them to find you the commissions that you’ll live on. But getting this far needs years of utter dedication in spite of all evidence that you’re wasting your time. My instinct has always been that the traditional ‘agents and commissioners’ model is broken and that, if you prove yourself successful, they’ll come to you – and you can name your terms then too.
After I left Silver Street, I spent a year committed to doing all this in the ways I’d always been told to and had always been avoiding doing. Maybe I’m just afraid of rejection (which, by the way, we would be much better advised to think of as “non-selection”). But after a year of near-total commitment to succeeding within the traditional ‘agents and commissioners’ system, the near-total of any kind of response or feedback whatsoever left me in no doubt that – considering my production skills and connections – I’d be vastly better off simply delivering the goods myself and letting them come to me if I succeeded. And that’s what I’ve been doing since.
A joint Web Video project
While promoting my works as widely as writers are advised to do, I took the logical step of attending the 2010 London Screenwriters’ Festival, which – like the one I attended in Cheltenham a few years before thanks to a Screen WM bursary – was fascinating, but also a bit indeterminate. If I’d had the confidence to actually pitch my projects in the slots available, I might have got more out of it. But never mind.
One session, by script guru Phil Parker, really stood out. Phil was describing new media opportunities for writers, and dropped the bombshell that you can make £200,000 a year from a 90 second sketch video on Yahoo in a year – a figure that made everyone in the room do a double take. Now, I’ve never seen this figure substantiated, and before long Yahoo gave up on video altogether (if numbers like this were at the heart of their financial planning, I’m not surprised). But this was a big inspiration all the same – who needs commissioners or agents in this day and age? Just do it! The shorter the better – back to pure writing and pure productions and let the content speak for itself. A writer-producer’s dream.
A colleague who runs a University’s Media Centre asked me about this one night we were discussing these things at the pub. I compared my experiences of meaningless non-feedback through the traditional ‘agents and commissioners’ model to Phil Parker’s promises, and my colleague bowled me over by saying that if I could make a proposal to him, his Media Centre could back the project and we could give it a go.
We agreed to make our start the next summer, so I spent the next six months creating a new slate of impressive short scripts and series that would fit the Media Centre’s ethos and resources perfectly while still having significant viral potential – all coordinated in an impressively anal spreadsheet which I’ve enjoyed maintaining. A mutual colleague offered to film a demo episode with me which I could edit at the Media Centre, and a few days later it was filmed and ready to edit.
This is where things began to unravel. Who was my audience – really? Was it viral video spreaders on the internet? Was it the Media Centre who I was working with? Or was it really the University bosses who, it soon turned out, would need to vet and approve every video before we could release them?
To me, this last point seemed strikingly like the very opposite of the approach we would have to take in order to succeed in the frantic and risquè world of viral video. Getting the video right for this target audience, and all of the intrinsic contradictions at play here, took far longer than it should have, and I was never really happy with the result. When things continued to delay, I decided to take matters into my own hands and to simply start producing and distributing the series which would be too risky for the University bosses anyway. Two years after the original offer, no formal proposal ever came from this venture.
JDI – “Just Do It” – and, failing that, JFDI
So I bought a super but affordable HD camera, brought in some hardworking actors to workshop one of my series with me, and as a result of just two and half days’ filming we had produced a series of potentially more than 30 episodes of CITIZENS. Meanwhile I also brought in another actor I knew and together we filmed a short film I had also prepared, THE MOURNING AFTER. Easy as pie – it seemed. Now, just to edit the whole thing, publish it and distribute it for all the world to enjoy!
And, a year later, despite my prior experience in video editing, that’s still a work in progress, due to the other priorities of survival as a freelance creative. But it’s been a fascinating experience, and, sooner or later, both of these projects will see the light of day and – who knows – might just be worth people actually watching.
“Doing it for the kids”?
This year (and without breaking my 20 hour rule), I’ve been involved in helping a new training company establish themselves as a new approach to the problems of youth unemployment. The aim is to match new talent to successful media professionals, to give young people their first media training, experience and credits, and to set them on their way forward to becoming fully fledged media professionals. I’m one of the facilitators who’s been signed up to do that.
Well, the logistics – especially at first – are liable to be extremely fraught. And, as I’ve said before, nothing in this industry EVER moves as quickly as you’d like to believe it will. But. If this happens. I could be getting substantial parts of my slate of projects produced and promoted and distributed, as well as facilitating and overseeing those generated by my trainees too. I’d have a big, and growing team of collaborators working on both my projects and, as soon as they’re ready, their own. While I’m getting paid for overseeing it all.
Which would be nice. I wonder what my updates of this article in the months and years to come will have to say about the experience of it.
“You’re genuinely the most interesting person I’ve met in years. I’d invest in you.”
Those were the words of a businessman who has chaired 28 companies including PLCs, who I happened – by a total coincidence which has nothing whatsoever to do with my career – to spend an evening with recently. Now here is someone I can actually believe when they say things like that – I’d like to think.
His challenge to me was to throw out all of the variety and vagueness that characterises my career (see, he’s quick and perceptive too) and approach him with a single, sharp brand to trade under. At that point, perhaps I might ask him for mentorship to help bring it about, or even for the full investment it’d take for me to turn my proposals into successful products on the market.
I’m going to keep the details of my proposal under my hat until I have the outcome. At the very least, this should result in the most meaningful and direct feedback on my career intentions and projects that I’ve ever had. And the best, most integral proposal I’ve ever made to take my career by the horns and turn the world my way. Even if the proposal comes to nothing.
Can’t say fairer than that.
Get a Trainee or Apprentice
Early in 2012, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook that she needed P.A. experience, could anyone help? And, as it happened, I was overloaded at the time so having someone to keep on top of my emails for me was perfect. So I took her on and for a time it was very useful to have someone keeping on top of the daily churn for me so that I could focus on delivering the genuinely useful stuff (useful tip – if you don’t have a Personal Assistant or an agent, ration your email and social media activity to fixed short slots of the day, so you can focus on your real work the rest of the time uninterrupted).
Then my friend hit some undisclosed issue in her personal life and went totally AWOL without explanation, just at the time when the daily churn was easing up so I could begin to train her on doing more interesting and useful stuff – like populating this website with content (which has instead been much delayed by other priorities). She hasn’t worked for me since.
Then one Sunday night in December I had a chance evening round with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, and ended up helping her and her landlord strip paint from the bathroom tiles (not what one expects of a Sunday night catching up with a ladyfriend, but I wasn’t complaining). The landlord turned out to be a nice guy looking for new interesting work to do to fill up a few hours a day, and he was really interested to hear about my work. He offered to help, I suggested that he could edit my huge backlog of videos I’ve been filming down the years, and he agreed. Now he’s signed a contract to do exactly that, I’ve handed over a year’s worth of videos for him to get started, and he’s underway. Meanwhile I’m finishing the four projects I already had in advanced postproduction, and as his skills grow I can share more of that advanced editing work with him too. There’s no upfront fee but I’ve specifically written it into my contract that if the videos he edits earn back more than £5,000 he’s entitled to invoice me an agreed amount for the work, in line with the industry union rates. So everybody wins – and I get a huge bank of videos in progress that I wouldn’t have had time to start on for months or even years! I’ll let you know how we get on…
If you’d like me to deliver projects like this for you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!