Scriptwriting in the UK: WIFT Networking
by Heide Foley
Script Development in the UK was a networking
event hosted by Women in Film and Television at "Float"
restaurant on Princes Wharf, in downtown Auckland
The featured speakers were script writers Vanessa Alexander
and Kathryn Burnett who both had recently returned from
and eight week mentorship in Britain. Vanessa Alexander
went to Box TV and participated in British TV script development.
Kathryn Burnett went to Working Title UK for Film script
British Council NZ and NZ Writers Foundation provided
scholarships to pay for Vanessa and Kathryns trips
with the goal of connecting these budding writers to the
longer established British Film industry and its highly
experienced script developers. It was noted that there
simply are no script developers with 25 years of experience
to their credit in New Zealand because the industry in
New Zealand is so young. The sponsors agree the scholarships
were a success and hope to offer the opportunity again
in the future.
The NZ Writers Guild moderated the sunny morning event
and opened by giving a brief Script Development 101 summary,
concluding that Script Development includes not only defining
an idea and what it is really about but also who will
direct, produce and act in the film. Development also
looks at current trends and audience expectations and
determines marketability as well. This process is
a somewhat imprecise science, the moderator smiled
and turned the mike over to Vanessa and Kathryn to describe
the individual processes scripts went through at Working
Title and Box TV.
Working Title UK
Vanessa, whose mentorship was at Working Title UK, said
there were 3 ways ideas got introduced to that company:
1) From an Agent.
There are so many films that come in this way,
Vanessa said with disbelief. There is a closet full
of them, literally, and the company is only 3 years old.
The script development team passes the script around and
makes comments. Then it goes to a Reader. At Working
Title there is no attempt to pass specific genres to a
Reader interested in that genre Vanessa explained.
Readers get everything. Scripts from Agents are always
in professional format. There is no problem with looking
at them and wondering what they are trying to say. The
Reader will recommend a script either on its story, a
strong idea, a likeable character or perhaps simply on
the fact that it was written by a new writer. If it gets
past the Reader then the whole team reads the script and
2) By The Individual Pitch
A pitch is where the writer, director, producer or combo
there of come in and personally tell the company about
their idea. This is by far the most successful approach
she feels. For example there was a young inexperienced
writer team that submitted a weak script but came in and
gave a pitch for a new idea. They broke into a well-rehearsed
acting out of their idea. One was rolling on the floor
and the other was making the gun noises. I remember
starting out thinking, what are they doing? You cant
act out the script! Vanessa smiled. But it
was just incredible. It got them the development
3) From a Relation with the Company
Working Title has relations with lots of Indy Producers.
These Producers will find the idea and develop the story
and then Working Title comes in later, as an Executive
Producer, providing money.
There is a zeitgeist Vanessa explains, so
suddenly all these films will come in about the same subject.
She described the atmosphere as very competitive, Its
like a type of espionage. Everyone wants to find
out what the competition is developing. When Pride &
Prejudice was in development at several different production
houses, enthusiasm for it changed daily. One company was
doing a Bollywood version, four others had literal translations.
It was a race to be first. Then another company got some
big name signed so Working Title dropped it because the
other company would get it out first. Then the big name
would drop out and Working Title would pick up the script
again. Vanessa described it as A lot like a horse
race. You also cant be discouraged if your
idea is turned down. People make mistakes. One of
the films Working Title passed on was Bend It like
When an idea does reach development the company looks
at it as a whole package. It is difficult because
there are so many people pulling it in different directions
Vanessa emphasized, There are so many hurdles.
Sometimes an actor will refuse a scene, sometimes a Director
has a different take on the subtext, and sometimes the
whole project has to be massaged to fit into the current
market. Usually the third draft is all about getting
the actors to want to do the parts she said. Sometimes
the company works backwards and looks for a project that
fits to someone they want to work with.
For writers the trick is to avoid development hell. Each
time the script gets comments and goes back to the writer
for changes the ones that move forward are the ones where
the writers take the essence of the comments and make
real changes. The ones that try to make all the changes
fail. Writes have to have really good people skills. One
writer I watched was a master at saying yes and then not
doing it Vanessa recalls. Another had the ability
to turn the conversation around and make the other person
think something was their idea. They would be arguing
and things got flipped and the writer would say, Oh,
that is a great idea you just had. Ultimately it
is not the best idea or the writer with the most experience
that gets produced.
For me, Vanessa summarized, the biggest
thing I learned was how much time it takes to really know
what an idea is about. In Britain it is a very serious
process. Vanessa compared it to a do or die
situation. The nuts and bolts of projects are incredibly
polished before production begins.
At Box TV things were similar. Kathryn Brunett also felt
the amount of time taken to develop ideas was a major
difference between productions in Britain and New Zealand.
Kathryn noticed in Britain is that they really fostering
their writers and companies really foster their relations
with writers. WIFT members gasped when Kathryn announced
You cant go to a network with an idea without
a writer attached. There is a different attitude
toward content in the UK. They believe if a TV show is
good, it will sell. They dont start with audience
demographics and tailor shows to that, Kathryn explains
about the relations with writers, They start by
looking for an idea that is new and great. They
arent looking for an idea that is only hot now.
They want it to be hot in two years as well.
Box TV has predominately male Development Producers who
both generate their own ideas as well as work with agents
and writers. The thing that impressed me the most
was the 2 page pitch as a development tool claimed
Kathryn, who wishes to create her own shows. It
really focuses the idea. After an idea gets through
the Development Producers an informal meeting is arranged
with the writer to discuss where the story might go. It
is like a chat, Kathryn noted, nothing gets
written down or anything. After the writer brings
back the results from the chat, the script gets presented
to the Director of the company. He makes the decision
whether or not to pitch it to a Broadcaster. If the Broadcasters
accept it then the writer gets permission to start writing.
In general, writers in Britain produce work individually
vs. the team approach of New Zealand. They also dont
follow what books say about drama rules. You never
heard anyone say, Oh you cant do that!
Kathryn said. They werent locked into the 13 or
26 so much as here. There is a much greater variety and
more one-offs. Entry-level writers get about $5000 pounds
to develop their ideas and $25,000 pounds to actually
write the scripts.
Kathryn went on to discern that in New Zealand Broadcasters
are primarily concerned with who the film is being made
for, timing when it comes out to coincide with seasonal
themes and ultimately making it for its commercialism.
She ventured that maybe in Britain they dont have
to do that so much, because there is more work there.
There are 5 channels + cable in Britain all making local
content. English citizens pay a tax to support the BBC.
At Box TV they had 60 projects going at any given time
and only about 15 people on staff.
New Zealand Buzz
When questioned about the level of New Zealand buzz in
England Vanessa turned to the hit Lord of the Rings
which is advertised all over. Also, Working Title UK was
founded by New Zealander Tim Bevan. Kathryn, fixing on
the level of New Zealand buzz in TV production in England,
referenced what she called the British snobbery of We
make great TV but followed with the idea that their
heyday is passing and Reality TV is on the rise. Australia
has more buzz than New Zealand, she laments, because
New Zealand TV is just not seen there. But in the
end, it is not where you are from that matters, they both
concluded, it is whether or not the idea is good and if
it can be developed.
Heide Foley is a freelance documentary
filmmaker who travels frequently. She is currently at
liberty in New Zealand and has a base in San Francisco,
CA where she is on the board of Cinefemme, a company dedicated
to promoting women filmmakers.
is that, which if not dealt with properly, will kill you" -Dan