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Scriptwriting in the UK: WIFT Networking Event
by Heide Foley

September 2003

“Script Development in the UK” was a networking event hosted by Women in Film and Television at "Float" restaurant on Prince’s Wharf, in downtown Auckland New Zealand.

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 development.

British Council NZ and NZ Writers Foundation provided scholarships to pay for Vanessa and Kathryn’s 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 discusses it.

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 can’t act out the script!” Vanessa smiled. “But it was just incredible.” It got them the development funds.

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 can’t be discouraged if your idea is turned down. People make mistakes. “One of the films Working Title passed on was “Bend It like Beckman.”

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.

Box TV
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 can’t 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 don’t 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 aren’t 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 don’t follow what books say about drama rules. “You never heard anyone say, ‘Oh you can’t do that!’” Kathryn said. They weren’t 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 it’s commercialism. She ventured that maybe in Britain they don’t 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.

8:53 PM



"Reality is that, which if not dealt with properly, will kill you" -Dan Foley

heide foley
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