Monday, July 30, 2012

The “rules” of developing story

Since Line by Line began, I think what I have found most refreshing are our speakers’ consistent approach to story: there is no right way to do it. But (and isn’t there always a “but”?) just because there are not rule does not mean that are no principles that could be applied.

This was one of the many tips shared generously with Line by Line by Charlie Carman, Manager of Script Development at Film Victoria.

The fact that this was the best attended Line by Line session we’ve ever had stands testament to the desire of emerging Aussie screenwriters to know exactly how Film Victoria fits into the development and production of their screenplays.

What do funding bodies in Australia do?

For our overseas readers, Film Victoria is the government agency that distributes government funding to local films, TV and digital media in Victoria. Each Australian State has its own funding body in addition to the Federal Government film funding agency.

Australian films rarely make money. I am not going to use this blog to air my feelings as to why this may be the case, but it is a fact. In stark contrast to the US or Indian film industries, we generally do not have the population or the box office returns that encourages private investment in films. Therefore, the generation of Australian film and television content is often the result of government support.

A challenge of the Australian government funding system is - due to  dealing with taxpayer money – access to these funds is restricted through strict eligibility criteria. Sadly, there is a difference between how public money can be administered (here and in other countries with public funding like the UK and Canada) and private investment, which can afford to have no rules and regulations attached to it.

One distinction Charlie made clear had never occurred to me before. She said that Film Victoria’s primary mandate is to distribute funds to support Victoria’s existing, established film industry. Not to train aspiring or emerging filmmakers. That role is funded by the government through educational institutions, such as AFTRS and locally Open Channel, and by supporting bigger film production companies who can then provide internships and other training opportunities.

As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I had felt for a long time that Australian funding agencies were not providing people in my position (namely, uncredited) with many opportunities. I now understand that their core role is support the already existing industry, and the best way to do that is to distribute funds to people for whom this is their career and have a proven track record.

While this was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, Charlie did note that Film Victoria have been able to support the New Feature Writer’s program again (and the workshop designed to assist emerging screenwriters), but are sadly now the only agency in the country to do so.

What should we be writing?

But all is not lost! Charlie gave plenty of great advice to both “established” and “non-established” writers, particularly from a developer’s perspective.

One bright side to having a government-funded model is that all types of films can get funding, as making money is not necessarily the primary objective. Apparently, Americans find it hilarious that we can simply fill out a whole lot of forms and be given money for a movie (although you and I both know there is a lot more to those forms than just the filling-out). Charlie stated clearly that Film Victoria do not have genre quotas to fill (although comedy is the most successful genre in Australia), and that Film Victoria is happy to support a good arthouse festival-friendly film as much as what you can find in the local multiplex.

What she was looking for (and what we need to write) are scripts that are good at what they do, and preferably excellent. A great idea, well executed. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, as long as it understands the audience’s expectations for horror/rom com/drama/whatever might be and delivers on those whilst also bringing something original to the mix. Sounds easy maybe, but very hard in practice.

Charlie also recommended looking at your script as an actor would. Having actors attached is so important to attracting investors (both public and private), and actors look at screenplays in a similar way to the way screenwriters do. Where is the conflict? What are the motivations? What are the self-realisations of the character? Does your script have 3 great scenes for a character and (just as importantly) no bad ones?

In light of a post-GFC era and shrinking funding for development, she did recommend the micro-budget, DIY approach as a practical way for writers to help the chances of their script actually being made and breaking into the industry. Either that or…

Writing for TV

In contrast to the Australian film industry, our local TV content is not only increasing but it is also starting to take risks. Development and production turnaround for TV is dramatically less than for film.

During Charlie’s time at Film Victoria, they approached the Australian broadcasters (as the gatekeepers to television funding – you need a broadcaster on board to get made) and asked them what they wanted from writers. The feedback was that they were being approached with ideas that were too developed. They were too set in stone, too far down the development track. There was not enough room for the broadcasters to have their input, to create a team, to massage an idea into a demographic or programming slot.

The moral of the story being: if you have a TV pitch, get it to the broadcasters sooner rather than later!

Writing in general: feedback and development

Given her background in publishing, Charlie happily accepted that screenwriting is almost unique in the amount of re-writing and collaboration that is required to reach a finished product. Part of that process is development.

Charlie was happy to report that the face of the Australian development industry is changing. Previously, writers, directors and producers would put a developer hats on. This did not always lead to strong outcomes as developers need their own set of skills to lead a writer to the best possible result.

In terms of feedback (an essential element of development) Charlie personally favoured a more interrogative approach rather than a prescriptive one. Ask the right questions, so as to lead the writer to where they need to get (rather than tell them what you believe to be the right approach).  For example, where you believe there is a passive protagonist you can ask “Can you think of three scenes where the protagonist drives the story?” rather than simply blurt out “You have a passive protagonist”.

But she clearly did not discount the prescriptive approach entirely. If you only ever ask questions without challenging, people can avoid getting pinned down or put on the spot that they need to address.

Developers are blessed with objectivity which the writer can never have. Charlie found it reassuring that writer/developers cannot apply their development skills to their own work. Most scripts require development and require feedback to achieve their potential. Commissioning readers reports are a cheap and invaluable way of obtaining that objective viewpoint, as is collaborating in communities such as Line by Line.

A last word

Finally, Charlie left me with the simple truth that screenwriting is a craft. It needs to be practised. Write a short story every day for a month. Get off the internet. Don’t hide in research. 


Chas Fisher 
The Line by Line Team:
Matt Downey
Khrob Edmonds
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The King and I

We've had the luxury of quite a few guest speakers who have worked in TV present to Line by Line. Last year, Gareth Calverley spoke about the relationship the producer has with the writer, Kelly Lefever spoke about TV roles and how to break in, and Spencer McLaren shed light on the value of performers to the writing process. All of them spoke about the passion and dedication required for this industry and that TV genuinely offers an ongoing source of income for those employed in its quarters.

I wasn't sure it was possible to get any more inspiration from a guest speaker about writing for TV. That was until the King entered court!

These are some of Joss King’s words that struck a chord with me so I’ll elaborate on these first, naturally imbibing them with my own thoughts:
1. Believe in yourself
2. Use life for inspiration
3. Be adaptable to any type of show but with integrity

Actually, apart from stating this in his list of top tips, Joss didn't offer any more about this specifically as he began talking about writing in general. I'm not having a go at him for not expanding on this statement because it's self explanatory, and certainly something we've all heard before. So simple: Believe in yourself. Can you teach someone how to do that? Oprah probably thinks you can. But it is somewhat vague a concept. How was Joss trying to teach us about this? 

Every time he talked about a knock back I thought of this statement...believe in yourself. What if the statement were "Believe in yourself even when you wrote 75 episodes in 18 months for a TV series and it never got up”? That's what happened to Joss. So now are you getting a clearer picture of what it means to believe yourself? It's probably not just sticking post-it notes to the mirror so you can chant your mantra about self-love. It means believe in yourself despite all else. And the 'all else' is really code for rejection. If you believe in yourself (and let's face it, self-belief also has to be backed up by some level of skill, you can't just be wishful) then what seems like rejection is instead a learning experience and offers an opportunity to get better at what you do. And sometimes rejection is also a result of chance and personal preferences.  

If we flip it around the other way, we can say the same thing about acceptance, can't we? A chance to learn and get better at what you do by extending on what you are good at. And, like rejection, there is also the element of chance and other people's preferences. 

If rejection and acceptance are so similar then why feel the terrible hurt inside when something doesn't go your way? Joss dealt with that too. In TV land, you face rejection at every turn and soon enough it stops being your enemy. When you present your ideas at the writers table people are constantly editing you (your thoughts, your ideas) discarding what is not useful and keeping what is. Joss sees story-lining (coming up with episode stories and the threads that link episodes) as 'practice pitching' and in TV you do it constantly. Joss says you can figure out the idea from the feedback you get and you must shrug off the hurt and slight.

When TV executives choose not to proceed with a project you've been working on for months, even years, it doesn’t mean it’s personal. There's the audience to consider and the show that's the best fit for the network. These are market decisions. So there’s no reason to stop believing in yourself.

'Water off a duck's back' is one of my favorite expressions. Joss is testament to this ability to take knock backs because he's still here, creating work that goes to air, not hiding under a rock in the wilderness sobbing 'Why me?' while someone else slips in to take his gig. The industry is competitive and Joss reports it’s going through tough financial times, which draws writers to the safety net of in-house employment on stable programs. Knock-backs are more likely than ever so the ability to believe in yourself – armed with skill - applies to all aspiring writers.

Writers can tread a fine line in reference to this piece of advice. Self-indulgent fodder for an audience of one is not what Joss is talking about here. Even so, writing can be therapeutic, says Joss. If your writing connects with people there’s every reason to look internally for inspiration. Opportunities to draw on your life experience can come up when you least expect. 

After years working on a popular soap, Joss went looking to expand his horizons. And expand them he did, across the horizon and into the longitude and latitude of a little place called Hungary. Here was an audience on the other side of the world who he could still entertain just by tapping into his long-time talent of connecting with people on an emotional level.

You never know when your own life experience might provide insight for the show you are working on but when the time comes use it! Believe that other people sitting at the writers table are doing the same thing – an inevitable melting pot of experience from all walks of life.

Joss says you need to be very open and adaptable to any type of show. By that I think he means you can bring your writing skills to a project even if you may not necessarily know that much about the topic.  His great example of this was ‘H2O’ a show for kids about mermaids. Of course his resume did not show twenty years experience writing in the mermaid subgenre. But he found a role for himself within the vision. He had to think about what the show was really about – for its intended audience – and bring it to life. He realised he knew quite a lot indeed that would help him tell the stories for that subject.

But adaptability comes with a warning from Joss. With lots of different projects on offer you still need skill and appreciation for the subject matter. Don't bullsh#t. If you can't find a way to believe in that project and do it with integrity, don't take on the job. Writing is a way to discover and convey truths and sometimes that subject is not yours. You need to have the spark to get you through.

It’s hard to work on something when you’re half-hearted. It’s not always obvious to a producer that this just might not be a project to your liking so it pays to be open about that.

Joss’ advice is not limited to those three pearls of wisdom. He drew from his broad experience to paint an even bigger picture.

Joss’ first long term job was writing for New Zealand’s popular TV soap opera ‘Shortland Street’. He hadn’t studied screenwriting in a formal way so he learnt all his tricks on the job.

When he became Story Editor it was his job to manage the table of writers and train the up-and-coming writers in a constant cycle. Joss emphasises that soap writing helps you form good habits – writing for an audience, deadlines, getting along with people – and the work is always there because soap is part of the network stable.

I was interested to note Joss’ comment that to him writing for soap is like enjoying pop art. The more you do it, the more you learn about the specific art and craft, the more you can appreciate it.

And it’s satisfying because there’s a public passion for the shows in the way they talk about the characters.

When Joss left soap it was to discover what he called a more ‘slow burn approach to drama’. The challenge of finding freelance work and making ends meet forced him to be more mercenary. It appears he found his way through by recognising his talent was playing with people’s emotions with his writing. Listening to the audience is key to doing that successfully.

The upside of freelancing was doing all kinds of projects in varied timeslots for varied audiences. But he also mentioned a downside can be working with people at times who are so set in their ways and prepared to protect their own permanent positions they’ll quash creativity.

Joss recommended writing for kids TV specifically. Kids TV, like soap, is often over-looked by writers. But he says the rewards are strong audiences, believability is less of an issue, it allows you to use more of your imagination and the productions are more flexible which he pinpointed to the personality-type of people running those kinds of shows.

Joss joked about the invention of ‘Small Time Gangsters’, which developed out of a short conversation in the pub with Boilermaker’s Gareth Calverley, whose company about to pitch its slate interstate. The only project not written up was the one that caught the attention of the network, so it pays to pitch whatever you have! They were challenged to submit an episode within 24 hours which they managed to do and went on to create the series.

I was interested to hear Joss’ thoughts on the film industry. He conceded that none of us can completely guess how the industry will come out of the technology wash, especially after spending its spin dry cycle in the GFC. However, he was able to distinguish two distinct types of film being made. There’s the massive blockbusters made by the industry elite that none of us get a look into. And there’s the low budget films. Middle budget films aren’t getting made as they can’t recoup their money so there is a lot of pressure and competition at this lower budget end now.

Changes in television are pretty obvious too. Pay TV is a little up-in-the-air with Foxtel yet to make announcements about its future. There are still lots of soaps – there always will be  - and across all timeslots, playing the heartstrings of the middle market. And we know that people are watching a lot made-for-television content via DVD box sets.

Joss tells us that in TV, small ideas grow through the process, make adjustments as you go and have empathy for the audience. The ideas don’t need to be over-worked to appeal. Basic stories are told with heart so don’t try to conquer the world.

When you’ve reigned, that’s easy for the King to say…


Fiona Leally