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Why do most British films fail?

About twelve years ago I gave a talk at an event in Cardiff. I called the talk

‘WHY BRITISH FILMS AREN’T WORKING, Or how to improve the global

success of the British film industry and those who work in it.’


I would like to look at some of the changes in the film and television industries since

the mid-1990s, but first I will post what I said twelve years ago, and then later will

comment on the changes in another post. Here is the text of the talk:


“It is usual to praise anything one can find to praise about the British film industry.

You don’t win friends by denigrating the industry you work in, and it really is good

news that at the moment there are 10 UK Film Council supported British films

selected for the Venice, London and Toronto Festivals, and even better news that

Mike Leigh’s film won Venice.


But there are a number of endemic problems that perhaps explain why British films

are not performing that well in the global market and it is some of these that I wish to

look at.





There are many misconceptions about agents. Here are three of them:


The first is that we are shark-like creatures who care only about money. It is simply

not true. We are pussy cats…who care only about money.


The second is that we work for writers…and all the time I thought they worked for



The third is that we are parasites, living off the pain and suffering of the beating

creative heart of our society and that we do very little real work. This is also not true.

Orchids are parasites. We are extremely hard-working. The proof lies in the fact that

agents in California – rather than rats - now provide most of the guinea pigs for

scientists doing cancer research: the scientists claim that there are three reasons for


1 there are now more agents in California than rats

2 you cannot get emotionally involved with an agent

3 there are some things that rats will NOT do!

Some of us will do nearly anything for a free lunch.


To give us our due, a good agent has been described as a marriage broker, a bad

one like a pimp! This is a rosy tinted view of most agents, but for a more cynical view

you need to know something about the realities of Hollywood, to get you out the

state of denial that most people in the British film industry exist in, sentimentally

clinging – as if the British Empire still covered the globe in pink - to the faded

glamour of what our film industry once was.


To most of us Hollywood seems to be a fabled place that if it didn't exist in fantasy

stories would have to be set up for real. One of the best descriptions of the place and

its inhabitants comes from a novel written by Steven Bochco, the creator of famous

American TV series like Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue.


The novel, called Death by Hollywood, is written from the point of view of an agent. I

want to read you two paragraphs because I think he says it better than I can:


"In my naivete I thought that writers and directors would be different from actors. Fat

chance. They're just as loony. In fact the entertainment industry as a whole is one

giant dysfunctional family. Everyone's terrified - of their own failure, or of everyone

else's success - and as a general rule, you can assume that everyone lies about


Have you ever looked at an actor's resume - at the bottom, under SPECIAL SKILLS?

Rides horses and motorcycles. Juggling and acrobatics. The truth is, your'e lucky if

they can drive a fucking car.

And agents? By and large, we're nothing more than well-paid pimps who represent

our pooched-out clients as if they're beautiful young virgins, offering them up to a

bunch of jaded johns who know better, but these are the only whores in town. As the

saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt. It is a river in Hollywood, and it runs deep,

and brown."


So you have to prepare yourself for endless rejections, usually by people less

talented than you are. Most successful writers and actors have had many more

rejections than deals. It is the nature of the business. It is painful being rejected by

people who know less than you do, who can’t write as well and who sometimes have

not even been taught to read scripts. Can you wonder why producers are seen in

such an ambivalent light by others in the industry?


To help you deal better with rejection here is a famous rejection letter, which was

sent to a writer who had submitted an article to a Chinese Economics journal:

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your

paper it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. As it is

unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are – to our

regret – compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand

times to overlook our short sight and timidity."


This is an industry made up of people with widely differing ambitions – well, not very

much ambition to judge by the results. Widely differing agendas might be a better

word. And it is against this background that I want to look at solutions to some of the

endemic problems of the British film industry.


Why am I so convinced that the British film industry is in bad shape and is – in

fact - getting worse, despite all the efforts of Skillset, the UK Film Council,

Sgrin and the other usual suspects?


I am not actually making a subjective judgement, because there is a very worrying

statistic, researched carefully over the last 10 years by the European Audiovisual

Observatory. The statistic relates to the audiovisual balance of trade deficit between the USA and

the EU: 5 years ago the deficit was just over $3 billion dollars a year. Last year it

was over $8 billion dollars a year and getting bigger.


We are losing out in an essentially economic marketplace. Our audiences prefer to

see American films, whether on television or in the cinema. And the cost-per-viewerratio

for American shows in television suggests that it is more cost-effective for our

broadcasters to schedule as much American programming as they can get away



We don’t compete well in the global cinema marketplace. We are not profitable. And

all the training and quango effort that is going into propping up the industry with

subsidies and tax breaks is achieving little that will reverse the audio-visual balance

of trade deficit.


I am going to suggest 10 reasons for the failure of the British film industry to compete

more effectively on the global stage. These 10 points are not the only arguments or

criticisms that can be made of the way the British film industry looks these days, but

they’ll do for a start. I will also try to suggest some solutions.


1. The first problem is that we – in the industry - are largely to blame for

this predicament


Many in the British industry think that the Americans are to blame for our

impoverished state. I believe that it is our failure to understand why American

movies are so successful, that is a major cause of our non-profitable film industry.

The usual knee-jerk moans heard in Soho are that the Americans dominate our

cinema chains, have bigger budgets than we do and that theirs is a star-based movie

industry and ours isn’t. Why is this the case?


They dominate our cinemas because British audiences prefer American movies.

Their budgets are bigger because their industry is profitable so they can invest more

in developing and marketing their new products. And of course they have stars – the

world wants to see their movies, so their lead actors become stars.


But in addition to these points, their scripts are more accessible and more

sentimental, that is, they set out to provoke emotion in the audience, because this

is what audiences in general want from movies. We don’t do it often although there

is no reason why we could not do so, and therefore – all of us in the industry – share

some of the culpability for our impoverished state.


As for the unavailability of cinema screens for British movies, when we do have a

British film that takes off – like the ‘famous five’ : 4 Weddings, Trainspotting, Billy

Elliott, Bend it Like Beckham, East is East – screens are available and British

audiences flock to see them, so that complaint lacks some credibility.


What are the solutions?

If the Americans are so successful in a competitive market, what can we do to make

ourselves more competitive? There are 4 very inexpensive solutions (all to do

with scripts)

1. First, Choose stories with accessible characters that are easier to identify

with. This is not common in British scripts.

2. Second, Have more upbeat or ironical endings

3. Third, Use less dialogue: why? To understand this you need to go back to

the time that movies went from being silent to being talky. In Europe it

happened and in America it happened, but there were critical differences in

the context:

4. Think about the population of America at the time, the demographic

makeup? There were enormous numbers of immigrants, for whom English

was not their first language; there was a high proportion of illiteracy. These

were serious problems for the new film studio bosses. How did they deal with

the problems?

5. Well, who were those bosses? Many were mainly middle European Jews

who themselves had emigrated to the New World. They were educated and

cultured businessmen, but first and foremost, like so many immigrants, they

were concerned about the welfare of their families. And what does a nice

Jewish father want for his children? That his son should become a lawyer or a

doctor and his daughter should be a good catch for a nice boy who is a lawyer

or doctor. Which means they saw this new-fangled business they were going

into as a means of making money, NOT as a means of making movies. One

of them – I don’t remember who – perhaps Meyer – was a glove manufacturer

in the Old World.

6. So what was happening in Europe at the same time? The governments

after both world wars poured money into ‘culture’ – it encouraged those

involved in the arts to reaffirm the cultural values of the societies we were

living in. In other words, in Europe the emphasis was on making movies as a

cultural activity, not as a money making activity. We had a glorious heritage in

theatre which the American’s didn’t have. Our dramatists were dialogue

kings… we made movies in which using dialogue to tell stories was far

more dominant than the Americans, who could not rely on the audience’s

abilities to understand dialogue, so they made moving pictures.

7. Which is one of several reasons why American movies can often make

sense even with the sound turned off! But it makes them far more accessible

to far wider audiences, in almost any culture, since culture is embedded more

in language thatn in visual images.

8. American movies have on average about 2/3rds the dialogue of European

movies. Films with less dialogue travel better both domestically and

internationally: they do not rely on higher levels of literacy or education.

Visual storytelling also has a greater impact on audiences, for a strangely

obvious reason: we believe what we see not what we hear, so a film made

with less dialogue will impact on a wider audience with greater intensity!

9, Finally, Use shorter scenes: American movie scenes are on average just

over half the length of European movie scenes: more scenes means faster

pacing and more engaging storytelling, because you leave gaps that the

audience fills in. This makes the audience feel good about watching your film.

It moves the audience from being passive observers of your film into being

active participants.


So insist on less dialogue and shorter scenes and the films will be more successful. I

kid you not… The story is not the same thing as how you choose to tell it.

Because it IS a good story – or a good story idea – does not mean that it will be

successful. THAT depends to a great extent on how you choose to tell the story.

…So, why is it that we don’t make more movies using techniques like these? There

are various reasons, one of which is….


2. My second reason for our uncompetitiveness:

We don’t have a thorough understanding of how to use genre.

To many in the industry, genre means a formula. Copy it and your script will make a

successful film. After all, the majority of the American films are genre films. But genre

is not about formula, even though there are genre conventions that need to be

respected. Genre is about the audience’s expectations, expectations of a largely

emotional nature that your film needs to satisfy.


In ScriptWriter magazine Phil Parker examined a little-known genre called

Personal Drama. All 5 of the British hit films I have just mentioned –‘The Famous

Five’ - are in that genre; our audiences love them, but we make relatively few films

like that.


What are the common elements of personal drama films? Phil identified theses as:

1. A thematic desire for validation or a desire for order

2. A single isolated protagonist (or group) who undergoes or attempts a

major transformation of themselves or their world

3. A distinct world with which the protagonist is at odds

4. The central characters have a personal quest, like Lester in American

Beauty, who is determined not to be a loser.

5. The dramatic structure has a linear framework although often an

episodic form – ie the action can take weeks, months or even years.

6. The central characters’ dramatic arc is enormous compared with the

changes within the characters in other genres.

7. The dominant style is naturalism but expressionism is also used.

Very few people really understand the conventions of most genres and how to use

them, especially how to splice two genres together to make a broader audience

more inclined to see the film.


For example, Amadeus is the only biopic of a composer to have really made money,

some 80 million dollars. Do you know what genre it is, apart from biopic? It is also a

murder mystery. Cleverly the writer chose Salieri as the main character who

announces “Forgive me Mozart. I have killed you!” So the audience is presented with

a suspect and a murder right at the beginning.


What is the solution?

Education in genre, not in genre theory : articles about using genre are the most

common regular features in ScriptWriter magazine [like the one about Amadeus] and

– thanks to support from the Film Council – we will be doing whole issues on how to

use genre to make more successful films.


Lucy Scher, one of the regular ‘genre’ contributors to ScriptWriter Magazine, ended an article called ‘The

Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Genre’ with the words: “Audiences have an extremely

sophisticated understanding of genre. If you can identify your (and their)

expectations, it is much more likely that you will enable them to obtain greater

satisfaction from their choice of film…If you simply think of genre as a predictable

formula, your script will almost certainly fail.”


In trying not to copy American films we often ignore what makes them work, which is

largely their ambition to give the audience a powerful emotional experience.

What we should copy or steal from Hollywood is its craft skills, which we should

apply to our local stories.


3. The third reason we are in difficulty in the industry is the attitude of

many of our producers, who are undoubtedly responsible for some of our



1. Often think that because they are paying, they know best about the writer and

the script

2. often select the wrong writer, e.g. they commission an original script from a

writer who is only good at adaptations, or an emotional story from a writer who

is good at action not character

3. Few producers are properly trained at script analysis or are good at talking to


4. They usually prefer big-name writers even if they are not right for a project,

because if the script turns out to be bad, they can avoid the blame by claiming

the writer was so experienced.

5. Producers are often more interested in the deal than in the script: it is – as we

all know - very difficult raising money (largely because the industry is not

profitable), but the definition of a producer is not simply someone who

produces money. Until producers understand scripts and the development

process better they will be a potential liability.

6. Like estate agents, anyone can be a producer. All they need is £4.50 worth of

business cards from Rymans and because there are so many would-be

writers, producers can pick up pretty reasonable scripts for nothing down. At

Blake Friedmann we get more than 8000 writers applying every year to be

represented by the agency, so there is clearly no shortage of scripts

desperate to be bought, in what is clearly a buyers’ market.

Fortunately there are some very good producers and usually they and agents like

dealing with each other. It is a relationship of mutual trust, which means unpalatable

things can be said to each other.


What is the solution?

To encourage more professionalism in producers.

We need to require producers to attain a certain standard and experience, and to be

signatories to the Writers’ Guild minimums, like they do in the States.

PACT must continue the fight to get independent producers a better share of the

back-end, and they are beginning to make progress in this. But individual producers

must be more ambitious and more willing to invest sensibly in development. Writers

do not need more money, they need more rational money, which I will come to in a



In the States, producers are blatantly ambitious about making money by reaching

audiences. Being difficult to be understood doesn’t make you an artist.

In the UK we have an oddly puritanical attitude. Populist genre films, such as

audience-pleasing B-movies, are often looked down on by critics, wannabee filmmakers

and by film-funders., as though identification with the audience is distasteful,

and as if what distinguishes us film makers from the great unwashed public is our

superiority in taste and judgement. WE know what THEY should watch. After all, we

are the creators, they are the recipients of our superior knowledge and talent. The

EGO is a very dangerous influence, especially on producers making creative



I have a cartoon in my office, from the Spectator, which shows a corpulant, pin-stripe

suited Hollywood-like movie mogul, fat cigar in one hand, telephone in the other. He

is saying “Well, at least we are only morally bankrupt!”


4. This leads me on to directors, the second in the holy trinity of producer/

director/ writer.

The British film industry loves writer-directors. Of the 43 British films released

between January and August this year (2004), more than half - 24 - were written by writerdirectors.

14 were not, there were 4 documentaries and 1 re-release.


The fact is that few directors can write really well, yet many of them persist in doing

so, even though they often end up directing bad scripts. I am approached by

enormous numbers of young writer-directors and my response is that if they are any

good as writers they should want someone who is a better director than they are to

direct their work; and if they are any good as directors, they should have the

ambition to direct better scripts than they can write!


Until the industry and the subsidy funds and journalists and critics moderate their

love-affair with directors, we won’t get the best scripts coming through. I believe the

Film Council’s own statistics show that over 80% of first-time British directors never

direct another feature. That figure speaks for itself.


What is the solution?

What to do about writer-directors? Only much more ambitious, script-literate and

tough producers will get us out of this mess in which directors who can’t write well

enough do, and writers who can’t direct well enough do. Until we get more

producers who can read, the director will pull the wool over their eyes.


There is too much trust and respect paid to neophyte directors and not enough

industry training of everyone to read so that the films that do get shot are better



5. So what about writers, those lovely people who get you to work

on an egg?

The problem isn’t so much with writers per se, as with the encouragement that is

given to anyone who thinks that writing is a good career move. Everyone knows that

being a scriptwriter in LA – where there IS lots of work – really means waiting tables.

Yet our film industry, Skillset, and the hordes of academics who usually couldn’t earn

a living working in the industry, are all offering more and more writing courses.

As the doyenne of film critics – Pauline Kael – said: Hollywood is the only place you

can die from encouragement. Well it is now possible in the UK and the rest of

Europe too.


The problem with writers is their sheer naiveity and enthusiasm. As Chris Vogler

says in a recent issue of ScriptWriter, just because you are film literate doesn’t mean

you are script literate. Where in the school syllabus is the reading of feature film

scripts considered as a legitimate literary form? Final Draft, bless it, does not help

you write better scripts, only better-looking scripts.


And what the industry needs is not more scripts, it IS better scripts. As Dr Johnson is

supposed to have said of someone’s manuscript in the 18th century: “Your work is

both good and original. Unfortunately the part that is good is not original and the part

that is original is not good.”


With lemming-like enthusiasm, every year, tens of thousands of people in the UK

declare themselves to be scriptwriters, yet few of them read the trades every week,

few have read more than a handful of scripts, few have any real ambition. It is a

dilettantish fantasy for most would be writers to be a feature-film scriptwriters.


Yet they are encouraged by the large and rapidly growing training industry to take

endless short or long courses, a small number of which are actually very good, but

the majority are simply inadequate. The writers never become professional because

they can never earn enough money to do it full time.


We may not have a sustainable film industry, but we certainly have a healthy and

well-sustained training industry.


Writing a script is no easier than writing an opera or a symphony, but we don’t

encourage music lovers off the streets to do those things. We need to give stringent

health warnings about scriptwriting as a career if we are to be honest and put the

students before the teachers.


What is the solution?

1. Make the bar higher. Make it more difficult to get into scriptwriting and

media degree courses. Skillset has a great opportunity which I fear they will

waste if the democtratisation of training for all continues to dominate the


2. Put scripts on the school syllabus. Film and television is a far more

potent and ubiquitous cultural influence than novels in the 21st century. Let’s

make sure our kids understand it.

3. Ban all general Media Studies and Film theory degree courses. Instead

make writers study abnormal psychology, how the body reacts to stimuli, and

how the media really operates. Media is the cutting edge of capitalism and

profit seeking, so it tries to understand its audience, which is more than our

young film makers seem to do.


Did you know that the warm, lovely feeling you get from a feelgood film is caused by

the release of a particular chemical in the bloodstream? It is phenyl-ethyl-alamine,

which is also released when you take Speed or Ecstacy, eat chocolate or have sex.


So perhaps we could save the British film industry by getting the Film Council to do a

deal with Cadburys or set up a chocolate factory – come back WILLY WONKA - and

with every ticket for a British movie you receive a bar of chocolate. Sex might be a

cheaper and more ecological way if the Film Council is short of cash, as it is an

easily renewable resource?


6. The training industry is not alone to blame for uneducated

producers, directors and writers, but inadequate training is a massive


I have not seen a significant increase in the quality or quantity of really good

scripts over the past decade, despite the vast increase in training offered to those

who want to be writers, and an even larger increase in the number of scripts that are

submitted. As unemployment goes up, so does the slush-pile.


It would appear therefore that the academic, theoretical teaching of scriptwriting is

failing the industry. Most of the would-be writers want to write features, yet there are

so few made in Britain that this career choice is truly quixotic. You really learn to

write by working on scripts that are produced, not studying how to write, or studying

film theory, or filling up pages on your own and rarely getting feedback.


What are the solutions?

1. The film and television industries must develop and run training

courses, not leave it to academics, many of whom failed to make a living in

the very industry that they teach about.

2. Most scriptwriting training and How-To books are ‘structuralist’ – their

teaching is based on the assumption that creative writing needs an

understanding of structure. How did the Greek dramatists or Chaucer,

Shakespeare, Checkov and Jane Austen manage before they had Syd Field

and Robert McKee to tell them how to write?

3. The structuralist approach appeals to people with strong left-brains –

the analytical half of the brain, and it puts off the truly creative people with

strong right brains.

4. The implications of this are far-reaching; most of the books on

scriptwriting approach it through structure: the three=-acts, sequences, beats.

Most of the courses do the same. If you have a strong left brain this will be

attractive to you. You will think “I can do this!”. If, on the other hand, you have

a strong right brain and are a chaotic but hugely creative person you will be

put off and go and do something else.

5. So, we train the wrong people to learn the wrong things in the wrong

way. The best training is by doing not by studying and television is the only

place where there is enough writing produced. Writers need to hear their

scripts read, see them acted and directed and then edited, if they are to learn

how badly they actually write. I think that universities are not the best place to

teach vocational skills for the film industry.

7. My 7th point is that the denigration of television by film-obsessed people is

very damaging to the very film industry they wish to work in.

How many of the feature-film writing courses utilizing public funding adequately

recognize that – in career terms – it is television that is critically important?

Television, soaps especially, are seen by most would-be script writers and the

majority of academics teaching scriptwriting as a poor relation to the feature film

script, despite the ability of soaps to attract and communicate with millions of viewers

night after night.


These attitudes towards television seriously damage the film industry because

seeing and hearing what actors and directors and the camera do with your script is

the best place to learn how to write better. Writing unproduced script after

unproduced script does little to teach or develop creative skills.


What is the solution?

1. Change attitudes towards soaps and television drama. There is

stunning drama and comedy on television if you know where to look for it.

Next time someone says to you that there is nothing good on television, you

should know that they are ignorant and probably snobbish too.

2. Point out that there are virtually no career prospects for students

wanting to write only feature films, and that jumping ship to becoming a

neophyte director isn’t much better.

3. But making it more difficult to get into writing courses will have the most

beneficial effect, if those courses encourage writing as a craft not a lifestyle,

and encourage writing for theatre, radio and television as well as film.

My 8th point is about a specific aspect script development:

8. The treatment – the document written before the script should be written

- is undervalued and widely misunderstood.


For this I blame producers for being tight and short-sighted. Writers too. Our industry

pays far too little to writers for the development stages of an idea, before the script

is written, and far too much for the first draft script.


The current PACT/Writers’ Guild agreement allocates 20% of the total writer’s fee to

the treatment. I surveyed 20 of my most experienced clients and they said – without

exception - that to do the work properly they needed to spend between 50 and 70%

of their total time on the stages of the treatment. But too often writers won’t spend

enough time on the treatment because they are paid so little. So they deliver an

inadequate treatment.


This means that the producer who doesn’t know better, then commissions the script,

which is a failure, so valuable development money has been squandered on

producing a document that has no commercial value in the marketplace. Everybody



If the producer can read and realizes that the treatment doesn’t work, they usually

fire the writer and commission another writer, which reinforces their belief that

treatments usually don’t work. Hence they refuse to pay enough for treatments and

the negative cycle continues.


Seven times out of ten, if the right writer was chosen, that writer should do at least

the next two drafts (and the script will probably work).


How long it should take to write a script? Up to six months, but you shouldn’t start

writing the script itself for 5 and a half months. The first draft script should absolutely

not be the most expensive stage in the development process.


What is the solution?

Simple: pay reasonably for at least three treatment drafts (a selling document, a

more detailed treatment, and a step outline, and preferably always do at least two

drafts of each with written notes from the producer or script editor between each

draft or document). Then, pay less than usual for the first draft script (which will

anyway take less time if there is a satisfactory step outline). The total amount paid to

the writer will be the same. The results will be far better with a much higher incidence

of commissions that are successfully greenlit.


This will hopefully be part of the PACT Writers’ Guild negotiations in the coming



9. Point 9 is that development as a whole is also undervalued and


The British industry has always undervalued development. This is quite obvious but

nothing much is done about it. For a start, a British development person almost

always has a lowly status and is underpaid. So no one wants to stay in development,

as a result most of them are not actually very good or experienced. In the States, to

be a script editor you have to be a successful writer to start with. In the UK it is the

first stepping stone into the industry, instead of a vitally important role that can

guarantee a greater chance of success for a film.


It has been variously estimated that in America the total development costs are

between 7 and 9% of the total budget. In the UK it is closer to 3%.

Our industry is not profitable so there is not the money to invest. But this is no

excuse for repeatedly making the same mistakes. “Those who do not learn from their

mistakes are condemned to repeat them.”


A couple of weeks ago Tim Bevan – in the Sunday Times – said that Working Title

needed the backing of a major studio (it was Polygram at the time) because, ‘quote’:

“We needed to be in a position where we could write off development spending

without it breaking the company.”


Most of the production companies in the British film industry, even with the Film

Council’s help, don’t have the money or the skills to develop competitively.

Remember every film is a new product. In any other business not doing proper

research and development would be expected to result in failure. What is it about the

beguiling, crazy world of the film industry that we ignore economic laws that work in

all other businesses? Is it just because we are in love with the end result, or are our

egos are driven on by the idea we might sit next to Nicole Kidman at an industry



The truth is that few people in the film industry think of it as a business. To them it is

a lifestyle. They do not apply the same criteria as they would if they made rivets.


What is the solution?

1. To get better development, we should demand better trained script

editors and script readers. They should be given more power and money to

go with their responsibility and authority, and it should be made mandatory for

every producer to do the Script Factory’s course on how to read a script.

2. Budgeting more cash for development isn’t the answer unless the

development work is done by skilled and experienced specialists. Any fool

can waste money, and the history of the British film industry demonstrates just


3. Properly trained development executives should be paid much the

same or more than directors are paid. You can’t make a good film out of a

bad script. And if the directors and producers knew it was a bad script, that

would be a good start too.


10. We are naturally very obsessed about tax shelters and tax breaks: I

believe that they also damage the British film industry.

This is probably going to alienate those few people in the room whom I haven’t

already offended. But the truth is that deal-driven films in Europe rarely become

commercially successful, because the agenda of those making the film and the

agenda of the creative inspiration of the film are usually so different.


When did you hear a financier say they will actually delay filming because they think

the script could be better? Or when did a writer refuse payment because they were

not happy with the draft they had handed in?


Throughout Europe subsidies of various sorts have been like life-support systems

keeping alive industries that need to be reborn, not maintained as doddering,

unprofitable indulgences.


What is the solution?

1. Tax breaks are fine if they complement a healthy, profitable industry.

But when they dominate the financing of films, which primarily enables

footballers, other very rich people, and the growing ranks of financial

advisors and consultants connected to them, to become even richer, don’t

complain when the Treasury closes abused loopholes.

2. There are always – thankfully – individual films that are exceptions.

Let’s hope Vera Drake will be one. But do not cling onto it as if it alone will

save the film industry. As Colin Welland, writer of Chariots of Fire, said in his

Oscar acceptance speech in 1981: “The British are coming!”. Well, we are still


3. A final solution might be for the Film Council to give much more of the

Lottery cash to the New Cinema Fund, where originality and ambitiousness

are encouraged within a healthy development support system. The future of

the film industry will – I hope - come out of there, for much as I admire

Working Title, they are really part of the American film industry since that is

where their profits go.


In CONCLUSION, I am actually rather optimistic that the recent debacle over the tax

breaks will finally make the money begin to realize that a good script is essential.

If producers, directors, writers and agents won’t listen to anyone else, they will listen

to the money. Well, I would like to think that they will.


I know I have not been kind to producers, directors, writers, lawyers, financiers,

consultants and accountants, but please remember that it is also tough out there for

us agents.


We are expected to help our clients make a living in a very problematical industry.

We are constantly caught in the middle: our clients think we don’t get them enough

money or work and the publishers and producers think that we make them pay too

much for writers who are not always able to deliver.


And all the writers  whom we reject, dislike us for not seeing the brilliance of their

ideas and their work.


Lawyers are traditionally the butt of cruel stories by ungrateful clients, but

increasingly agents are getting the treatment from mischievous writers.


A writer rings his agency: “Hello, can I please speak to my agent, Jeremy?”

Receptionist: “I am so sorry sir, didn’t you know that he passed away last


Writer: “Goodness no. Thank you for telling me. Goodbye.”

The next day the writer rings and asks the same question and gets the same


On the third day he rings and asks the question again.

Receptionist: Excuse me Sir, didn’t you ring yesterday, and the day before?”

Writer: “Yes, I just like hearing you say it!”

Thank you.


How to make stories travel

I was invited to talk at BVE in February at Excel, on the subject of HOW SCRIPTS CAN MAKE DRAMA GLOBALLY SUCCESSFUL. A number of people asked me to post my talk. Here it is.


Many years ago I recall being shocked when the producer of shows like Roseanne and Third Rock from the Sun told an audience at the Edinburgh Television Festival, that the budget for a script of Roseanne was greater than the cost of producing a whole sitcom episode in the UK.


Then she went on to explain that at its peak Roseanne grossed well over $900m in sales from a season of episodes. So spending a bit more on the script was not only sensible, it was an essential investment.


I also remember many years ago being rung up by the BBC to tell me – as a matter of pride – that they had sold HOUSE OF Cards - a drama series based on a book I sold them - into 30 countries, which was then some kind of record.


Many US series sell into 100+ countries.


It has long been held that the budgets for American scripts for film as well as television averaged up to and over 7% of the total budget; in the UK this figure is supposed to be around 4% and in most other parts of Europe under 4%.


Which is not to say that we in Europe should simply spend more on our scripts, but there is a lesson here, and it is not that spending more is necessarily better: in television drama you can usually only spend in relation to what you earn. And in many instances we seem to re-invent the wheel with every production.


Of course, scripts alone cannot make drama globally more successful. Timing, casting, directors and many other factors play their part. But would Downton Abbey have been so successful abroad with scripts less-well written? Probably not.


The trick is to understand what makes audiences engage with the characters and the story and make sure that you have it clearly and strongly.


It is about understanding that it is not only the story you choose to tell, but – just as important – how you choose to tell that story, that makes the difference between a hit and a flop.


In 1990 I was asked by the then Head of the EU’s MEDIA Programme to design a training programme that would enable European television series to travel outside their borders. According to the EU’s research, the costs of making a soap or series was too high to sustain if they were not seen outside their country of origin. So nearly 25 years ago getting drama to travel was already a concern.


I said this could be done but only if the shows travelled more effectively inside their country of origin, because that is what our research showed. Successful domestic drama travelled better. And because the playing field for TV drama – as it is for films – is a global playing field  we therefore – from wherever we come – have to be able compete with shows from all over the world.


One way to do this is to co-produce, since Broadcasters pay more to produce or co-produce than just to acquire a show. And having paid more they will make more effort to get an audience for it, by better marketing and also putting it in a better slot in the schedule.


Producing in English is an advantage, but it is not that big an advantage. Most European countries dub and subtitle easily. We don’t, so we are not always favoured co-producers. This is changing. At the Berlinale a couple of weeks ago we had more German producers than ever before asking to be involved in co-productions in English.


So who am I to pronounce on how drama can be made to travel globally? Apart from designing PILOTS and working with many European broadcasters and American showrunning producers like John Wells and Caryn Mandebach, I have worked with writers for over 40 years. I have been an editor and a publisher and am now an agent. I get to see the cutting edge of the business facing writers. I also see the mountain of paper used in the unsuccessful attempts to become storytellers. Writing is not a career I would recommend to anyone who was not talented and driven. Just being driven is not enough.


I accept that agents are not everyone’s favourite people. When we get work for our clients they like us; writers without agents like the idea of having agents. But it is a strange and somewhat parasitical relationship.  After all we are living off the talent of far more creative people.  A good agent has been described as a marriage broker; a bad one like a pimp. Even this is a rosy tinted view of most agents.


We watch the creative process even when it fails, especially when it fails. We are not as emotionally or egotistically involved as the writer, producers or directors. We don’t take it personally when shows fail, nor do we think we are invincible when one shows triumphs.


Broadcasters – like most of us – are a bit like sheep. They like following what has worked. We were involved in selling a best-selling series of crime novels to broadcasters: after great interest at the BBC we were then told that after all they wanted female cops not male cops. Curious that both VERA and SCOTT & BAILEY had very recently launched. Then ITV were showing interest until they concluded that the central cop character needed a much dirtier and rougher personal life. What had just been a hit on the BBC? LUTHER.


So the creative process is fraught with people second-guessing each other. And however good the scripts, success still depends on what else is on at the time.


There is one area where television drama triumphs, the SOAPS. Why do I say triumphs? Because year in and year out more people watch soaps than ever watch dramas. This might be because they are there for years and build audiences, but I believe it is because they are more concerned with exploring how people behave and why they behave they way they do than with what might be called ‘plots’.


Another way of putting this is that stories should happen because of WHO people ARE. This is the key ingredient that makes villains accessible, even if they are completely different from you or me.


To do this does not mean just copying what worked in the last drama success. It should mean bringing your storytelling craft skills to your cultural sensibilities, so that you make the unknown knowable to audiences, so that you give them experiences outside of their lives, but believable experiences.


And if you think this is new advice, it comes from Aristotle, who two and a half thousand years ago said “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.”


In other words believability is more important than truth or factual accuracy.


By knowing more about audiences and how they behave, what they REALLY REALLY want, your stories will become more accessible. Can you preach to the non-converted? Or as I think E M Foster said : “Surprise me with the believable.” Can you put your audience’s need to understand and become emotionally engaged BEFORE your own needs?


You should always have a good answer to the questions: Who are you writing this for? and Why are you writing it? OR Who are you producing this for? Your answers will help you focus, and can save you months of wasted time and work.


You may be aware – if you are old enough - of the endless discussions about the sad demise of a wonderful Television art-house slot from some decades ago called Play for Today and the nostalgic references to the “golden age” of British television and cinema. Well, I think the golden age is not quite upon us. Where we are going is every bit as good as where we have come from.


You will undoubtedly be aware of the recent vogue for somewhat dark Scandinavian dramas. Is this where the cutting edge of drama is coming from? Or is it coming from TOWIE, a kind of hybrid reality drama which for some is neither reality nor drama?  [the only way is essex]


Let’s just put the advent of Scandinavian drama into perspective. When HOUSE OF CARDS was broadcast on American television I happened to be visiting producers in New York. It was on the front cover of the weekly TV paper, and every meeting started with congratulations to me on having sold the book to the BBC. It felt great.


But the reality was that less than 1% of the television audience had seen it, even if 90% of people who worked in television had seen it.


And much the same is true of a lot of the Scandinavian drama: it appeals to the chattering classes. What appeals to the mass audience is the soaps. Take nothing away from Borgen, The Bridge, Wallander – they did become global dramas, but on a prettysmall scale.


So where is conjunction between these two extremes? What do they have in common, since they do not have size of audience in common?


Well the answer is that we are in a rapidly changing world and drama will change to accommodate changes in the audience. Play for Today had huge audiences 40 or 50 years ago, but there were only two or three channels and no internet. Today those plays would probably not have particularly large audiences.


The most important changes may be the fact that fewer people watch TV screens and increasing numbers watch smart phones and tablets. 6 million today is considered very good. Ten years ago it was not impressive.


Another important change is that as a result of the pre-eminence of games (bigger financially than Hollywood) audiences want an increasing amount of interactivity.


So in this rapidly changing world, we need to create drama for television that will repay the investors, satisfy the Channel Controllers, and keep the audiences asking for more. The question is how do you prepare for this?


To start with, by understanding the nature of the relationships between the characters and the audience, what you produce will  be more effective.


The proper study for a writer, producer or director should be why people behave the way that they do, especially when that behaviour is shocking and scary and irrational. If you begin to understand why we all do many of the things that we do, you will begin to be in a good place from which to tell stories.


The brilliant Lajos Egri titled one of his books about writing as The Art of Dramatic Writing, “and its basis in the creative interpretation of human motives”.


It also means knowing yourself. Why do you want to write or produce is as important a question as why people in general go to the movies (or read books, see plays and listen to music)?


If we know the answers to these questions about who we are and why we are the way we are, then what we choose to create, and how we choose to create it (two very different things), will result in better shows that will travel more effectively.


It may seem an odd question, but we need to understand why we need stories? And what does this tell us about how to write them?


Stories define us as a species. The most common teaching of writers claims that there is no formula: however, despite the vast numbers of How To books and writing courses, writing well appears to be very difficult judging by the appallingly named slush pile. We receive over 6000 submissions a year from writers.


Some writing gurus swear by the three-act structure, others by 20 steps or 12 stages and so on.  I once asked the wonderful Frank Daniel if the old men in the tribe who told moral tales around the prehistoric camp-fire would have used the three-act structure if they had not read Sid Field? Of course he said: that is how the human brain works. You need a beginning, middle and end.


This is essentially the Aristotelian analysis of dramaturgy and it is a perfectly formed formula. It has worked for many thousands of years because it mirrors the way the human brain and emotions work.


Aristotle explains that the plot structure is the mechanics by which the audience is given experiences that cause them pleasure.  Let me repeat that: plot structure is the mechanics by which the audience is given experiences that cause them pleasure.


And Aristotle’s simple formulation of this is  …   PITY....FEAR....CATHARSIS


Make the audience feel pity for a character and they identify with that character. You then have control over them. John Bates in Downton Abbey is a perfect Aristotelian protagonist – war hero, with a disability, victimized, nice face….he is easy for us to root for.


Then make the audience experience increasing amounts of fear for the character, as you put the character through increasingly worse circumstances..


Finally, release the audience from the tension of anticipating the terrible things that are going to happen to that character, and the audience feels great. The process actually involves chemicals – specifically phenyl-ethyl-alamine – being pumped into the bloodstream.


PEA, also known as the happiness drug, is released when you take speed or ecstacy, or if you want to remain legal, eat chocolate or have sex. So my plan to save the British film industry is to give every one going into a British film a bar of chocolate and they may come out of there feeling great and tell their froends what a good time they had!


But to show you how ubiquitous Aristotle’s formula is, let me quote from the programme notes to a Beethoven Sonata series given by Pollini:


         (Beethoven’s) preference for ‘happy endings’ is not by any means a tendency towards kitsch, but rather a musical style akin to Schiller’s philosophy of suffering, struggle and overcoming.’


Beginning, pity, suffering

Middle, fear, struggle

End, catharsis, overcoming


You can see the pattern. This works because it is about the audience’s experiences, not the characters’ or – god forbid – the writer’s.


We use cinema and novels and TV dramas and soaps to rehearse and explore and find out how we might or should behave in a far wider range of circumstances than we are likely to find ourselves in. We explore the forbidden, we enjoy in private what we can’t do in public, we find out who we are and we can begin to make sense of the world we live in.


The successful storyteller taps into the emotions of the audience. Emotion is hard-wired into all of us and it is how stories connect (and why music is so universal, since it connects emotionally even without words), irrespective of age, gender, culture or language.


If we know this, and we understand the pity-fear-catharsis formula, will we write better movies? Not necessarily, because there is still another layer of understanding needed: you need to select the right kind of story; you need to make sure that you have characters the audience will empathise with – whether they are villains or heroes.


But this has nothing to do with how you choose to tell the particular story: there is an important distinction to be made between the story and how you tell it.  Give the same story to different writers and they will find different ways of telling it.


Many in the British film industry think that the Americans are to blame for our impoverished state. I believe that it is our failure to understand why American movies are so successful that is a major cause of our relatively non-profitable film industry.


The usual knee-jerk moans heard in Soho, White City and now Media City and elsewhere in Europe are that the Americans dominate our cinema chains, have bigger budgets than we do and that theirs is a star-based movie industry and ours isn’t. Why is this the case?

They dominate our cinemas because British audiences prefer American movies. Their budgets are bigger because their industry is profitable so they can invest more in developing and marketing their new products. And of course they have stars – the world wants to see their movies, so their lead actors become stars.

But in addition to these points, their scripts are more accessible and more sentimental, that is, they set out to provoke emotion in the audience, because this is what audiences in general want from movies. We don’t do it often although there is no reason why we could not do so, and therefore – all of us in the industry – share some of the culpability for our impoverished state.

As for the unavailability of cinema screens for British movies, when we do have a British film that takes off – like the ‘famous five’ : 4 Weddings, Trainspotting, Billy Elliott, Bend it Like Beckham, East is East or more recently The King’s Speech – screens are available and British audiences flock to see them, so that complaint lacks some credibility.

As I said earlier, the story is not the same thing as how you choose to tell it.

A good story idea – a GREAT story idea – will not mean that it will be successful. THAT depends to a great extent on how you choose to tell the story.

And that – in turn – means putting yourself into the heads and hearts of your audience.

For years in co-production circles in Europe we have had catch-phrases like local stories for global markets. Sounds good and actually is good. What appears to be against it is the equally frequent wisdom that audiences like stories set in their home countries.

Attempts to make television that encompasses several countries usually fail: when 7 public broadcasters, some years ago, made a series called EUROCOPS, in which each broadcaster paid for and made 2 episodes but got 12 episodes in return, there was an apocryphal story about the editorial meeting at which the next series of storylines were pitched and one TV executive described the villains in a story as being German.


At which the German representative said “Why are Germans always the villains?” “OK, said the TV exec from Belgium (I think), the Swiss are not here, let’s make them Swiss.”

Needless to say Eurocops was not a success neither for the critics nor the audience.

What can we conclude from these anecdotes?

The 1st thing is that some things do not change: why people watch stories on screens is still very similar to why they watched stage plays nearly 3000 years ago.

What engages their emotions is the same as it was then.

What has changed is the delivery systems and, with that, some of the audience behaviour.

What has also changed is budgets: all the broadcasters are reducing budgets for drama across the board, except perhaps SKY which is a relative newcomer to the drama scene. And it is in the script that budget savings can be made without sacrificing the quality of the emotional payoff.

What has not changed are the critical decision-making processes that go into choosing what kinds of stories to tell and how best to tell them.

Those stories that have some deeper truth, that touch a broad audience – like the Scandinavian shows – will travel. They will be profitable for those who made them and who invested in them.

Most importantly it is shows like this that should give us a sense of optimism that drama can travel, and that optimism should make us more competitive, which is always a good thing in a very competitive world. Unless you reach for the moon you are never going to get there.





Is Content no longer king in the post-digital world?

Looking back on 2012, I think that there was a kind of benchmark: a number of changes in the film, television and publishing industries took place which , individually, didn’t mean too much, but together might be really significant.


Publishing and the audiovisual world have always had a symbiotic relationship. Cynical literary types might say that film and television is parasitically dependent on the book.


The two industries are increasingly intertwined and mutually dependent. And the changes taking place as a result of new delivery systems is seriously bringing into question an old truism: “content is king”.


Not only are delivery systems exerting greater and greater influence on the way stories are told, but they also dictate they way stories are sold.


In one week last year I noted the following six comments about the converging nature of the industries that exploit story-telling.


Neil Denny, Editor of the Bookseller, said in The Guardian in April that “The best selling book typically sells 20% more than the number two title. But a best selling title from JK Rowling will sell 20 times more than other titles...the success of the films has created a new audience for her writing - the film franchise feeds back into the book franchise.”


In television the incestuous relationship between platforms and formats is moving very fast: in Broadcast magazine (13 April) there was a piece about a new generation of hybrid genres (I question the use of the word genres here - it think strictly it is formats) that describes All3Media International as “bending and stretching genres until they are so out of shape they become undefinable. What began as cheap daytime reality/soaps for German housewives has morphed into ob doc/drama/reality infotainment hybrids, some of which are taking the nation by storm.” (such as TOWIE which is “structured reality”.)


Also in Broadcast is a report from MiPTV that “buyers were seeking feel-good content and programmes that would result in co-viewing.”


Then, in the MarchApril issues of Screen International there is an article about Film4’s new digital arm, Film4.0, run by Anna Higgs: she describes the venture like this: ”Film4.0 will essentially be about helping film makers innovate around how they tell their stories...the projects will always be story and film maker led, not platform led. It will never be the case of working with an existing film and adding social media or digital plans. It’s not about a bolt-on.”


Is cinema losing it’s edge?  Longer format drama - whether mini series or even longer - seems equally comfortable on the multiplicity of smaller screens now available with tablets and smart phones. A big BBC-HBO five part mini series, based on Ford Maddox Ford novels, scripted by Tom Stoppard, called PARADE’S END, had an amazing array of stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens, Rupert Everett and director Susannah White who directed the movie Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang. In other words, as Screen International comments, A-list actors and directors are increasingly happy to move between film and television.


Finally, in Screen, according to the government’s recent Film Policy Review, there were 3.7 billion viewings of feature films across all television platforms in 2010 (excluding pay per view), which is more than 20 times the number of cinema admissions.


What do these rapidly sourced quotes tell us about film, television and publishing?

-            film can boost book sales

-            hybrid genres or formats are working

-            feel-good content is sought after

-            innovative ways of storytelling are being looked for

-            film actors and directors are less snobbish about television than they used to be


-            films are increasingly being seen on small screens


In other words delivery systems have more influence and the audience - particularly the younger audience - are open to change. “Plus ca change, plus c’st la meme chose”


I love the fact that Broadcast magazine in May reported that SILENT WITNESS - a very old fashioned traditional police procedural - obliterated TITANIC on ITV and the new kid on the block, SCOTT & BAILEY. And what this suggests is that the television set is increasingly the domain of the older viewer. And we know that the Saga generation not only has far more discretionary time on its hands, but also has considerable spending power AND is the fastest growing sector of the audience.


What does this mean for those of us working in the incestuous industries? We need to find new ways of connecting with audiences, and authors, publishers and broadcasters are doing this through their websites and social media. It is clearly increasingly important, particularly with the rapid increase in e-book sales.


But without emotionally engaging stories – feel-good or otherwise - it is as it has always been, an uphill struggle. So perhaps the changes are not actually as significant as the trade press makes out. Perhaps good old storytelling is safe and well, and to succeed transmedia or multi-platform storytelling still has to observe the “rules” that Aristotle enunciated two and a half thousand years ago.


What do you think?


Articles and a new edition of How to Make Money Scriptwriting

I have posted under New Articles some of the articles I wrote for MovieScope that have not appeared on my website. I have also started rewriting the second edition of my book about the business of scriptwriting. This will be made available on Kindle, hopefully later in 2013. I will tweet about it when it is ready, so follow me on twitter if you want to know.


TEDx on storytelling

I did my first TEDx talk today, a much less scary experience because of the great collegiate atmosphere created by Chris Jones and his great team (@tedxealing). The other speakers covered an extraordinary eclectic range of subjects that kept the sell-out audience engaged all day. There are so many varieties of storytelling, but what came across is is that the emotional engagement of the audience was central to most speakers. What a day. Exciting and exhausting. Check it out