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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.




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Reader Comments (1)

Julian - this is the best text book on writing films I've come across. You may not yet have seen my website/blog but it is the first step on my far too long delayed start as a writer. (When was it I first met you, in Cambridge? Long years ago ...) and I have printed out this post and will apply it to my scripts. (I also have, as instructed by you also a long time ago) a novel series half started. It will get finished soon.) Best wishes, and thank you for the support you give to all writers who will listen.

March 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSheila Malham

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