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Working the net

There is an old, cynical saying that producers are writers with good ideas, who can’t write. Well, that is a saying shared by writers’ agents. But, as we move into the transmedia era, leaving behind the old-fashioned concept of a script being the central basis for making a movie, we are being forced to re-evaluate what it means to be a writer or producer. 

There was a time when the option payment for a script was a golden rule: 10 per cent of the purchase price. All a writer had to do was write it. Now, in order to be taken seriously, a writer needs to know who the target audience is, understand what social media they use and be able to demonstrate how to access them. Unless, of course, the script is exceptional and, let’s face it, most scripts are not.

Producers, too, need to understand virtual networking. They are exceptionally good at the schmoozing sort of networking in Cannes, Berlin, Edinburgh and so on, but then producers need to be seen walking the walk. One American complained to me about how much walking there was in Cannes, ‘up and down the Croissant!’

The problem with keeping up with networking is that industry changes are coming ever faster. Now, the film/DVD/ TV release pattern has changed, and producers and distributors are trying to access the multiplicity of audiences at the same time. Channel 4, for example, released Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo in cinemas, on TV and DVD simultaneously, and it did fairly well. The result is that networking has become like a game of three-dimensional chess.

Yet face-to-face meetings still remain the most effective, in my opinion, but they are not necessarily time- or cost-effective. If your meeting is a critical one, and if the other person is key to your agenda, then face-to-face will usually produce the best results. If you are trying to shotgun a lot of people to see who responds positively, then you need the phone or the Internet. But email has sadly become devalued as a form of serious and engaging contact; it is too ubiquitous, too easy and lacks gravitas, even if it is fast and efficient.

What we have noted about email, compared to a face-to-face meeting or even a phone call, is that it is detrimental to the dialectical process that can be so important when negotiating, or positioning yourself to get something from someone. There is a sterility about it that you do not find with messaging, where you can respond to each other and lead a conversation into rewarding new directions.

I believe that many producers and directors spend at least a third of their professional life networking; drinking, eating, chatting to others in the business. Writers don’t spend nearly that much time. The recent London Screenwriters’ Festival has had an interesting spin-off: the face-to-face networking was so intense that in the follow-up questionnaires, many writers asked for more time for this at the next festival. And, the festival’s website ( and Delegates Network has led to close and active relationships on the web, between people who had never met before. Some have started blogging for the first time and have set up websites, and they are even planning to have regular meetings to build on their relationships.

So it will come to pass that writers spend more time networking than ever before. Convergence finally comes to the individual; the difficulty is in being selective. Like those you follow on Twitter, remember that it is not the number that matters, but what they have to say. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 20 (January/February 2011)



Making your writing pay

movieScope Magazine

Make Your Writing Pay – Turn the current financial turmoil to your advantage.

** This article first appeared in movieScope, issue 19 **

This autumn, as sellers set off to MIP in Cannes and the book fair in Frankfurt, we are all looking more carefully at what we are selling. As an agency, we try to reflect back to our clients what the market tells us it wants. Of course, the market does not speak with one voice and is usually contradictory; while saying there is too much crime drama on TV, for example, they are busy developing more of it than ever before. 


The market famously once said ’Give the public what they don’t know they want!’ So in this time of turmoil, what can writers—and those who work with them to create ideas—do to maximise chances of success?

Having writing as your only source of income, has meant becoming more flexible about what to write and for whom, and what the bottom-line payments have dropped to. I have several clients who have greatly increased their spec output, with detailed proposals, first acts or opening chapters, even with completed screenplays and novels.

Allowing a producer to run with a project for effectively no money can be turned to your advantage in some respects—except cash up front, of course. You become a partner, a co-producer. You get to participate in all the decisions (even those you don’t understand, where your reticence is appreciated); you are no longer the forgotten contributor to the team.

Being good at interviewing is an art that is very much part of being a good writer.

I do not share the view that if writers did not exist there would be nothing for producers to produce. If writers did not exist, wannabe writers would flood in to fill the vacuum. What we should all be looking at is ‘added value’: how can you add value to your output and potential so that you get the gig?

To start with, you need to understand more about the marketplace than you thought possible. There is always more to learn because it is based on constantly shifting sands. Secondly, you need to know more about the buyer’s needs than even they know themselves. With the web and schmoozing all this is possible; being good at interviewing is an art that is very much part of being a good writer.

I estimate that the biggest change over the last decade in how writers spend their professional time is that less is spent on writing and more is spent on marketing yourself on social media sites, following other people’s blogs and attending networking events. Time should also be spent studying the trade papers and their email equivalents for every crumb of information. And since less is being developed by producers and broadcasters, you have to invest in developing it yourself. Make sure that anyone you sign material to only has it for a short time and that you get a bonus if it goes ahead, and you will be in good company with a number of writers who are making the recession pay.

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 19 (November/December 2010)


Old is the new black

One of the predictable surprises (ie you could predict it but you should appear to be surprised by it) that came out of the Edinburgh TV Festival was the comment from BBC1 controller Danny Cohen, that he believed that the BBC should show more programmes for older people.


He seems to have discovered that the average age of the BBC audience is 50+.  I am not sure how that correlates with the average age of the British public. According to a DirectGov website, “In mid-2003 the UK was home to 59.6 million people. The average age was 38.4 years, an increase on 1971 when it was 34.1 years. There are more people in the UK aged over 60 (12.4 million), than there are children under 16 (11.7 million).” That was 10 years ago so it has probably crept up to 40 by now.


So the BBC is attracting a higher number of oldies than it’s fair share. Is that because of the programmes it already shows? In which case do they really need to make more On Golden Ponds?


Not much is said these days about the proportion of all telly that is repeats: in the drama and serial and series categories I am sure it is also creeping up. After all, the oldies seem to love the repeats: if their memories are good enough they enjoy the nostaligic feeling of being younger as they remember how they felt 30 years ago when they first saw that episode of Dads’ Army or Only Fools and Horses.


And if they are suffering from memory problems it is like seeing the episode for the first time. So the broadcasters can’t lose by showing repeats, as a look at the ratings confirms.


The reality is that younger people are connected 24/7 to smaller devices than TV sets: I watch nearly as much on the iPad as on the TV screen – sport live and mainstream channels on the repeat services like the BBC iPlayer.


Like the frequent cries for more roles for women, for non-English characters, for the disabled, we all want drama and soaps to do a job over and above being entertaining. Looking through the wrong end of the telescope (from the pov of those wanting to break into writing) I can’t help but wonder if the BBC and the other broadcasters couldn’t make a wider range of niche television that perhaps included programmes for the older viewer but also encouraging the very young (school age) to think about the power that the written and spoken word has and encouraging articulateness throughout the population.


The alternative is that they might end up patronizing the elderly with programmes that remind us of the creeping decrepitude of old age and of our mortality. How much better to make us forget our age, forget the recession and the shortening days, by engaging us to engage in dialogue with the young ones. Being a grandparent certainly makes you feel younger even if you feel exhausted when the kids leave. But it is great fun.


Write, produce and be damned

There is a seismic change beginning to take place for scriptwriters, novelists and their agents. They are beginning to say no to option offers from producers.

 In television we have for many years had the example of writer-producers: all the big US shows are led by showrunners and increasingly broadcasters in the UK are demanding showrunners before they will greenlight a television series.

 In film development money is so scarce many producers need properties from writers before they can go and raise funds to pay decent option fees, and frequently they fail to raise any more than the option money.

 Or they have a large slate of properties that they have optioned and when they raise the money for one of them they ignore the others, which lie gathering dust until the option expires.

 Over the last couple of years at Blake Friedmann we have begun to do more joint-ventures and fewer option deals.

 These include Peter James, a No 1 best-seller we had optioned it to two A-list production companies who over nearly three years didn’t manage to get a greenlight from ITV; we decided we wanted more control, chose another A-list production company, offered them a JV and we have serious interest from the BBC and have also attached a double A-list actor as the lead.

 At the other extreme there is GIRL MADE OF DUST, a beautiful first novel by Nathalie Abi Ezzi, set in Lebanon in 1982, showing us the war through the eyes of an innocent nine-year-old living on the edge of the killing fields. We have assembled a team of writers, director and producer while keeping control, with me as Executive Producer. There is great camaraderie and no contracts at this stage, while we attach French and Brazilian co-producers.

 We have also started doing JVs with some original scripts.  To me the notion of writers and agents producing is not that they actually get involved in the minutiae of production, but are able to do two key things

  1. be involved in all the discussions about important creative choices and business deals, eg who the coproducers are, and

It is not possible to do this in the same way when you sell an option to a producer. They – in effect – own it.

 So a joint-venture ensures that the producer does bring something to the table (or they get pushed out), and I, as an agent, am better able to protect and develop my clients’ careers.

 Over the last couple of years there has been another interesting and important development: the mainstay script-writer/producer contract – that between PACT – the Producers’ Union – and the Writers Guild – has sort of fallen into a ditch. It is still used but it ceased to reflect the realities of the industry so the Guild’s Film Committee, led by distinguished scriptwriter Olivia Hetreed (Girl with a Pearl Earring and the new Wuthering Heights) devised new guidelines for a partnership between writers and producers, rather than the old-fashioned option which gave the producer total control subject only to them paying some money.

 I am not advocating than a writer or agent, with no experience of the film or television industry, should announce themselves as a producer or co-producer, although that is how many producers start. Like Estate Agents you just need a business card.

 But the relationship between writers and producers is changing and I think that smart producers should embrace the change.

 [This article appeared in MovieScope]



Proposed cover of writing for TV book

This is a cover rough. Do covers sell vocational books? I look at covers of other writing books and apart from those showing stills from movies or TV shows, there is no obvious best practice. At least this is strikingly bright.