Sunday 23 September 2012

My notes from the LFS 'Running the Show' TV Drama Series event

A little while ago, the London Film School ran a day-long event at which many respected UK television industry professionals led discussions on the future of British television writing methods, how different writing methods might affect commissioning and vice versa. I took some notes, and wrote them up to pass to one of the event's excellent organizers, Archie Tait. In case you're interested in what was said (and you should be, it was enlightening!) here are my notes:

Overview: The speakers focused mostly on lengthier series formats becoming more popular, and discussed the benefits of the US ‘showrunner’ writing system, using a writers’ room to produce story arcs and scripts. They also discussed what makes a show more likely to be commissioned, and what sells best globally, among other things.

The speakers and their credits:

Tony Garnett (Producer Cathy Come Home; Executive Producer Between the Lines, Ballykissangel, This Life)

Stephen Garrett (Executive Chairman Kudos Film & Television; Executive Producer Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Spook, Hustle)

Adrian Hodges (Creator and Executive Producer, Survivors, Primeval)

Francis Hopkinson (Producer Henry VIII, Murder City; Executive Producer Wallander, Married Single Other, DCI Banks)

Tony Marchant (Writer Holding On, The Kid in the Corner, Mark of Cain; Creator & Executive Producer The Whistleblowers, Garrow’s Law)

Gub Neal (Producer Cracker, The Fall; Executive Producer Hillsborough, Combat Hospital)

Frank Spotnitz (Writer & Co-Executive Producer The X-Files, Millenium. Creator & Executive Producer Hunted)

Sally Wainwright (Creator & Executive Producer At Home With the Braithwaites, Unforgiven, Scott and Bailey)

  Showrunners – not common in the UK because there’s more of an ethos of nurturing the writer rather than the quality of the project being ‘King’. Showrunners are there to make sure the end product is the best it can be, even if this means stepping in and completely rewriting a writer’s work, or even firing them from the project if they’re not working out.

  Passion over profits – trying to make programming that is similar to what has been before is, of course, the enemy of creativity and originality. However, executives/financiers/commissioners often want to hear that a project is ‘like’ something pre-existing and successful, as it makes it seem like a safer bet. So it’s often worth packaging a pitch in recognizable terms, ie a ‘precinct drama’ (one set in some sort of institution, ie police station, hospital, courtroom), but then almost subversively including quirkier ‘twists’ on the genre (such as something like HOUSE) – ‘Trojan Horse’ drama, smuggling in originality while making a project seem like something familiar.

  Group writing – getting individual different writers to each write an episode of a series can be problematic if their ‘voice’ is too strong and distinctive – their episode might not fit in with the others and series may feel disjointed. The ‘lead writer’ may have to rewrite their episode to make it fit tonally, but this can be taken badly if the writer feels slighted. Ideally they’ll lay aside ego for the good of the show – which is essential in the ‘writers’ room’ style of series writing. If a writer is re-written, and the show is better as a result, they still get credited as the writer and everyone wins – the show looks great and reflects well on that original writer. A different proportion of ego/sensitivity and ‘the greater good’ is required for this method than is traditional in UK writing.

  Series vs Serial – In the UK, series tend to be 6/8/10 episodes, serials 2/3/4. More scope for character development in series – they used to be viewed as less ‘worthy’ than serials, as serials were often concerned with moralizing and ‘state of the nation’ subject matter. They were considered more ‘literary’ – however, really tough to sell overseas as global market is more used to the North American model of much longer series – 22 hour-long episodes, typically. Therefore, the UK TV industry is beginning to lean toward longer series, of 13 episodes for example, as they’re an easier global sell and can generate revenue much more reliably. Co-funding from overseas is becoming the norm, and so US funding tends to insist on longer series so the end product will fit in with their schedules for screening over there. With a longer series, such as BREAKING BAD, it’s possible to ‘go on an adventure’, riffing on the moral ambiguities of the protagonist’s unusual situation, rather than having him caught and neatly morally resolved after four hours. There’s sometimes a dichotomy though, as a broadcaster such as ITV may only want to order 6 episodes, but the producer will know that they’ll need at least 10 to raise money from overseas entities. Then the producer has to try to persuade the broadcaster to order more, or perhaps run two series of 6 back-to-back so it can be sold as a single series globally.

  HUNTED – A new co-pro between BBC and HBO – there are two different cuts for broadcast on each (ie HBO has a lot more nudity!) It was written using a writers’ room, unusually for the UK. Series creator and showrunner Frank Spotnitz brought along his team of writers and explained how the process worked – he wrote the pilot solo, then met with his writers and they discussed where the characters & plot might go over the course of the series. Then they each took an episode and wrote it, with Frank rewriting all of them to varying degrees. It was a very collaborative process though. They treated the episodes like mini movies, deciding for each a particular movie that would serve as a ‘model’ for the tone and pace of the episode. During production, the writers were on set a lot, and also invited to be involved in the edit – they were involved at every stage.

  Writers’ rooms do cost quite a lot – not only does the writer have to be paid a writing fee, but also for the time spent in the room hammering out the arc together. It can really pay off in terms of the quality of the end product – but may not be the right approach for all UK TV.

  Using a writers’ room is almost imperative for creating longer US-style series formats – a single writer or small team would not be able to keep up the quality for a run of 22 episodes. Using writers’ rooms could be the way forward for UK series to really compete with US fare.

  Things are generally commissioned if they have potential to be sold globally – although it can be appealing to have a certain ‘Britishness’ about the characters and setting – there is a high global demand for English-language drama. But it needs to fit the format which is proven to sell worldwide for scheduling reasons, ie more episodes.

  Soaps already have a sort of writers’ room – it’s essential for keeping continuity and for everyone to be aware of where each character has been and where they’re heading. Soap writing has always been rather collaborative by necessity – this is further evidence that collaboration is the way into longer-running shows.

  Tax credits are making it more viable to produce programming in the UK rather than outsourcing production overseas. This is good! Since changes in 2002, it hasn’t been so financially viable to do so, but things are changing for the better once again.

 Information collected from Video on Demand-style TV viewing prove that there is a higher appetite for drama than previously thought – that’s why broadcasters don’t completely fill their schedules with cheaper programming such as Come Dine With Me! More and more revenue is being generated digitally from drama viewed this way [NOTE – this is supported by an article in Broadcast, re All3Media’s digital content], so it makes sense to commission more. It is easier for viewers to follow a longer drama series, or catch up on one that’s already started when word-of-mouth increases interest, with VOD viewing.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Short Horror Films Wanted

I've started a little project, in which I aim to collate as much excellent amateur/aspiring filmmakers' work in the field of horror, in order to pitch it around and see if I can get a major distributor to create a platform to gain exposure for it.

Which brings me to my question:

Have you seen anything totally awesome on Youtube lately?

Or perhaps Vimeo, or elsewhere online...

As long as it's available to the public online, and is a short film (no strict rules about length as yet) I want to see it! Doesn't matter how low-budget, or whether it was filmed on an HD camera or a camera phone; I'll give it a shot.

Whether you made it, or just saw it and thought it was cool, please send a link my way. Either tweet it at me @audreydeuxpink, or leave it in the comments here.

Completed short films only please, no scripts I'm afraid.


Dolls' House of Doom

While I'm thinking of more things to write on the subject of Murder Rooms, here's an early short film of mine. I was about 11 or 12 when I made this, and a little bit 'Wednesday Addams'... please try to get past the giant metal teeth and seriously dodgy haircut...

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Murder Rooms, part 1

Okay, so I slightly failed at posting again within a week. But it's been 8 days, which I have now dubbed a 'Beatles week' (1000 internets to you if you know why!)

My Dad mentioned that he was blogging about his contribution to the BBC Films-produced TV series, Murder Rooms. It was created by David Pirie, and my Dad wrote the episode entitled The Kingdom of Bones - see his blog post on the subject here.

The show was a beautifully-shot exploration of Conan Doyle's earlier years with his mentor, Dr Joseph Bell. Charles Edwards and Ian Richardson starred, and they brought an interesting and warm portrayal of the relationship that probably inspired the Holmes and Watson dynamic in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes material. It had the benefit of lush BBC Films production values, despite being made for television broadcast.

So, you may be asking yourself while pouring another large bucket of gin, why the hell is Ellen wittering on about this too since her Dad's already done it? Well, I was lucky enough to bag a small acting role in the episode, and I thought I'd share a few memories of the experience...

I was a teenager. My character was Annie, a grubby little scamp who was the daughter of a travelling circus owner and showman played excellently by Warwick Davies. I remember that Warwick was lovely; to the extent that he didn't punch me in the face on the one highly embarrassing occasion that I forgot my ONE LINE during rehearsal. (The line was two words; 'Yes, Dad!' - I still vaguely want to punch myself in the face for forgetting it!)

'Annie' and her little sister also got to sing a weird little song about a 'brokenhearted milkman' for Conan Doyle, as payment for their father's haemorrhoid treatment. Yup, hers was a glamorous life indeed!

To accurately portray a grubby little urchin (NO IT DID NOT COME NATURALLY!) I was ordered to refrain from washing my hair for the duration of filming. This horrified me, as I go borderline-psychotic if I feel that my hair might be remotely unclean. But (rampant line-forgetting aside) I was determined to be a pro, so grinned and bore it. I had taken a brief hiatus from dyeing the hair a variety of violent shades of red, so it was actually an acceptable-for-Victoriana brownish colour at that time.

I was taken for a costume-fitting in an enormous, awesome warehouse somewhere near the offices of the Henson creature workshop in London, and subjected to a vicious but highly authentic Victorian corset. I spent the majority of my 'down-time' on set leaning like an awkward, greasy ironing board against various doorways, trying to find a way to get comfortable in this instrument of torture. As is the norm on location, it was constantly bloody freezing even indoors, so I was forced to ignore the fact that I didn't like to drink tea and guzzled several litres of the stuff to keep warm. This presented the additional problem of figuring out how to navigate the act of toiletting while dressed in a wire cage/corset, several million petticoats and some giant bloomers (they're very thorough, these professional costumiers). Suffice it to say, I pretty much had to throw everything over my head and hope for the best. Yaay showbiz!

Despite all of this, I had a bloody fantastic time. I shall do some more remembering and blog further on this subject very soon...