It’s a marathon, not a sprint – the 15-year journey to becoming a screenwriter

I know, I know. I’ve been pretty quiet this last year. Hardly a blog to my name and my hits have plummeted (I’m still amazed so many of you keep coming back to look, if I’m honest). But there’s a reason. And the reason is that, rather than writing about screenwriting, I thought I’d actually do some. And last week something very special happened.

Yes, fifteen years of hard, largely unpaid work finally came to fruition, and my first feature film, ARJUN & ALISON, went into production. Continue reading

Networking is rather like dating…

August is probably the wrong month to network seeing as every producer I’m talking to is buggering off to find some sun, but I’m nothing if not perverse, so it’s been a bit of a cracking fortnight on the schmoozing front.    But I realise that most screenwriters would rather hack off a toe than go out and network, so I thought I’d talk about how to make it seem less painful.   

Last week I took part in a frantic day of pitching, that turned into an intense day of networking.

The screenwriters’ forum group I’ve helped to set up managed to collaborate   with our regional Producers’ Forum and organise a training day in which Euroscript‘s Charles Harris came and led us in a pitching workshop, and pretty   amazing it was too (I would recommend any course by Euroscript after seeing Charles in action).

Several of us bit the bullet and pitched scripts we were working on and then got feedback from the room. There’s really nothing like a room full of producers   and screenwriters for getting an instant focus on the story you’re writing. I quickly found out that my ‘romcom’ Learn to Croon was actually nothing of the sort (I think Blake Snyder would definitely class it as a Golden Fleece story).

But pitching was only half of what the day was about. It actually got a lot of writers meeting up with a lot of producers. I had my pack of one-page pitches in my bag (because you never know) and one of the producers there was quite happy to take them away. The next day he phoned and asked to read two of my scripts.

After the event was over, a few of us hightailed it over to Wolverhampton’s Lighthouse centre where producer Roger Shannon was showcasing his latest short film. I could happily have gone home and crashed out, but I forced myself along   (because you never know).

And indeed, I met two more very useful contacts.

I guess, like most of you, I’m the kind of person who has to force themselves to network. It’s extremely difficult to get out of your comfort zone and   schmooze people. But I can say with all honesty that every single breakthrough   I’ve ever had with my screenwriting has been the result of chatting someone up, never through sending something off in the post. And this fortnight has seen three   projects come to life purely through the power of gab.

Caroline Ferguson wrote a great article on networking for the now defunct ScriptWriter Magazine a while back in which she said:

‘Successful networking builds reputation,  influence, momentum and genuine advantage. If you can deliver ‘the product’, networking will blow open the door. Also, human nature suggests that film-makers are more likely to employ a writer with whom they’ve engaged on a personal level,    someone they like and trust rather than a person who is simply a name on a screenplay.’

She’s not wrong.

At the risk of getting all Swiss Toni on you, I find that networking as a screenwriter is rather like making love to a beautiful woman dating. I often find myself using very similar techniques (no, hear me out…) :

Get out there 
If you’re interested in dating you have to realise that no hot girl is going to turn up at your door, you have to go out to where the hot girls congregate and talk to them. It’s the same with people in the film industry. Go to where they congregate. I don’t volunteer to help run a monthly Screenwriters’ Forum or my regional Writers’ Guild branch because I’m a noble philanthropist. I do it because I know it gets me away from this desk and into situations where I will meet people who might be good for my career. And if either of those groups organise events with guest speakers I know that I’ll be one of the people who’s running the event, not just some schleb who’s turned up to sit at the back.

Use your social proof
Another dating concept I picked up while researching a screenplay on seduction artists: ‘social proof’ is that currency you have when you walk into a bar and people know you. It makes people who don’t know you think you’re popular. This is why politicians, when they walk through a crowd shaking hands with total strangers, always see someone in the distance and point to them. It says ‘Hey, I’ve got an old friend here. I’ve got social proof.’ So if you’re at a festival or an event, don’t be the loner giving everyone the Thousand Yard Stare; use the friends you have there as your base camp from which to take on the whole room; give each other social proof  (but don’t do the politician pointy thing – it makes you look like a twat).

Use non-threatening body language
This could be an article in itself, but there are a few body language cues I’ve forced myself to adopt and have now pretty much internalised. Make eye contact when you’re talking; smile and appear friendly (I have one of those faces where people always ask me why I’m giving them a dirty look); turn your body slightly away from people (facing strangers head on can be intimidating – look like you’re ready to leave or passing through as you introduce yourself – then turn to face them more only after they seem comfortable).

Ask them about their passion
Yes, you can talk about your passions and what you want to do, but only after you’ve asked someone what they do, what they’re working on, what they’re really into at the moment. People like to talk about themselves. Allow them to feel their own passion and perhaps connect it with you.

Don’t pitch
Same thing really. Don’t storm in pitching your scripts. A lot of people hate being pitched to, especially when they’re having a drink and socialising. My mate Paul Green of the NFTS told me when going to Edinburgh for the first time: ‘Don’t be the guy pitching to the big names; just hang out with them, get drunk with them, have a laugh with them. They want to work with people they know they can have a laugh with and be comfortable around. Leave the pitching for later.’ I guess you could call it the pitchers not pitching rule. (Pitchers of ale? No? Never mind.)

Don’t be negative
Who wants to hang around whiny, cynical, complaining, bitching, black-hearted doom merchants who only see the shit things in life? Hands up. No one? Good. Me neither.

Leave on a high and get the digits
Don’t hang around staling out the environment if you sense you’ve said all you can to whoever you’re talking to. Every schmooze has a natural high point, so make sure you leave on it (you’re a busy person, you have things to do and other people to chat up). Swap cards if it’s appropriate.

The follow-up
It’s no good collecting a nice colourful stack of business cards; you need to put them to use. So always follow up every card you collect with a friendly, non-threatening email after a few days. Nice meeting you, maybe mention that thing you talked about (re-connect to their passion). If you did talk about a project of yours, remind them of it and send it to them (or ask how they would like it – hard copy or PDF). Facebook is great for this. I add people to Facebook all the time and it’s an easy way of keeping in touch.

It’s not enough to write great scripts. Half of being a screenwriter is getting off your arse and getting out there meeting people who can get those great scripts made. Just think how brilliant that is – half of your job is going out having a good time!

So go out and network this week. You know you want to.

Camping it up

So anyway, I spent a large part of last weekend at the Podcamp UK (un)Conference in Birmingham  where podcasters from   all over Europe came together to talk all manner of things to do with podcasting.

As with most things I attempt, my podcasting has involved me running blindly into a darkened room without turning the lights on and then attempting to cook an omelette, only later to find out I’m in the bathroom, not the kitchen.

In short, I tend to screw the manual and try to wing it on instinct. Which pretty much explains the wildly varying sound quality on offer at my Shooting People podcast.

The first thing that hit me was, this was not like any other conference I’d been to (which is why they call it an unconference, I suppose). From the outset it seemed chaotic and disorganised. People were invited to make up the programme for the day and while delegates came to the front and announced what they’d like to learn about, other delegates, and organisers, were talking amongst themselves.

Now this is one of my pet hates. I was the guy at uni whose eyed rolled over in their sockets if you whispered something to me while the lecturer was talking. I don’t like it. It’s fucking rude.

Not only were people talking amongst themselves, half the audience were tapping away at laptops.

Now, I think when it comes to living one’s life online, I leave most of my friends in the Bronze Age. Most of the people I know aren’t even on MSN. One guy doesn’t even have an email address. But this PodCamp lot made me  feel like I was wearing a smoking jacket and spats. These were people whose laptops were literally an extension of their bodies and they talked about metrics, and white labelling and friendship inflation and, er… poking. And none of them mean what I thought they meant.

Is there anything more intrinsically ironic than a round table discussion about Social Networking when half of the people in the discussion are surfing on their laptops? (Answers in an instant message, please).

So for the first few hours I felt old in a way I have never felt before.  But then I decided it was a learning curve and I should start learning. I was in a room full of professionals who could teach me not only the basics but also give me tips for taking it all to the next level.

Paul Parkinson of Podcast User Magazine gave an excellent Audio 101 lecture, in which I discovered exactly how to sort out my sound issues and make the podcast more listenable (the main problem was all down to Audacity’s aptly named LAME encoder, which should be avoided at all costs. The clue was in the name, I suppose).

And throughout the other sessions I had new thoughts about changing the format and the possibility of marketing it and maybe making it pay for itself.

The strangest fact that came up was that the Chris Moyles podcast recently doubled its listeners after changing its name from a ‘podcast’ to a ‘free download’. So it’s obvious that the vast majority of people out there still don’t know what a podcast is (clue: it’s just a free download) and are frightened by the word.

I learned a hell of a lot, and the Shooting People podcasts, sorry, free downloads, will be changing   as a result, but the other great thing about the weekend was that Jurgen Wolff was in attendance (he’d told me about it, in fact) and we managed to interview each other for   our respective podcasts (how utterly postmodern, said my flatmate).

So I will be making a guest appearance on his, talking about how brilliant   Shooting People is, and he’ll be the subject of a forthcoming Shooters podcast   talking about his new book Your Writing Coach and his superb creativity   exercises.

I have to give a big thank you to the Podcamp UK organisers for providing   such a brilliant and totally FREE conference for everyone. I made some great   contacts and learned so much, and I’ll definitely be attending the next one.

I think all of the sessions were filmed and you can view them here.

The quality isn’t that great but you get a feel for the event and might learn   some interesting things.

Edinburgh 2007

After the unbelievable hassle of vlogging from the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival, I vowed that the next one would be a nice, easy written blog. And as if by magic, the Edinburgh International Film Festival announced that its theme for 2007 would be ‘cinema and the written word’.

So I set off to spend five days there, see lots of films, meet new and interesting people, and get it all down on my laptop as it happened.

I’d   had no intention of going to this festival initially as I couldn’t see that it would be any use to a screenwriter. But I caved in to persuasion from others far more knowledgeable than me and decided to go for it.

On the networking front, it wasn’t as easy as Cheltenham. There you knew that you could talk to anyone because they were either a screenwriter themselves    or they were there to meet screenwriters. In Edinburgh it’s very different and half of the people you end up talking to are little use to your career as a screenwriter.

Perhaps it might have been different if the ‘written word’ theme of the festival had delivered in any meaningful way, but that was very disappointing.

Writers know way too much about the industry and their place within it these days to be grateful for a handful of writer-director In Person sessions. That doesn’t constitute a theme. It constitutes a token gesture, and not a very convincing one at that. There were no more writer-centric events than you’d expect at any film festival.

On the whole, though, I had a positive experience. I met a lot of interesting people and saw a lot of good films, films that gave me some much needed impetus to write and sort out my own scripts.

In the end, I suppose, just being around filmmakers and films is enough for a screenwriter.

Now it’s back to those screenplays of my own…

The blog is published on the  new Festival Focus page of Shooting People’s website, and this is what I wrote about :

Yeah,   boyeeee (and shit)
I touchdown and go on a mad search for a movie fix and end up with a film about breakdancing.

You can’t fool the children of the revolution
Hungarian film about the 56 revolution, Szabadsag, Szerelem (Children of Glory), falls a bit flat, even with a magyarphile like me.

It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it…
Torture porn thriller WΔZjust wasn’t, but a big party night made up for it.

And when did you last cry in a cinema?
Another Hungarian film, Kythéra, and the powerful And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Spiegel im spiegel
A night out on the town with some new friends, with shocking photographic evidence.

Sweet and deadly
UK urban thriller, Sugarhouse takes me by surprise.

Meetings with Scottish screenwriters
In which your intrepid reporter interviews Paul Laverty and hangs out with the Scottish Screenwriters group.

And the special prize goes to…
Justin Edgar’s new film, Special People, is really rather good.

The waiting is the best bit…
I go down to the basement Videotheque and watch the nice new Brit romance, The Waiting Room. It’s obviously feelgood day.

Crazy in love
Sisterly rivalry in German film Schwesterherz (Twisted Sister) and Julie Delpy being totally bonkers in her brilliant new comedy Two Days in Paris.

See you all next June
Yes, they’re taking it away from the main festival and plonking it in June, all on its own, next year.

Vlogging. How hard can it be?

Well, I’m back from a hectic week at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival where I managed to network with some of the greatest names in screenwriting.I came up with the barmy plan to do a video blog for Shooting People, presenting a fast-cut, action-packed movie of festival events each day. How hard could it be?

Well, when it’s 3am on the first night and you’ve only just finished editing your first piece, which you started at 10.30 and it only lasts five minutes and you know you’ve got to get up in three hours and do the same again tomorrow, it doesn’t seem such a good idea.

I spent much of the first two days with Paul Green, NFTS talent spotter and drinking buddy from my local. As he so eloquently put it, ‘So, you’re a writer and you’re reporting on a writer’s festival for other writers. Did you not think a written blog might be easier and more appropriate?’

Don’t you just hate smugness?

By Day 2 any plans to do bits to camera were abandoned. The pic above is from the first abortive attempt and it was so shit I couldn’t foist it on an unsuspecting public. I have many talents, but being a TV presenter will never be one of them.

So in order to enjoy the festival and actually have some time to network, I decided I’d take a snippet from each session I filmed and put one online each day, and continue to post them all this week, and/or until I run out of tapes.

So they are all here on the YouTube channel I’ve set up :

I’ll leave them there for perpetuity as they are a useful resource for screenwriters and, who knows, I might even add to them when I have opportunities to film other things.

The festival itself was totally inspiring. Where else does a screenwriter get away from his desk and go mingle with hundreds of other screenwriters ranging from complete beginners to an Oscar winner (yes, I got to interview Diana Ossana for a future podcast).

We are the most isolated and fragmented people in the film industry and Cheltenham is the event where we can come together  and feel that we belong.

It is the biggest event for screenwriters all year. It is the place to be if you are serious about screenwriting. It is our festival.

See you there in 2008.

My Cheltenham 2007 Top Ten Moments

1. Meeting so many people off the Shooters bulletin

2. David Hare’s screenwriting casino joke

3. Jurgen Wolff’s funny session on time-keeping

4. When the Day 1 video went live and immediately got hits

5. Diana Ossana doing a  half-hour interview with me even though she was jet lagged and had just done five hours of sessions and two other interviews without a break

6. A private audience with Tony Jordan

7. The frantic, motormouthed 10-minute interview with Anthony Horowitz on the way to his car

8. Realising I’d met two producers tailor-made for scripts I’ve written

9. Paul Bassett Davies performing his deliberately rubbish script in the Euroscript session

10.  Julian Unthank’s  joke about the feminists and the light bulb

Hello, do you have a tax shelter?

How wannabe film producers get their training with EAVE

Dentists, lawyers and electricians can all  go to college to be trained in their job. In the film world you can even go to  directing school or a writing academy. But no one teaches you how to be a film  producer. It’s just something you learn to do when you balls it up as a  director, isn’t it?

Okay, that’s a joke, but the point remains  that you can do film school if you want to direct, or take any one of the  Writing MAs that have sprung up around the country if you want to be a  scriptwriter; but what do you do if you want to be a producer?

Well, the answer is, you go to EAVE, and,  to my surprise, that’s been the tried and tested route for over a decade now.  EAVE (pronounced ‘Ee-ah-vay’), in fact, seems to be the European film  industry’s best kept secret, having not only developed a great many European  films over the years, but also trained most of Europe’s film producers.  Suddenly, having attended one of their workshops for a week, I find that most  of the producers I meet are EAVE graduates. It’s like discovering some secret  brotherhood like the Masons or the Rosicrucians. They’re everywhere.

Committing to EAVE means taking three  week-long workshops over the space of a year, each one in a different European  city. The first workshop will be concerned with Development and most producers  go with a scriptwriter to kick a project into shape. The second workshop will  train participants in Packaging and Finance. Finally, the third workshop is a  monster pitching session where you get to try and sell your project to scores  of top producers.

It’s not just three weeks’ work, though. In  between workshops you’ll be developing your project whilst liaising with your  group leader and specialist experts. EAVE also means accepting that you will  spend a whole year on the film festival circuit. So you’re pretty much  committed to spending twelve months of your life schmoozing with the  cigar-chomping top brass of Eurofilm Incorporated.

It’s a hefty commitment to make, but the  effect is clear for anyone to see. This year EAVE came to Birmingham for the  first time, with the third workshop of the 2003 course, so I got an insight  into just how valuable an experience it can be.

First off, I’m a screenwriter, so it’s  interesting for me to see the producer’s angle on things. Secondly, my God –  look how many of them there are! For a whole week I’m surrounded by up to sixty  movie producers. It’s more producers than I’ve seen in my life so far. Do I  have enough business cards with me?

It’s not just that I’m hob-nobbing with the  next generation of continental movie producers; it’s also that a few of the  current generation of quite famous movie producers are here as well. I do a bit  of a double take when I find myself standing on the terrace of Ipanema and  realise that the lanky, slightly frayed at the edges guy I’m chatting to is  actually Nik Powell. You know, the guy who set up Virgin with Branson, then  went on to exec produce films like Company  of Wolves, Letter to Brezhnev, Mona Lisa, Scandal, Waterland, The Crying Game,  Backbeat, Fever Pitch and Little  Voice. Yeah, that Nik Powell.

But that kind of schmooze coup is par for  the course. A year on EAVE and you’ll have met nearly everyone who’s anyone on  the European film scene.

Mark Pressdee is finding that out. He’s  spent the past few years working on nearly every low/no-budget short film  production in the West Midlands and, consequently, has one of the most sought  after filofaxes in the local film industry. He already spends a large part of  his day fielding calls from frantic local line-producers who desperately need  runners, DOPs or lighting crews for the short they’re shooting, especially when  it’s First Cut or Digital Shorts time. But now he’s decided to become a bona  fide producer and has gone through the EAVE mill, emerging with an exhausted  look and a graduation certificate for his production office wall.

“It’s totally changed me,” says Mark. “This  year I’ve been to every film festival in Europe except, ironically, Edinburgh,  I’ve pitched my project idea in Cannes, I’ve just spent a week here in  Birmingham pitching to some of the biggest producers in Europe and some of them  are interested in the feature I’ve got. It’s the kind of experience that  changes you totally as a person. I actually feel like a film producer now. For  a giggle I even made the odd appearance in a suit and with a cigar! Seriously,  though, it filled me with self-believe. I now know I can push my projects. I  now believe in my talent as a producer to develop and nurture the talent of the  region, because that’s what it’s all about.”

It’s funny, but, because I know Mark, it’s  easier to see the real effect EAVE can have on a person. He walks taller, he  has more stature, because yes, he’s a producer now.

“I think I’ve probably just  taken a leap forward by six years. If I hadn’t done EAVE, I know it would have  taken me another six years to learn what I’ve just learned. When I went to the  first workshop back in January, I talked to a local producer who’d done it the  year before (Natasha Carlish, who recently produced the short film, Bouncer) and she said I’d come back to  Birmingham and immediately set up an office. I was like, you must be joking, I  can’t afford that, but she just smiled and said I would. So I do the first  workshop in Ludwigsburg and come straight back and take a unit in the Custard  Factory. I had to. You can’t be a producer without a production office.”

Doing the course has set him back a bit:  something like two grand from his pocket and maybe another three grand of work  that he had to turn down in order to do the festivals, but he got help to fund  some of it and he knows it’s an investment in his career. A year ago his  contacts book was full of regional talent and he was working on no-budget  shorts; now his contacts book is full of European producers and he’s talking to  the big money people about his feature idea. The next stage is to use those  European contacts to get movies off the ground in the West Midlands: a marriage  of continental and regional talent.

Mark is now doing business as Macoy Media.

Workshop 3, which took place largely at  Birmingham Rep, was hosted by Screen West Midlands and featured a number of  plenaries that were open to local producers. Of particular interest was the  talk given by Alison Small, Head of Film Council International, who pointed out  that inward-investment features in the UK are about to break all records.  There’s never been a better time to be a British producer looking for European  co-production partners to shoot a movie: “Global filmmaking is here to stay and  it’s not a threat to the UK that there are all these other fantastic filmmaking  centres across Europe: we should be working with each other in partnership.”

EAVE, then, seems like the perfect place to  start making those partnerships.

A version of this first appeared on Channel 4’s Ideasfactory site.