It's not just about the script
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
I think one of the most frustrating things about the industry is that the script is only ever part of the story. Although getting your script in the best shape possible is a pretty groovy plan, many other factors come into play: who you know, your track record, the talent attached, what the industry is hot for.
While socialising in the right circles can put you in a better position regarding the above over time, there's one thing a writer can instantly do to make their idea more sellable - and that's improve their opening pitch. I believe how a writer initially communicates their world to someone in the industry is vitally important when it comes to whether their show ever hits our screens.
After working as a reporter at TV trade magazine Broadcast, I have naturally found myself thinking more about pitching and how writers communicate their ideas. Speaking regularly to producers and commissioners brought it home to me how crucial the opening pitch was, and I frequently heard of TV shows that had begun life as a single sentence sent in an email to a commissioner.
Armed with this knowledge, I can no longer just think about how strong the script is when I read my clients' work, but also how they will get a producer interested within 10 seconds.
These days, most scripts are sent out with a treatment that includes a logline (one or two sentences describing your project), character descriptions and an episode/series breakdown. The general advice is to keep things tight (a page or two), and I also think adding imagery or a video can be really useful in regards to getting tone across.
A treatment is a must in my eyes, but I believe the most important part is the opening logline because it can be a great shortcut into your world. This logline should be able to generate interest on paper/screen, but also when you are speaking to a producer, agent or a friend - friends shouldn't be underestimated now so many more people are filming their own content. The main reason the logline is useful is that it prevents waffle, and I think a waffling writer has probably been the cause of death for many a fine script over the years.
It might be helpful to think of the industry as a chain of brains, all of which you need to win over. If you can describe your project imaginatively and succinctly to a producer, it means they will be able to do the same thing to the next person in command. Whether this is their boss, a commissioner, a distributor, an agent, they have the language – the shorthand – to get your idea over within seconds.
Shorthand should never be underestimated when we are talking about an industry that makes (or at least did make) decisions over breakfasts, at screenings, after award ceremonies. A producer is more likely to mention your project to a commissioner if two sentences will get them interested, if it's a headache for them to even think about – then you do the math...
The power of saying “it's a bit like...”
Writers should also give considerable thought to shows that are “a bit like” theirs. Even if your show is purely original (which it probably isn't), it will be tonally similar to a past or present success story. Instead of trying to ignore this similarity writers can benefit from jumping on the bangwagon, because 1) this creates another shorthand more effective than waffle and 2) it proves there's an existing audience for your programme. It might not be something to lead with in your logline, but any comparisons that streamline your project's tone should feature in the treatment or be mentioned in person.
The bonus of mentioning another show is that you will notice it immediately perks up a commissioner or producer, either because they want to wax lyrical over it or tell you it's the crappiest thing they've even seen. The world of scripted TV is fascinating because nobody can predict with any certainty what is going to be a success. This means the industry is still completely and utterly obsessed by the invisible magic behind a top rated show. When Fleabag became a hit, the industry was desperately looking for the next Fleabag. When Chernobyl went great guns for Sky, managing director of content Zai Bennett told me they had to temporarily close submissions after receiving so many similar proposals. These examples reveal a truth about how the industry functions; producers aren't necessarily chasing the next best thing, but what follows on from the last best thing.
If a producer gets excited about your idea and believes it financially viable, they are more likely to think of solutions to the problems your script presents, rather than using them as an excuse not to take your project any further.
Throughout the creative process, writers should constantly be thinking and tweaking and practicing their pitch on unsuspecting friends, to see what words or concepts get them interested. The idea doesn't have to be simple, and we desperately need more crazy and wacky stuff on TV, but clear communication is one of the best ways to give your wonderful world a fighting chance. And it is something you are in control of.
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