Good films start with good scripts. It’s all about story.
I sat down with my friend – agent and executive producer Julian Friedmann – to talk about screenwriting. What producers are looking for? What makes a great writer? How do you get an agent? What’s the best route into the business?
He has taught at universities and film schools all over the world, is the co-author of The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television, author of How to Make Money Scriptwriting and editor of two volumes on Writing Long-Running Television series.
He designed the MA in Television Scriptwriting at De Montfort University and PILOTS, for developing long-running television series for the EU MEDIA Programme. He has been on both Emmy and Grierson Juries and is Senior Advisor to the London Screenwriting Festival. He gave a TEDx talk on storytelling:
Julian also acts as Executive Producer for and with clients and has a number of films on his slate.
Here’s the first half of the interview. Part two will be up next Thursday, where we talk about producing, pitching and what sales agents look for in films. Don’t miss it.
You’re on the front lines, representing writers. What are producers optioning and looking for these days?
What producers want most is really, really good writing.
The most significant change over the last few years is budget. Budgets have come down considerably in the UK, which makes it a little easier to pitch lower budget films.
Almost every producer is looking for something different. As an agent, we don’t just sell scripts, we sell writers. It’s rare to sell a spec script. A spec script is there to sell a writer and the writer gets hired to write something the producer wants.
In terms of books, producers get excited about bestsellers. They get excited by five star reviews in The Bookseller and Publisher’s Weekly.
They often get excited without actually thinking. There’ll be a five star review in Kirkus for a book and a whole lot of LA producers will start emailing asking about the book. We’d really like to see it. When it is obvious they won’t buy it.
The truth is producers often don’t really know what they’re looking for. Even if they say they’re looking for elevated genre, if you send them an absolutely brilliant script in that genre, they will probably want something else. They are as likely to fall in love with a different genre. It’s very rare to get an ecstatic response.
Sometimes they love a script but pass because of financing issues, but then they’re interested in working with the writer. So that is a result.
All we can do is sit down with them and try to draw out of them what they’re looking for. Or we work the way we’ve worked in Germany for 20 years. We’ve developed relationships with TV and film producers who now see us as an external development department.
They’ll say to us, we need a movie about X. It needs to be a bit like these two films. They’ll give us some parameters and we’ll brief writers. They’ll come up with a pitch and the producers will choose one of the pitches and commission it.
What elevates a great writer from a good writer?
Emotional engagement. I think the difference between a good screenwriter and a great screenwriter is a great screenwriter can find a way to draw in their audience and get them to relate to the characters, whether they’re old, young, male or female.
Originality isn’t that important. Accessibility is. If you can find a way to trigger emotion in an audience, then you’ll be successful. Most writers don’t really know how to do that consistently.
Great writers don’t just have an understanding of human nature, they can make it accessible to a wide range of people.
The genre or the particular kind of story isn’t important. If you can make someone cry or laugh reading a script, then even if they don’t buy it, they’ll buy you.
There’s been a discussion on Twitter recently about film school versus working your way up in the industry. What’s the best route for a writer?
Fundamentally, I don’t think screenwriting is a career I’d recommend. You’re far better off going into the business and working in film and television in almost any capacity, even if your long-term goal is to become a writer. You’re much more likely to become a successful writer.
Screenwriting degrees can work. But many writers have jobs and write out of office hours. So work in the industry and write.
There are no jobs writing feature films in the UK. It is totally speculative until you make it big. How many feature films do we make a year, not counting the ones made for £100,000 or less?
If you’re getting 2% of the budget and the film costs £100,000, you’re getting £2000 for six months work. Do the sums. It doesn’t work.
That’s why there’s an argument against spending £9000 on fees, another £6000 on accommodation and living expenses, to get a degree in screenwriting and then be unemployed.
If you’re really determined, the three years you work in the industry will get you much further. If you don’t do that, you’ve got no edge. You’re competing with 10,000 other people who have gone to film school and want a job as a writer.
Personally, I don’t think there should be undergraduate courses in screenwriting.
I don’t think 17, 18, 19 year olds have had enough life experience to refract their perception of the world in a story, never mind not having the ability to articulate their understanding of the world in a way that’s going to work for a wide audience.
They should be going to university to study psychology, not screenwriting.
Once you’re working in the industry, most reasonable companies will give you a day off a week to do a part time MA. It’s not a lot of time off. They know you’re getting better at what you’re doing.
Not all MA courses are equal though.
I was once an external examiner for an MA in Screenwriting. I and another external examiner refused to validate the course without significant changes.
One of the reasons was that the students were taken on without having to demonstrate any screenwriting ability at all.
How can you take people on to do an MA in Screenwriting if they can’t write?
If someone does an MA in Screenwriting, they’re perfectly entitled to think they could have an occupation as a writer. But we all know there are some people who could never make it as a screenwriter. You have to be cruel to be kind and tell them the truth.
But none of the people that went there were being told there’s almost no way they’ll earn money to be screenwriters.
I designed the television screenwriting course at De Montfort to be practical and relevant. It’s totally industry orientated. There are no academics on the course at all. The students write scripts. They meet something like 20 industry experts every year over the two years, including people who are very high up in the industry.
Past experts have included Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Cracker) Andy Hamilton (Drop The Dead Donkey) Sarah Bagshaw (Emmerdale) Tony Jordan (Hustle) Matthew Graham (Life On Mars) Julian Jones (Merlin) Phil Ford (Dr Who and Sarah Jane Adventures) Barbara Machin (Waking the Dead).
Most people at De Montfort have jobs in which they persuade their employers to let them do a part time MA.
What are some common mistakes you see from screenwriters starting out?
One of the most common mistakes aspiring screenwriters make is to think they can write well when they can’t.
How does someone know they’ve written something good?
Perspective and context is a huge issue.
Writers find it very hard to get the truth. Most people don’t tell the truth, particularly friends and family. Most friends and family can’t identify good work. Many producers can’t either.
If a writer writes a script, assuming it’s a good idea and it’s usually not, they need to get lots of people to read it. Then they need to really take the time to understand the feedback.
They should then rewrite and rewrite it. You should never send out a first draft. Even really great writers very seldom write good first, second or third drafts. The films you watch go through several drafts, with notes from directors, producers, script editors and other writers.
Four Weddings And A Funeral had something like 17 proper rewrites.
We get applications from writers who say, I’ve written the new Batman movie. I’ve sent it to the studio and they say they can’t accept submissions.
The letter they get back apparently says the studio wants their Batman script but it has to come through an agent. I ask them how do they know the Studio wants it and they say the letter from the lawyer says “We don’t accept unsolicited material.”
You have to read between the lines. This means they don’t want it. If I manage to get it on a desk there, they’d refuse to read it just in case they came up with a Batman movie which had a similar idea to the submission, because then the writer could sue them.
The fact it was sent it to them, the fact that the writer misread the letter just demonstrates that the writer is an amateur and doesn’t know what they’re doing.
They don’t research. People meet you in some context and then having met you, they bombard you with material. Just because I’ve met you, doesn’t mean I’m the right agent for you. People send me books because they’ve met me. It shows you haven’t done any research. If you look on our website for our submission requirements, it says I’m not accepting book clients.
That makes you a liability, not an asset.
For writers, one of the joyous things is you write something and then you write something else. You never use up your creative ability. Some writers do get writers block but generally speaking if someone writes a script, they deliver it, sell it or not, they sit down and start a new one. It’s not as if they’re using up a scarce resource they’re running out of.
What’s the best way for a writer to approach an agent?
Check the website and have a track record first.
When you get an offer that is taking you into a more interesting league, don’t accept the offer. Email half a dozen agents and say I’ve had a couple of films made or a couple of episodes on television. I seem to be getting somewhere. And
I’ve now had an offer from X company for a feature film script and I think now’s the time I need to start thinking about getting an agent. Most agents will immediately say send me your work.
Agents lose money on clients who have virtually no track record. We do take some on because we love their writing. But we lose money for the first three years. It costs us money.
So, why would we take on a writer with no track record, who doesn’t have an absolutely blindingly good script if it also means we have to fire a writer who’s making us money?
All significant agents lists are pretty full. It doesn’t mean you stop taking on new clients because you promote young people in the office and they take on new clients.
Essentially if I take on a new client, I have to fire one. Which is not to say I’m not up for firing clients. If clients don’t take our advice and insist in writing what we can’t sell then eventually we think they might be better served by another agent.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.
Part Two of my interview with Julian goes up next Thursday.
Picture Credit: Adaptation – Because all of us pained writers have been there.
You can follow Julian on Twitter @julianfriedmann. If you’re a UK based aspiring screenwriter, I really recommend checking out the London Screenwriters Festival. With workshops, writing guru guest speakers and pitching and networking opportunities, it’s one of the best events you can go to further your career. Tickets are selling out fast, so get your hustle on.