Tuesday, June 02, 2009

It was that, or 'The Capped Crusader'

'The thing is,' an extremely wise, very experienced and enormously attractive producer said to me a while ago,'there's just no demand for a sitcom about people who dress up as fantasy characters and run around woods with rubber swords'. This was in reference to my Fellowship Of The Wrong thing, which I turned into a one-page outline, and got the same response wherever I went.

Of course, no-one was demanding a sitcom about a load of people in a paper company office, or a hotel owner with unrealistic social pretensions and a harridan wife, or an Orange County family-run property business, but they all did pretty well. The last one's Arrested Development, by the way. I wasn't sure if it was obvious.

So was the producer being criminally unimaginative? No. I just hadn't written the outline very well. Because if it sounds like the main draw is the rubber swords thing, she won't be able to pitch it to the broadcasters with any degree of confidence, which means they won't have confidence in it either, and I won't be able to pay the mortgage.

Of course, none of the situations described above are inherently interesting in and of themselves. I'm prepared to admit my Fellowship of the Wrong one isn't inherently interesting either. What puts the com in the sit are the characters. So, is the next step to write detailed character biographies, showing how they relate to each other, what their motivations are and (crucially) how they're funny?

No. Because producers and broadcasters don't read those bits. At least, if they're longer than a couple of sentences in a first draft one or two-page outline they won't. The same way directors quite often skip the fluffy stuff - those tedious lines of action between the dialogue. Not all directors do this, but some definitely do. So how do you get round this? By either:

1) Finding a way to suggest in just a few concise paragraphs a couple of characters with a strong, built-in conflict, and a setting in which they can have almost endless varieties of shenanigans.

or:

2) Forgetting the whole outline thing and just writing the damn script, so they can see for themselves how it all comes together.

Both are, of course, really really really hard.

On a sort of vaguely-related note, I recently sent off a number of half-page outlines to a broadcaster. The first four or so were fairly serious, but then I decided to stick one more on the end as a joke.

BATEMAN AND ROBIN

"Sacked gung-ho female police firearms expert JO BATEMAN teams up with smooth gay private investigator ROBIN INKPEN to deal with high-society crimes (blackmail, divorce cases, theft) that require the utmost discretion."

That was the outline in its entirety. And when I got the reply, which one do you think they liked most?

Yes indeed.


EDIT: okay, honesty forces me to admit that eventually, the broadcaster picked a couple of characters from one of the earlier outlines, suggested a different setting for them and commissioned the treatment that I'm writing right now, but still. They did say that. Maybe I should just put a deliberately stupid mini-outline on the end of all my submissions, to get their attention? Although I believe that's how that 'Rosemary and Thyme' thing got commissioned, so clearly that tactic can end up biting you on the bum.

14 comments:

Newf said...

I like the second option, "just writing the damn script", because it's damn scriptwriting and you're a damn scriptwriter, and yis.

Tim Footman said...

There is of course a flipside: pitches that sound really good, but the reality turns out to be abject plop. I mean, I can see a lot of potential in "Father and son doctors divorce at the same time and are forced to share a house". If it had, say, Dylan Moran and Geoffrey Palmer in it. Or even "Archaeologists, some of them quite good-looking, get excitable".

Boz said...

I am finding it worryingly easy to visualise Bateman And Robin. Oh dear. Maybe because they are not fully-fleshed characters I can thus imprint onto them whatever I fancy doing.

I'm picturing sort of a latter-day Avengers...

...but then I always do.

Please please please for your next one include characters whose names have all been made up from Blogger word verifications.

james henry said...

Ooh good call Boz! It'll be either that, or names taken from D&D monsters.

"Mike Beholder and Sandra Grimlock have to put aside their differences to fight crime and-

Actually those are quite good names.

PK said...

How dare you refer to one of the greatest TV dramas of all time as "that Rosemary and Thyme thing." A thing? A thing? Why it is the very pinnacle of challenging TV drama, with its stunningly clever plotting, and textured characterisation. I've been told that David Simon goes to bed at night gnashing his teeth and wailing with jealousy about the fact that he didn't think of such a punningly good TV series first. So now. There.

(I haven't been out of the house in six months. Sob. Somebody, help me...)

james henry said...

I thought Rosemary and Thyme was a brilliant title, and a gardening detective show was an equally brilliant idea. However I decided not to sully the sheer genius of its concept by actually watching the thing, as I could only end up disappointed.

PK said...

Indeed, genius is the appropriate word. For me the show's real strength lay in its quite remarkable...
(suddenly loses train of thought and starts thinking about Felicity Kendal's bum)

james henry said...

Is this an appropriate moment to remind readers my fingers have actually brushed Felity Kendall's Arse of Sitcom Gold while mic'ing (never sure how you spell that) her up to do a Q&A at Waterstone's in Canterbury?

Yes of course it is.

I also nearly forgot to turn it off when she went for a wee, which would have lead to a Naked Gun type scenario, but fortunately remembered to leap up an turn off the speakers at that moment. Phew.

PK said...

I want a pic of you hands posted on this blog forthwith, that I may splay my own hands against them Spock style, and thereby touch Felicity Kendal's bum (albeit at a remove). It would please me greatly.

james henry said...

Do you know, that's exactly the sort of reaction I was expecting when I told Will Self the next day (I'm sorry, it's all gone a bit name-droppy today), but in fact he couldn't have been less interested!

PK said...

Self would only show interest if you'd mentioned that it was his bum that you'd touched. Has any man ever had a more appropriate name?

This all reminds me of the time I said to Melvyn Bragg...oh, but I should stop now.

(Goes back to thinking about Felicity Kendal's bum, while trying to ignore the haggard hollow-eyed visage of Will Self floating by her left buttock)

Boz said...

No need to watch the real thing when parodies abound.

nanga parbat said...

I suffered the indignity of being propositioned by Will Self at a Waterstone's event. To be frank, if he spent more time thinking about Felicity Kendal's bum and less time being inappropriate with the staff I think we'd all be much happier.

Tim Footman said...

Will Self was always a Penelope Keith kinda guy.