Friday, October 28, 2011

A Producer Writes:

Re: the previous post, 'Paul' says:

Just wanted to say that not all producers are alike. On the last three projects I've developed, the writer has been paid more than the producer. FAR more. I'd say I've made 10% of what I've paid writers over the past couple of years. Now that one of those projects is complete and going out to market, I expect to make some back end - but that's after three years of keeping a business open by hook and by crook. So, yeah, some producers skin writers alive, some producers don't. Try to work with the ones who don't, is my advice.

Which is a valid point, of course, and I should say that most of the producers I've worked with have been lovely, and generous, and all that - I certainly wouldn't want to suggest all producers are out to get as much work out of writers as they can for as little as possible, although arguable that is kind of their job. Some just work in big enough companies that they're pretty much divorced from the contracts/finance side, so don't have much influence over that side of things any way.

Today, for example, I've worked on two different outlines for no money, mainly because a) I like the projects, and b) they have a good enough chance of getting made that I'm betting on it paying off. But there's a limit on how far I'm prepared to go with that. The problem is, if you had a very strict 'never work for a producer who doesn't pay you every step of the way' policy, you'd be out of work pretty quickly, I'm afraid.

Have you considered a smaller desk?

An article I wrote appeared in this week's Broadcast, but they didn't pay me for it, there doesn't seem to be any facility for comments, and it's behind a (not terribly effective to be honest) paywall, so I may as well put it up here.

One thing comedy writers in particular quickly get used to is hearing how little money there is at the start of a project.

We’re constantly being told by production companies that if we do a treatment right now, they’ll find “money for development” (they won’t); that if we do a little script polish/total rewrite, “money can be moved around to pay for it” (it can’t); or this from a producer sitting behind a desk slightly bigger than my house: “Your script shouldn’t be a sitcom, it should be a film and I absolutely have money for this right now” (he didn’t).

However, in the past few years, I’ve moved from fairly regular, if relatively low-paid, gigs in comedy and kids’ telly to developing fewer, bigger, drama projects.

Lots of these I’ve been lucky enough to develop in-house with the BBC, where people do seem to talk to one another and money arrives fairly quickly – apart from one incident where it went to another writer with a similar name, quite possibly the estate of Henry James, whose custodians I think occasionally write confused letters asking why they’re getting Bob The Builder residuals.

Sadly, Gillian Anderson never came round to my house to ask for tips on House of Mirth (or if she did, I was out).

Tragically, because not all of my projects can rely on a vast and chilling corporate behemoth dedicated to breaking the backs and minds of innocent licence fee payers, I currently have a number of drama projects in development with those efficient and nimble free-market agents known as ‘independent production companies’.

This means that although on paper I’m doing far better than I was a few years ago when I was writing for Shaun The Sheep and Green Wing (effectively a sketch show, remember), and I handed in a script in March, I’m writing this with mounting overdraft fees on a laptop whose screen only works when it’s at an angle of exactly 60 degrees to the keyboard, and a rubbery nipple where an ‘M’ key used to be.

I can’t afford to replace my laptop because the increasingly insanely detailed contracts my agent is having to deal with, often including all-in format deals for outlines that are just a couple of pages long, mean that although the money is definitely there, my relationship to it is worryingly similar to that of a Dickensian urchin to his inheritance.

Of course, the producers themselves are often scrabbling for cash (although I can’t help feeling smaller desks would help). The problem is, fewer, bigger projects means bigger gaps for writers to fall down while they wait to get paid.

Managing expectations better would help. We know this isn’t a normal job, and all self-employed people learn to manage for gaps in their income, but if producers don’t start making the prompt payment of writers a priority, I foresee a dark future where all television scripts are churned out either by people who live in bins and thus have no outgoings, or the JulianFellowesBot 3000. And I really don’t want to see any more series about footmen.

➤James Henry has realised with a dark and terrible irony that a) he has possibly written this for no money; and b) he is currently working on a BBC4 project that includes footmen

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Have you got any production company addresses I could send spec scripts to?

Lyvit asks:

"Hi James, Have you got any production company addresses I could send spec scripts to? I've tried the Writersroom but would like to give my work a better chance."

Hmm, I do have some production company addresses, but nothing you couldn't get by using Google. Also, it depends what kind of scripts you're writing - are they comedy, comedy-drama, animation, children's drama? There are literally ONE BILLION production companies, whose addresses range from Death Star-like edifices of chrome and glass, to a bloke in his flat who uses his cat as a PA and script editor. Bigger doesn't mean better, by the way. Nibsy is renowned as the best in the business.

So here's a thing to do: look for a show that's along the same sort of lines as the script you've written. IMDB it, look for the production company, and the name of the producer (don't worry about the exec producer, who usually operates on a higher spiritual plane, and often can't even see writers, on so high a level do their molecules vibrate).

The producer is the person to send it to, usually via the address of the production company on their website, although double check this, as Working Title didn't update the address on their website for about a year, which caused some bewilderment last time I went for a meeting, although it did lead to a hilarious Richard Curtis-style last minute dash by taxi, which I had to share with some posh bloke whose surname was Bumme, a man with no sense of smell, and Julia Roberts. No I didn't.

DO NOT send your script to a load of people who work in the same building, thinking 'well, at least one of them will read it', as the chances are, eventually all the people will read it, mention it to each other, then realise they haven't all discovered some interesting new writer on their own (the best case scenario), and be cross.

The difficulty isn't so much in getting your script read, although if you are expecting to hear back by the end of the week you will be disappointed. Most producers are desperate to find new talent with their own individual voice, even if the first thing they try to do is try and bend that voice into some totally unsuitable new show they've devised about a nineteen thirties milliner who travels though time to solve hat-crime. The difficulty is in getting it to a producer who isn't actively evil, who likes your voice, and appreciates you can a) tell a proper story, and b) tell it in a matter that is wholly your own. And c), has some money, but I can't help with that.

Make sure you take some biscuits for Nibsy.