In this essay I am going to concentrate on screenwriting for fictional drama series as my specialism. I will be looking at issues currently facing the industry before discussing some possible routes into this career and noting how others have become established. I will then explain why I have specifically chosen the route of being a freelance screenwriter and will outline how I will put my plan into action.
There is a great deal of uncertainty as to the impact Brexit will have on our film industry and so how screenwriting will be affected. Stephen Follows an award winning screenwriter and film producer, argues that we will certainly lose a lot of European investment and funding: the millions from the MEDIA scheme; EU funding for the export and distribution of UK films in Europe; and the funding independent UK cinemas receive via the Europa Cinema scheme.
He suggests official co-productions between Britain and Europe, where collaborators are given significant state protections and tax benefits, will be much less likely. Such projects will be more complicated because it is not clear how Brexit will affect the free movement of people, goods and services and because legislation may need to be changed. Moving on he argues that European countries with quotas on the amount of European content they must broadcast will have a lot less demand for UK shows. Moreover, that the economic uncertainty and devalued pound may mean European partners will find Britain just too much of a risk for investment.
Giving balance to this negative view, Follows also states that Britain may instead become a more attractive place for filmmakers to locate, as it will be cheaper for them to shoot and produce their films. That the greater flexibility we will have to tailor tax regulations, government incentives and subsidies may benefit the UK film industry and attract business and the money saved by us not having to contribute to the EU will compensate for the loss of EU funding.
Thankfully writing is probably the area least affected by co-operation issues as a script could be sent to any country online via email in the way that equipment and a crew can’t. Another benefit for screenwriters is that they can employ agents to get them represented in almost any country. Despite the fact that it is easy to get scripts out there getting them read and funded is a different matter. One of the best ways to ensure your script is read is to take it to festivals with a screenwriting competition, such as the London short film festival, which has a screenwriting panel. To be successful in this you want to prepare a good two minute pitch and be prepared to answer any questions about your work. This is vital as for anyone to want to fund and produce your film whether at a festival or not is going to want to be wowed in pitch or by a treatment. Once you have gotten through the first stages you will be required to do more pitches of a longer length and they will continue to filter through peoples scripts till they have the ones that impress them the most that will get rewards and prizes that will not only gain you recognition by the industry but could lead to producers coming to you with funding or requests.
Advancements in technology mean that most people in the screenwriting field have access to faster, more affordable and portable computers today. These not only allow for easier and quicker formatting and editing of writing but there is a wealth of software available now to help with the physical writing of text; for example, speech to text. Furthermore, there is a vast array of software available nowadays for character and story development and specific grammar and layout / formatting software for screenwriters. Mark Boal, an Oscar-winning writer/producer, on this topic says, ”technology’s infinite possibilities make the entire field limitless for screenwriters”. The internet has become much more accessible to screenwriters, writers can research obscure topics and locations from their armchairs and support and network with one another so it is a much less isolating business. Improved connectivity such as email and cloud access means writers can collaborate more easily and sell / promote their work to a much wider audience. Damon Lindelöf one of the writers / producers of Star Trek into Darkness describes how digital technology played a huge role in internal crew communications on the film so that crew who were situated remotely could maintain constant communication to share their ideas and work on different parts of the script simultaneously.
Mark Boal also states that our visual eye as an audience has increased and our narrative sense has gotten faster. This means that for contemporary screenwriters, things are now shown and not explained: an actor’s character is shown by their actions and decisions not a set in stone character breakdown (though this is an option.) In other words we now let an audience decide who the character is in the same way that we do strangers in real life. An example of this would be contrasting Digital film making means you can show a flash back or add a voice over very easily meaning writers can include more elaborate fragmented ideas that would have been very difficult and expensive in the past. This again is backed by the way CGI now means that writers don’t have to suggest things anymore they can describe their world however they like with the possibility of it being shown without the need for big detailed models which could end up more expensive.
With the increase in viewing platforms, for writers there is now a much greater demand than the times of no online streaming and only five broadcast channels. This means that there is a lot of competition as there is a larger number of channels and companies who are looking for new writers to create content that will stand out from the crowd . There are plenty of resources out there for writers as it isn’t the most popular career despite this it is still viciously competitive and one of the most difficult roles to get established with in the creative industries. There are websites such as the BBC’s own writers room where there are challenges, tutorials and a space to submit your scripts. There are also the Writers Café, many other online forums and young people’s workshops like those done by the BFI.
In modern series I can observe two main types of script. For instance in Taboo and Poldark the writing seems to focus on the visuals of each episode. This may be due to the writers having more freedom and so describing detailed ambient features of a scene, or it could be the interpretation of the director in terms of semiotics and composition; either way, this style takes the narrative and drags it out, showing every aspect in maximum detail. For example the Cornish coast is one of the biggest selling points to Poldark and so is like a character itself and has its fair share of stage time thus allowing the story to have a larger pace whilst remaining engaging. Scripts like these are designed to be enduring and run for a long time as Mark Boal says ‘our visual eye as an audience has increased’ so to keep going some programs have to show everything in detail to remain captivating. Other series such as Black Mirror and Sopranos are strongly narrative-based and the scripts do not tend to go into great detail about the locations, but focus on dialogue and action, giving it a faster pace and telling the full story. When it is being interpreted by a director the shots are based on how the story is flowing with only brief pieces of ambience.
The biggest modern influence on script writing is the internet, as it allows for the formatted writing and global sharing of work. The improvements in text-to-speech technology means that more people are having the means to keep creating content. In the modern world there has also been an explosion in the demand for drama series, which has meant the commissioning of many relatively low-budget series by studios, as if they fail they can be canceled, if there a success then they can get a higher budget and be re-commissioned. This is a safe investment by studios as it gives the opportunity of ensured repeat custom. a good example of a series starting on a low budget and then being re-commissioned with a much larger budget would be Avatar The Last Airbender which started at $1,000,000, but by the end had $6,000,000 (though, this only occurred for the last four episodes). At the same time some series get canceled despite receiving good reviews for instance “Almost Human” got good reviews, but its consistently decreasing popularity (9.18 million to 5.63 million viewers) meant that Fox cancelled the show after its first season.
Studios also benefit from taking on series with the potential for equally successful spin offs such as Better Call Saul the extremely successful sequel to breaking bad. This means that studios (especially smaller studios) will look out for scripts with richly developed characters and potential story branches.
With the rise of series there has also been an increase in job opportunities in other areas for instance the creation of the “show runner”; whose job it is to ensure that the creative direction of a branded series such as Dr Who is consistent. The episodes must relate to each other in terms of style, story and brand identity.
The techniques used in most scripts (according to Wiki-how) is to research, draft, simplify, script. In research you decide upon your themes motifs and genre and/or sub-genre. Drafting is where you write and rewrite the narrative in story format. Simplify is where you remove unnecessary story in preparation for writing the script. Script is where you write the final draft in screenplay form.
With series writing the script is normally shared between a collection of people for example Taboo the BBC’s new contemporary drama (according to IMDb) has 5 writers meaning the story is more likely to move away from a single person’s writing habits to become something more unique. However there is also chance for it to loose what could be an interesting style. By this I mean that when you watch a film with a single writer you get a privileged comprehensive view into their world whilst having multiple writers only gives you an insight into how the writers collaborate, but nobodys one mind. Having multiple writers means you also have to have a show runner or one director to ensure that the story flows across each episode, but it benefits longer stories as it will ensure that no individual writer is tasked with writing page after page (keeps the energy fresh and alive.)
To become a screenwriter my initial steps can vary. The National Career service website describes two pathways into the industry: freelance and studio based writer. If I decide to take the freelance root like then the preeminent factors to me are firstly skill then networking. Obviously to write a script you have to be capable of writing in that format, this can be learnt in many ways from attending relevant courses at a university like William Goldman such as the BA(Hons) in scriptwriting for film and television course at Bournemouth, UCLan and Worcester. The issues that arise with this method most prominently are the financial difficulties it can potentially propose. Firstly if I was going to Bournemouth I would have a student loan from attending the university, but secondly I would have to pay for my accommodation and various bills. Even though Bournemouth isn’t an expensive area to live in or buy houses in it is still costly and to get the money to do so would have to come out of either a loan or from selling my own house. To get around the difficulties presented here it would be best to either have a flat share with fellow students or to buy outright then collect rents from cohabiters and holiday letting. An alternative to this would to be to do as James Cameron did and spend a lot of time in the library of university towns and spend time with people studying relevant courses and interests this way you get there insight free of charge (parasitic approach.)
In his biography, James Cameron states, “Nobody will give you the pathway. It’s something you have to find yourself,” as something he would tell any aspiring writer; as everybody will do it in their own way. To me this means that networking is important for instance if you know filmmakers as a writer then you stand a better chance of somebody wanting to make your work. When James Cameron ran out of work and nobody would return his calls turned to scriptwriting (terminator) because he had contacts he was able to both finance and actualize this script which rebuilt his career in the film industry.
If I was to follow the studio based route I would first have to find a company looking for a script writer such as Netflix Originals. Once at this point I would have to submit work to demonstrate that I’m a capable writer which would most likely mean fitting there genera and theme style better than a lot of the competition. Moreover I would have to accept that certain company’s may not work with me without being face to face. To physically meet introduces a number of logistic issues for example if I wanted to go and work on Netflix originals somewhere like Studio JMS then I would have to obtain a work visa and go to Woodland Hills. Living in America, I would have to adapt to a new currency and different mannerisms, not to mention that as I’m writing this America is facing some political issues. Again to fund this I would either have to get a bank loan or sell up in Britain.
To Conclude after researching this area I believe that I would be best perusing the freelance route to screen writing as it seems similar, but weirdly more robust seeming than the studio options as there is a massive community that has your back. With the freelance route there is less need for me to move location as it will allow me to work online from home and so is cheaper to undertake. Politically I have no worries as I am able to network and could always just make the films myself and put them online.
My first step now will be to take on a short screenwriting course with the BFI in my local area with the hope to build my skillset and gain recognition and accreditation.