Saturday 12 July 2014

I Love This Idea - But That's Not How It Sounds

We Brits look at the Americans with envy. In the world of TV Comedy, they’ve given us M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, The American Office and plenty more besides.

Pic by Ricardo Liberato
And some Americans seem look at us Brits with envy even though we only seem to have given them Monty Python, Benny Hill, The Actual Office and some shows that became Sanford and Son and All in the Family.  I’m sure American writers look enviously at the idea of the BBC with its compulsory licence fee, noble aims to inform, educate and entertain and therefore the freedom not to chase TV ratings (don’t tell them).

To British eyes, the American system seems to be very regimented – from the calendar of when shows are pitched, pilots are cast, picked up and shot, to the hierarchy of writer-producers (for more on this, go the brilliant Children of Tendu podcast). On top of all this, The Writers’ Guild seems to have hammered out fairly clear protocol, agreements and levels of payment for all of the above. 

To American eyes, Britain must look like a shambles. Which it is. There is no real system in British comedy, apart from the annual decamp to Edinburgh, which heavily favours the writer-performer. For writers, though, there's nothing set in stone. This is partly because no-one feels there needs to be system, and I applaud that. It seems crazy that the entire US TV industry is trying to make dozens of pilots at exactly the same time.

One way in which this shambles manifests itself is the way in which sitcoms are developed. Again, the differences could not be more stark. In America, a studio decides it likes a writer, who’s probably earned their spurs writing on an established show for a few years. The studio offers them a deal. Money to develop a script. Maybe an office. (Ha! Try even getting a meeting room at the BBC, let alone an office.) You might even get some assistance. In the form of an assistant. And ultimately, you get a deadline.

Notice two things here. Firstly, the deal. And secondly the deadline. Let’s take those in turn.

The Deal
In that studio-deal system, the promise of money come before an idea is even discussed. The studio is buying into the talent of a writer and rather hoping the writer will try and deliver something good. That’s a safe assumption, given the writer wants a good show on the air, for reasons of creative satisfaction, a desire to get rich, to disprove a stupid teacher at school or appear clever to other writers (pretty much the big four reasons, I think. Discuss.)

‘The deal’ almost never happens in Britain. I had something like this with BBC Comedy for a year a while back, which produced a script and a readthrough. It all ultimately died when the exec who had championed it left. And that was that.

The British alternative to a deal is a vague ‘Hey, we’d love to hear some of your ideas’. I’ll bet you would. Nothing like ‘We think you’re a brilliant writer and we want to be in business with you.’ It’s all very low-key and non-committal.

I realise this is part of our British way. We’re suspicious of money, contracts, lawyers, business in general and talking like you’re Alan Sugar. In the main, that’s a healthy scepticism. But it leads to amateurishness, confusion and frustration – of which more in a moment.

The Deadline
Because of the rigid TV calendar in America, there’s a deadline. A line by which a script must be submitted or it is dead. There is no such thing in the UK. New TV series start on all TV channels all year round. And so there’s no hurry. For anything. At all. So everything bimbles along, then drifts…

Until a slot comes up, a new initiative is announced, a pot of money being made available, and then there’s a blind panic to get a script in and you work all hours, unsure if the contracts are going to be signed and you’re going to be paid but you do it anyway and you write and rewrite and scream and rewrite and finished and send.

And then.

The exec who announced that initiative leaves.

The development producer you were working with seems be busy on something else.

Your emails seem to vanish into the ether.

People seem hazy on what was agreed and what wasn’t. 

And it’s hard for people to care because the project is dead.

And you don't get paid properly. If at all.

Why do I mention all this?
Good question. It’s all a preamble to a particular phenomenon which seems to be happening a lot at the moment. And I wanted to get some groundwork done before launching into it, so I don’t seem like a petulant, greedy writer who thinks he’s some kind of writing deity - or at least to disguise this fact.

The phenomenon is this: A producer says ‘We’d love to hear some ideas’. And you go in and mention one or two. They latch on to one and ask to see a treatment – a couple of pages explaining the idea, which may well have been in your brain for months or years. A decent outline or treatment could be weeks of work, reading, research, writing and rewriting.

They want this for free.

*deep breath* Fair enough. You’re wanting them to get behind the idea, commission a script and pester a commissioner or controller to give you a read-through, a pilot or a series. So a treatment is just about okay, given we don’t have a dead/deadline system in place. And we're trying to sell our comedy wordy wares.

If they like the idea, they might ‘option’ it, which is a small amount of money (£500. Told you.) which means you can’t take it to anyone else for a six months or a year or whatever. It’s kind of one-page, memo-type deal. Or at least it should be. This £500 in no way covers the hours, days and weeks you’ve already spent on this idea, but it’s a start.

So. Some has said ‘I like the idea’. So you send them the treatment.

Then they might say ‘I really like the idea’. And then option it. £500 quid. Yours to spend on whatever you like. Like food. Or heating. Or your mortgage. The choice is yours. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it. The money won’t arrive for months.

They have a few thoughts on how the idea could be improved. Some thoughts are good. Others are insane and demonstrate they’ve not really understood the idea or been paying attention. Or they’re trying to turn your idea into something else that they’re more interested in, or watched on TV last night. But they’ve optioned it now. So you decide to tweak the treatment.

You spend another day on the treatment. And send it in.

They say ‘I love the idea.’


Could they have some sample scenes?


This is the bit I’m dwelling on. When I mentioned ‘amateurishness, confusion and frustration’ earlier I was talking about this bit. It’s amateurish because someone’s treating you like an amateur  - ie. not paying you. It’s confusing because no-one quite knows what the protocol should be. And it’s all very frustrating.

Sample Scenes
‘Sample scenes’ don’t just write themselves. They take at least a couple of days. Because it’s new show, and a new idea, and it’ll be ages before I could bare to show those samples scenes to anyone, it’s probably three or four days work, scattered over a couple of weeks. Maybe longer, because you're looking to write scenes that crystal key relationships and are demonstrative of the show as a whole. So, five days. minimum. So, do I want to work for five days for free? Tough one.

“Ah yes,” says the Comedy Exec, “but if a script is commissioned… and then a series… and then repeats… and then…” Stop. True. That all might happen. But the likelihood a script won’t be commissioned. And if it is, the likelihood is that it won’t be commissioned as a series, because most scripts aren’t. It took me twelve years to get a show on TV (Bluestone 42). I fully expect the next one to take at least half that time. If not more. If I’m lucky.

But we all know what’s going on here. Someone’s doing everything they can to get more for less. I understand why people do that. I try to do it at the supermarket. But Tesco is a multi-billion pound retailer. Not a writer. (I might go to Sainsbury’s if I’ve just been paid that £500)

So. A Development Producer or Comedy Executive is well within their basic human rights to ask for yet more work, this time for free. And the lack of system encourages this. But here’s why I don’t recommend it:

It doesn’t sound good. I’ll go further. It sounds bad.

The Joy of Subtext
We writers don’t just deal in text. In fact text isn’t even our main product. That would be subtext. That’s what scripts are: Characters saying one thing and meaning another; and other characters hearing something else entirely.

So, while I completely understand why a Comedy Executive may say, ‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’, this person needs to know that I’m hearing something else. I may well be wrong about most of it, but don’t forget, I’m the averagely paranoid, freelance writer. And I hear a mixture of about 5 things.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
1. 'I don't love this. If I did, I’d commission a script.' 
Speaks for itself really. If you loved it, you’d commit . But you have doubts. Why would you that be? Onto the next thing that I’m hearing.

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
2. 'I can't really imagine this'.
So I’ve set up the idea, the characters and the setting. I’ve explained how it’s going to be funny – and you seem happy with this. In fact you love it. And the only reason we had the meeting in the first place is because you think I’m a funny, competent writer. So what’s the problem? Your lack of imagination. That’s a shame, given your job in development is to imagine what might be. So, could this be the real problem that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
3. ‘I don't trust your ability to make this idea funny.’
The idea is fine. Funny, in fact. Fresh. Modern. Classic with a twist. But how can I be sure this writer - who’s been nominated for a few awards, is well regarded and whom I invited in to my office - can deliver funny scenes around this idea – that they’ve come up with and nurtured?  Maybe it’s borderline but ultimately: 

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ could mean:
4. ‘I don't think you're worth my budget.’
You have a limited budget that you have to eke out over a year so you’re going to make it stretch as far as possible. So you’re going to save your boss some money and make a writer that you want to be working with write for free for even longer. Thanks.

One more thing. Is it possible that:

‘I love this. Can I have same sample scenes please?’ really means:
5. ‘I don't have the guts to stand by this or turn it down.’
Maybe. As the writer and creator of this idea, I had the guts to spend weeks of my own time on this, committing to it at the exclusion of other things – because time is finite, remember? – and yet you are unwilling to do this. That's what I'm hearing. Because I'm paranoid. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

It’s not about the money. Okay, it’s partly about the money. But mostly it’s about honesty and respect. I quite like our non-rigid, slightly shambolic system. But this is the downside.

For more on money, have a look here


  1. I've realised one big difference between US and UK systems: if you're attached to a show in the US, that's it, you're unlikely to be working on anything else, unless it's in your own time, which you're unlikely to have.

    In the UK however, you're assumed to be working on a few shows at varying stages at any one time, so the assumption is (if the exec is thinking about it at all, which isn't likely, to be honest), you're probably got cash coming in from somewhere, so getting some money to you for the thing you're working in right now isn't a priority.

    Which is bad and wrong of course. And actually talking about money up front is seen as the height of gaucheness for writers, because we're supposed to be monk-like artisans rather than, you know, people who do a 'job' for a 'living'.

  2. I only approach Commissioning Editors through an Independent producer now. He won't LET us work for nothing. It takes the thing out of my hands - which is quite liberating

  3. Hi James
    Sorry for the irrelevant post, but...
    Is there some way that I can enter my script for the Comedy Feeds? I don't have ‘a normal point of contact at the BBC’ to send it to and it is supposed to be for new writers...
    Many thanks for your time.