Surviving Script Development
Congratulations! After all that hard work and self-doubt you’ve finally had your spec script optioned / been commissioned to write a treatment or script. It feels like you’ve won the lottery. The euphoria is amazing, you feel like you’ve finally made it in the industry and your tv show/feature film is going to be made! Being commissioned/optioned is a fantastic endorsement of you as a writer and marks a huge step forward in the industry. What many writers come to realise is that it is the beginning of a very different process and one that requires just as much skill to navigate as breaking in did.
The development process in the film and television industry can feel like its own special kind of hell and the often interminable months and often years spent ‘in development’ can be utterly demoralising. That euphoria of having ‘made it’ begins to fade and gives way to despondency and a sense of hopelessness as your fantastic film/tv show looks further away from getting made than it did before you even typed ‘fade in’.
At this year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival I had the great pleasure of being on a panel with Jason Taylor (Bad Hat Harry Productions), Rob Sprackling (Gnomeo & Juliet) and Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty), discussing what happens AFTER your script’s been optioned. What was clear was how different writers approached this process depending upon what they wanted to get out of it. For Jed, having significant creative control over his projects was of paramount importance and so collaborating with the right production company was essential for him. While Rob had ‘passion projects’ that he tries to protect through the development process, he was sometimes happy to take the pay cheque knowing that in doing so the chances of retaining creative control might diminish.
What everyone agreed was that having your work commissioned or optioned did not guarantee it being made but that at least it was now a possibility. Every development process is unique but here are some of the oft-encountered hurdles you might face and how you can overcome them:
Unpaid rewrites – as development budgets get smaller everyone is trying to get more for less and, unhappily, that includes getting writers to do more work for less money. How you respond to this depends upon how much you want to avoid upsetting the apple cart, how you feel about the changes you’re being asked to make, and whether you feel those asking for the changes (ie the producer) are themselves putting in work for no money. While development can be poorly paid for writers (a £1 option agreement is not uncommon), it’s often even more poorly paid for producers who have to invest huge amounts of time trying to get your project off the ground without any guarantee of any success or financial return. If you think your producer is working hard for your project and you think the changes will make the project better, it’s probably worth the effort. An agent, if you have one, if often great at helping make this kind of judgement call. If you don’t have representation, ask around for advice from the writing community.
Script notes you don’t agree with – as a script editor my hope is always that all the notes I give to a writer are met with a knowing smile as it confirms problems they subconsciously knew were lurking in their script but they just hadn’t be able to identify, unpick or solve. However, the reality is that even brilliant script editors aren’t always right about every note and as a writer you’ll develop an ability to spot the notes that might change your script but aren’t necessarily making it better. Then there are the notes that are good and will transform your script but sadly transform it into precisely the kind of project you absolutely don’t want it to be. There’s a great joke in ‘Only Fools and Horses’ in which tramadult.com Trigger tells Del Boy he’s been looking after his granddad’s broom, he’s “maintained it these 20 years. This old broom’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time”! Once you’ve been asked to change everything you love about your project, is it really the project you love any more? This is the time to make a choice – do you take the money and write the script you’re being asked for (even if you hate it) or do you try to convince the note-giver to have faith in your vision of the project? If you try but fail to convince the note-giver then you may have to contemplate taking the project back from the producer, if that’s contractually possible. I’ve seen writers take each of these different routes and, as long as the decision is made not in haste but after serious consideration of the consequences, then it has always ended happily.
Radio silence – this is something that annoys the heck out of everyone working in development and it’s my pet hate. For writers, who are often at the bottom of a very big chain, it can feel as if your producer (that same one that promised you the earth when convincing you to let them option your script for £1) has disappeared off the face of the earth. It is perfectly reasonable for you to expect your producer to keep you up to date on progress but not all producers do this as often as they should. If you find yourself in this position, it doesn’t do any harm to give them a nudge. I’m not talking stalking here, just friendly, polite ‘what news?’ ‘is there anything you need me to do?’ kind of approaches. Sometimes the radio silence is because they are just, temporarily, snowed under on something else that’s suddenly taken off. The great thing about option agreements is that they END and you can decide at the end of the option period whether you want to renew with that producer. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they’ve actually done to make your project happen in the time they’ve had it. If you’re unhappy with the answers then start looking elsewhere for someone who will be more passionate about your project and actively do more to get it made.
Being fired from your own project – this is not uncommon in films but is, thankfully, very rare in television. Whether or not you can be fired from your own project very much depends upon the kind of contract you’ve signed. While you (and your agent) will want to do everything you can to avoid this outcome it isn’t the end of the world if it happens. While it’s unheard of in authored television drama it is an all-too-frequent occurrence in both feature films and continuing drama series. If it happens to you, take heart from the fact that you’re not the first and won’t be the last to suffer this fate and it doesn’t mean that others in the industry will think any the worse of you in the future.
There are many elements within the development process, some of which require more input from you, like honing the script, and others which require your patience, like your producer raising the finance/convincing a tv network commissioner. The key is balancing being positive and pro-active whilst waiting for things to happen without you. While everyone involved is (hopefully!) working hard to make your project a reality, there is no guarantee your project will move into production. My advice is to keep yourself equally busy dreaming up the next brilliant project that is going to wow the industry. Before you know it you could be so in demand with projects shooting and in development that you’ll wonder why you ever doubted your ability to do this amazing job.