This year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival was hugely instructive in terms of both the craft and the business of being a screenwriter. I’ve got no track record at all in either, so I hadn’t intended to do any ‘advice’ type blog posts – I seldom write them, as there are plenty of people better qualified than me.
That said, looking back over my notes (almost 60 pages – typing them up took me a day and a half) it struck me that there are one or two things I’ve not read elsewhere, or at least not explicitly. This post covers one of them: spec scripts and calling card scripts. Much-discussed over the weekend, and not necessarily the same thing – any script that’s not been commissioned is written on spec, but that doesn’t mean any non-commissioned script is fit for use as a calling card script. Your early spec scripts probably just won’t be good enough to send out, and should be treated as learning exercises – the perils of sending stuff out too early, because either it’s not sufficiently developed or you’re not, were a recurring theme across many sessions.
But what about the calling card script? The script that shows what you can do and hopefully interests producers and agents in you. Conventional wisdom I’ve read and heard elsewhere starts from the premise that it won’t get made – it’s just there to get you noticed. That’s true (with vanishingly few exceptions). But some things that can be said to follow on from that aren’t so true: “write what you really want to, as it’ll never get made” can get you in trouble.
So here’s my conclusion, which wasn’t said explicitly by any of the speakers I heard, and one or two of them might even dispute it: but a calling card script should be commercial. It should not simply be a demonstration of storytelling and craft. It will be assessed by producers and agents as they would assess any other script: can they sell it, can they get it made? Even though formal events like the speed pitching at last weekend’s festival are essentially artificial and unusual events, the same yardstick will be applied: a project that elicits teeth-sucking and mutterings that it’s hard to get that kind of thing made is not useful, even if you’ve written the script really well.
TV series and serials are immediately more attractive than singles. Some genres and tones are more appealing than others, and it varies by channel. A brilliantly written script on an abhorrent topic would also probably be a bad idea. My 90-minute TV single will always be commercially problematic, no matter how good I can get it; a piece of hard sci-fi will also be hard to sell, albeit for subtly different reasons (niche genre, rather than format [EDIT see the comments below for more on this point]). “Ah,” you may say, “if it’s brilliant it’s brilliant, and it’ll get you somewhere no matter how difficult a sell it might first appear.” Maybe – but at the very least, you’ve made your job significantly harder, which you can ill afford in such a competitive environment. If you can’t get a script into someone’s hands or inbox, it doesn’t matter how well it showcases your talent and craft (on the up-side, it doesn’t so much matter if it’s rubbish, I suppose).
That said, a well-polished spec script that you don’t use as a calling card can still have its uses. Producers and agents, if they’re taken with your calling card script, may well ask to see a second piece of work, although this isn’t always crucial: Julian Friedmann insisted on one panel that he’d be willing to work with someone on the basis of a single script, if it was good enough; Rob Thorogood got his spec script produced by the BBC and when asked if he’d written anything else honestly answered no – but it didn’t matter, he still got his project made and it’s bloody good. But there were plenty of speakers who said they like to see a second sample, and it’s a common request from BBC Writersroom if they like the thing you’ve sent in. So I’m going to keep developing my 90-minute single as a credible writing sample, even though it’s the next project that will be ‘the’ calling card script: a TV pilot rather than something more tricky to sell. It’s still a story I’m keen to tell, of course – there’s never merit in trying to second-guess what people want and write it for the sake of your career rather than the story: if you’re not committed to writing it, your version will inevitably be tepid and unappealing. But there is merit in prioritising, from among all the ideas in your head or on your list of things to write, something that can be put in a commercially viable form.
There’s all sorts of other good advice about writing these scripts, and what might be commercially appealing: have an answer to the question of which channel it would suit, pitch it to appropriate agents and producers, and so on – but that stuff’s out there in abundance already. There was an excellent session on what the different channels are looking for, and when the video is out you should watch it if you’re on the delegates’ network. And there are of course arguments for writing what you really want to, and they should never be lost from sight: it will hopefully be distinctively yours, and put your voice across. But it will almost certainly be truly useful only if it can be pitched and sold.