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Should I film my script?

In a recent round of replies to people who have contacted me through the site one communicant said they were planning to film an episode of their sitcom script to put on youtube. I replied to say they should think very hard before doing this and not just plough ahead and film a whole episode. That makes me sound like an awful naysayer like that teacher at school who said you’d never amount to anything. I promise that, unlike Chemistry’s Dr. Gosling, I believe in you totally. You will amount to something and I am one hundred percent confident of that. Prove the doubters wrong. Don’t listen to the haters, people. They are planning to hate but I, for one, plan to shake the fuckers right off. And so should you.

Thing is, you absolutely should film stuff when you can. But be selective and take time to make what you shoot as good as it can possibly be. The email got the numbskulls in my head doing a little dance, so I thought I should post some advice to make them stop. After all I’ve shot stuff in an attempt to sell an idea and failed massively, so why not learn from my terrible mistakes. I have also shot good ones that did sell an idea so, y’know, in yer face Dr. G.

I shot a little taster tape for a mock-documentary idea many years ago and the first fatal error was to put myself in it. Now, I am a moderately competent performer who has commanded as much as one hundred pounds sterling to perform in Warrington to an audience who seemed far more interested in their booze, their mates, or someone they’d just picked up. There was an actual real life couple snogging right next to me totally oblivious to the musical comedy truth bombs I was dropping. I am that good. But I can’t act. The tape also featured the very talented Michael Spicer who can act. That was a good decision, but we still didn’t get the thing on television.

Anyhow, thanks for your sympathy, but let’s give you a few pointers picked up from years of flinging shit at commissioners to see what sticks. (Tip – never fling actual shit at them, no matter how much of a knob you think they are, it may stick, but it is unlikely to get you a commission.)

1) Why do you want to film your script? It’s worth asking yourself this because it should inform what you do. Do you want to film a whole episode just so you can show people you’ve done it or do you want to sell your idea and help it progress and maybe get it on television? I’ve touched on this before in a blog about how a show gets made. I’ve seen really good examples where film and television students have shot a whole series but, while that’s still a huge achievement, they’ve had the time and resources to do it and its contributed to their studies. I’ve seen many examples where people have just shot too much.

2) Is your script good enough? Every comedy starts with a script or at the very least ideas that have been written down that will hopefully create laughs. So if you find that people haven’t taken an interest in the script so far then maybe it needs work. Even if people have said it’s brilliant, it can still be improved. I recently read a blog by Dave Cohen about Paul Abbott’s approach to scripts saying he redrafts at least 15 times. Abbott’s phenomenally talented and he does that? The two might be connected. I’ve written something recently with a co-writer and I think we’ve rewritten it that many times and guess what, it’s probably the best script I’ve delivered.

3) What should I film? Obviously, everything I say should be taken with a pinch of artisan rock salt. But if you have a thirty minute sitcom script that you want to bring to life it’s probably a good idea to focus on a few scenes involving your key characters. Or take your episode and create a short (5-10 minute max) taster that conveys the characters and a key story or two from your episode. Generally speaking, short form content works best online and if you’re sending something to get interest from a production company or commissioning editor then they don’t need to see a whole episode. Part of the process of getting other people on board is that those people usually want to feel like they are involved in the project. And that doesn’t have to be prostratenegative, especially if they are showering you with riches or at least chucking a few pennies in the hat that lies prostrate before you.

4) How should I film it? For comedy the most important thing is the content, so focus on your script, your cast and the direction (more below). It’s so much cheaper and easier to film great looking shots now, so try to match up to that if you can as it’s always nice to see pretty pictures, but it’s frustrating to see beautiful camera work when there’s a lack of content or if the style has overtaken the gag.

5) Who should I cast? Not your best mate or your mum because there’s no one else available. Unless your best mate is Steve Coogan or your mum is Jessica Hynes. And not yourself unless you are Steve Coogan or Jessica Hynes. Obviously, you are most likely to be asking people for favours, but people tend to do favours for people they like whose work they like. So, if your script is good and you are not a bell end then you have a chance. That’s another reason for keeping it short. If it just means a few hours or a day rather than a week shooting a whole episode with no pay and Tesco value crisps for catering then, again, it’s a bit more appealing. One of the skills in making comedy is casting and it is an incredibly hard thing to get right. Everyone has an opinion and it’s rare that everyone agrees, but if you cast actors who don’t feel right for the part or who don’t make your wonderfully crafted lines zing then you’re up against it from the start.

6) How do I direct it? I’m no expert, but I’ve worked with some top comedy directors and I’ve directed some small things myself with big crews, small crews or just me and a camera. There are probably very long essays out there about directing comedy by people with far more knowledge than me, but for what it’s worth….

a) Plan it meticulously but be flexible on the day because it’s a shoot so things will inevitably go tits up to some degree. And by planning I mean your shot list and blocking. At least have an idea of what shots you need and what your actors are going to do physically alongside opening their mouths to bring your masterpiece to life. And if you’re producing the shoot too then make sure everyone knows where they need to be and let them know what’s going on. If things are taking longer than you expected and some actors are hanging around then take a minute to let them know otherwise it’s like being on a train that you sense is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is massively delayed but no one on the tannoy has told you what the hell’s happening and if they don’t soon you really are going to have stern words with the train manager.

b) Rehearse beforehand if you can. Having a chance to hear your actors read the script will help and you’ll want to do a rewrite, so give yourself a bit of time between any rehearsal and shoot.

c) Be nice and be confident. Directing is hard, but you don’t have to shout and be a dick. Do shout if you need everyone in a wide area to hear what you’re saying, but shout politely. And direct the shout up and over the crowd and not right in someone else’s face. Like you’re lobbing a ball underarm for someone to make an easy catch rather than chucking it at them like an over sugared child with a snowball.

7) What do I cut out? Everything that doesn’t quite feel like it’s working brilliantly. At this stage you are selling yourself and your idea, so you’re not constrained by episode timings. Two minutes of brilliantly funny material is better than a half hour peppered with an occasional lightening of the mood.

8) What do I do now I’ve finished it? Show it off. Get the best version you can on youtube or vimeo, publicly if you want people telling you that you should probably have been shot at birth, privately if you’d rather avoid the hell that is people on the internet. Politely email it to any contacts you have or can find. Similar rules apply to sending out scripts, which I’ve written about here.

That’s enough for now. Good luck with it. And wish me luck too. I’m about to film my dark, heartwarming, high concept, low budget, found footage, political, romantic, zombie, slasher tragicomedy about the Labour party leadership contest. Not sure I can make it funnier or more appalling than the real thing and I’ll struggle to find as many emotionless beings stumbling around randomly attacking things. Ah well.

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Currying Favour

I know it’s hard to believe but many years ago I was moderately successful and pretty much destined to be the next D.G.  Or at least the next big Yentob.  And when you’re climbing up that greasy pole you will be forced into awkward situations such as the ‘business lunch.’  This post is about how not to have a business lunch.  Or maybe it’s about how to have a business lunch.  Either way, the first time you have something like this can be a bit stressful.

Before I was seduced by the bright lights of the comedy firmament I was a factual producer/director making such hit shows as Bailiffs and, well that’s the only one anyone watched to be honest.  Seen Future Fighting Machines? No, thought not. The channel it was on doesn’t even exist in the UK anymore (Bravo, if you give a monkey’s.)

So my Exec at Tiger Aspect asked me to Series Produce the third series of Bailiffs, which was exciting and a bit daunting for a comparative whippersnapper. I bought a new suit and everything. On reflection I don’t think it was a great fit and I looked a bit of a bell end in it. In fact I know that because I tried it on some years later in front of my sartorially honest girlfriend who looked me up and down and laughed. But at least I made an effort, right?

To freshen up the show we were trying to secure access to film the work of court enforcement officers and county court bailiffs.  So we were wooing the Court Service and this resulted in a lunch with the then head of said service. We’re talking high up, big cheese, civil servant. A massive mandarin. And mandarins are usually really small, so that made it a big deal.

The venue chosen by my Exec at Tiger Aspect was The Cinnamon Club, a very posh curry house.  Now, the thing about cuisine from the Indian sub-continent is that it can be a little on the peppy side. And I am one of those people who cannot deal with spicy food. I love it, but sometimes a dish that to other people seems fairly mild will blow my head off leaving me as sopping wet as a mop before it’s squeegeed or Tom Daley at the Olympics but with the grace of the first celebrity to get booted off his ITV show Splash.

The starters went fine and there was some idle chat about food and I seem to remember my exec and this very senior civil servant swapping dinner party recipes while I sat there very occasionally chipping in with an ‘ooh, yes that sounds lovely,’ and ‘Yes, I’ll definitely make a beef wellington when all my intellectual friends come round for dinner to talk about art etc.’  But then the main courses arrived and we were into the spicy meat of the matter, although I seem to remember I had fish. And it was the hottest fish I have ever come across.  And I don’t mean I wanted to take it home and play Barry White to it. I mean that it blew my head off in a spectacular fashion.

So, while we were trying to convince this knight of the realm (for he was a Sir) to allow us to point our cameras at his courtly employees I sat there sweating like the guiltiest man in the world.  Guiltier than a man caught red handed in a bang to rights open and shut case.

I had to excuse myself to freshen up and use the hand dryers in the loos to dry my matted locks. It was that bad. My exec was looking at me strangely as if to say, ‘Why did you order the super spicy hot fish?’ But I didn’t really have a clue what I was ordering, this wasn’t the Purple Mango down the road where I am familiar with the menu and can seek advice without fear of looking like an uncultured idiot.

As it happens I’m not sure there’s any great lesson in this tale. Sir Mandarin was positive towards our proposal and agreed that it could be useful for people to see the workings of the court officials and we were able to gain access to film. In spite of my low tolerance of spicy food, I had made two series of the show already, so was able to fill him in on the way we worked while mopping my brow, slurping huge quantities of water and constantly pushing my spectacles from the tip back to the bridge of my nose where they belong.

I guess the difference now would be that I would be open about the fact that I am a soft arse when it comes to spice and not be so tense about the whole situation. As a more mature person I am more relaxed in my sensitive skin. For example, I was at my friend Abdullah Afzal’s wedding in Manchester the other night and knew that there was a high possibility that, as one of only two white guests, I would be the sweatiest guest as soon as a morsel of food touched my lips. So I prepared the table of people I had mostly never met before for the situation.  And we all had a good laugh about it when my head exploded seconds after the impact of spice on tongue.

Here’s a pic of me looking sweaty, but thankfully not at a business lunch, with Abdullah (of Citizen Khan and Lunch Monkeys fame)…

2015-05-31 20.58.39

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Help, I Need Somebody

Quite a few people have been in touch recently asking for advice, a shin up over the Great Wall of Media.  They’re all shouting for help and the honest truth is, to use the highly effective language of Ed Milliband when interviewed by Russell Brand, it ain’t gonna happen right away.  Most of these are requests for information on where to send a script or asking if they can send me their idea.

I do aim to respond and I write this blog to offer advice and succour to people trying to get on in the media, whether you want to be a producer, director or writer.  Or maybe you haven’t worked that out yet and that’s fine too, I’m not sure I have.  It’s also a useful exercise in writing for me – it’s not totally altruistic.  I’ve got to bring home the bacon, eggs and quinoa.  Luckily there’s a NISA shop just a few yards away and their Heritage branded goods are excellent value plus my trip is 100% carbon neutral.

In spite of the wealth of information on this internet it can sometimes seem impossible to find simple things like contact details.  Where can I get the email of that one producer who will turn my script into a BAFTA winning series that will be remade in the US followed by a film spin off of that makes me millions?  It can be tricky, I mean I’ve never found that person, so if you do can you drop me a line with their email and mobile number?

Production companies don’t make it easy because if they did they’d be flooded with scripts they don’t have time to read.  Some have info addresses and if you send your script to that then it may get looked at, but probably won’t.  The best approach is to look at the companies who make shows you like, look at the credits, find the names of producers of shows you like.  And if you can’t find an email then you could send them a hard copy – I know, old school – but I’ve recently had scripts sent to me with a letter saying how much they like shows I’ve been involved in and asking if I would look at their script.  And I have, because I think, ‘Oh, that’s nice, they’ve made an effort so I’ll do the decent thing and read it.’

That’s why it’s so important to think about your approach.  Find people who might be receptive to the kind of show you are hoping to make, flatter them a bit and send them a short email or letter along with your treatment and script.  There’s a lot more detail on that here.  Some people have contacted me and just asked, ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea where do I send it?’ or ‘Can you help me get my show made?’ whereas others have contacted me thus, ‘Dear Matt, Thanks for your informative and witty blog posts, I have read every single one of them from top to bottom’ and then introduce their request.  Now, I try to reply to people who contact me, but which do you think I am more inclined to help?  It just makes sense and it’s exactly what I do when I’m trying to sell shows up the chain.

There’s some useful info in another post of mine with some links.  And, as ever, there is some very useful advice from James Cary and his Sitcom Geek blog.  You should read his posts after you’ve read every single one of mine from top to bottom.  No skimming, I know exactly how long you’ve been on the site, I see the stats.

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How does a show get made?

Someone dared ask me this question.  Do people really expect me to give away the secrets of television alchemy?  Luckily I’m a kind and gentle soul so here is the answer.  You chuck a load of hard work, sweat, luck, disappointment, rejection, misery, elation, hope, pre-crushed dreams (use pestle and mortar), joy, wonder, some jokes, the bruised cheek of Clarkson’s alleged fracas victim into a cauldron and boil for anything from one to ten years.

If you’d like to know the exact recipe – weights and timings etc. – then please send me one million dollars.  Oh, I’ve just had an email promising me four million, three hundred and twenty three thousand.  Just give me a minute to send my personal details to this kind reader and I can continue to provide this exciting and informative content totally free of charge.  Right, done.

The questioner went on to ask, ‘does a production company make a programme and then sell it to a broadcaster, what is the process?’  With maybe a few rare exceptions a production company never makes a show before selling it – if anyone has any examples that prove the rule then let me know1.   Even making a fully budgeted pilot and certainly a series would bankrupt or certainly have a huge impact on most production companies, even fair sized ones.  Much better, then, to get the broadcaster to pay for the show before making a massive turkey.

What production companies do is generate ideas and attempt to persuade a broadcaster to invest in them.  This is usually a long process with a number of steps before a channel decides to commission a series.  It’s understandable, a series costs shedloads of cash – to give you a vague idea a half hour comedy might be anything from £100,000 per episode at the very low budget end to £250,000 or more at the higher end.  Dramas generally have bigger budgets and we comedy producers are not bitter at all.

I’ve had plenty of conversations, usually with friends of my parents, about this and they are staggered by the amounts, ‘my licence fee, it must all be unionised!’ etc.  No, the crew work their nuts off and rates haven’t changed in years, the production company makes a small amount of money to keep generating new projects, actors get paid a lot less than you think…  the glamour.  If you want to make money go work in the city.  I don’t want to go on or this will turn into a rant and no-one wants that.  As Sam Smith says, ‘I do it for the love and honestly I didn’t nick that bloke’s idea, it’s pure coincidence that it’s exactly the same, yeah?’

I’ll stick with the process as it relates to comedy and my experience.  We generate ideas either in house, someone sends us a good script or treatment or we see a performer and try to work up ideas with them.  Sometimes we will invest a small amount up front into developing a script or shooting a short taster to demonstrate the idea.  There are examples of production companies investing a bit more time and money up front in an idea they truly believe in, but are either struggling to sell or to give it the push they think it needs to win a commission.

One oft quoted example is The Mighty Boosh.  Baby Cow put around £40,000 into a pilot the BBC commissioned.  Essentially they wanted to ensure it was so good the BBC couldn’t say no.  That is still a huge, risky investment for a production company up front.  Obviously with the BBC already interested it had a good chance and they trusted their instincts, but would have known success was not guaranteed.  We’ve often had to do this at Channel X to ensure a pilot or taster will work.

When we have a project that’s ready for a broadcaster’s commissioning editor to look at, then we’ll send it and tell them it’s the best thing in the world ever and they’d be a fool not to commission it.  Then we wait for the phone to ring or an email to ping through, often for a very long time.  Of course, most things are rejected and usually not because they’re shit – one of the reasons commissioning editors trust production companies is that they act as a quality control filter in the stampede towards the elusive slot on a channel.  Commissioners have to choose one out of a number to progress.  And they have their bosses, the marketing people at commercial channels and their bosses’ bosses to convince.  Or maybe they do just think it is shit.  Sounds tough?  It is.  Tough.

Let me take you through a few steps.  A production company sends a comedy project in and here’s what might happen…

1) Script Commission:  If we send a treatment from a writer with some experience the broadcaster might commission a script.  That means they are paying the writer to both produce a pilot script to bring their idea to life and also to option the writer and production company for a period of time (usually 12-18 months) so they have the exclusive right to then make a pilot and/or series.
Often, particularly with newer writers, we will send a full script that we have worked with them on for some time.  If a broadcaster likes it then they may want to see if the writer can produce more material and commission a second script.  It’s a small investment to see how the idea develops and to buy into the idea.

2) Taster / Teaser:  If an idea has a particular visual style or is a vehicle for a performer then a broadcaster might commission a taster or teaser (sometimes called a mini-pilot)  It’s essentially a 5 to 15 minute short with a few scenes.  This is becoming more common as it is much cheaper than a full pilot and can be enough to show that a series would work.  Detectorists was developed this way and the series was commissioned without the need for a full pilot – there were two full episode scripts and a series outline to go alongside the taster, so a lot of work had been done by Mackenzie Crook and the production team.

(A production company will often put a small amount of its own money into shooting a taster before pitching to a broadcaster, particularly if the idea or format is a bit tricky to understand on the page).

3) Table Read:  A broadcaster likes a script and wants to hear it come to life.  They could commission a table read where the company casts the script and gets the actors together in a big room to read it aloud while the producers and commissioners watch.  They can be great.  They can be painful.  There’s nothing worse than a bunch of great actors reading a comedy script and seeing commissioning editors and channel controllers sit in befuddled silence.
Sometimes an actor who would be great on screen isn’t great in a table read or some of the timing doesn’t quite come off or maybe the atmosphere is just a bit weird and the channel controller is having a bad day because some kind of fracas has occurred involving one of their big name talents.  Who knows?

Fortunately tasters and other development tools seem to be taking over, see also….

4) Live Showcase:  Few and far between, but the BBC has done a number of sitcom showcases in Salford in recent years.  Hebburn came to life this way.  The show is performed like a play in front of an audience, including commissioning editors.  If the audience laugh, the commissioning editor doesn’t just have to trust their own instinct.

(Like tasters, production companies and often writers and comedians put on their own showcases. Again, it is a cost-effective way of bringing the work to life and can be a great way for new writers to test their work).

5) Pilot:  Well done.  If you get this far, you are doing great.  The broadcaster loves your script, your table read went down a storm or your taster was a piece of genius.  They’ve commissioned a pilot and you get to make a show.  One whole episode to show it’ll be the best series ever.

And then…
You got the casting perfect, the actors and director made all your jokes even funnier than you thought they could be, the crew did a brilliant job – you could see and hear everything, actors had costumes, sets, props and make up.  The runner remembered how you liked your tea / coffee and wasn’t a jumped up nephew of the executive producer.  Phew.

And finally you get your…

6) Series: The broadcaster loves your script(s), pilot or taster and your series outline.  Congratulations.  They do a deal with the production company to make the show.  With British comedy usually the vast majority of the budget comes from the broadcaster.  Some money may come from other sources – distributors who may pay an advance on international and DVD sales although there is generally a lot less money to be made from this in comedy than drama and other genres – there are exceptions, of course.
What the broadcaster is doing is paying the production company to make the show exclusively for them and for it to be broadcast on their channel a certain number of times.  I don’t want to go into the details of rights etc. because I’ll bore myself and you to death, but it’s that kind of stuff.

So that’s it, I think.  That’s the process.  I think it’s as clear as I can make it and I hope it’s useful, but do comment if you have any questions.  And if you manage to get your project moving forward at any of these stages then you are doing well and possibly even have talent.  If it falls at any stage, and it most likely will, then try again.  Most people have to push at the door with a number of ideas before it opens.  Alternatively use a battering ram.  I’m sure threats of violence have worked, but it’s not really my style.  Good luck.

1 I do know of individuals, student filmmakers etc. who have made a series or several episodes of a show, but these are usually guerrilla filmed shows where everyone is working for free or very little. There may well be examples of companies producing episodes of low cost programming (factual shows can be much cheaper to make as they can be shot by a one or two person crew, you don’t have actors etc. although it is still advisable to have food, preferably hot, available for hangry presenters) but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

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Infotunity Knocks

I’ve been looking at a lot of websites lately. No, stop where your mind’s going and wash your brain out with soap, it’s not that kind of blog. I’ve been looking in a highly efficient, compartmentalised way and not in a time-wastey, procrastinatey kind of way at all (honest) and it has struck me that there is a huge amount of information available to the aspiring media type person. There are blogs like mine where you can be inspired, horrified, confused and distressed, there are proper sites that advertise jobs, opportunities, give information, there are sites for production companies, funding agencies, media publications and even small time players like the BBC has a website these days.

Now, this isn’t one of those ‘it was much harder in my day’ moans. I don’t go in for that for a number of reasons, then main one being that it is, in fact, much harder now. I went to university and did an arts subject (history)… for free (almost). I was able to sign on and do voluntary work to get experience. Having to do work experience followed by first rung on the ladder jobs that paid a pittance didn’t put me off because I wasn’t saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt. That’s the main reason why I support the charity Arts Emergency, because to me it feels that, just as information on how to get into the arts and media has widened, opportunity has narrowed.

As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, you have to be proactive in searching for ways in and not simply apply for jobs, funding or put your CV online and hope opportunity knocks. It’s unlikely that you’ll get your first job when you don’t have any experience at all. I’m not saying don’t do all those things, I’m saying that you’ll have to try and find a way to gain experience at the same time as applying for anything and everything going.

Still, looking at all the information is a great way to feel you’re achieving something and haven’t wasted your day sat in your dressing gown with a cup of tea and the internet even though you have sat in your dressing gown…

Here is a list of useful links. It’s neither comprehensive nor exhaustive so do feel free to add to it or email me any you think may be helpful.

http://www.arts-emergency.org/ If, like me, you have been blessed with, if not success then, an actual job that pays money then do give them some money.

http://www.ideastap.com/ Information, job posts, funding opportunities, articles, generally useful and inspiring stuff.

http://www.creativeengland.co.uk Film body outside London.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/ Film body inside London.

http://www.creativescotland.com/ Film body for Yes, Nos and Maybes.

http://www.ffilmcymruwales.com Film body for others. Other film bodies do exist, I’m sure.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy I’ve not had a proper look round this site, but I hear good things about this BBC thing, so it might be worth a butcher’s.

http://www.pact.co.uk Television industry body – I used to spend a lot of time looking at the PACT directory imagining myself working for one of the companies listed in there. Then I wrote to them and most told me to sod off.

http://www.productionbase.co.uk/ A website for freelance television production staff – companies post jobs and search for crew. You have to subscribe, but there is a free trial.

https://www.thetalentmanager.co.uk/ Similar to above, but you can register for free and respond to job posts. There is a paid for ‘pro’ service.

http://jobs.theguardian.com/jobs When I were a lad, I used to get the Guardian every Monday and scour the Media section looking for jobs I could apply for. Now you can have those feelings of excitement, hope, despair and disillusionment all day, every day.

http://www.csv.org.uk/learning/media-skills CSV Media could be a good place to start getting experience, something I did and banged on about in a blog.

http://www.princes-trust.org.uk/ I am ideologically opposed to Prince Charles, but when I was a struggling media wannabe I got a grant to pay for a printer, so maybe I should shut up and say that I really think we should deffo have a King Charles III and it’ll all be brilliant.

http://creativeskillset.org/ Training, jobs, info and all that stuff.

I hope that’s useful.  I’ve certainly found many of these sites helpful over the years.

Good luck.

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One Gets Overexcited

A conversation with a promising new writer has got me thinking about the perils of getting overexcited.  Not that I got hot and steamy over their well constructed first sitcom script, that would be weird.  I can promise that I did not get excited during the phone call either, that would also be weird and highly inappropriate.

There’s a thin line between unrealistic excitement and sounding like you don’t give a shit.  I try to sound genuine and be honest, but sometimes I can feel myself overcompensating for the inner worry that I’m sounding like I’m not arsed about a project the creator has put their blood, sweat, tears and possibly more into.

If I’m talking to someone about a project of mine I hate it if they are either not bothered or are ‘passionate’ to the point where the bullshit alarm starts screaming and I think there’s no way this is ever going to happen… you, mate, are just too enthusiastic, you should have been a kids television presenter.  This is nonsense, this project is not the best thing since The Office.1  Somewhere in the middle, that’s what to aim for.

It reminds me of the time I went to the televisual trade fair MipCom in Cannes.  Sounds glamorous.  It isn’t.  Or, rather, it wasn’t for me.  Want clips of men’s trousers falling down or boobs exploding Babs Windsor style on big screens?  Then this is the place for you.  I’m sure behind all this there are lots of serious meetings, deals being done and then champagne being drunk, but I was on a subsidised trip with very little to sell so what the hell.  What I did have is a series of ludicrous meetings where people from across the globe got incredibly excited about my projects and guess what happened to them… that’s right, absolutely diddly-squat.  This didn’t surprise me and, like the sugar coated triple chocolate honey smeared candies or Murphy’s apparently, I’m not bitter.

What I’m trying to say is that it is great to be excited about a project, but it’s also good to be realistic and understand the hard work that’s still to come once you’ve written a good pilot script, made a good taster or short film.  So if you’re talking to different people about your script or idea, listen carefully to what they’re saying, their thoughts and ideas for how to take it forward as much as their enthusiasm and passion.

Of course, you may only have one person interested.  In that case cling onto their coattails until they make you rich and famous and if you thought they were a dick then you can always ditch them once you’ve leapt from the stinking gutter into the glorious cosmic beauty of the stars.

1 No one has ever said this to me.

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New Year, New Me, You or Something…

Hello

Happy New Year.  Can I stop saying that yet?  I’d like to stop saying it. Not in a negative sense, it’s not as if I don’t want to send out positive vibes, but I’d just like to avoid January clichés.  And yet I know in about a week’s time I’ll be writing an email, struggling for a pleasant throwaway opening and I’ll think about typing something like that. Writing this will cement my resolve not to do so.

It’s a strange time in the world of television.  Unless you’re in production everything goes quiet from mid-December through to about mid-January.  Decisions unmade before Christmas will linger well into the new year and it can feel like being in limbo, purgatory or on hold to your internet service provider which has taken your direct debit payment, but still can’t seem to get you logged on for a week.

I’m trying to stimulate the start of the year by reading, writing, watching stuff and catching up with people in a bid to forge a great myth in my own head… that 2015 will be the best year ever.  The fact that I’m typing this in bed in no way negates the fact.  Absolutely not.

So good luck if you’re picking up on unfinished projects from 2014 or creating new ones.  I am confident 2015 will be your best year ever.

Oh and just a quick mention for Arts Emergency, a charity I support which is doing a great job campaigning for the arts and giving young people from less privileged backgrounds access and information about the arts and media.  Have a look at what they do.  It’s good.

Can I still say that I hope you had a great Christmas?

Best wishes to you all.

Matt

 

 

 

 

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Taking Rejection

Ed Milliband believes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s absolute tossballs.  I’ve never been the same since my mate gave me some funny looking mushrooms he found on Dartmoor one autumn morning.  They didn’t kill me, but every day I look in the mirror and ask myself; ‘Is this a future prime minister I see before me?’ And every day I answer; ‘No, it’s a multi-coloured marshmallow face, now let’s get the crack-pipe a’ smokin’ and seize the day.’  Bet you a tenner I last longer in my job than Ed.

Learning how to deal with the tough times is a necessity in the world of showbiz.  Rejection happens a lot.  It’s like being a spotty teenager for your entire life as execs and commissioners tell you your idea smells and they wouldn’t snog it even if you were the last development producer on earth.  The likelihood of either getting the first job you go for or winning a commission for your first ever idea is very close to zero.  Unless your mum/dad is a high ranking television exec who can usher you through the door or you genuinely are the huge talent you think you are then be prepared for a lifetime of repudiation with the occasional bout of acceptance, joy and exhilaration.  The good times are worth it.

The first thing to do is to accept it’s going to happen.  Be enthusiastic, chase your dream, but also be realistic if only for your own sanity.  It’s incredibly exciting when you think you might have a chance.  Throughout my career I’ve gone through the process of meeting people for jobs and occasionally getting them and often not.  At the same time I’ve always tried to pitch my own ideas and most of the time they fall into the pit of development despair.  Occasionally they pique someone’s interest and when they do it is incredibly exciting.  Experience tells you it is just the first fence in a Grand National style race where the vast majority of ideas will fall horrifically and end up in a tin of dog food or a crispy pancake.

I’ve talked before about the currency of ideas and this is one of the major reasons to keep going in spite of rejection.  They do open doors and get people interested in you and can lead to other opportunities even if that particular project stumbles and fails to make it, even as an each-way bet.  Here’s one example of excitement, hope, rejection and redemption.  Someone should make a film of this blog.  Or at least work up a treatment, maybe shoot a taster and then bounce it around in development for eternity.

Nearly ten years ago I was working in factual programming as a freelance producer / director and trying my hand at comedy in whatever free time I had.  I’d tried writing a few things, done a moderately received Edinburgh Fringe Show, and was regularly dying on my arse at stand up venues across the country.  But then I had an idea to combine comedy with documentary (I know. This has never been done, has it?) and pitch an idea.  It was about testing quick-fix, self-help type ideas to get rich, successful, find love and I was going to thrust myself into those techniques as a journalistic fall guy.  Through my factual work at Tiger Aspect I had met a comedy producer, Lucy Robinson, who actually showed an interest in my work and offered incredibly helpful and straightforward advice.  Often she was critical and rightly so.  It’s important to remember that if an industry figure is willing to give you their time then they already think you have some talent, so if they give you constructive criticism then take it with grace.  You may or may not agree with every or any point, but they are trying to help.  Ignore them at your peril.

Lucy had moved on to work with Channel X, took my idea to them and it lead to my first meeting with Jim Reid and Alan Marke, which was incredibly exciting.  Going to the office and seeing posters of the iconic shows they’d made was nerve-wracking, but here were two decent guys who, in spite of the warehouse conversion office setting, didn’t have a hipster/media wanker bone in their bodies.  And they wanted to talk about my idea and how we’d develop it.  They agreed to shoot a taster.  I knew that to get a production company on board with an idea was a massive step forward.

The idea of the show was to look at quick fix ideas and expose their ludicrous nature, and we decided to film me trying out some techniques to meet and impress the opposite sex, as this seemed like a straightforward thing to set up, and something we could shoot in one day, on the street. I know this sounds bit Dapper Laughs and given the fact that this has been in the news, followed by the reports about Julien Blanc and his hideous ‘techniques,’ I’m a wee bit nervous about showing it to you. But hopefully it’s clear that, unlike Dapper, the joke was on me as the whole thing descended into hideous awkward chaos. Maybe I should retire the Matt Tiller character. If you’d really like to see what I did then it’s here.

After the shoot, I wasn’t sure how it’d gone and thought it might just be a bit shit. My first edit of the taster was poor — it was a lesson in being too close to the subject as Lucy came in and totally turned it round and made the best of the material. She told me Jim and Alan had a meeting set up to pitch a handful of projects to the BBC and would show them the taster. I was nervous and trying not to think about the fame and riches that inevitably lay ahead of me.  Take that school chemistry teacher who said I had no flair, my time has come.1

After the meeting Lucy called to tell me that the Head of Comedy at the BBC loved it.  Of the ideas Channel X pitched, this was the one they wanted to take forward. She sounded excited.  I was excited.  It was exciting.  All they had to do was convince Stuart Murphy at BBC Three to commission it and I would be on my way to fame, fortune and a Twitter backlash as soon as Twitter got invented.

But alas, as you can probably guess from my lack of either fame or fortune, it was not to be.  Stuart watched it and apparently liked it and thought it was funny, but didn’t want to take it further.  The main reason was that there were plenty of white, middle class comedians he liked, would love to work with and couldn’t find a place for, so didn’t feel this was something he could bring to BBC Three.  Even though I was obviously gutted, I couldn’t argue with that and have never felt bitter about that decision.  I knew there was a wealth of talent out there pitching ideas and there were top level stand ups and character comics who deserved breaks far more than I.

Following on from the taster I took an idea based on it to the Edinburgh Fringe, Matt Tiller… Ladykiller, which was fun.  It was a show that could go brilliantly or hideously as it involved a huge amount of audience interaction, but overall it was a great experience.  And it was while I was in Edinburgh performing that Jim at Channel X first approached me about working for them.  A few weeks later I had moved to Manchester and was developing television comedy.  So, even though the venture was in many ways a failure, (well, not in many ways, it was a failure) it had a real positive impact on my career.  So, like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill having recovered from a bullet to the head and eventually lopping the top of Lucy Liu’s head with her Hattori Hanzo sword, it was success hewn from the steel of failure.  Except, in spite of the title of my fringe show, I didn’t actually kill anyone.

1 Maybe he was just annoyed that I accidentally filled the school chemistry lab with chlorine gas forcing the class to evacuate.

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In the pipeline

Hello

It may seem that I have been rather quiet of late.  On here, that is.  In my non-virtual life I’ve been incredibly noisy.  I’m learning to play the pan pipes and the sound is far from soothing in the hands of the beginner.  The neighbours are getting irate.

In truth, I’ve been busy with many projects.  They are in a pipeline.  It’s too early to say if that pipeline will burst due to metaphorical pan-national conflicts or reach its final destination and pump television bronze into the homes of millions (or more likely thousands looking at modern day viewing figures).  We may yet have to be pleasant to Russia, say we’ll forget about Ukraine and ask them very nicely for their cheap television.

One thing I can tell you about is a BBC Radio 4 pilot from an excellent stand up comedian, Liam Mullone’s Disappointing World, which is being recorded in London on November 24th and if you want to be in the audience then click here.  It’s looking like a really good show.

Of course, I am very pleased indeed to have a passing association with the brilliant Detectorists, which will return for a second series.  It’s made by my company, but sadly I can’t claim any credit – a brilliant bunch of people, with Mackenzie Crook at the helm, made that happen and they are truly deserving of its success.

In the meantime I’ll have to keep you guessing on the other stuff I’m working on, because I don’t like talking about things that aren’t certain to make it our screens or at least to pilot stage.  There are usually several hurdles to leap and these can often cause a stumble, humiliation and a nasty graze.  A bit like when I ran for an old routemaster bus and fell on some tarmac opening a hole in both a recently purchased pair of jeans and my knee.

Also apologies for people who have contacted me and not received a response.  I’ll try to respond to questions in blog posts.  If you have sent scripts then I promise that I do look at them, but unfortunately can’t always get back to people.

I’ll try and get to a proper blog post soon, but right now I’m busy thinking of something profound to say about Dapper Laughs, but I’m just in despair.

Thanks

Matt

 

 

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Trust Your Instincts

Sometimes in life you get struck by a feeling.  Like Spidey Sense or The Force.  You can either use The Force or ignore it.  Why bother about that whole death star thing?  What’s the worst that could happen?  Oh, the empire has just blown up a planet destroying a civilisation.  Shit.  At least Princess Leia survived.

Okay, it’s unlikely that your sensory failings will lead to such a catastrophe and television isn’t life and death.  It’s less important than that.  But when you get a nagging feeling something is wrong then it’s worth doing something about it or at least checking.

There’s one terrible example of this in my early career.  I had reached the heady heights of researcher at Two Four Productions in Plymouth.  When I first arrived at Two Four a director looked at me with surprise and said he’d heard me read the news on Plymouth Sound Radio and thought I would be a tall, dark, handsome beefcake.  At least that was a compliment on my voice.  But I took that in my stride and worked on many amazing shows.  Who can forget the BBC Daytime series What Would You Do? or Westcountry Television’s Mad About Shopping?  I tried to compose theme tunes for these, but management rejected my ideas.  Trying singing these; ‘Ooh, Ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You-oo Do?’ or ‘We’re just hopping / [BONKERS] / Mad About Shopping.’  If only they’d used my compositions then I’m convinced the shows would have been massive global hits.

After about a year I graduated onto their long running Channel 4 daytime show, Collectors’ Lot.  If you were a student or pulling a sickie in the late nineties then you may remember it being on before 15 to 1 when Watercolour Challenge wasn’t running. The researcher’s main job was to find people with interesting collections and then suggest whether they would be a good guest for an Outside Broadcast (O.B.)1 or if we should film them and create a VT2.

For logistical reasons we would find collectors to film for VTs and set up shoots in a particular area.  Now, I won’t go into what the collection was or where it was located, but I had found a potential guest from a magazine or newspaper clipping.  The photos suggested a brilliant collection that would make a fascinating item.  I chatted to the collector on the phone, something that is vital of course as you need to find out if they’ll be able to bring their obsession to life3.  This hoarder seemed lovely on the phone; friendly, helpful and he sent me more photos and information which confirmed that we would have plenty of interesting stuff to film.  It was an incredible collection and the director would come back from the shoot, pick me up, carry me on their shoulders out of the production office, through the car park of the industrial estate in Plympton and into the canteen of Chaplins Superstore for their excellent value fry-up.  As well as Chaplins, late morning every day the Ivor Dewdney pasty van would pull up and you could get a hot, greasy, Cornish pastry delicacy.  The glamour of television in the South West.  Proper job.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.  I set up a filming date with said collector in a month’s time and left it at that.  I did try and call them a couple of times over the next few weeks, but to no avail.  This would be even more worrying now, in an age where everyone has mobile phones and emails.  However, after a few unreturned calls you would start to feel that something was up.  The problem for me was that I was becoming complacent.  Also I was about to go on holiday and would be away during the shoot.  That wouldn’t usually be an issue.  I had given the production team all the information and the crew would arrive and shoot the item.  The researcher wouldn’t normally be with them as that would be an extra cost.  But the reality was that I could sense something was wrong and I should have flagged it up as a concern.

When I returned from my holiday I discovered that the crew had turned up at the collector’s house and rung the bell, knocked several times.  They waited.  They were beginning to think it was a bit weird when a neighbour came out to reveal the horrific truth.  My lovely sounding, gentle, polite collector was in prison.  And in prison for something bad.  Really bad.  The kind of thing they would have got away with had they been a politician of yesteryear.  Worse still they had been using their collection in the course of their crimes.  Grim.

Upon my return I got a right royal bollocking from my producer.  And I thought that was fair enough, I’d made a balls up, I deserved to be told.  It’s true that after a few months on the treadmill of collection based daytime television I had become stale and disillusioned.  I was shifted off to other projects like an incompetent police officer, public official or media executive.  Sadly, I wasn’t booted upstairs with a pay rise.  I think I went on to research the classic Westcountry series On Hoof.  It was about horses in the region.  Great series.

I guess the lesson from this applies across the genres of television.  If you just assume everything is going to be okay then you can easily get caught out.  And if you get that nagging feeling something is not quite right then it really is best to act on it to ensure you get a lovely fried egg from the Chaplins canteen in your gob rather than a horrible, rotten egg splattering on your stupid face.

1 The Collectors’ Lot O.B.s involved taking over a large house which itself had some interesting collections and then essentially using it as a studio to record a week’s shows. We’d invite loads of collectors to bring their collections and display them to be interviewed by the host, Sue Cook or Debbie Thrower.

2 VT is a term used for a filmed package or report that is used within a show. It literally means video tape, so it seems a bit archaic in this modern digital world, but it is still used. And some people still use tape. I know. Get a hard drive, Grandad. Here’s a useful glossary of media terms.

3 Of course, sometimes people who are brilliant on the phone freeze on camera and others seem dull, but turn it on when the spotlight’s on them, but you at least have to get an idea of what they might be like.