A second series of Tom Rosenthal’s brilliant Absolutely Fine has just been released on Comedy Central UK’s youtube page. I had the pleasure of exec producing this. Tom and the cast did a great job. Here’s the first one…
Interest declared. I am only writing this blog in a bid to get you to watch my video and buy my song. But there’s a lesson in it. Not the view/purchase, that’d just be you showing what a good person you are and doing something nice for once in your life. Look at all the free content I’ve provided. And it’s a good song, so buy the blimmin’ thing. Is that a deal? Excellent. Here’s the link to buy Flat Packing Anger Management on iTunes.
Why is there a lesson in it? Well, this song and the subsequent album came about because a couple of years of ago something amazing happened – Channel 4 commissioned me to make a short pilot – or taster as we often call it in televisual show business – of a spec musical sitcom script I’d written. As you can imagine I leapt around the room when I got that call and screamed with excitement. I was surprised because it’s quite a risky idea, but they liked the script and if someone likes something I’ve done then I like them, they’re ace. Genocidal maniac gives me a five star review? Cool!
The commission meant recording a few songs with a full band and working with my musical production genius of a friend, Gus Bousfield, who not only used to work with me in TV, but who also writes, performs and produces brilliant music. His band Gurgles have become faves of Stuart Maconie on BBC 6Music. Nice work, Gus.
As a creative process it was immensely challenging but incredible fun and I felt very privileged to have been given even a small budget to produce the music and then shoot some scenes to show how the script would come to life. We cast Diana Vickers and David Elms who made a really great couple and Javone Prince as a crazy ex-boyfriend of Diana’s character. It’s rare that a pilot feels perfect – you want it to be brilliant and guarantee a series, but even if it’s close to doing that, it should at the very least be something you can build on to develop an idea further – and this was no exception. The cast was great, lots of elements worked and overall I was really happy with the result. There were certainly things I’d change moving forward but I was proud of something I’d put a huge amount of effort into.
I’ve used this from the taster as a video for the single….
The reception to it was positive at the channel, but in the end like most projects it didn’t move forward. Gutting, but them’s the breaks. Pick your self up, dust yourself down and scream into the abyss. The chances of me getting the project as far as I did were slim, they always are. Of course, I think it would have made a really good series but the competition is incredibly tough and I always see rejections as part of the process. Even the most talented people have to be committed, persevere and bounce back from rejection to succeed.
What I decided to do, though, was use the songs I’d recorded as the basis for an album. I’d enjoyed the process of recording with a band so much that I thought, ‘what the hell, keep on rocking.’ I’ve got some good songs really well performed and arranged, so it would be a shame to just hide them away on a hard drive.
I think there’s a lesson in this somewhere. Maybe it’s that having completed something that you think works or has something so it, then it’s worth looking at different avenues to move it forward. I don’t believe it’s a good to focus on one idea for one medium for too long once it’s been rejected by everyone. It is good to be passionate and committed to an idea; you should care for a horse that’s living, treat a horse that’s injured or unwell with love and attention, but as for a dying one… put it out of its misery and bury it in your bottom drawer until all the commissioning editors have moved on. Then you can whip the horse repeatedly until it comes back to life. What you should never do is keep flogging a dead idiom.
But if you can find another format or arena where your horse can live on, then feed it some hay, strap on your saddle and ride off into the sunset.
Ever get the feeling you’re missing out on the party? You know, the party where ‘all the important people who decide everything’ are at? Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly is there with Frank Bough and he’s off his nuts on showbiz sherbet (I’m showing my age with a Viz reference – if you don’t know Viz, it was the viral hit of the grubby paper age of my youth featuring Roger Melly ‘The Man on the Telly’ a consummately unprofessional presenter who, at the very least, has not been cited in historical criminal cases).
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I reckon many people feel they are not connected even if they are working regularly in television – that there is some kind of clique making all the decisions around a table littered with £50 notes and white powder while seething external catering service workers clear up while desperately, and completely understandably, wanting to punch everyone’s lights out.
Like you, I don’t particularly feel a part of the glamorous set. The glitterati. We’re just the Yentobi-wannabe-kenobis (#labouredstarwarspun). Admittedly, now I’ve spent 20 odd years in the showbiz firmament I have been to the odd thing and I do have friends who’ve done some brilliantly cool things. Most of those are people who, like me, have done okay and are occasionally invited to a glamorous event. My friend Jane and I once went to the Hampstead Bark Off where she was a celebrity judge alongside Rachel Riley off of Countdown. She does a brilliant blog about dog friendly travel, phileasdogg.com, featuring her dog and my best canine mate, Attlee. It’s all glamour in my life now.
If there is a dinner party set then I’ve never made it to the top table. I’m not sure there is one. Of course, there are well connected people but if you start to think that you’re somehow deliberately NFI then you could be sliding down a rickety spiral staircase bannister to despair and bruised nether regions when you hit the nubbin at the bottom.
When I started my career in television at Plymouth’s most successful export since Sir Fancis Drake (this was before Tom Daley made a splash), Two Four Productions, I thought I was on a road to glamour, golden toilets and a budget for ‘office sundries.’ And when I say ‘office sundries’ I don’t mean post-it notes, guys. That road, via the office on an industrial estate in Plympton, was not paved with golden toilets, there was no budget for ‘office sundries,’ in fact you were lucky to get actual office sundries. Fortunately, now I could probably afford the occasional splurge on ‘office sundries,’ I have been educated enough to ethically oppose their procurement. Ignorance really is a blissful high sometimes.
One reason for writing this post is the memory of my early days in Manchester, when I was setting up a production company, forging relationships with writers and comedy talent. I was new to the city and didn’t know many people so I invited a few people I’d met and liked for a birthday drink because it was my birthday and otherwise I’d have been sat in my flat playing online backgammon into the early hours – heady and the disappointment on their faces when it was about five of us in the Crown and Anchor sipping pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Best birthday ever. I can’t speak for my glamour-expectant guests, however.
There isn’t a great point to this blog, but I guess it’s just try not to get stressed about that stuff and get on with doing other stuff. Those parties are probably full of wankers anyway.
You don’t have to be mad to write comedy, but it helps. I should get some mugs and t-towels made for my merch page and become a millionaire. I recently had an email with the subject line ‘Catch 22?’ and there does seem to be an impossible and conflicting dilemma for aspiring writers. While not quite as life-threatening as a Captain Yossarian situation it can drive people to the brink. Still, I thought I would answer the query while probably failing to answer the query.
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So, you’ve written something; a sitcom pilot script, short film, web series, brilliant comic feature film. You nervously send it out into the world to anyone and everyone who might just take a look at it. Chances are you won’t get many replies, but maybe one or two people respond and say nice things. If you show some promise, great potential or even generate genuine interest in your work then this is just the start of what could be a great ride. But, unless you are brilliant and lucky, it will be a bumpy one, like a comedy writer’s version of World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Ice Road Truckers or if you’re a partnership, Touching the Void.
My recent correspondent had written a web series which received some interest and nice comments from industry professionals. And you know what? That is great; it’s encouraging, someone has actually given you feedback and you feel like you’re making progress. And you are. But then… nothing. Back to square one like the worst game of Snakes and Ladders you’ve ever played and you scream and cry like a child while your competitive dad laughs smugly while he whizzes up another ladder. Then I shout, ‘It’s not fair!’ and he replies, ‘Life’s not fair.’ And I think, well okay maybe life isn’t fair but if people were less of a dick about it then maybe life would be a bit nicer. And now that I’m just as bad as my dad when I play board games, my girlfriend refuses to play Scrabble with me. It’s the circle of life.
Sorry about that tangent, but sometimes it’s good to get these things out. So, you feel there are barriers in the way of your writing moving forward, such as the fact that you haven’t got an agent when you can’t get an agent because you haven’t had anything produced. I know what that feels like, but while having an agent is great, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you pursuing your writing. In fact, you can waste precious time trying to get an agent when an agent isn’t going to be interested in signing you.
If producers are reading your work, enjoying it and giving you good feedback and even asking you in to meetings, but not pursuing projects further then, frustrating as that is, you just have to see it as step forward. Most industry folk do try and take time to encourage talent and even if nothing comes of those contacts now, they may do in the future. They have to look at your work and decide whether or not they have a chance of selling it and if they think that’s unlikely then they can’t afford to spend more time on it. This is particularly true if your first projects are sketches or web series. The ideas and scripts might be great, but there’s not a lot you can do with them, so you have to pursue them yourself. There are a few outlets on radio for sketches and gags but whether it’s a sketch, an online series or short film, the only way forward might be to make it yourself. And, yes, there’s probably a whole other post on this, but the only real answer to, ‘how do I do that?’ is, ‘by going out and doing it, learning from your mistakes and doing it again.’
As a new writer without an agent it is difficult to get people to read your work, but some people do and if they really love it, have time to pursue it and believe they have a chance of getting it made then they will. Those three things coming together is rare, but the issue of whether or not someone has an agent has never been an issue in my experience. In fact there are writers and performers whose scripts I have developed who have gone on to get an agent and develop a career and most of them had been through exactly this process. So, dust yourself down if you’re feeling dusty, get up again if you’re feeling Chumabwumba-y and make stuff, write more, write what you want but try and write something someone might want too. Be aware of what’s out there. Watch shows, read scripts. And one day you could be writing a blog and considering merch with snappy slogans in a foolhardy attempt to monetise it.
Just a footnote; David Quantick’s book How to Write Everything is well worth a read and will help anyone in this situation, I think.
Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas.
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I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.
What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.
So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…
- An amateur dramatics society.
- Struggling actors in some way shape or form. I have a lot of sympathy for actors, it’s incredibly hard, the constant rejection is possibly even worse than it is for writers. Still, write about something else. No one cares. Except me. I care.
- A struggling indie band (or other genre, but indie bands seem to be a common one. Maybe that’s because the writer was once a songwriter in an indie band who wrote moderately amusing lyrics in a sub-Jarvis Cocker style. That was the kind of band I was in, anyhow) or a once successful band whose members are now living ordinary lives.
- The open mic comedy circuit. Loads of wannabe comedians are also wannabe writers, so it makes sense that they’d come up with this idea and there are loads of crazy characters on the open mic circuit, but… no one cares. I’m happy to admit that when I was a factual television producer and doing open mic stand up in London I thought it would be a good idea for a documentary series. It was not a good idea. It was quite dull and I quickly gave up on it.
- Two guys in their late twenties or early thirties who are getting nowhere in life. They probably share a flat and one of them has an ex-girlfriend who has moved on, but is still around. Or there’s a girl they’ve known for years they both fancy.
- A bar or pub. This is one where, of course, several comedies of various quality have been made. I really liked Early Doors, for example, and I have vague fond memories of World of Pub, which I should refresh. I also remember getting a script set in a bar which had something different in the writing — funny, weird and slightly surreal. I did develop and pitch it and it did pique the interest of a commissioning editor, but ultimately didn’t get through.
- A hotel or guest house. The legacy of Fawlty towers over this one (see what I did there, I should work in comedy). The really annoying thing about this setting is that, like the pub, it does frequently reoccur — there was Heartburn Hotel in the late nineties and more recently the children’s comedy All At Sea and comedy drama Edge of Heaven. Even more annoying for me is that I’ve got one. Yes, commissioners, I’ve got a guest house comedy and it’s, like, totally brilliant and I grew up in a guest house and then a small hotel, so it’s authentic and everything. I think mine is an interesting take on the situation (of course I do), but I’ve held back on pitching it at times because of all the above. Anyhow, you can see that I feel your pain.
There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.
It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).
As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.
Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.
My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.
And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.
Happy New Media Year.
It’s a new year and a new you. And a new me. This year we’re all really gonna make it. I absolutely guarantee it. Money back. Although, I am still largely working in old media. Except here, that is. Here is where, unlike all you millennials out there, I am a digital immigrant, culturally enhancing the online space with my grey matter (hair).
I thought I’d post a couple of things I’ve helped out with and like.
Here’s a rather brilliant short film I had the pleasure of being involved with a small bit. I’ve been really impressed by Meat Bingo’s shorts and project CS911346d, written by and starring Sanjeev Kohli, is no exception. They’re based in Devon, from whence I hail, and I had the pleasure of meeting up with the director John Panton and some of his talented collaborators in an Exeter pub just before Christmas. That’s the power of Twitter, which is how we first got in contact. I’m looking forward to seeing more from them, hopefully a feature sometime soon.
I first became aware of Meat Bingo through their collaboration with Michael Spicer who’s output online continues to be brilliant, original and funny. His latest work Rec 601. is ace. Here’s a preview clip – it’s one of my favourite sketches from the series. There are three short episodes on YouTube, so do check them out.
Why isn’t he on the telly yet? Maybe I’ll do a blog about that, but I hope his work finds it’s way on to the small screen soon and, yes, I am trying to help make that happen.
I hope those bits inspire you to do stuff. Write, shoot or whatever you want to produce. They inspire me. I’m releasing some stuff later this month, mostly music based as I’ve been working on some tunes which I’m really happy with. At the end of January I’ll be releasing We’re In This Together – my song about the (sadly) fictional kidnapping of George Osborne along with a video and ludicrous short story.
Please do contact me. I like hearing from people especially if they at least pretend that they’ve read, watched and listened to everything I’ve ever done. Many get in touch asking for advice on where to send their script or how to contact production companies. Here are a few blog posts that should help with that.
May the force awaken for you in 2016.
Yes, I watched the Star Wars film over Christmas. I quite enjoyed it.
They say the chances of anything getting on TV are as low as anything coming from Mars. But, just like those pesky Martians in War of the Worlds, still they come. Now play dramatic futuristic chords and Richard Burton’s apocalyptic voice in your head.
Last week I saw a tweet from TV and literary agent Julian Friedmann from the Broadcast Commissioning Forum and it stuck in my head…
Okay, so those odds are actually a lot lower than the chances of inter-planetary invasion, but the telling point is that these are scripts coming from producers.
I’m not flagging this up to put you off. If you want to be a comedy script writer and you do what needs to be done – write a script, then rewrite it until it’s brilliant, write another, repeat process – then you won’t be put off. And you shouldn’t be. It’s a rejection business, but still they come. It’s simply useful to know the reality in the hope that it both ups your game and helps you to avoid descending into bitterness. If you get some interest from a producer in your script then this shows you are already doing well. Producers do pick up on good work and they want to get shows made. After that it’s a case of timing.
The reasons why those 249 scripts get rejected are many and varied. It’s all subjective, but those scripts will almost all be of very good quality. It’s very rare that I get a response from a commissioning editor that tells me the script I’ve sent is a load of balls. And often I’ll be told that they love the script, but…
a) It doesn’t fit the channels needs. Different broadcasters are looking for different kinds of shows and those needs change over time as shows get picked up or cancelled.
b) There is something similar in development – this can be very vague and can reference shows that don’t seem very similar at all, but this is because the channels have to look at the mix of shows. So what seems very different to you, isn’t to them.
c) There just isn’t a slot. There aren’t many slots for sitcoms, so they get filled.
d) They love it but can’t convince the genre boss / the channel boss / the marketing people (in the case of commercial channels).
e) The talent isn’t big enough. Channels are talent obsessed. And with understandable reasons. Of course it is very difficult to attach talent to your script and if you think it’s easy for even big production companies, it’s not. There’s probably a whole other blog on this, but there isn’t time here.
f) Insert other nebulous factor.
There are probably loads of other reasons, but that’s everything that’s come into my head right now.
I’m not sure what there is to learn from this, but it is useful to know. It doesn’t deter me and it shouldn’t deter you. It makes me want to develop more interesting ideas and find shows that are brilliant, different, and will make a mark.
As ever, good luck.
Got to go now, a Martian’s just turned up with a spec sitcom script. What are the chances?
I had an email a short while ago asking this….
‘Hi, I have a question. I am wondering if sitcom development/production companies ever search for story ideas or character development.
I worked in many joe-jobs and have a keen eye for observation. I am sure I could give extremely detailed descriptions of offbeat workplaces and the people who work there.’
Not sure what a joe-job is, but my correspondent is from Canada. Maybe it’s a typo and she actually meant toe-job. I hope not, although a sitcom about a toe-job obsessed employee in an offbeat workplace sounds like a winner. Thanks for the inspiration.
I’m guessing joe-jobs means average joe type occupations, yes? Anyhow, the answer to the question is, not really. Most writers and development producers work on ideas they come up with themselves, inspired by their own lives, characters they encounter or things they’ve seen or read. And if they come up with an idea set in a workplace they don’t have knowledge of then they’ll do their own specific research.
So there isn’t a job as such providing this kind of service in comedy. But then I spotted this today and thought it was interesting…
Of course this is for a very specific type of show and a drama not a comedy, but it reminded me that there are a variety of jobs out there and experience on a continuing drama is a great way into the industry.
I thought it was interesting anyhow and if you didn’t, well whatevs, I’m getting back to my toe-job comedy. I’m worried it’s a bit cheesy though. Oh dear. It’s a Monday. Give me a break.
Hello. It feels like the right time to tell you some news. That sounds portentous. It’s not, I’m just struggling for an opening sentence.
I’m up to a few things at the moment on top of the usual reading, writing, developing and commissioning editor bothering. So I thought I would let you know here in the neglected news section of the website.
1) I’m working on an album. Of proper, but mildly amusing, music. Buoyed by the success of my song High as a Kite on Spotify*. It’ll feature a newly recorded version of High as a Kite alongside a host of block rocking beats. I’m also releasing the new High as a Kits on digital platforms only (because I don’t want to clog my house with boxes of CDs) on 6th November. Excited? I can feel your anticipation from here.
2) Some years ago I did an Edinburgh show about how I kidnapped the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Which is something that absolutely happened in a semi-fictional sense. That is to say it was made up with some truths. I liked the material and one of the songs I played still goes down well when I play it today, so I am writing it as a short ebook. A novella, novelette or something. I plan to release it early December for a token cost for you to read and enjoy. It’ll be called In This Together, obviously.
I played the song at a lovely gig, Vin’s Night In, recently where audience members are encouraged to draw pictures of the acts to win exciting (wonderfully terrible) prizes. One talented person decided to do this…
How good is that?
3) Have you tried to contact me? I get many messages on here and I do try to respond. Most people just want someone to read their script and, yes, it can be difficult. There are a couple of blog posts of mine that can help a bit – Help I Need Somebody and Infotunity Knocks - so do give them a read. As ever, you probably won’t get a reply if you just email saying ‘Hey can you read my script?’ but I will try if you’ve been polite and said nice things. Thankfully most people do and it’s really appreciated. I’ve had some lovely messages recently, so thanks for those. They’re appreciated.
I hope that’s interesting and useful. I’d better plough on through all the stuff I’ve got to do now.
*It’s had more than ten thousand streams on Spotify, which is very impressive for a little known ‘artist.’ Less impressive when you discover that the vast majority of these are coming from confused Norwegian fans of indie band Highasakite.
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.
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.