Review – ASFF Masterclass – Commissioning for Comedy

Source: asff.co.uk
Source: asff.co.uk

Kristian Smith, Commissioning Editor at the BBC, chaired a panel discussion about the process for getting from script to screen. The panel was comprised of an agent (Kate Haldance), a producer (Gill Isles) and a writer (Caroline Moran).

 This masterclass was, in contrast to the other I attended, very topic-focused and Kristian chaired the panel excellently. He asked very specific and useful questions to each of the panel members and allowed questions from the audience during the talk, as well as the Q&A at the end. The flow of the discussion was very good, which you would expect when you have different standpoints on the same issue. As such, this masterclass was more valuable than the other I attended.

Some of the key points from the talk were: picking agents, how and where to submit your idea to, production costs and the writer/producer dynamic.

Picking agents: One might first ask the question ‘do I need an agent?’ and the answer is that if a production company is going to consider your first-time script, they are a lot less likely to consider you if you don’t have an agent. Thus in picking one, they said be specific about the area you’re targeting. If you want to write a dark sitcom for BBC Two, try your best to find an agent who has experience of getting writers to work with production companies who produce that sort of material. Production companies are the ones to pitch your script to, most of the time. The process of shows being put on BBC is that production companies are pretty much always the ones who they actually have the dialogue with, and so if you haven’t got your script backed by one then you are essentially in with no chance.

Submitting a script: The best procedure is to find out the relevant person at a suitable production company (do your research; don’t just go for the company who produces your favourite TV show just cos) and email them. Keep it short. Don’t try and be overly hilarious in the email. Attached should be a synopsis, briefly outlining the ideas of the episodes, and possibly a character breakdown. The script should be funny in the first few lines: people’s attention spans are quite short these days and to get drawn in to a comedy it helps a lot to have a laugh early on. Depending on the production companies, they may not want an entire pilot script so maybe 10 pages or so would do. Try and avoid too much exposition and forcing introductions of characters and scene-setting early on. If you feel this is unavoidable in your pilot script and you’ve written a second episode, send them the first 10 pages of that.

I must stress that all of what I just said is what I took from the talk; I am not an industry member and I am just going off what the panel were saying. But I would have to say, already I feel like there are some useful details there. Shall I continue? It’s my article, so yes I shall continue thanks.

You don’t have to submit a hard script necessarily. You may prefer to submit filmed, Youtube content or you could even get involved in a dramatic society and film some of your work with people who you think would work for your characters. I know Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant pitched The Office to the BBC in video form because they felt the delivery needed to be heard rather than on the page, where it wouldn’t work as well. What matters in any idea, at the end of the day, is saleability. If you think your idea has an audience but it doesn’t read like it does, then bring it to life if you can before you even take it to a production company. Any university students out there (I am talking also to myself here) should make use of the opportunity of the resources available at a university. Don’t wait until you’ve finished your degree to try and write a comedy script. Write it now and get it put on at your uni’s dramatic society (or a local drama society) and find out how to get it filmed. Or don’t, maybe that’s not the best advice for you and you should concentrate on your studies, you pipe-dreamer (still talking to myself here).

I’ll very quickly touch on the other topics I mentioned before, but they are more to do with once you already have a production company backing your script.

 Production costs: Sometimes a joke in your script could be very funny but if you have to shut down Piccadilly Circus to film it then it’s never going to happen. Producers are always thinking about costs so it’s possible that if you’re writing something which can’t be filmed very cheaply…maybe try writing it for radio? That might sound facetious but seriously you could try that.

The writer/producer dynamic: The first few meetings are important. Producers will read your scripts and give you notes on what they feel needs to be changed, what works and what doesn’t. There should be an open and honest relationship, and a writer shouldn’t be too precious about their work; you have to have open ears. If you can’t strike up a good working relationship with the producer then you are going to struggle.

So, there’s a fair bit of information there. Admittedly this is less of a review of the masterclass than a summing up of what they said, but it was an excellent masterclass and I must thank Aesthetica for hosting these events. It was a shame the weather was rubbish.

The Aesthetica Short Film Festival is being held in York from 3rd-6th November. Day passes are available from http://www.asff.co.uk/tickets

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Ben McElroy