Most commercial stories that depend in some way on trends and topicality capitalise on commercial connections by also emphasising the personal side of the story. The personal side of finding connections is made up of two elements, the descriptive and the prescriptive. The descriptive tells us “how it is” and the prescriptive describes “how we’d like it to be.”
Taking Black Writers Seriously
The process for story editors
Taking Black Writers Seriously is also a scheme for finding Black and minority ethnic people who are suitably qualified and interested in acquiring skills for working as readers and story and script editors or development executives. Learning how to be a good reader/assessor of books, treatments and scripts will be part of this process and those who perform well in the initial assessment will be offered a chance to learn about the principles of moving image storytelling and how to use these in creating filmic stories and scripts, adapting prose works and how to work with a writer in story and script development. Those who show real potential will be offered internships on projects in development with the company to gain experience and qualify for professional roles.
Applicants must note that screenwriters in this programme may choose to develop either feature films or television drama series. Where film is concerned, we start from the viewpoint that film, like other art forms, has no single, right approach to creating a successful screenplay but thrives on both conventional and alternative approaches to producing mainstream and off-beat film narratives. The purpose of this programme, then, is to enhance the participant’s understanding of the role that classical story structure and genre plays in storytelling but also to give them an opportunity to become familiar with non-linear forms so that they may support writers to take risks with genre, structure, tone, voice and character to create more originality in the storytelling. In effect, this means inspiring an approach to screenwriting that celebrates invention and creativity to achieve fresh and original takes on universal themes.
It is important to remember some words of Toni Morrison here. These words are:
“All writers are readers, right?”
This is what writers and editors need to be. They must love reading and watching movies and drama series so that they become acquainted with many different approaches to moving image storytelling. This will enable them to draw upon these as references in their work and stimulate an ambition to achieve greatness in their work.
The programme will also teach participants how to recognise an idea that has the potential to work well as a cinema exhibition experience or a series drama. Determining the scale and scope of an idea is understanding that grows through practice but something wonderful is often created through workshops with a group of creatives who seek to enhance the qualities of the original work in other forms of realisation. Writing rooms are often used for this.
Where feature films are concerned, editors will be guided on how to develop an idea from its conception to its 15- or 20-page treatment and then through various stages such as a story structure grid, a step outline and beat sheet to a first draft script and from this first draft to a polished 2nd draft script in which regular development meetings after each submission help the process to continue improving the material. They will learn the value of considering projects from several different points of view, such as concept, character, stakes, plot, dialogue, audience appeal and marketability as ways of breaking down the content to manageable levels with which to assess the strengths and weaknesses in a script.
Implicit in this statement is that stories and scripts are not written but re-written. The challenge, then, for the writer and development executive team is to identify those elements that do not work and only changing those bits rather than abandoning everything and starting again. It is also worth considering whether a thematic reading of the script can produce an even better outcome. American Dream (2008) that chronicles Mikes Jones’ real life rise to fame as an aspiring rapper from the streets, is one of many films that has benefitted from being seen from this point of view. It opens up an awareness to subtle changes that can be achieved through non-literary elements such as colour, contrasts, light and shade, sound effects and music as well as varying the pace of some moments to heighten sub-textual communication. Barry Jenkins’ glorious filmic interpretation of Colson Whitehead’s novel, Underground Railroad, should be seen in the same light.
Theatre directors and actors are especially aware of the role that conflict plays between characters in a scene and, especially, in relation to the emotional status of the characters, which varies during a screenplay. These elements become clear when actors are introduced into the development process to workshop scripts. As film is a visual and aural medium, one should not dismiss any of these possibilities for enhancing the impact of a film.
Those desiring to work in developing projects for television or the streamers will be working on a relatively substantial story. Ideally, these projects should also incorporate the writer’s ‘original voice’. Development should aim to do that while also keeping the project commercially viable. This means the editor needs to be able to inform the writer of possibilities to make it personal while remaining mindful of current commissioning requirements and the desire for series to sell into many international markets. The ability to formulate valid commissioning strategies for projects, matching them in scale and scope to one of the commissioning slots for drama on one of the streaming networks, will be one of their tasks during the programme.
The programme also makes participants aware of the negative and stereotypical ways in which the elderly and those who are physically challenged are often represented in film and TV and challenges them to achieve fair representation of them in their projects.
The selection process for development personnel is based on the impression applicants make on the selectors of their ambition for the impact they wish to make in the industry and on the existing enthusiasm they have for films and/or series drama, reading or criticism. Applicants are asked to submit a cv, a review of a play, film or book and a statement that expresses their vision for the impact they want to make on film and television drama. Those who demonstrate such interest through jobs they have done or their hobbies or the courses they may have already completed in creative writing, filmmaking or producing are likely to win our interest.
As they also need to demonstrate that they have the ability to see potential in ideas, candidates who show potential will be sent a short story to read and asked to let us know how they would approach making this into a film or series and who the protagonist would be.
These responses will need to be received within 5 days for our consideration. The responses that impress us will lead to these applicants being invited to join the concept development lab.
Up to 6 individuals will be selected for stage 2 in the lab.
Those selected for this route in the programme will need to commit to attend preparatory sessions on the Monday of the week before the lab occurs and on Monday of the following week, just before the lab occurs and then the 3 days of the lab and the day after on Friday.
In the 2 days of preparation, these candidates will be given teaching that will prepare them and enable them to participate well in the discussions about the projects. They will learn about:
- How to describe a story in a brief logline and a “what if?” premise.
- The difference between fabula and syuzhet – i.e. plot and story.
- What a plot does.
- Characterisation and the importance of backstories and internal conflict
- the role of genre in storytelling and what they can learn from standard plot forms.
- how to make stories personal.
Candidates will also be introduced to the Logbook for monitoring their educational journeys. This is something they should use to reflect back on their learning and to identify questions they need to ask to help them in further personal study or in discussion with their peers or Q&A sessions with the programme director.
In the lab, as for the writers, participants will have an opportunity of introducing themselves on day 1. Each candidate will also be allocated to observe the approach of two development execs in his or her discussions with writers for half the day on day 2.
On day 3, the candidates may join in discussions on each project just like everyone else. They should be aware that all of their interventions or lack of them will form part of their assessment for whether to invite them to continue into the rest of the programme.
On the day after the writers’ lab, the Friday, editors will have an opportunity to share their own thoughts on each project and which writers they connected with best. In the afternoon they will be invited to watch a movie and then participate in an evaluation of it in verbal discussion on Zoom.
Candidates will then be asked to read a book or script and to send in a report on it, using a template that is issued to them. This report should be submitted within 5 days. Candidates will then be assessed again and two will be invited to continue to the next stage. The criteria for our assessments are in the person specification below.
Person specification for selecting development personnel
The following will be scored on this scale:
1 (terrible), 2 (weak), 3 (mediocre), 4 satisfactory, 5 (moderately good), 6 (good), 7 (very good), 8 (significant), 9 (excellent), 10 (outstanding)
- Ability to write an intellectually challenging and coherent report.
- Can demonstrate a satisfactory understanding of storytelling.
- Has a strong vision for making an impact on British film and television drama.
- Has very good verbal and written communication skills.
- Can work efficiently and effectively to tight deadlines.
- Has a very good telephone manner and is a confident public speaker.
- Enjoys engaging in collaborative working relationships.
- Has the ability to act on his or her own initiative.
The following will be scored on this scale:
1 (weak), 2 satisfactory, 3 (good) 4 (very good) 5 (excellent)
- Has knowledge of current trends in contemporary fiction, theatrical films and TV drama.
- Can demonstrate experience of working successfully under pressure.
- Has a creative imagination.
- Has computer word processing and emailing skills, including sending attachments.
- Has negotiation skills/an ability to know when to be firm and when flexible.
Successful candidates will be supported further, while participating in the development of one or two projects, to Create a Commissioning Strategy for their project. This will cover the following:
- an understanding of the structure of the film and TV industry in the UK and how international co-productions and distribution works and what the regulations and restrictions are;
- where film censorship (certification) and children’s and prime-time scheduling on television is concerned, knowledge and sensitivity towards the industry guidelines on the portrayal or use of bad language, sex, violence and blasphemy;
- where diversity is concerned – especially of cultural diversity, LGBTQ and physical disability – knowledge and sensitivity to the current industry guidelines on these issues, and recognising that good taste and judgement are important on these matters because they are increasingly sensitive and emotive areas for many viewers in a multi-faceted and multi-cultural society;
- an enhanced understanding of the effects of the production process on the nature of the production and post-production process and of the relationship with the audience;
- the ability to evaluate current script, film funding, distribution and commissioning structures and formulate commissioning strategies for each project.
The commissioning strategy requires editors to specify what sector of the market their projects are aimed at, what producers and/or production companies they think will be interested in commissioning them and why, and what budget level they have in mind for the projects.
It may also offer further insight into the creative ambitions for the project, indicating any leading creatives they would like to see or who may have already committed to playing roles in the production; these players may range from the distributor and/or producer through to the director, cinematographer, art director/ production designer, editor and leading actors.
The commissioning strategy ensures that the editor takes seriously the elements of the programme that are about the business of film and series drama.
Trainees will be given regular contact to help them fulfil the requirements of this project as their projects develop towards the scripting time. They will also need to engage with their writer and story editor mentor to be sure that the trainee’s thinking is in line with project’s agreed development agenda and to mark any changes that may take place and why.