The Future Of TV

When I’m not writing novels under my pseudonym James Wilde, most of my current work under my own name is screenwriting for TV, developing shows for both the UK and the US. I have several currently in different stages of development (more on these projects soon).

The nature of the industry is changing so fast you can almost feel the land moving under your feet.  Terrestrial broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC – are in steep decline.  They’re fighting to get eyes on screens and talent to make their shows.  Streaming providers are winning.  Netflix, Prime, soon Disney and Apple, with a whole lot more in the pipeline.

It’s a great time to be a screenwriter.

Netflix has just taken over a massive new building on the lot of Sunset Bronson Studios on Sunset Boulevard.  If you want to get a sense of how they’re changing things up, this piece in Wired is a great read.

On January 7, 2018, Netflix had its biggest ever day of streaming, with users collectively watching 350 million hours of TV shows and movies. (Netflix puts this down in part to an increase in viewers around holiday periods.) It’s planning on spending $8bn on its video content in 2018; by comparison, Fox spent the same amount in 2017 on non-sports content.

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True Horror – Testimony

A quick reminder about True Horror on Channel 4 at 10pm this Thursday April 19, which examines the truly terrifying case that I investigated in my non-fiction book, Testimony.

When Bill and Liz Rich moved into an isolated farmhouse, it already had a reputation locally for being haunted. What they found there was far, far worse than their wildest imaginings…and it threatened their sanity and ultimately their lives.

If you like what you see in the True Horror drama-documentary, read the book for the full story.  You can get it here.

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Tolkien, Fantasy And The BBC

Interviewed live on the BBC the other day. I was talking about the influence of Tolkien and the large and still growing impact of fantasy in literature and popular culture in a debate with Oxford University scholar Dr Stuart Lee and the author Robin Hobb. Stuart and Robin are both knowledgable people, as you’d expect, but also good fun to be around, and we got into some interesting areas.  The general consensus was that fantasy is no longer the red-headed stepchild of the literary world, and now has a degree of respectability. Which kind of irks me. I always liked the outsider status, and that sense of fantasy as a transgressive genre. I don’t want to be part of the club.

I’m an old hand at TV interviews, but it still gives me a thrill to walk into the iconic Broadcasting House in London’s West End.  Old media has a buzz about it, even now, and in that place you feel bound into the long tradition of the BBC and broadcasting in general. The green rooms are still a bit shabby and the studios oddly unreal out of the context of the box in the corner of the lounge.

And my editor will be pleased to know I remembered to ramble, briefly, about Pendragon (published on July 13), King Arthur and the connection between history and myth.

Your Four-Step Guide To Getting Your TV Series Made #screenwriting

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So, this is BTS #2. Whenever I’m out doing talks, or at conventions, I’m usually collared by someone asking for tips on how to get a TV idea made (and, really, if it was that easy do you think I’d be showing the secret handshake to everyone?)  The conversation usually starts with, they’ve got an absolutely amazing idea that would make a brilliant TV series and everyone will jump the moment they hear it etc etc

Most TV writers I know are a hard-bitten, cynical bunch and for good reason. But there is some advice worth dishing out for those people who really want to be screenwriters (at this point I’m excluding the woman at the last talk who said she had a great idea but didn’t have time to write it so could she just tell someone…)

So here you go, a measly four steps to getting your own TV series made.  Four simple steps to earning hundreds of thousands of pound (UK)/millions of dollars (US).  Easy, right?

1. Get Trusted 

What, not come up with a great idea?  No.  Let’s talk a little about basic human psychology.  Whenever someone in TV hires you (and in books, comics, music, and everywhere really), they’re putting their job on the line.  The job that keeps their partner with a roof over their head or feeds and clothes their undoubtedly beautiful children.  In TV, that usually means giving you anything from a few thousand pounds to earmarking millions if a TV series gets made.  If you screw up, if you miss your deadlines, if your scripts suddenly become ordure, if the series flops so badly TV critics are pointing and mocking, that person who commissioned you will be asked some tough questions by the powers above them.  They might even lose their jobs.  So, as anyone would, they mitigate against this.  They say, “But the writer was an Oscar/BAFTA winning screenwriter.  Anyone would have hired them!”

Which is one reason why you tend to see familiar names at the top of your favourite shows.  If you want to cut the risk factor, hire a seasoned professional, someone who has proven they can take the pressure and do the job.  Not just the job, but an amazing job.  A safe pair of hands.

How do you get trusted?  That’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.  But briefly, get lots and lots of credits.  In the UK, write for a soap, get taken on as a writer on another series, write a movie, in the US, get hired for the writers’ room on a show.  Build your brand.  Publish novels, comics (these actually mean a lot less than you might think – different skill-sets, but they show you at least understand Story).  Basically, find some cover for the people who might hire you so they can keep their jobs.

2. Write A Jaw-Dropping Spec Script

What, still no amazing idea?  Your spec script is your calling card.  You’ve read this on every screenwriting advice site.  You know this.  It has to be a script that is so good, some producer could imagine going straight to screen with it.  It has to be the equal of the work done by those seasoned, highly-feted writers you know and love.  If it’s not, the producer will simply revert to those other writers.  The people in charge of the money need to know you can do the job.  And, as is the theme of the 21st century, good is not good enough.  It has to be the best.  One tip: aim to write four spec scripts a year.  Keep them flowing out there, circulating, so someone, somewhere is always reading your material.  There’s a tsunami of writers waiting to break in.  Attention spans last days.  Even writers with lots of credits can get forgotten.  You have to keep stepping up and throwing a punch to show you can do it.

3. Have An Amazing Idea

Finally!  But it has to be a particular kind of idea.  Too far ahead of the curve and people will be afraid to touch it.  (See #1, about people trying to keep their jobs.)  But it needs to be fresh.  A novel take in an area people understand, so you don’t have to do lots of explaining before you get to the core of your genius idea.  In a nutshell: new, but not too new.  The TV industry is not burdened with gamblers.  (There are numerous exceptions to this, of course.  The ground-breakers are the ones everyone remembers, and producers will always say they want ground-breakers until someone, somewhere says they don’t.  Break a bit of ground, until you’re in a position to dig up a whole field.)

4. Build Your Family

The TV industry, like publishing, like music, is all about relationships.  This, too, ties in to #1.  Human nature – people like to work with people they like, and people they trust.  Nobody likes to work with a dick, or an incompetent.  Take meetings, get on with people, chat, go for drinks.  I’d say ‘network’ but that’s too cynical.  Just be a nice guy and get on with people and you’ll find a lot of barriers melt away.  Neil Gaiman once said, “Be good, be fast, be likeable. Any two out of three will do.  Any less, won’t.”  That’s decent advice.  So, make as many contacts as you can.  It’s the easiest way to get your work read.  If you’re one of those writers who likes to sit in their room and send their scripts out by raven, trembling at the thought of human interaction, sorry, you’re doomed.

See how easy it is?  This has been a longer bit of bloggage than intended.  I’ll get into detail on some of these points at a later date.  If you want me to pick up on anything specific in the future, leave it in the comments.

In the meantime, I just want to remind you that I have a knockdown special offer running on my ebook of my supernatural thriller The Eternal, for the next seven days.  Buy it now before the inevitable movie adaptation:

Here’s the UK link

Here’s the US and world link

New TV Series In Development – BTS #1#Screenwriting

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BTS. That stands for ‘Behind the Scenes’.  You don’t get a lot of discussion about the process of getting a TV series made…or, more likely, not made, as 99.9% of the series that go into development never see the light of day.  There’s a reason for that.  A lot of writers only like to talk about their successes.  Or they don’t want to jinx the process.  Or they’re afraid of giving too much away.  Or, they believe, no one is really interested in the what-might-bes or the never-wases.

I think they’re wrong on that last point.

So, I’ve just signed a contract to take one of my original ideas into development with the people behind Homeland.  It’s a returning crime series (so, apologies to those of you looking for adaptations of Age of Misrule and Swords of Albion – they’ve both been in and out of development, and will no doubt get on that horse again).

The script for the first episode of this new series has been written. Actually, I did it on spec – that’s what got me the gig.  The next stage is for the producers to take it in to the TV commissioners to see if they’re interested enough to think about airing it.  If they are, we’re on to stage 2 of the long obstacle course.  If they’re not, it goes into a drawer and comes out again in a year or two.

My philosophy is to celebrate every stage, even if the next one may well be turnaround or death by meh.  So see this as a celebration.  Contract signed, possibilities ahead.

And check back tomorrow for news about The Eternal

The 21st Century Writer

(Or: I am not a lazy git.)

It’s probably fair to say that about 80% of a writer’s labours are hidden from public view.  They’re the projects that never quite come together, or never get picked up, for a whole variety of reasons.  The pitches that seem to be going somewhere, and then die at the last – and this is particularly true of the TV world, where only a tiny fraction of what is written actually makes it to the screen.  The articles that get bumped from magazines, or websites, or newspapers, because something more newsworthy has just surfaced.

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I work at my writing constantly.  Five days a week, sometimes more.  It’s my job, it’s my life.  A book with my name on it may crop up once a year, sometimes with even longer breaks, so it’s easy to think I while away my hours drinking in the local pub or wandering the world, watching the clouds pass by.  (I do both, just not all the time.)  What you don’t get to hear about are all the pieces of work that never break surface, because: what’s the point?  But here’s what I have been doing:

No ‘Mark Chadbourn’ book recently?  That’s because I’ve been writing a series of books under the pseudonym I’ve reserved for historical fiction (to avoid confusion among readers, booksellers and marketing people) – James Wilde.  These books have made The Times best-seller list, so as people are keen to keep reading them, I feel an obligation to keep writing them.  I’ve just signed a three-book deal with Penguin Random House for a new series which will be of interest to James Wilde readers *and* Mark Chadbourn readers (particularly if you liked Age of Misrule).

I also work extensively as a screenwriter – 26 hours of produced work for the BBC under my belt to date.  I’m currently developing several new series for broadcasters around the world, and working on a film script.  My near-future SF series, Shadow State, is in the hands of a US network.  My book, Testimony, an investigation into a British Amityville, is being developed for UK and international TV.  I have a political thriller and a crime series also in development.  It’s a long road from here to any of these projects appearing on a screen near you, and they all might fall at any one of the numerous obstacles.  But, you know: paid work.

One of my favourite TV writers is Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatermass, and I’m writing an extended piece about him for We Are The Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale, a new book looking at his life and work in TV and film.  This will be a great book with some fantastic contributors, so definitely check it out if you have any interest in F/SF/H, TV, film, or just the work of a quality writer.

And on top of all the writing and the endless, endless meetings, I do various talks, lectures, and signings here and there.  The next one is a screenwriting workshop at the Derby Book Festival Writers’ Day.

All of which makes an interesting point about what it takes to be a full-time writer in the 21st century.  Only a very,very few writers make a good living from novels.  A publishing industry on the ropes has slashed advances, and the black arts of publishing accounting means royalties sometimes take a while to surface in your bank (most authors don’t even make any royalties).  The choice for many is to hold down a full-time job and scribble away in the evenings.

But I like my freedom.  It’s been a long time since I was a wage-slave, working as a journalist on the national papers in London.  I’m pretty much unemployable now.  But I also like to eat.  And, you know, have an amazing time travelling the world and being louche in new locales.  So the wise thing is to cast my net wide and put my writing to work in different media.  Eggs/baskets etc.

But then, if you’re a writer, why wouldn’t you?  Story telling is the same all over.  Once you’ve mastered the new skill-set for a new medium, you’re drawing on the same natural ability wherever you’re employed: your ideas.

A film script is a palate-cleanser after a novel, and vice versa.  Journalism and comics and TV all have their particular joys, and they all complement each other.  In the multi-media, cross-platform, constantly mutating 21st century, why would any writer want to limit their storytelling to only one area?

 

TV Deal For Testimony

As the word is now starting to circulate, I ought to mention here that I’ve signed a deal with producer Carson Black at Keo Films to develop Testimony as a three-parter for TV.  It’s early days yet and there are still many obstacles to clamber over before it gets to the screen, but it’s a positive step.

Testimony is my non-fiction investigation of a truly terrifying supernatural case at an isolated house in Wales.  You can find the book here, for UK readers, and here if you’re in the US.  (It’s also available in Amazon stores in Japan, Brazil, India, Italy and elsewhere.)

TV Drama Writers Festival 2014

I’ll be in London for this on July 2nd.  Looks like it’s shaping up to be a great event with some of the leading screenwriters in the UK, TV commissioners and other industry professionals on stage to talk about opportunities and obstacles in the coming twelve months.

The festival is organised by the BBC and is open to all screenwriters who’ve had work on air.  Scanning the list of speakers, I see Tony Jordan, Jed Mercurio and Sally Wainwright are there, along with BBC boss Ben Stephenson, and top people from Sky and ITV.  If anyone’s interested, I’ll probably be tweeting some of the most important information to arise out of the sessions.

I’m particularly interested in a session on how streaming TV – Netflix, Lovefilm, X-Box and the rest – is likely to affect the traditional TV landscape.  This world is changing fast.

You can find more here at the BBC Writers Room.