Creative ProcessSometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Experienced film industry professionals, some of whom are quoted below, suggest the following strategies to improve efficiency and creativity in independent filmmaking.

Spend more time on the treatment and involve the producer and/or director

Some producers see spending a lot of money on treatments as money wasted.  They often want to get a first draft as quickly as possible to raise development funding.  Writers’ agent Julian Friedmann argues against this, citing successful TV writers who often spend up to 70 percent of their time developing the treatment. Friedmann says, “For me, going too early to script drafting greatly increases the likelihood of failure.”

He suggests this template for new treatments:

1. A half-page pitch/hype:  Look at the back of best-selling paperback novels: they don’t tell you the story.  They tell you what kind of story it is.

2. Character biographies.

3. Statement of artistic intent:  “As an agent it’s critically important that I know why a writer wants to write something.  I need to know what their connection with the material is.  Why are you writing it, and why are you the right person for it?,” suggests Friedmann.

4. Synopsis: Write it in the present tense, imagining you’re describing what you see, so it’s written visually.

“This is a selling document, written as a team with the writer and the producer, absolutely done by both of them,” says Friedmann.  Many interviewees stressed the value of the writer and the producer (or the director) initially working out the story together.   This encourages trust and develops long-term writing relationships.  As writer-director Rob Sprackling suggests: “I would love to see a lot more writers end up as being directors, like in France.  We have an auteur voice, and the person who’s created this thing gets to see it through.”

Reduce the size of development slates

Recently producers have tended towards larger development slates, possibly encouraged by public funding for slates from the UK Film Council and European MEDIA funding.  Many writers who were interviewed thought this meant that producers were spread too thinly across projects, and it would be better to work intensively on fewer projects.  Writers also wanted more access to producers.  Producers, on the other hand, argue that they need a bigger slate to have a chance that at least one film will get funding.

Writer-producer partnerships

Some writers argue that if the producer is unable to raise reasonable funds, writers should not be required to relinquish all rights to the producer.  This would move the writer to a less submissive role, and strengthen the power of the writer in the later stages of development.  Some producers resist this idea, viewing it as a reduction of their control, but it could help build cooperation, especially when there is less money up front.

Workshops and script readings as developmental tools

Allocating funding for actors’ read throughs and workshops allows ideas to be road tested.  This can be especially useful for comedy and the actors can improvise too.  A line is often written in the budget for this, but it would be helpful if more development funders actively encouraged it.

Involve the writer during the shoot and post

Directors traditionally decide how much to involve the writer, but the director’s need for control could be outweighed by the advantages of the writer’s deep knowledge of the characters.  The group vision of the film can be stronger, and the writer is tied more closely to the production company.  If the writer is seen as a disruptive presence, the producer could have the right to remove him or her if necessary.

Increased training for everyone

Better training and pay for development executives and script editors

Most development executives and script editors start as runners, assistants, or script readers, learning their trade on the job.   Writers and producers have identified this lack of formal training as a problem.   Some useful question-and-answer techniques, such as motivational interviewing, as well as neurolinguistic programming and training in script analysis, could help to garner more respect for script editors.   Low pay is also a problem, as was pointed out by Julian Friedmann: “Script editors are not valued enough and not paid enough for it to be a career destination, as a result of which producers abdicate development to unqualified people.”

Script training for producers

Some interviewees suggested that producers needed more training while others thought producers should try writing scripts themselves, so as to understand the emotional process and sense of ownership involved. Writer and producer Peter Ettedgui thought that script training would give producers greater belief in their own judgment: “You’ve got to know that sometimes as a producer you’re going to be siding with your financiers, because what they are saying is right, and you’re going to be arguing with your director; and sometimes the boot is on the other foot and you are defending your director, not because he is the hallowed creative, but because what he is saying is right and better for the film.”

Training for writers

Training, including mentoring and script writers’ retreats, is as necessary for established writers as it is for new entrants.  Several people suggested that mentoring by film editors could help to build collaboration and remove some barriers to creativity and risktaking.

The writer could also be more involved in the edit of the by giving feedback on any structural issues. This may be cheaper and more effective than fixing these during the actual edit.

Some interviewees suggested that writers should know more about producing and how films are financed.  Some feel that writer/producers are on the way forward (for those with the right talent).

Writer-directors usually don’t attend screenwriting courses because they think of themselves mainly as directors.  Writing training specifically for them could help.

More money; more profitable development

Extra funding was often the top request from our interviewees, especially producers!

Diversity of development funding

UK development money is often linked to the production funds of organizations like the BBC, Film4, and BFI National Lottery Film Fund.  Producer Julie Baines put it this way: “Film4 and BBC Films are very director-led.  So unless you have one of their hot directors attached to your project, it is going to be difficult to develop a project with them.”

Major non-public funder Working Title Films is also linked to certain types of films.  Different sources of funding are needed to enable producers (or writers) to option projects that they are passionate about, without immediately tying themselves to production funds and thereby losing rights.  This especially applies to TV or theatre writers who may want to migrate to film.

The need for diversity and plurality of taste in organizations that are gatekeepers of funding was emphasized in the 2012 UK Film Policy Review, which also proposed that development funds should be given to producers who have successfully put projects into production for reinvestment.

Some people interviewed wanted more original screenplays to be funded, as opposed to adaptations.   Another screenwriter suggested that writers should be able to access development funds by pitching their ideas directly to funding bodies.

Greater funding from broadcaster acquisition of films

Some producers call for broadcasters to acquire more UK products, not just their own branded films or US imports.  This might open up investment in development by private equity investors, provided the necessary UK broadcast sale could be guaranteed.  At the moment, projects that are most likely to get made are those being developed with the broadcasters and /or lottery support.

If BSkyB and Channel 5 committed to a slate of production funding or the acquisition of more UK film product, this would separate internal broadcaster development from production and encourage private funding.

Tax on exhibition income

Perhaps a tax on the exhibition of films would produce increased development funding.  Producer Rebecca O’Brien was not alone in voicing this view when she said: “If we had a tax on exhibition that went to the production company, then we would be better placed to take projects to a further state of development without having to call on outside subsidy.”

Private equity funding for development

Development funding of films is seen as high-risk, with funds tied up for some time, and with only a relatively small premium on production and profit share of about 5 per cent of producer’s net after distributor costs.  Private investors could possibly be attracted under the UK’s Enterprise Investment Scheme, which provides tax breaks for high net-worth individuals, but an improvement in the terms of trade would be necessary.  Such a change would benefit everyone and would result in higher-quality scripts.

Rebecca O’Brien suggested that more financial support is needed at the secondary stage of development, so perhaps that would be the time for private investors to invest, when a coherent script or talent package is in place.  This is the approach of the European MEDIA Development Slate Funding scheme.

More public funding for development in general, including producers

Only about 3.5 per cent of UK public funding is spent on script development, as compared to about 56 percent on production and 12.4 percent on distribution and exhibition.    Most of that goes to the writer, but Stephen Woolley argued passionately for greater recognition of the producer’s role: “As a producer you are not respected in the same way as a writer is.  So even though it’s your project, you brought it to them, you developed it, you hired the writer, you’ve made the script – you can pay for your own bus to Stoke Newington.”

The 2012 UK Film Policy Review recommended that money recouped by the BFI should be reinvested in future films by the successful producer, so maybe this is a way of increasing public funding, even for the producer.