Script Room – your submissions have been sifted!

Friday 22 June 2012, 12:13

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton

Sorry we’ve gone a bit quiet – but following the deadline on 21 May, our sterling team has been opening, checking, logging and organising the 1899 scripts we received. I’ll just repeat that: One Thousand, Eight Hundred, and Ninety Nine scripts. That’s nearly half of the total number of unsolicited scripts we processed for the whole of 2011. Here’s what a selection of them looked like as they slowly took over our working lives:

Script-Room-pic.JPG Script room submissions

What we decided to do next was break the total down into genre piles, and here’s what we got for each in numbers (and percentages of the total):

TV DRAMA: 473 (25%)
TV COMEDY: 478 (25%)
FILM: 426 (22%)
RADIO DRAMA: 278 (15%)
STAGE:  127 (7%)
CHILDREN’S: 23  (1%)

And then came D-day – or rather, S-day. The sifting. Our team of hardy, battle-worn readers gathered together in a quiet part of a little known BBC building, and readied themselves for two and a half weeks of total script immersion. In the old system, the readers just picked scripts off the pile randomly, but this time we decided to compare like with like, and they looked at one of the above genres for a day or half day at a time, then moved on to another genre. That way, they were able to compare film with film, radio drama with radio drama and so on - allowing themselves to maintain a focus while also staying fresh day by day.

Each day, we would regularly catch up and talk about the scripts they liked, the recurring problems and difficulties that arose, and any patterns that were emerging. We also asked the readers to make a simple note of the recurring reasons why scripts weren’t managing to get through the first 10 page sift (and we’ll be blogging about this data at a later date when we’ve had chance to crunch the numbers and try to make some sense of them).
Some interesting things emerged anecdotally. At this stage, they were particularly impressed by the better film scripts and stage plays they were reading.  They felt a lot of TV and radio scripts, both drama and comedy, tended to struggle to do something really original or exciting – perhaps because writers felt inhibited by the demands of broadcast schedules and formats. But originality and excitement was a recurring struggle for the readers across a large proportion of scripts.

By the end of the second week, all the scripts had received a first 10-page sift, and the readers had put through about 20% of all scripts to the next ‘read-on’ stage. Which also meant 80% would not progress. But that’s the reality of script assessment – we’re only looking for and expecting a smaller proportion to make it through. At this stage, I had already started doing some second reading and the readers picked up the baton, working through that 20% to second read between 20-30 pages and see if and how they progressed. This second sift is one of the new elements we've introduced to the process, and it helped us find and focus on the scripts that were crying out for a full read and script feedback. By the end of the final week, and after a final double-check by myself and Henry Swindell (our man in the north), we had ourselves a pile of 100-plus scripts – or 6% of everything sent in.

All the emails have now gone out to writers who reached every stage of the process. So if you sent a script but haven’t received an email from us – please check your junk/spam mail, and check the email account is working fine. And if it still isn’t there, then email into our general inbox with ‘Script Room’ in the subject header and your full name and script title in the body of the email, and we’ll endeavour to get back to you. But be patient – we’re a very small team.

To those who didn’t make it through – don’t be disheartened, but do make sure that if and when you submit another script to us in the future, make sure you give it the time, effort and development it needs before you send it off. Even if that means waiting not just for the next submissions window, but the one after that. Because another strong feeling from the readers was that many scripts just hadn’t been developed and reworked and rewritten enough before they were submitted. And to those who did progress through, well done – and bear with us while the readers take a full look at your script.


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    Comment number 1.

    I feel like Brian Clough when he was rejected for the England Manager's job.

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    Comment number 2.

    Only 6% were successful. I find that very disappointing.

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    Comment number 3.

    yes its a disappointing outcome to months of work, the email was very short on detail as to what is the missing factor in 80 percent of the work submitted

    I find the whole system (not just the BBC writers room) odd...following all the advice about writing about what to do and how to do it and when to do it......I just want to know why is there so much rubbish produced for the screen and television ???

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    Comment number 4.

    Very interesting. I am one of the fortunate ones to have made it through to a full read but I was quite surprised at how drastic the cull was. The introduction of the second sift explains why so few people made it through.

    As to those who are a bit disappointed not to make it through, this is the fifth script I have written and the second to get a full read but it is the first time I have really found my own voice. My other scripts were trying too hard to be something that realistically might get commissioned but this time I just wrote what I had to write and stopped second guessing what other people might think. If you enjoy writing then just keep on going. Find something that only you could say and say it.

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    Comment number 5.

    I am not surprised. As a reader for competitions myself. I see it all the time. Work that shows signs of talent but ideas not fully developed or unoriginal stories. It's such a shame and I'm sure the readers felt depressed about turning so many scripts down. You see, there are hundreds of people like that who are talented but are unable yet to harness this talent. Don't give up. Just keep working at it, trying to improve, improve, improve. You will get there if you put the work in and get advice from the right people.

    I know so many writers who have been rejected by WR who are now writing for TV, Radio and/or who have won awards. It's part of the journey. So enjoy the pain!

    P.S. I agree with @Greentea. Just write from the heart. Tell the story that only you can tell. It really is the key.

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    Comment number 6.

    I know 6% doesn't seem like much - but in the old unsolicited system, we were only taking away up to around 15% (sometimes less) of all scripts submitted for a full read and feedback. The reality is you have to focus and there's no easy way around that.

    The thing is, although we might be ultimately 'rejecting' writers' work, we're not necessarily saying it's no good - just that our job is to hone in, to narrow down, to focus until we reach that very small proportion of people that excite us. When you have 1800 entries, there will inevitably be a lot of disappointment. And that's ultimately because writing well is very very very hard indeed.

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    Comment number 7.

    mhepton - why is there so much rubbish produced? What one part of the audience believes is rubbish may well be essential viewing for 8 million others. So that notion of good or bad is very very subjective. (I'm not saying no TV is rubbish - only that it's a complex rather than simple question/problem.) As I said in the blog, we'll be coming back later with some data on what the readers generally felt were the recurring problem areas for scripts that didn't make it through.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Interesting point from bluejay2 about work showing talent but not fully developed. My point is that a rigid 10-page sift policy means that as readers pan for gold in just 10 pages, they might, in the process, miss some real nuggets that cant really be discovered without digging deeper. 10 pages may not reveal a talent; it's a marathon not a sprint. OK, so a flawed introduction might well point to a duff script, but a flawed introduction to what turns out to be a nugget, can easily be reworked. After all the idea behind the script room submission invitation, is to find talented writers with a script to develop, not find the finished article. I am left feeling disappointed - I did expect feedback - but not discouraged. Just because a reader seems to have peered superficially into my shop window but not ventured in to see what I think is a nugget inside, is I think, sad. All that's been rejected is 10 pages, not my idea, characters, or the unscrutinised plot development.

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    Comment number 9.

    Parsifal9 - the reason for introducing a second sift stage is to make the 10 page sift a less rigid option - to give us and the writer and the script a further chance. But there MUST be something of real interest in those 10 pages. Also, the point about the 10 pages is not that the readers peer superficially, rather that they look very intensively at the work - it's quite the opposite of a casual look. I would argue vociferously that from the writer's point of view, your idea, characters and story need to emerge engagingly in the opening 10 pages. But one of the reasons we changed the sifting system is because the tendency we have seen from looking at thousands and thousands of scripts is that a decent opening is frequently followed by a less and less engaging or coherent script.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    bluejay2 - you are absolutely right - it's part of a journey you have to learn to bear, if not necessarily to enjoy. And yes - always write from the heart (and then rewrite from the head). I don't know of many writers who we've rejected (sic) and have gone on to major success. But there are different routes for some, we can't and don't promise to be the only route through. Worth pointing to writers like Jack Thorne having their first contact at the BBC with writersroom and going on to eventually win a BAFTA for The Fades, or Dominic Mitchell just having his original 3-parter for BBC3 green-lit, or Debbie Moon entering our CBBC competition and her original 13 part CBBC show now in post-production.

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    Comment number 11.

    In reply to your comment about my earlier posting., yes I know writing is subjective but in your "bulk email" reply we erm perhaps all, might like to know what is the missing "w" factor. You ask that in the first 10 pages it must interest my case I had 6 murders and a fire... obviously not enough to catch your attention?
    As for writing a number of years ago I was an extra on a BBC series, a runner had left behind a copy of the script..of all the extras who picked up the script to read - all said "what utter drivel" but I suppose someone must have commissioned the way the series was never renewed which tells me something

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    Comment number 12.

    I'm very pleased that I'm one of the 6%, but I feel for those who have been unsuccessful (because I've been there many times). Over the years I've adopted a default state of mind that as soon as I post something off (and I post a fair amount of things of to competitions, schemes etc) I forget about it and carry on with the next thing. It's allowed me to (almost always) shake off that horrible sinking feeling when you get the rejection e-mail - and of course you're building up (and hopefully improving) your portfolio of work ready for the next submissions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I'm one of the 80% and although not too suprised I was still gutted! I look forward to the blog regarding what went wrong. I agree with mhepton; could it be possible that each regional BBC department held monthly writers courses to help develop new talent or to get advice from relevant people?
    I'm now sitting at my laptop, gathering myself together, to make another stab at this! Do I try and 'fix' my original script or start again? A new idea a fresh approach? r.e. Green Tea how do I find my voice?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    bri67 - the regional workshops are a lovely idea - but if you knew just how much in-house BBC departments have thinned out in recent times you would realise just how pretty much impossible that would be - but there are various kinds of open events around the UK for different reasons, you have to keen an eye on our Opportunities page. Voice is a very interesting and murky issue - do you find it or create it? There are no 'true' answers, but the only way to work it out for yourself is to write and write and write ...

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    Comment number 15.

    Thanks Paul, I do understand regarding the thinning out in recent times; I appreciate you replying. Onwards and upwards!

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    Comment number 16.

    I am bemused also about the "rules" - eg in the BBC Wales contest request for entrants to its drama contest, it excludes those from outside if I was Welsh and lived in Bristol then its "a no way Jose" but someone Scottish living in Cardiff ..welcome aboard.

    How does this equate with the EU directive on the free movement of goods and services...surely it should be anyone can submit a story about Wales or Welsh people or something that happens in Wales

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    Comment number 17.

    @bri67. It's hard to define exactly what 'voice' is. I've always been good at expressing myself through writing non-fiction but my recent attempts at fiction have been less successful. Rejection was disappointing as my previous scripts were fairly well-written, had good characters, great lines and good stories but there was still something missing. With my last couple of scripts I have felt a bit 'make-or-break.' I just went 'to hell with it', stopped looking at what was already on television, stopped thinking about what a script reader might want to see and put something of myself onto the page. The end results have left me feeling a bit exposed and out on a limb and if they had been rejected I would have been more gutted than usual because I could not have poured anything more into them, but they seem to be opening a few doors for me and catching the attention of a few people.

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    Comment number 18.

    Paul, thanks for blogging and more importantly taking time out to respond to people.
    What I'd like to know though, from a sitcom perspective, is why there seems to be such an emphasis on creating something 'orginal and exciting'? With respect I'd suggest that the only real criteria for a comedy should be that it's funny. In a previous blog you mention a Writersroom aversion to flatshares and unemployment, something which so many great sitcoms have in common.

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    Comment number 19.

    Mhepton - something like Wales Drama Award is in partnership with National Theatre Wales and BBC Wales Drama, and an important remit for both is working with talent and serving audiences in Wales - so that's the logic underpinning the rules. There is a BBC department whose sole purpose is to interrogate all competition rules and regs so if they say we are ok then that's good enough for me ... !

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    Comment number 20.

    Rolls86 - I wasn't saying we didn't like/want those sits, only that lots of scripts were using them - therefore the difficulty they faced was how to make theirs stand out in a sea of similar ideas - a perrenial problem for writers. By 'original' we mean what makes your particular version a fresh perspective on an archetypal idea? And by 'exciting', we mean something that engages us all the way through. The problem with 'funny' is that it's a hugely subjective thing and the subject of ongoing debate and disagreement across audience and industry alike. But you're right. Sitcoms do just need to be funny.


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