An update from the Head of BBC Writersroom - How we can (and can’t) help develop your writing
Head of BBC Writersroom
(This blog post was first published in December 2018)
As our annual window for Drama Script submissions is now open, this felt like a good time to address some questions that we regularly get asked about BBC Writersroom, our open submission script system (the ‘Script Room’) and what the outcome is for successful writers.
Firstly - it’s worth saying again:
At BBC Writersroom we look for writers to develop, not specific projects.
Specific projects have to go to Production companies for development, not us.
Writer development at BBC Writersroom
We read your scripts to get a sense of your “voice” as a writer, and your potential to write for the BBC.
You should send the script to us that you are happiest with – the one that you feel closest to, that represents you as a writer. Not the one you think the BBC would like best.
It can be for theatre, radio or film or TV - and you should regard it as a ‘spec’, or “calling-card” script – an example of your best possible writing regardless of budget, location or any of the other normal considerations of production.
Ten to fifteen writers who come through our Drama Script Room are offered a place in our Drama Room group. This is a six-month development scheme which includes one day each month of workshops, masterclasses, introductions to industry contacts and networking events.
We are sometimes asked to invite writers to submit sketches, ideas, monologues etc. for specific opportunities, and we offer those to our Drama Room (or alumni of our Comedy Room) as they arise.
We also provide professional, freelance script-editing support to develop a screenplay, which should be the first episode of a BBC TV series and will act as a TV “spec” script.
The aim is to encourage and champion talented writers with something to say, and put them in the best place to build connections, and win BBC broadcast commissions. If you are successful in gaining a place in one of our development groups we do our best to facilitate you getting a BBC credit, wherever we can find a suitable opportunity – it could be in Children’s, in Radio, TV or online
Project development for the BBC
Writers often think that when a script is sent to us, we are reading it with the aim of potentially making that specific script for broadcast. That is not so.
At BBC Writersroom we work with Commissioning, both Drama and Comedy. We are based within the Commissioning department in the structure of the BBC, but we don’t pitch projects to them.
The BBC Commissioning teams only consider ideas and scripts which come via production companies – either BBC Studios, or Independent companies. (There are a few exceptions to this, but they are very rare). The Commissioning Editors take pitches from the production companies, and make decisions on projects based on a combination of the idea, the writer and the company. They are assessed not just on the talent of the writer, but also the talent and track record of the people who will be responsible for making the show. This applies both to Drama and Comedy.
So, if you have, for example, a drama series idea that you want to submit to the BBC, you must first get a production company interested. If someone in the company – maybe a Head of Development or an Exec Producer - thinks it’s a great idea, and they believe you can write it, they will work with you to develop the series, and to shape it to fit their knowledge of what the BBC is looking for. You should start being paid once you are writing more than a one-page outline.
The company will then pitch it to a Commissioning Editor, who, if they like the project and believe in the talent of the writer and Producer(s), will commission further paid development, scripts etc. Eventually, if the development process creates a brilliant show, and the Drama Commissioner and Channel Controller believe it will work for the audience, and there is a slot for it, and great talent is attached by then, and all the pieces fall into place - then it will be ‘greenlit’, in other words the commission will be confirmed and the project will go into Production.
The same process applies in Comedy. It’s a long, hard and competitive road.
Production Companies and Agents
So how do you find a suitable Production company?
One way of doing this is to find a show you like and look for who makes it. You are looking for a company, or a Producer, who will relate to your work, so search for the output that you relate to, and then find out who is behind it. If you like their work, they might like yours! Not all companies accept unsolicited scripts, but some do. Research is essential. You then send them your spec script and ask to come in for a general meeting. If invited in for a meeting, that is the point to pitch your ideas - and do bring several ready to talk about. Also, particularly with comedy, it is possible to self-shoot and publish your own work and send a link to filmed content. Several of the BBC's recent shows (for example People Just Do Nothing and #HoodDocumentary) began as self-published material.
Agents also have a role to play in getting your work to a Production company. But getting an agent can be difficult. They are often on the lookout for new talent but can be overwhelmed by unsolicited scripts from writers that they haven’t heard of.
However, both agents and production companies will talent scout from live performances, so do try to get your work performed – there are always opportunities on our website. When you have something being performed, invite agents and production companies.
(Also, invite BBC Writersroom - we can’t go to everything but we try to see a lot.)
Developing yourself as a writer
There are courses and classes and books that can help teach the craft of writing and provide some useful pointers on storytelling.
To develop your talent, grow your skills and find people to support and critique your work, it can be really productive to make links with local theatres, local writing groups, film-makers etc. Look online - there are often organisations you can get involved with in your area. Put on rehearsed readings, hear your words spoken, invite an audience and see how they react. It’s a chance to discover what works, hone your craft and find your voice as a writer. You can make short films and screen them – again, observe your audience. Learn what they react to.
There are also many competitions and scratch nights out there, a lot of which are free to enter, although some (for example BAFTA Rocliffe) may require an entry fee to cover costs.
The BBC and new writers
There have been some complaints that many of our Drama Room writers are already experienced – but that is often what makes their work cut through. They have spent time finding their voice, working out who they are as writers and developing their craft. But they are new writers to the BBC.
There are various opportunities for new writers to get BBC credits, across the range of output – some of which are advertised on the BBC Writersroom website. But there are relatively few opportunities for people to write authored TV series. There are not many of these series, and they are immensely expensive to make. It is inevitable that the vast majority – although certainly not all - will be created and written by people who are already established. But these ‘A-list’ writers have all spent years getting to where they are, and they all have numerous examples of projects which never made it out of development.
Having said all that, the BBC remains one of the best broadcasters in the world for finding and giving opportunities to new writers and BBC Writersroom is a key part of that.
In the last 18 months, 321 BBC credits have been achieved for new writers via BBC Writersroom. That credit might be a TV script commission, or it might be a sketch on Newsjack, or it could be a four-page treatment – in every case, the writer was paid for their work. Some of those writers will have come through Drama Room and Script room, but others will have been developed through other initiatives.
We are looking for the most distinctive, most interesting and promising talent for the BBC.
Don’t write what you already see on TV. Don’t try to second-guess “what we are looking for”. Write something you are passionate about.
Our first read is the ten-page sift, so do make the first ten pages as engaging as possible. Avoid set up and exposition. If you have written set-up scenes, go back and cut them – audiences are sharp and will pick up what they need to know from small clues. Make sure things happen early, that there are great characters and great lines in those first ten pages, and a strong idea in there. Learn from the best – watch and analyse the opening of shows that you enjoy. Or browse our script library and see how writers you admire have started their shows.
And then kick off a gripping story. If you have a great twist - don’t save it for the end, your reader may not get that far. Use it to hook your audience in early. (You’ll find another twist for the end.)
But always, the most important thing is to work out what you want to say, and how to say it in your own unique way. That is what gives you your USP and makes you stand out from the crowd of script submissions.
So best of luck to anyone submitting a script to our next Drama window, we look forward to reading your work!