4Screenwriting: One Year On
“Things don’t happen quickly, they happen suddenly.”
These were the words of my best friend to me this weekend, when I was reflecting over the last year of my life and writing career.
This isn’t something I very often do but I was prompted to do so last week by an email from Philip Shelley — who founded and still runs the Channel 4 4Screenwriting course— asking for an update on the positive writing things that happened since we (the cohort of 12) completed the course to share with the new cohort that started this weekend. I will be sharing this update at the end of this post.
(N.B. I would like to note — Philip has a weekly (or is it fortnightly?) screenwriting newsletter and I highly encourage any aspiring screenwriter to subscribe to it, especially if you plan to one day apply to the course).
Those words of my best friend took me back to two moments from circa a year ago. The first was in December 2019; in a pub in Angel for a social drinks hosted by Philip and Channel 4, the attendees were a mix of past and present as writers, script editors and those who had had some sort of involvement with the course being invited.
I found myself speaking to an Irish screenwriter, Karen Cogan, from a previous cohort. We had a lovely chat and I was enthralled by her experience. She mentioned that — prior to the course — she’d been broke for many many years. Ten months down the line, she had opportunities coming out of her ears to the point where she was having to turn down many things (I would later realise after our chat that Karen had topped the 2019 Brit List and by a resounding margin, at that). I had always been aware of the magnitude of 4Screenwriting, after all, I’d applied every single year since its inception in 2011. But speaking to Karen made me realise how rapidly these changes could be expected.
The second moment was a few weeks later, on the opening weekend of the 4Screenwriting course where Philip would read out Karen’s version of what he asked me to write last week, an update on writing since the course ended.
I don’t know if it was after the first or second of these moments, but I very vividly recall having a conversation with a loved one about one of these moments and how much it had imapcted me. It was a strange one; on one count it made me fearful of compounding expectation and disappointment — what if I allow myself to believe these things are going to happen for me, and then it doesn’t? That’d suck.
On the flip side, what if these things do come? That is a lot. I need to ready myself for these moments, to be able to juggle multiple deadlines and projects at the same time. To be able to discern what are the right and wrong opportunities for me. To be able to stay true to my voice as a storytell.
It made me realise the importance of preparing. It made me think back to my 2019 LA trip which I nickname the dollar and a dream trip due to the fact that I went with £700 and was invited by my friend dream (no, really, that’s her name and yes, it’s lower case deliberately) to come out for five weeks and chase my dreams. I’ve talked about this on a number of podcast appearances, should you want further insight.
And how, the moment I knew I was going on that trip and knew what I wanted the outcome to be of said trip, my discipline increased tenfold, my dedication intensified and I have continued in that same vain to this day (though there’s always room for improvement).
Things don’t happen quickly, they happen suddenly and when they do, I believe those who thrive are people who either A) have been preparing and expecting this moment or B) immediately realise the urgent need to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, I think there are a number of casualties who do neither of these things, and can get quite overwhelmed by it all.
With all of that in mind, I would like to share the update I wrote for Philip below. Though it was intended for the twelve writers on this year’s course, I hope that it might perhaps inspire someone out there on their writing journey, who feels like they’ve invested years into doing this thing without any progress. I’ve omitted some details which I don’t actually know if I’m allowed to share publicly or not lol, but also I just generally don’t fancy chatting about these things online, I prefer to just keep my head down and work away :)
So I’m going to try and cover the highs and the lows in this; there’s been so many highs but I think the lows and losses are important, too (as they always have been in my journey).
Some context to my update is that — entering into the group — I was equipped with a short film that was my directorial debut and by the time I’d come out of it, it had won best narrative short at Tribeca Film Festival (for those who don’t know, one of the top festivals globally). The film is subsequently eligible for Oscar & Bafta consideration and voters are looking at it as we speak (wish me luck!). It’s been selected for about 15 festivals in total (and been rejected by around double that) and won a couple more awards.
No More Wings’ festival win happened in April and as the writers will hopefully come to discover at some point in their career, when you have something that’s makes a huge splash, the next question everyone has is “what else do you have/what can we read/what do you want to do next?” in my back pocket I had my play All the Shit I Can’t Say to my Dad (which was my 4S submission — so you have something in your back pocket to share with you too!) and the confidence/self-belief that I was in the middle of writing the best script I’d ever written (my 4S script).
Off the back of the above, I secured my first TV development deal with ITV Studios and it was a project I hadn’t planned to pitch to anybody for a few years but so excited to be working on.
Off the back of 4S, my script very quickly caught fire. It had a tremendous amount of interest (and several generals to match) and at one point it looked like we had a few incoming offers but unfortunately — as yet — it has not been optioned. I think it has a multitude of curses on it, being: 1) very ambitious (read: expensive to make) 2) a writer with no TV credits 3) The script already exists (vs. a pitch for the same ambitious idea which — you will learn — is likely to get a quicker buy-in from production companies because it requires a lesser initial investment, amongst other reasons) 3) the idea is set between the US & UK and — in my opinion — would probably be best served if led by a US prod co, and I don’t want to rewrite it to be better suited to be led by a UK prod co. This isn’t to say it won’t ever be made at all, it might just be that I need to wait until I’ve got my first credits, made another one of my own original ideas, have greater exposure in the US or simply when the time is right for this to be made.
I have had a second series picked up for development; three production companies made an offer on it and I decided to go with [redacted]. I think it’s also important to share that this was off the back of a one-pager I had submitted for a BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme last summer. I notoriously make zero progress with BBC (Got past the one page read of the BBC Writersroom open submission once, and been rejected for absolutely everything else they do. To be fair, I had also applied to 4S every year since the first, and last year was the first year I made any progress!) and as a result, I decided that I wouldn’t wait for a BBC response and my agent started sending it out. By the time the BBC rejection email came, we already had our first two production company offers.
I am one the second iteration of [redacted] mentorship scheme — where I am being mentored by [redacted] and have a commission to write anything I want (yet to decide what it’ll be want to stretch myself…) with no deadline. I have a series which we’re pretty confident that we’ll be inundated with offers on once I have a pitch ready; production companies have been asking for it non-stop for about six months both in the UK & US… And in the next few weeks I’m going to try to find time to write up a one-pager for a prod co. about an idea we’ve been talking about, hopefully that will go smoothly and we can press on with that.
On the feature film side, I will be developing my debut feature film with [redacted] and two other production companies which I can’t write down here yet (Philip, I can share with you privately if you wish)!
Writers Room wise; I did my first one in March with Sugar Films, but that was something that was on the cards without 4S. I have since done writers rooms/worked on projects with Fremantle, 87 Films, Unstoppable, All 3 Media and [redacted streaming service], and shadow directing on [redacted]. Again, full transparency. One of those writers rooms has resulted in me being commissioned to write an episode. A sad thing is that one of those writers rooms — which was by far my favourite, absolutely loved that show and that room —decided to hire more experienced/credited writers which was a heavy blow to take.
I think the main thing to take from this is that if (when) you write your brilliant 4S script, least in my experience, everybody will be keen to get a project off the ground with you. You shouldn’t say yes to everything (your head will explode); it’s better to do a few things excellently then several things averagely. I think everyone will give you different pieces of advice and you’ll find the advice that’s right for you — mine would be that I have somehow, fortunately, rapidly got myself to a point where I can say no for quite a while without worrying about being homeless (as a result of the episode commission, and my feature). It can be easy to want to keep saying yes to everything (especially when you’ve been broke for as long as I have) but I think you should continuously ask yourself why you got into this, what you want to do and what you want your career to look like. In my case, I want to tell my own stories, do what I love everyday, perform at an excellent standard and be in this for the long game. So — beyond what I’ve already agreed to work on this year — I currently believe I have a max capacity for 2 more series and 1 feature in 2021 and trusting that the interest, offers (and opportunities for money if I’m running low) won’t go away. If an incredible writers room comes along that I can’t say no to (have to love as much as my own work because that is ultimately time that I will be away from my own projects and needs to guarantee an ep to not have the risk of the situation where all the writers were replaced), I’ll do it. Otherwise, happy to be as I am and hopefully this time next year, my update will be about shows that having/have had writers rooms and are in pre-prod/production.
Lastly, this time last year, I was still juggling three different jobs zero hour jobs: I was primarily working in secondary schools as a cover supervisor (like a supply teacher, without the teaching qualifications) being terrorised by little c… on a daily basis, as a barman in a theatre/music venue in Hackney and as an admin assistant to a social worker. Twelve months on, I wake up everyday to write and all things related and I am no longer in the place I had been in for years, where I feared the possibility of being able to pay my bills/rent every single month without fail (often borrowing money). In fact, I’ve somehow navigated myself into a position where I am prepared to say I can’t promise this will happen to you but I do want you to know that this is the magnitude of 4Screenwriting and how it could possibly change your life, so that you can be ready for that.
Oh how much I miss blogging. Until the next time I have something to say that a tweet/thread won’t suffice…
(P.S. Philip has asked me to write a guest piece for his newsletter and I am kicking myself that I didn’t just write this for it but, alas, here we are. Ha.)