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Toonzone at MCM London Comic Con May 2013- Writing for TV & Film

Held across the Saturday and Sunday of the convention, ‘Writing for TV & Film’ was chaired by a panel consisting of Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica), Brad Bell (Husbands), Christian Taylor (Teen Wolf, Star Wars: Clone Wars) and Remi Aubuchon (Caprica, Falling Skies).

Things began with a discussion of the state of the writing industry, with the panel feeling it was an exciting time to be a writer. Although movie projects are more selective in which writers they involve, the increased demand for television and web shows is resulting in a lot of work.

Asked about working on an original work as opposed to one more derivative they felt the key for any work was that it should be a story worth telling. An original story must stand out and take an important next step to justify itself. They felt that TV is more open to exploring such possibilities as opposed to film which often sticks to safe bet concepts. In turn they believe the British TV industry is following suit, ‘Americanising’ in a way that allows it to explore concepts deeper.

The actual production schedule of a pilot to a full season was revealed to be quite intense. There can often be a half year wait to get confirmation of a season order from a pilot, at which time writers often have only 6 weeks to write out the scripts for said season. A key rule they keep in mind is to not put all best ideas into the pilot as pilots usually become the first episode of a season and doing so wastes the potential to better explore ideas across a season.

Discussing the amount of communication between writers working on the same show it was revealed that the writers all initially collaborate in one room. The season plot and the specifics of each individual episode are discussed and formed at this time, rather than leaving individual writers with vague outlines that risk conflicting with one another. Asked if they would fight for ideas those in charge of production had rejected they stated they would only do so if they felt they could truly defend why they felt the rejected idea was better.

Discussing the eternal creative nemesis of the blank page the advice offered was to start writing even if you know what you’re typing is bad. Bad work is still work and if you have it written down you can always refine and improve your ideas, something you can’t do to a blank page. This procedure doesn’t even require you to start at the beginning, instead starting where you know you have ideas and building the script around that point. Other advice included the Writer’s Sprint, where you force yourself to work on a script for a set period of time with no procrastination in that window, and undergoing more research to spark ideas.

Following on from this was talk about how to get into the industry and get your work noticed.  Avenues include the ABC Disney Writing Programme, putting your work online and studying at film school. Sometimes taking unrelated jobs in the industry can help as doing these jobs and meeting people to network with will gain you industry contacts. The panel also stressed not to worry if early on someone steals your ideas; if they’re worth stealing that means you have a talent and can think of more.

Further advice offered during the Sunday panel included:

  • Keep writing and join writing groups
  • Ask questions
  • Watch what you like and entertains you
  • Figure out what is popular and why this is so
  • Find time every day to practice your writing and do research
  • Learn the function and importance of individual scenes in a script

Much of the Sunday panel was given over to discussing the changing entertainment landscape in the face of downloads and streaming.  The panel believed that the increasing on-demand culture promoted by services such as Netflix has presented a serious challenge to the existing scheduled nature of entertainment and one that the industry has yet to properly meet. The Netflix-produced House of Cards was a major game changer for the industry with a download provider producing and distributing as opposed to simply the latter. The effects of this and similar projects are being felt, with the panel believing that in time concepts like region blocking of streaming content will be removed to match the growing demands of audiences who now expect content faster and presented in a way that suits them rather than the networks. An additional change has been series being ordered by full seasons as opposed to one off pilots.

One criticism they did hold of the new streaming model was the rise in piracy, believing that younger viewers will simply illegally download a show that is currently unavailable to them by official means with little understanding of how this can hurt a production. However the panel felt that this further spoke of the problem of the current model, believing people only turn to piracy in the absence of an official release to support. Thus they feel stopping piracy is tied directly to a better global business model for releasing content.

Asked by an audience member about maintaining correct science whilst writing science fiction, the opinion offered was that a writer should not anchor themselves too strongly to this concern but explore the varied possibilities such settings allow. In particular it was felt that sci-fi writers rather than correctly mirroring the world were in the unique position to make the world take influence from them, citing how many of the gadgets of Star Trek had inspired real world developments such as mobile phones and tablet computers.  A general set of mandated rules does however help the audience buy into a sci-fi setting but nothing says the characters appearing in said setting have to perfectly understand the technology themselves. Christian cited his work on Clone Wars as an example, revealing that George Lucas would set ground rules for the writers of the show. A primary rule was to try and avoid cliché oversimplified sci-fi tech such as homing beacons on ships.

Questioned directly about perceived bias in the industry against female writers, Jane felt that female writers shouldn’t try to define themselves by gender but writing ability. However she does believe that the industry can benefit from diversity to bring in different view points. This in turn led Brad, Christian and Remi to discuss their own experiences with discrimination in the industry, primarily anti-gay sentiment and strong pro-right wing leanings in the writer’s pool of ‘24’.

Jane was also asked if she’ll be producing any scripts for the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Joss Whedon show. She was enthusiastic to the idea but said it would be Whedon’s decision.

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