Death In Paradise's Creator On Selling TV Scripts

Sara Martins and Ben Miller in
BBC One's Death In Paradise
Big topic, this - and one which newer writers often want to know about.  Before you consider who's going to option, buy or generally give two hoots about your scripts, however, you need to spend years honing your craft and knowledge of how the industry works.

I can't think of a single person who coasted into the TV-writing industry without first paying dues by slaving over countless scripts which never got made.  Without delivering the kind of disastrous pitches which would embarrass a gibbon.  Without crashing into walls, dusting themselves down and forging onwards.  Without slumping over their desk at 4am, bleeding from the forehead.  Good ideas are always in demand, but you need to demonstrably prove yourself to be a safe pair of hands.  And to do that, you need to march through the wars.

Robert Thorogood, the creator of BBC One's Death In Paradise, had no previous TV credits before pushing himself into the radar of Tony Jordan and Red Planet Pictures.  This led to the 2011 launch of his excellent murder whodunnit series, which has happily been recommissioned for a second run.  As you'll see in the man's guest post below, however, this doesn't mean he was an overnight success or got "lucky" (see Your Script Is Not A Lottery Ticket).  Far from it.  Rob worked hard and made his own breaks, putting himself in front of the right people with the right material.

A couple of days ago on Twitter, I posted a link to a BBC Writersroom blog which Rob wrote in November, about how Death In Paradise came to be and specifically why he suspected it had been commissioned.  If you haven't read this, you should go away and read it now, then come back (the link should open in a new window).  The rest of us will wait for you.

Back?  Good.  I think that's an essential post for anyone interested in creating TV series.  Especially the part about The Stuff Only You Know and The Stuff Only You Can Do.  It's so true.  Just as your best work will mostly involve things which personally matter to you (I've learned this the hard way), you're most likely to receive commissions on drama of which you have ownership.  Know and love your territory, just as Rob does when it comes to the whodunnit, and with the right degree of application, you may come to rule it.  It's all too easy to look at established TV shows and think, "Oh dear God, I couldn't have come up with that".  No, you couldn't - but guess what?  The creator of that show almost certainly couldn't invent whatever utterly unique brew of life experiences, preoccupations and dramatic impulses bubbles furiously away inside your own cauldron.

Anyway.  Back to Twitter.  Having read that Writersroom blogpost, comedy writer Marc Paterson tweeted this question to Rob : "You talked about 'selling scripts' early on. How does this differ from getting your scripts produced?  Where did you sell scripts?  Or more accurately, who buys scripts?"

After a day of brain-busting graft on new Death In Paradise scripts, Rob resurfaced and replied, using the Twitlonger service, since this one needed more than 140 characters.  Here's what he said, in its entirety.  More gold dust for enquiring minds...

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"Right then, I can't quite remember what I wrote in the original blog, but I do of course remember the trajectory of my life. So it went a bit like this.

1) Write a spec script that eventually bagged an agent (the same agent I'm still with).

2) I then spent 10 yrs or so developing ideas for film and TV. It went like this:

2.1) My agent would send out my calling card spec script and then every now and again someone would like it enough to ask for a 'general' meeting. These were more a 'meet and greet' than anything else, but the contacts I made over these years have stood me in good stead subsequently.

2.2) There was always a moment in the general meeting where you could pitch an idea. I was - of course - desperate to work, so I'd always have a sheet of A4 with me with about 10 ideas on it (from an idea bank of 20-30 ideas in total. I'd then whittle that down to 10 or so ideas that seemed to suit that company - so each meeting had a bespoke list of ideas). Each one of these pitches was no more than a title and a logline. V easy to digest. For example, I hauled Death in Paradise around prod companies for at least 2 years before anyone got interested. The written pitch for it was this:

A British Copper tries to escape the misery of his failed career in the Met by getting a secondment to St. Lucia in the Caribbean.

So I'd either leave this 1-page of ideas behind at the end - or even try and go through it with them in the meeting.

(As an aside, as I got a bit more robust about the ideas - and my ability to pitch them - I'd get the person I was meeting's email beforehand and email them in the one side of A4 beforehand. If they had a quick look before the chat, it meant they could ask about specific ideas that intrigued them - rather than me pitching into the void of their disinterest.)

Invariably - of course - no-one was necessarily that interested in any of the ideas... and this is where the 'selling scripts' bit comes in, because...

3) Every now and again, an idea had chimed with the person I was talking to - and they'd commission a treatment or a script. Initially, it tended to be treatments - and what would happen (in TV land at least) is they'd give me c. £1,000-£2,000 (something like that?) and I'd then develop a 5-page doc with them over a number of weeks that they'd then take to the broadcasters.... and then the broadcasters would express bland indifference. The idea would be 'dead', but I'd have learnt a bit more, met a few more people. You know, it was all part of the learning curve.

Equally, I'd get the odd film script commission (i.e. this happened 3 times). Once from a spec I wrote that my agent sent out to film companies - once from a spec I co-wrote and my co-writer sold it to someone he knew - and once because I was recommended for the job, pitched for it and got it.

But - weirdly - you sort of get 'better' at the whole process of pitching and treatments - and then (or at least I found) you also pick up the odd genuine script commission. (i.e. being paid for your work before you've even started writing it). I had this with Granada and BBC4 - where I'd gone in and pitched ideas that I felt suited the channel, they agreed and then came back with a script commission. But.... once again, although the scripts I wrote were perfectly serviceable (I hope), the channels in question didn't proceed to production on any of them.

So that's an answer to your question. I sold scripts and treatments here and there - but I needed a decent spec script to get into the meeting with them in the first place - and I needed to hustle, hustle, hustle once I was in there. And ALWAYS follow up on meetings with ideas - never let any lead 'die' on you, you really don't know where that 'sale' will next come from.

(To give you a mwah mwah story. I had a meeting last week in London - and across the room was the first person I'd ever had a meeting with (10 years ago?). I caught his eye and he waved a hello. It's a small world.)

Whether I've answered the question you asked, I don't know! But to sign off: it was a mad, helper skelter for me for years - a desperate scramble to find the next bit of money to keep going - to find another contact - to pitch another idea. Think of the desperation of those trying to survive the siege of Leningrad and that's a bit like what it was like. I had to HAD TO sell a pitch or write a spec or it was death and destruction. Every day I made myself ask myself 'what have I done today that's advanced my career'. Every day.

And for most of this time (until a few years ago?) I was working full time as a temp secretary, reading scripts for film companies - and also trying to get my own stuff off the ground. It was HORRIBLE. And I was dirt poor and..... as Macduff says, 'O horror, horror, horror!'

Must get back to work, but perhaps there are two final things every about-to-make-it writer should acknowledge:

a) It is an illness. If you want to make TV or film and be well-paid and still creatively involved, go off and become an Exec. It's where the power is anyway, so why do I - lunatic that I am - want to be a writer?

b) It's the best job in the world. We get to sit in a room and make up stories that other people watch.

Hope this answers your question - and best of luck!

x R

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Yes, I think that answered the question pretty damn comprehensively.  Cheers, Rob.

If you're interested in writing for TV, and aren't following commissioned TV writers and creators like Rob on Twitter, then frankly I'd like to know why.  Free practical wisdom, piped into your computer-box every day?  Sounds good to me.  So let's close with a few Twitter-follow suggestions.

James Moran: Severance, Doctor Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Spooks... you surely know the score.

Graham Linehan: You're already following him, right?  Co-created Father Ted, created The IT Crowd.  His CV could be used to strangle a rhino, if printed on really strong paper.

Steven Moffat: Again, you're probably already there.  Doctor Who showrunner, Sherlock co-creator, etc.

Roland Moore: Land Girls creator, Doctors veteran, script genius.

Andrew Ellard: Red Dwarf, The IT Crowd, many more to come.

James Henry: Writer on Green Wing, Campus, Smack The Pony, admirer of blue cats.

Paul Cornell: Writer on Doctor Who, Primeval and loads more.

Stephen Gallagher: Creator of Eleventh Hour, lead writer on Crusoe.  One-time Doctor Who scripter.

David Allison, Neil Jones and Chris Parker: co-creators of Sky's genre series Bedlam, with plenty of individual credits to their names.

Damon Lindelof: Co-creator of Lost, with perhaps my favourite Twitter bio ever.

James Cary: TV comedy writer (Miranda, My Family, My Hero) and script ed, who also runs a top-notch blog analysing sitcoms and such.

The list stretches on.  If I give you any more, I'll really be eating into my work day, and that won't do. The point is: find them!  So many of them are there, typing into that great tornado of words, thoughts and petty disagreements. Some of them have surprisingly low follower-counts.  Follow them, soak up their brainwaves.  Use their attitudes and wisdom to form an increasingly solid picture of what creating, writing and selling TV series actually means.

Also: have a splendid day.

Death In Paradise Series One on DVD: Pre-order at Amazon UK here.

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Ben Dutton said...

Thanks Jason for bringing Robert's article to greater attention. I'd read his original Writersroom piece and always wondered how and what he'd been selling before his first professional commission.

As somebody who has entered the Red Planet Prize this year – and gotten through to the second round so far (Yay!) – it is always helpful to read how people entered the industry. It sounds like Rob had made a large number of contacts before his first produced commission, but it was the writing on Death in Paradise that got him through. As somebody who lives away from the city (rural Wales, in fact), apart from online I never to get meet industry execs. I spend my working hours in a convenience store stacking shelves while at night writing scripts, and finding ways of getting my work read (the Writersroom has been invaluable, and given me two page and a half deconstructs on the two scripts I’ve sent in, and my third script is the Red Planet one).

Sometimes, when you’re out in the cold, desperately knocking on the door to try and gain admittance, everything seems futile. People having the honour to see their work produced – you, Rob, James, Abi, Russell T., you seem like lottery winners, the lucky few – while the rest of us are stuck out in the wasteland, wondering how long it is before we devour the corpses of those who have already died out here. It’s easy, though, to forget that you all kept working, and working, and working until your fingers bled – and it’s tough to forget that graft, because we never had the (mis)fortune to read those horrors that dwell in your bottom drawer, to see those unproduced little monsters. So thanks Jason (and by extension Robert) for reminding us all out in the cold, dark hinterland of uncommissioned hell, that we have to keep working, and working some more, and keep pounding that door.

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks very much for the post, Ben. And congratulations on your Red Planet Prize progress! It's a great competition and has certainly opened doors for me.

Andy Wright said...

Brilliant post, Jason! The clarification from Rob was excellent and inspiring. So many times you read interviews with writers who 'gloss over' the wilderness years as, well, it's probably not very interesting to read about. But it really helps to know other people have trod similar pathways and have won through in the end. Thanks again!

Ken Armstrong said...

I thought this was very informative and, you know, 'Real'.