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The Commissioning Process - A Story's Journey from Script to Screen

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Alex Newman

on 27 March 2015

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Transcript of The Commissioning Process - A Story's Journey from Script to Screen

To make a living as a writer one has to think about a number of things:

1. Time management

2. Professional presentation

3. Royalties / optioning

4. Agent representation
So, if everything is considered and the script is the absolute best it can be; then the writer can start going around different studios and investors to convince someone to buy into the project.
Conversely, the original writer can still be involved with the project, making adjustments as necessary but still maintaining their original version of the story. Much like John Green and his involvement with both The Fault in Our Stars and the forthcoming Paper Towns.
When dealing with intellectual property like scripts it's crucial to make sure you're keeping in line with the various legal considerations involved with the business.
Once the script is optioned, the studio can disregard the writer entirely thereon, employing other scriptwriters and editors to change it to how they see fit. This may result in the finished result looking quite different from the original script.

This has happened on things like Rome Sweet Rome, a story initially written as a response to a thread on an online forum. The story was then bought by Warner Bros, but the original author has been left in the dark as the film is still in production.
There are a few different people involved with this process.
the commissioning process
Being a writer for a living makes it important to manage your time efficiently. There's no office to go to, so it's important to make sure that you aren't goofing off the whole time.

There are a couple ways in which you could make sure that works gets done:

1. Treat it as a 9-5 job - Sure there's no office to go to but if you get up at the right time and devote the right hours to working and nothing else then it's not too different.

2. Set yourself a 'quota' each day - could be a set amount of words or pages each day that you must fulfil each day.
It's also important to make sure your script looks the part. This means making the font right (Courier 12. pt), having the appropriate information in the appropriate place on the front cover to ensure your script isn't thrown away at the earliest convenience.

This is an important part of a writer's income. While 'royalties' as a general concept doesn't really exist within screenwriting quite like it does in other industries, 'optioning' is something quite prevalent.

How it works is that when a studio has a writer's script in hand, they can approach the writer and 'option' their script. This doesn't put them under any obligation to do anything with the script, but the writer can't do anything with it for the amount of time specified. Normally this does happen because the studio wants to pursue producing the script, but sometimes there is ulterior motives involved - namely if the studio already has something similar in production and wants to get the script out of the way so they don't lose money.
Another good way to get more exposure for your writing is to get an agent. These are good things to have because it's their job to know more people than you, and have useful contacts and links in the industry. Also, having an agent looks more professional than you carting your wares around yourself.

Intellectual Property law is a fickle beast; when writing your script you have to make sure that what you're writing is original content and you aren't plagiarizing or lifting content from other published or produced works.
When writing a script, it's important to understand what audience you're writing for. If it's TV, what kind of slot are you after? You need to adjust your script according to what sort of time it would be airing. For instance, the 'watershed' in the UK is 9pm. This means that anything that could be considered offensive such as violence or sexual content should be aired after this time as opposed to before, so if your script has any of that in it then it has to be aired after that time.
'Libel' falls under English Defamation Law, and according to Wikipedia can be defined as follows:
"A is liable for saying anything to C about B which would be apt to make the average citizen think worse of the latter."
It's basically just important to not say anything bad about a real person or establishment in your script otherwise you could end up in legal trouble.
This can happen in one of two main ways:
The writer is to write a script for a network or studio. This means that the writer is hired by the studio to write a script specifically for them.


The writer's already-written script is by studio executives. This means that the studio has bought the rights to do whatever they want with the script for a set amount of time - normally 2-5 years. If nothing happens in that time the rights dissolve back to the writer and the writer can then option it out again, or just do whatever with it.
Commissioning Editors
Script Editors
These guys decide whether a script has the potential to be worth buying or not. After purchasing they then oversee a lot of the pre-production process thereafter; supervising script editors and such.
Producers oversee the whole production process of the film after getting the script from the Commissioning Editor; from editing the script, to securing funding, to sometimes finding a director and cast, supervising and organising shoot days and generally making the whole process as smooth as possible.

A well-known example of a producer would be Jerry Bruckheimer, who's been involved with numerous big blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean.
Whereas the producer oversees a lot of the organisational and administrative side of production, the director oversees the creative side. They will help when casting, storyboarding, script editing, and working with the Director of Photography on set to turn the words on the page into shots on the screen.

A good example of a director would be Alfonso Cuarón, who, most notably, recently directed Gravity.
The script editor is in charge of supervising the writer as they redraft the script and try and achieve the best, most achievable story they can make. It's not the job of the script editor to interject their own ideas into the story, instead it's their job to make sure that the writer's and/or producer's vision is as fully realised as possible.

In television, the job description is a little different. Since more long-running shows have multiple writers in order to get each episode written quicker, the script editor's job is to make sure each writer's episodes are in sync with one another, and that the overarching plotline still makes sense.
Literary Agents
A literary agent is in charge of helping the writer get their work exposed to the various contacts that the agent has. Most agents have some form of reputation amongst production companies which makes them a valuable asset to getting a writer's script out there.
There are a number of different types of establishments that could possibly buy or work with the script:

Independent studios

Independent directors/producers

Big corporations like the BBC are a viable option when selling your script. They can be almost completely self-contained, so they will have full creative control over who directs, produces, edits the script, and stars in it. They tend to have the biggest budgets, producing some of the bigger TV shows and films in the industry. The BBC in particular has their Writer's Room scheme, which allows anyone to submit their scripts to be reviewed by BBC officials and have a chance at getting produced.
Independent studios don't have quite the financial clout of corporations like the BBC, so unknown writers will be preferable to them as it will be cheaper to commission them. They tend to outsource some of their jobs like production design or directors and cast, however they can sometimes receive funding from larger corporations (case in point BBC Sherlock, which was produced by an independent studio but had funding from the BBC).

Good example of an independent studio would be something like RocketJump, who started out making YouTube content but have since expanded into other forms of online video and have received funding from Lionsgate.
Conversely one could just direct/produce their own script. This is in some ways easier as you don't have to pitch to another party and you have full creative power over your final product, but producing these things gets rather expensive in the end, so funding your own projects can get a little pricey. However this is becoming less of a problem with the advent of crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, where lots of people can pitch in a little bit of money and all contribute towards a finished product. Examples of people who direct/produce their own films are Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Dom Fera, the latter of which funded his most recent short Away on IndieGoGo.
One could enter their script into a competition with the intent to either get it produced or to gain a cash prize. Examples of such competitions come in the form of the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, which is one of the most popular ones. The BBC also run their own competitions occasionally in the Writer's Room.
The writer can be involved in many facets of production, all the way from the script being commissioned to the end of production.

It can be somewhat of a tumultuous relationship with the director/producer at times, and sometimes it may seem to the writer that everyone's out to corrupt or destroy their vision.
OFCOM's guidelines on Bias
During the editing stage the writer will have to alter and change scenes, sometimes scrapping scenes altogether or writing new ones in. This is normally in the interest of budget at this stage, and the director and producer will normally have some say during this stage. Once the script is at its most presentable, then the commissioning director decides to put the script into Page Lockdown. This means that no more changes are to be made to the script.
Once the film is in production the writer really doesn't have all too much involvement from there on in, but the script may still be tweaked and altered as there may be problems on set, or in some cases the actors might improvise new dialogue and suggest things that might improve the film.
"To work effectively at home, I found that I had to pretend that I had a no nonsense boss with a leather whip hiding in my closet. I'd sometimes imagine [my old boss] sitting behind me, her eyes boring into the back of my desk. Her 'rules' are the rules from the old bank: get up at the same time every morning; begin the day with exercise, a shower and a brisk walk around the block to get coffee. Morning air is a stimulant, and a small walk to the neighborhood convenience store is like a morning commute to work."
- Thom Nickels, on working at
home as a writer
"Getting optioned is exciting. But it doesn’t mean your film is going to get made… it means someone wants to make your film but doesn’t have the resources yet. If they did have the resources, they’d buy it and make it, right? So what you really want (short of actually selling the screenplay) is to have it optioned by someone who has a high likelihood of getting it made. Because while having a script optioned is great (and it is great, don’t get me wrong) having a script produced is even better. Not just for your ego, but for your career.

Remember too that your scripts are your product, and have value. They’re an investment for you, and like any investment, they should be working for you. I assume that you don’t just write them and stick them in a drawer… you show them to people, put them into contests, post them on screenplay sites, right? You want them out there representing you, if not to get sold, to at least be working as writing samples.

But during the time the script’s under option, you’re likely restricted from any further exploitation of your own. That’ll probably include submitting it to any more contests, and certainly means not showing it to any other producers. When your script is under option, it’s “off the market” and is no longer working for you. Now the option has to be working for you, by being more valuable, more likely to lead to production, than having the script “on the market”. So, you want it optioned by someone who’s really got the goods to make things happen."
- Chip Street, a screenwriter who has been 'through the option gauntlet' a few times
There are some horror stories of big corporations having their way with scripts and other written IP. I found this account from the author of the original novel upon which GRAVITY is supposedly based.
"In 1999, I sold the film rights to my book GRAVITY to New Line Productions. The contract stipulates that if a movie is made based on my book, I will receive “based upon” credit, a production bonus, and a percentage of net profits. The book is about a female medical doctor/astronaut/Mission Specialist who is stranded aboard the International Space Station after the rest of her crew is killed in a series of accidents."
"Sometime around 2008 – 2009, Alfonso Cuaron wrote his original screenplay “Gravity” about a female Mission Specialist astronaut who is the sole survivor after her colleagues are killed by satellite debris destroying their shuttle."
"In February 2014, my literary agent was informed of Cuaron’s attachment to my project back in 2000. Now the similarities between my book and Cuaron’s movie could no longer be dismissed as coincidence. I sought legal help, and we filed a Breach of Contract complaint that April. Please note: this is not a case of copyright infringement. Warner Bros., through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie — but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line."
Here is a screenwriter talking about how an agent isn't always the best thing to have - sometimes it's good to just meet someone first hand and grow connections and networking.
Back in 2011 Sylvester Stallone came under some legal fire from an independent screenwriter who claimed that 'The Expendables' was 'strikingly similar' to a screenplay he wrote prior.

"In legal papers filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, Marcus Webb contends that Stallone's 2010 picture shares the same villain, plot about mercenaries, and opening sequence as his The Cordoba Caper, reports Reuters."
"Ronee Sue Blakley, an Oscar-nominated actress for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, has sued Carroll Cartwright, with whom she has a daughter, Sarah. The two dated in the 80s, and the fight over custody between them lasted more than a decade. Now, Blakley alleges that Cartwright’s screenplay adaptation of What Maisie Knew—released in 2012 and starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the feuding parents—is a thinly veiled attack on her as a parent."
"Your tasks will typically include:

keeping up to date with trends in the book market
identifying future markets and new products
deciding whether to accept submitted manuscripts
developing ideas for books and identifying suitable authors
preparing publishing proposals, including costings, projected sales and income
issuing contracts to authors and agents
making decisions on reprinting, revising, producing new editions and putting titles out of print
making sure that schedules are followed and deadlines are met.
You would work closely with other departments, such as sales, marketing and production. You may also supervise editorial staff."
"I started as a runner working in documentaries and then in 1995 I joined a production company called Zephyr Films as a production assistant. It gave me a great overview of production. As part of the job, I would be given scripts to read to see if they would be of interest for us to produce. I got more and more involved in this area. Then Zephyr ran out of money and I was made redundant. It was hard at the time but turned out to be a very good thing as that was when I realised I wanted to be a script editor.

I touted myself around as a script reader and worked for Parallax for other producers and built up a number of freelance clients. In 1999 Zephyr got some more money and I went back as Head of Development.

Then I realised I'd built up enough regular clients to allow me to move to Cornwall. I ran the Cornwall Film Festival in 2003, became Development Executive and then Project Director at Cornwall Film, where I devised and delivered a successful £1.9million EU funded project to develop Cornwall’s film, TV and digital media sector. I continue to enjoy working as a freelance script consultant through my company Pippa Best Script Consultancy."
- Pippa Best, a real script editor
Firstly, there is a big emotional side to it. You're the person in the corner supporting a young writer and nurturing them. If you are a young writer and you know you have someone batting for you, it's a huge help. You are their advocate, which is the most important thing for them. It's quite an intense relationship - you try and depersonalise it, but you never manage to. It's a very different relationship than somebody might have with an estate agent.

Secondly, you have to know what is going on across the film, TV and theatre industries. You have to be able to give your writers a commercial route map, so it's about tracking and understanding what is going on in those industries at every point. You have to have your eyes and ears to the ground and help the writers navigate through the worlds of film, theatre or TV.

Thirdly, it's about coverage - knowing what is on at the theatre, on TV, in cinemas. It's not just about reading your own writers' work to offer them advice and guidance. You have to help them to succeed in terms of what else is going on in the market. And then you have to be a tough negotiator and sort out contracts. People always think that this is the most important thing, but if you get the first three things right then getting the money part right isn't hard.
- Nick Marston, a real life agent
Full transcript