When I first embarked on my writing career, I had a notion. A plan, if you will. It was a simple plan which seemed largely foolproof and went thusly:
- Find a small group of hungry young producers and directors to work with.
- Make small films for next to nothing.
- Repeat with more money.
In theory, we’ll all grow together and rise up the ranks until we weren’t just part of the British film industry; but effectively were the British film industry.
Like I said, foolproof.
Apart from all the fools masquerading as hungry young producers and directors.
And one other, slight flaw …
Not everyone wants to make bigger and more expensive films.
From a writer’s point of view, this seems crazy. Okay, so we don’t all want to write $300 million US movies … but surely everyone wants to make films which are expensive enough to give you a reasonable pay day?
That’s kind of the goal, isn’t it?
Well, no. Not for everyone.
From a production company’s point of view, a better business model is to grow horizontally, not vertically. Why take the profit from one film and sink it all into a more expensive film when you can fund two smaller films for the same price?
Films are a risky investment and frequently make no money whatsoever. In fact, if you ever get the chance to browse the film market of Cannes or AFM, you’ll be forgiven for thinking most films never make a single penny.
So if it’s so risky, why chuck both eggs in the one celluloid basket? Why not make two, cheaper (and therefore less risky) films? Best case scenario, you make twice as much profit as you would otherwise. On the other hand, if one tanks, at least you’ve got a second iron in the fire.
If both of those make a modest profit, then you invest in three or four cheap films … and so on. Growing your business horizontally makes sound financial sense – if you do a good job, these films have as much potential to be a runaway, mega box office success as a hugely expensive one … but with less risk. In most cases, even if the film’s awful, it’ll make you your money back plus a little bit extra.
Lots of little bits extra make an extra swimming pool for your mum much more likely than gambling all your savings on one cash cow.
The problem with this approach is it works for a company, but it’s not sustainable for a writer. A production company can make six, eight or twelve tiny films a year because they can hire six, eight or twelve writers and directors and pay them each a tiny fee.
There’s nothing wrong with the tiny fee, if the budget itself is tiny and everyone gets paid accordingly. It’s only unethical when some people are getting big fat cheques and some aren’t.
As a writer, you’d struggle to write four features in a year. I mean, it’s not impossible and it can be done … but if each script needs six or eight or ten drafts then it could be equivalent to writing up to forty scripts (depending on how much changes in each draft). If you add on the thinking time and the meetings and the procrastination and the masturbation … you wouldn’t have time to do much except die of malnutrition and sleep deprivation.
Producers may want a vertical career, but a horizontal one is a valid choice. It’s not for a writer – writers either have to aim high to begin with or start at the bottom with a view to rising through the ranks.
But then there’s another problem.
The traditional view of the industry is a walled garden. Once you’ve broken in, you’re free to play with all the toys. Um … garden toys, presumably.
The problem is, that view is wrong. In fact it’s complete and utter bullshit.
There is no single, unified industry. It’s not a club you enter for life. Beyond the wall is another wall. Lots of walls. It’s all fucking walls and no one behind one wall knows anyone behind any of the others. In some cases they haven’t even heard of them. Or you.
You can be very successful in one area and completely unheard of elsewhere.
Okay, so some people transcend that; but they do so by being awesome at a variety of things. A writer with a hit TV series can”t just wander into the film garden and start picking the flowers. Hell, he probably can’t even wander into a different TV garden (you know, like the kids’ TV garden or the crime garden) or sometimes even the same garden. Writers with a hit TV or film can still find a surprising lack of interest in their next project or at least have to work equally as hard as they did to break in in the first place.
Personally I managed to get a lot of repeat work and recommendations in the same garden, which is, I guess horizontally; but am completely unknown anywhere else. I’ve accidentally ended up with a horizontal career instead of the intended vertical.
I have no idea how to end this post or even what I’m trying to say, beyond not everyone has the same goals and there are more walls than you might first think.
No, I’ve completely lost my train of thought.