Why screenwriters should write for television

Overall, writers are paid poorly and there is a vast over-production of supply. So professional novelists, for example, earn an average £11,000 for their year’s work, yet even so agents reject 999 in every 1,000 manuscripts that come their way.

Screenwriting, no surprise, is much better paid. The average professional screenwriter in the UK earns perhaps 5 times that meagre sum. (Check data on minimum rates of pay, average payments are well ahead of those minimums.) And we here see plenty of would-be screenwriters bringing us screenplays that range from the visibly-new-at-this-game to the excellent.

So, good, right? A bunch of writers choosing to write for a market that might pay enough to give those people a half-decent living?

Only not.

I’d say that well over 90% of the screenwriters we see come to us with feature scripts: 100 to 120 minutes long, and clearly designed for the big screen.

And that market doesn’t exist.

I mean, yes, of course new British films come to the screen all the time, and those things have paid something to their screenwriter.

All the same:

  • Those British films will often be adaptations, in which case the task will always be given to writers with a track record of some sort;
  • When the films are original, there will nearly always be a writer, director, producer team who collectively act as ‘auteur’: the creative brains behind the film. Those things are nearly always born within a production company, and when they’re not the scriptwriter is almost certainly known – personally and professionally – to the project’s movers and shakers before any contract is ever written;
  • There are bewilderingly few UK production companies that produce a regular slate of features and endure beyond a summer or two. Most production companies are born to service a project, then vanish once that project is either delivered or killed. The only major British exception to that rule is Working Title – but again, you’d struggle to find Working Title films where the scriptwriter was a genuine newbie.

And so what, you may ask. Hollywood exists, doesn’t it? It needs scripts, doesn’t it?

And yes, of course – but Hollywood teems with writers, good ones, all of whom are there, are networking, and on the spot. As a newbie writer, without a track record, and based in Hull or Roehampton or Donegal or whichever spot you call home, you have an approximately 0.0001% chance of getting your speculative script made into a Hollywood movie. Quite frankly, if you want your work screened, you should simply forget about writing for Hollywood at an early stage in your career.

But this post isn’t suggesting that you should stop writing scripts – the opposite, if anything – it’s a plea for you to write for the massive, lucrative, and hungry market that exists right under your nose.

Just count the number of hours of TV drama that unfolds on your screens each week. By all means, deduct American imports, but do remember to count every half hour of every soap, every hour of every cop series, every minute of every drama-special.

Those things need writers and the British TV industry is actually short of good ones, in a way that Hollywood emphatically is not. I’m writing this post because I recently had a lovely dinner with a former head of ITV drama and she told me that there is a shortage of good writing talent in the UK. The big networks and big production companies are actually eager to find, recruit and pay new talent. The head of a big and successful UK TV and film agency told me the exact same thing: that almost every successful screenwriter in the UK has his or her roots firmly in TV. Another film agent told me that, so hard-pressed are they to find good scriptwriting talent, that they often raid the stage industry to find it.

In other words, if you are a committed, talented and professional screenwriter, there is a real appetite for your work. That appetite will exist today, tomorrow and in ten years’ time.

What’s more, if you build any kind of track record in TV – even if it’s churning out scripts for Holby City – you will start to build the kind of profile and contacts that means those feature projects, that you still really want, will come your way: because you will now be the sort of insider for whom good things happen.

Even hearing these arguments, some screenwriters remain persistent. I think that resistance normally tracks back to one of two issues, namely:

  • The film industry is more glamorous. And it is, yes. But it’s more glamorous because it’s less industrial. And you need a proper industry, with cash, expertise and commitment, to support your craft. You can get the glamour down the road, once you have a record that enables you to make the transition. (And, by then, you won’t think the film industry is all that much more glamorous anyway.)
  • Feature films allow a writer more creative scope to be intelligent. And the opposite thing is true. Those dramas you adore – Westworld, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and all the rest – are hyper-intelligent, challenging and wonderful dramas because they’re on TV and because they have the space and the time to expand into something wonderful. I know I’ve just named US dramas, but that’s sort of the point. British TV is short of top writing talent and when it finds it in programs like Sherlock, or Doctor Who, the results are fantastic.

So.

Screenwriters of Britain, write for TV. Think up a TV series or drama that will compel an audience. Your career will start with that script.