How not to pitch a film script

“Go on, pitch us a film!” That was the bold – and unusual – challenge from David Parfitt of Trademark Films to people from writers’ collective 26.

Wordstock festival run by 26

Writers pitched their film ideas at the Wordstock festival in London

Film production companies don’t normally hold X Factor style auditions for film ideas, and it’s rare for them to consider suggestions from people without heavyweight screenwriting credits. So the writers who made the shortlist knew just how lucky they were to get this opportunity.

Yesterday, seven brave souls stood up at a crowded Wordstock festival in Farringdon and gave it their best shot. Each had just five minutes to impress the producer who won an Oscar for ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

The stories were intriguing. We had opera, anarchist spies, a man abandoning London for the North, a contortionist thief, an eighteenth century love story, a travelling corpse and a cure for cancer.

From David’s feedback, we learned a lot about what production companies don’t want to see in a pitch.

Don’t do this

  • Don’t pitch your idea without knowing the central drive behind the narrative. Identify the key strand that will lead the viewer through the story.
  • Don’t keep the reader guessing about the genre. If it’s ‘darkly humorous’, is it more funny than dark?
  • If your film’s based on a book, don’t just describe the plot. Show how you’d approach it as a film.
  • Don’t forget the audience. Who is this film aimed at?
  • Don’t have a host of central characters. Narrow it down.
  • Don’t be unrealistic about how much you can squeeze into 90 minutes. Should this be a series instead of a feature?
  • Don’t give your film a name that’s already been used.
  • Don’t ignore it if a film with a similar theme has recently bombed. Explain why your film will succeed where others have failed.
  • Don’t think in decades, think in weeks. A ‘ticking clock’ is good in film. Rather than covering a lifetime, identify a key moment and use that as the pivotal focus for your story.

Despite these caveats, David liked several of the ideas suggested by 26 members. So if you see a film called ‘The Travelling Corpse’ on at your local Odeon in a few years, blame Wordstock.

Horror stories at Shoreditch Town Hall

Spider's web pic D&AD

Spooky spider’s web projected on the ceiling of Shoreditch Town Hall

It was the day before Hallowe’en – a suitably sombre evening for a night of horror stories hosted by D&AD. Shoreditch Town Hall was packed with people keen to hear terrifying tales of screw ups from ad industry insiders.

Here are five things I learned.

1. “The key to brilliant work is to have no fear.” Laura Jordan Bambach, D&AD President.

2. The best way to pacify an angry bull when filming a butter commercial is to stroke its balls. For two full days. Jane Gershfield, Executive Producer of Great Guns production company.

3. Make sure your website builder doesn’t use unregistered software for your site for Nissan at the 02. After 30 days, your site will stop working. Matt Wade, Co-founder of Kin interactive design studio.

4. “If you’re not suffering sleepless nights, bouts of nausea and self-loathing, you won’t do your best work.” Alexandra Taylor, multi-award winning art director.

5. The trick is to be scared and confident at the same time. As Mike Tyson said, “Before the fight, I’m scared to death. The closer I get to the ring, the more confident I get. Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god.” Sam Ball, co-founder of creative agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

Thanks to D&AD for a scarily inspiring evening. The conclusion? If you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right. And the path to success is littered with screw ups, so you may as well (wo)man up and enjoy the journey.

Auxiliary verbs perish in boating accident

Duck Boat catches fire on the Thames

It’s yellow, it’s on fire, it’s a Duck boat. Photo: Tony Margiocchi/Barcroft Media

Do you know those Duck Boats that roam up and down the Thames? Bright yellow amphibious boats. Great fun for kids and tourists. Well, one caught fire the other day. Luckily no people were injured. But a load of innocent auxiliary verbs perished in this ITN report shortly afterwards. Have a listen to the story.

Keep these small verbs alive

Auxiliary verbs – typically be, do and have – are only small, but they perform an important function. They give meaning to a sentence. Without them, phrases seem breathless, truncated. Here are extracts from the report, with the missing verbs in brackets.

“The emergency services (were) called after a Duck suddenly caught fire.”

“Passengers (were) being forced to jump into the water to escape the fire.”

“The World War II vehicle (was) eventually towed away by the fire brigade.”

“Luckily this woman (was) not involved in the emergency.”

Are we really so short of time that small verbs have to die to satisfy our tiny attention span? I hope not. Sink or swim, this is a plea to keep those little verbs alive.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards

The other day I was sent this picture of reindeers pulling Santa’s sleigh. The child who drew it has cancer and is being helped by the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card picture

Santa’s sleigh: a picture drawn by a child supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust

It’s all to do with a new writing project that brings together copywriters like myself from writers’ group 26 and children supported by the Teenage Cancer Trust and the It’s Good 2 Give charity.

The writers were asked to write a sestude – 62 words – inspired by children’s pictures. The sestudes and pictures will go live in an online advent calendar starting on 1 December.

In the meantime, you can support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust by buying Christmas cards of the sleigh design, as well as cards featuring a Christmas tree and Santa in a jaunty submarine.

Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas card

Buy Teenage Cancer Trust Christmas cards featuring Santa’s submarine

The Teenage Cancer Trust does some amazing work, helping children and young adults to receive care from teenage cancer experts, in surroundings tailored to their needs.

Read more about the charity’s specialist work and read young people’s stories.

If you’d like to know more about Edinburgh charity It’s Good 2 Give and their work with young people with cancer, check out their website.

And watch this space to discover more about my 62 words on the flying reindeer of Finland…

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Christmas tree card from Teenage Cancer Trust

Designer soapbox: Tim Foster

Tim-Foster-graphic-designer

“Designers need to get out of the studio” – Tim Foster, graphic designer and art director

Born in Yorkshire and raised in Kent, Tim Foster trained at Ravensbourne and since then has worked for everyone from the Observer magazine to Dorling Kindersley and Mitchell Beazley (twice). Here he talks about combining his roles as an editorial designer and art director, why he loves working with text, and what inspires him.

What’s your favourite tip for getting inspiration?

Designers who work on their own need to get out of the studio. Stepping away from the computer is a good thing. You can search and find anything you like online, but I don’t think it’s inspiring to huddle over your computer wearing ear phones.

I live in East London, so if I need inspiration, I usually go to a gallery – Tate Modern, the Whitechapel or the National Gallery.

I keep my eyes open and normally get inspired by something I see on the journey. It could be a poster on the tube, the cover of a book someone’s reading or a shop window. It’s about picking up one thing that triggers off a thought so you have a new idea. The process – going out, putting myself in front of material and coming back – shifts my thinking.

I also love visiting the London Review Bookshop and Waterstones in Piccadilly, where I head for fiction to look at covers and also cookery books. The majority of best selling, illustrated non-fiction books are cookery and that means there is a decent budget for designers to be creative with layout, photography and print finishing. 

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

Tim finds cookery books inspiring

What first made you want to become a designer?

I liked drawing and art and at 16 decided to go to art school. I never really thought of any alternative. In the ‘60s and ‘70s art schools were places where musicians and designers could be creative and experimental and I was attracted to the idea of a non-conformist environment. I went to Ravensbourne, which was very typographically orientated, so the course pushed me towards a greater understanding of graphic design. 

Cover designs by Tim Foster

Cover designs by Tim Foster

How did your career start?

My first job was working for a direct mail advertising agency, where I learned about coping under serious pressure. Next I went to work for Frances Lincoln, a publisher of illustrated reference books. The market in the 70s had really opened up for lavish educational books with a high illustrative content. After that, I worked for National Magazines on the Observer colour magazine and subsequently as an art director for a variety of publishers.

Which do you prefer – designing or art directing?

I like doing both, and wouldn’t want to do either exclusively. Having spent many years as an art director  managing a large number of projects it’s great to get back to designing pages because I still enjoy the craft of it. I like working out the puzzle of how to get the different page elements to fall together naturally. But I also enjoy art directing, which is about guiding illustrators and photographers to produce work that is aesthetically right and fits the editorial content.

Tim-Foster-books

Tim has worked on books on everything from antiques to stone circles

What are the different challenges when you’re working on books compared to brochures or reports?

Well, a book can be 440 pages long and involve 1,000 images, so planning and control are vital. The decisions you make in the first few weeks are really important because a book that’s off schedule can’t be fixed by a couple of people working all night. It’s like turning a tanker around. 

Also, working with a publisher has more of an in-house quality. There’s usually an in-house team and you’re working closely with an author. Whereas with a company report, the external client might be less familiar with the design process.

What work do you most enjoy?

I’ve always naturally gravitated towards design that’s generated from text. When I was at Frances Lincoln I worked on a book called Rings of Stone about stone circles, and discovered that I really enjoyed getting the pictures to work with the text. I also enjoy designing covers and the challenge of reconciling the needs of marketing with an attractive visual solution. But I’ve never done decoration for its own sake. I start with the text and enjoy getting familiar with it and working with the author to define the best artwork or photography to define that content.

What do you enjoy about working with writers?

"If an author has command of their subject, it's a joy"

“If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy”

 

If an author has command of their subject, it’s a joy to work with them. I did a big book on the guitar with Richard Chapman for Dorling Kindersley. It was great because we were able to work together incredibly closely for nearly two years to flesh out the subject in detail. He had a massive knowledge of the subject and I was able to channel that into a manageable form for a book. It helped that I play the guitar too. It was very exciting to be part of that kind of collaborative process – a virtuous circle of skills. It’s very different from just being given a Word document of text when you’ve never met the writer. 

What drives you mad about writers?

I was once in a meeting with a very senior publishing executive when he said that authors are the most unreliable suppliers on the planet. That seems a bit harsh but the late arrival of text ripples through the whole process and limits the time available for designing, so it’s a challenge to maintain quality. I’ve worked with authors who are years late. That’s the stuff that drives designers mad.

Leon Kossoff's 'View of Hackney'

Leon Kossoff’s ‘View of Hackney’

Three minute insight

  • Who’s your design hero/heroine? I don’t really have one. I’ve always seen design as commercial art. The creative people I admire are usually musicians and painters. Hockney for endeavour, Velasquez for skill, Keith Jarrett for exploration and Keith Richards for surviving…
  •  What’s the last exhibition you saw? Leon Kossoff at the Annely Juda gallery. He does these wonderful drawings of London: big, bold and scribbly. There are lots of the East End, Ridley Road market and Battersea Power Station. I just love them – they have a real energy.
  •  What’s your favourite gadget? It’s a little tuner that you clip onto the headstock of your guitar. When you hit the string, it senses whether the note is sharp or flat. 

    This guitar tuner is Tim's favourite gadget

    This guitar tuner is Tim’s favourite gadget

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea

I caught the Stradivarius exhibition at the Ashmolean on the very last day. Had forgotten all about it until the curator, Jon Whiteley, popped up on the Today programme, talking about how people behave in museums. He told the story of someone who came in to show him a violin, convinced it was a very rare Stradivarius. Even more rare because it was made in Czechoslovakia, which didn’t exist in the 18th century.

So I rushed along to catch the show before it finished. Because who knows when I might need to identify a Strad? It could be me, sitting there in an internet cafe, being offered a violin for 100 pounds by two shady characters who’ve just stolen it from a Korean violinist in Euston station. And, in that highly likely scenario, I need to be able to recognise the quality of the instrument, so I can buy the violin immediately and return it to its owner. But not before unobtrusively taking a photo of the thieves so the police can set detectives on their trail.

So in case it’s you, not me, in that internet cafe, here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Asymmetrical f-holes
  • A black, worn-away edging around the scroll
  • Twiddly bits (base bar and pegs) added by Vuillaume in the 19th century, possibly
  • The tiger glow of Cremonese varnish
Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

Distinctively asymmetrical f-holes

The exhibition was extraordinary. I loved the workshop and the display where you could see how violins are made. The scroll carving, in particular, was fascinating.

And there was a wonderful example of a letter from Stradivarius, one of only two in existence. Written in a shaky hand, it apologises for the late delivery of a violin to an unknown buyer.

I also enjoyed the language used by Charles Beare, the violin expert, in one of the videos. According to him, no one will ever be able to divine exactly what makes Stradivarius’ instruments so special. “You can soak it in a pond, you can soak it in the sea,” he says. “We’ll never really know.”

What a wonderful expression: ‘soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea’. Scientists have tried all kinds of methods to unpick the magic of Stradivarius, from chemical analysis of wood shavings from instruments under restoration to x-raying violins to establish the precise thickness of the maple and spruce components. Beare’s phrase conjures up an image of immersing a Strad in salt or fresh water – a transgressive and shocking idea – and still being none the wiser.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/86507982@N00/with/2321961290/

Venice Lagoon – with pre-soaked wood
Photo: Katie Homan

But maybe there’s another link between Stradivarius and Beare’s inventive expression. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist at Texas A&M University, believes that some of the wood that Stradivarius used may have previously been waterlogged, soaked in the water of the Venice lagoon. Apparently woodcutters sent the logs down river from the forested regions of Northern Italy and the Navy took their pick first, so subsequent buyers were looking at wood that may have been lying in water for months.

Soak it in a pond, soak it in the sea, soak it in the Venice lagoon. The truth or just another layer of varnish on the Stradivarius mythology? We’ll probably never know.

Once upon a housing estate

Since Procter & Gamble hired Jim Bangel 40 years ago and made him their official ‘Storyteller’, the profession of ‘corporate storyteller’ has become increasingly mainstream. Storytellers now pop up all over the place, not just in their natural habitat – marketing and advertising – but in oil and gas companies, the automotive sector and software firms.

Still, it was a surprise to discover a corporate storyteller who works for housing associations. Appropriately enough, I met Rob Doyle at Story, a once-a-year one day jamboree devoted to storytelling in every form: film, song, animation and art, as well as fiction.

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Rob Doyle would like to tell you a story

Here Rob talks about how he came to be a storyteller, and shares his wisdom about how to use storytelling to make a difference.

Why do people love stories?

It goes back to humanity’s origins. People used to pass on information sitting around a fire telling stories either about where they wanted to go or what they’d done, using their imagination. People tend to forget facts and figures but they remember stories and empathise with the people in them. We’re just addicted to stories and always will be. There’s something magical about stories and storytelling is about bringing some of that magic into the grey world of business and government.

How did you become a storyteller? 

I worked as a journalist for many years and was looking for a change. I saw an advert for a not-for-profit housing organisation looking for a storyteller. We met and liked each other, so I started working there and developing the role. This was a new idea at the time. They wanted to be innovative and use their communications strategy to stand out from similar organisations. They had big ideas and thought that storytelling was the best way to get those ideas out there.

What did this job involve?

Usually, housing organisations let the world know about their work by sending out press releases with lots of facts and figures and quotes from the Chief Executive. Instead, my job was to tell the story of the company through the voices of its customers. So if they’d spent money doing up a community centre, I’d find someone who’d used the centre and interview them to find out how the new facility had changed their life.

Listening is crucial for storytellers

Listening is crucial for storytellers

It wasn’t superficial at all. I’d talk to them and ask about their life story to build up a picture of who they were, where they were from, the challenges they’d faced and their life and loves. Then I’d tell their story and mention – almost in passing – how the organisation had helped them.

How did the organisation use the stories?

Sometimes we’d get a newspaper or magazine feature out of it or something in the local tv news. But I developed a storytelling portal – a website that was filled with written stories, audio files and video footage. The stories could be long or short. The idea was to keep up a constant narrative, going from one story to the next, with the underlying message being that the organisation cared about its customers and lived up to its values and mission.

What did the interviewees think of it all?

Customers absolutely loved it. That’s why this is such a good strategy. They’d probably never had an opportunity before to tell their life story to people. When someone sat down with them and showed an interest, took down everything they said, they revealed things that they normally kept to themselves. Of course, some didn’t want to tell their story. But nine times out of ten, it made people feel good about themselves. Usually, once they started talking, they couldn’t stop. That’s where the power of the story comes from.

What kind of problems did you have to overcome?

There was a bit of resistance to the idea at the beginning. The people at the top of the organisation got it, but the people in the middle were less keen. I had to demonstrate the value of storytelling a lot of the time.

A good story needs both light and dark moments

A good story needs both light and dark moments

Also, I had to show that a story has to contain both the light and the dark side. It can’t just focus on the positive. One time, I was talking to a man who lived in an area that had become really run down before the housing organisation helped to turn it around. He told me that his next door neighbour had killed himself with a shotgun. Some people within the organisation thought it was too controversial to include that detail.

But I convinced them we needed to tell this as part of a story about the triumph of the human spirit.

What are the crucial elements of corporate storytelling?

You have to take all the techniques that you’d use in fiction – conflict and suspense etc. – and use them to take people with you on a journey. I’ve got an MA in Creative Writing so that, together with my journalistic background, really helped me.

Psychologists at Washington University in St Louis tested people as they were reading stories and discovered that they had a definite effect on the brain which seems to encourage us to relive similar experiences and in that way understand real-life experiences better. So by using fiction techniques, you can help bring that same dynamic into play and encourage people to relate stories to their own lives.

How can stories convey a corporate message?

You have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. In my new role, I’m working for a housing association that’s challenged by welfare reform and the bedroom tax. Our aim is to encourage people to seek help if they can’t pay their bills. We’ve created a range of stories about what people fear and how they’ve coped with the changes so far. This brings the issues to life because other people can see those stories and empathise with the person telling the story. They think, ‘I’m like that.’ It delivers a positive message, but not in a bland, corporate way.

Get your message across through storytelling

Get your message across through storytelling

Is it worth a try?

Storytelling is a very powerful way for businesses to get their messages out there. Businesses need to get into a more show business frame of mind, thinking about how their communications can entertain and delight people. And once you get going, the results are incredible. It helps get your messages out there and helps you become more connected to customers. If you’re thinking of trying storytelling, take the plunge, because it really does work.

Rob’s storytelling tips

  •  Be authentic. Tell the truth.
  • Write about the dark side too – don’t whitewash your story.
  • Sit down face-to-face for the best results.
  • Be a really good listener.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
  • Go beyond the facts and figures to get people talking about themselves.