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.

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


“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 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

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.

Story 2013: a kaleidoscope manifesto

Believe in clouds. Be stubborn. Keep your rococo aesthetic. Lob your opinions upwards. Rise up like an octopus, like a rubber parachute, like a chewy umbrella. Don’t believe the hype. Investigate peace. Be joyously, defiantly subjective. Send your characters to remedial school. Talk to the person next to you. Walk into a story. Listen to the voice in your ear. Be careful because it’s pretty hardcore. Form the dough into convex sets and place on a separating hyperplane. Put on yellow wellies and walk into a flooded room. Make important decisions in the moment. Have your superhero and eat it. Put a little piece of your heart into everything you do. Orchestrate emotion on a massive scale. See the new world through the tear gas. Don’t be afraid.

Pic: Steve Kay

Picture by Steve Kay

This is a snapshot manifesto drawn from the words of the speakers at a brilliant, inspiring day yesterday at The Conway Hall for Story 2013. Here’s who said what…

Believe in clouds. The Children’s Republic of Shoreditch at The Ministry of Stories.

Be stubborn. Singer Edwyn Collins.

Keep your rococo aesthetic. NYC artist Molly Crabapple.

Lob your opinions upwards.  Rob Manuel, co-founder of B3TA.

Rise up like an octopus, like a rubber parachute, like a chewy umbrella. Children’s writer and illustrator Laura Dockrill.

Don’t believe the hype. Public Enemy / Digital consultant Alex Balfour.

Investigate peace. Film producer Rebecca O’Brien.

Be joyously, defiantly subjective. Molly Crabapple.

Send your characters to remedial school. Ben Boucquelet, creator of The Amazing World of Gumball.

Talk to the person next to you. Mary Hamilton, zombie herder.

Walk into a story. Playwright Alecky Blythe.

Listen to the voice in your ear. Alecky Blythe.

Be careful because it’s pretty hardcore.  Ben Boucquelet.

Form the dough into convex sets and place on a separating hyperplane.  Economist Diane Coyle.

Put on yellow wellies and walk into a flooded room. Fiona Romeo of the National Maritime Museum.

Make important decisions in the moment. Animator Michael Please.

Have your superhero and eat it. Academic and writer Alice Bell.

Put a little piece of your heart into everything you do. Ben Boucquelet.

Orchestrate emotion on a massive scale. Alex Balfour.

See the new world through the tear gas. Molly Crabapple.

Don’t be afraid. Molly Crabapple.

Once upon a time there were 62 words

We weren’t quite sure what would happen when we unleashed the power of children’s imaginations on the 21st century objects in the Modern British Childhood exhibition. But we were amazed at the results.

A ten year old girl gives the MMR vaccine a voice – “When I was born, everybody feared me”, a Lily Allen dress insists it’s “no gangsta” and a nine year old boy imagines his trainers squabbling in a cupboard, each pair fighting to be chosen first.


A 10 year old girl from Hackney writes about the MMR vaccine

While adult writers from 26 responded to 20th century objects in the exhibition at the Museum of Childhood, children from Rushmore Primary School in Hackney wrote about the 21st century objects on display.

Like the adults, the young writers had to respond in just 62 words – a sestude. The children wrote their sestudes during a series of workshops run by The Ministry of Stories, the creative writing and mentoring centre in East London.

Here, we ask the people involved what happened behind the scenes.

Getting to know the objects

Helen Roberts, Creative Learning Workshop Leader at the Ministry of Stories, is an Education Practitioner who specialises in community, museum and gallery projects. She devised and led four workshops for the children which took place over four weeks during the spring in 2012.

“Experiencing the Museum of Childhood’s collection first-hand was a huge inspiration for this project,” says Helen. “The children were clearly excited to have been invited to contribute to the Modern British Childhood exhibition, and took great pride in their writing. They questioned and critiqued the objects according to their own experiences, whilst responding to and reinventing them in imaginative and unexpected ways.”

Exploring poetry, rhythm and six word stories

Sarah Farley, a member of 26 who volunteers with the Ministry of Stories, describes the different stages of the workshops, where she acted as a writing mentor.

“During the first workshop at the museum we worked on describing objects in different ways, including writing about how a particular object made them feel. Rhian Harris, the director of the museum and curator of the exhibition, then introduced the actual objects and asked the kids if they’d like to write about them for the exhibition. The answer was a resounding Yes!”

The second and third workshops took place at the children’s school, and investigated different writing styles. “We used limericks to show poetry and rhythm,” says Sarah, “we used dialogue to start a conversation between the kids and their objects, we explored writing about time – last year, last month, etc – and we even used six-word stories to give them practice at writing to an exact number of words.”

The final workshop was dedicated to writing the children’s final pieces. “We told them they were completely free to write whatever they wanted about their object and in whatever style they liked,” Sarah explains. “One boy chose to write his piece about West Ham as a news article.”

An 11 year old boy was inspired by a West Ham shirt

Teletubby horror and Lily Allen bling

Children’s reactions to the museum objects were not always predictable. “There were a lot of laughs about the nappy, a lot of ‘bling’ references to the headphones and Lily Allen dress, and some of the girls were put off by the bra,” says Sarah. “But there were some darker elements too: many of them thought the Teletubbies were disturbing and they used them as the basis for horror stories. It’s interesting that the children saw them in that way, and goes to show that as adults we quickly lose touch with what really appeals to you as a child.”

“As kids, we’re driven more by our imaginations than by logic. But as we get older, we start to box ourselves in and give ourselves over to the logical part of our brains and become afraid of letting our minds run wild in all directions. Working with kids reminds me of the great fun you can have if you simply let go of the fear and give in to your imagination.”

“It kept on going nonsense!”

It wasn’t always easy for the children to get their ideas down on paper. One child said that the hardest part was writing the poem. “It kept on going nonsense!” For another, “The six word story was difficult because you couldn’t put descriptive words into it.”

But the overwhelming feedback was that this was a really enjoyable project. Asked what they liked best, the young writers said:

  • “Going to the museum because it was so fun going round and looking at all the exhibitions. It was a different style of writing and exploring.”
  • “Writing the 62 words because it’s tricky and gets you more interested… it’s more complex.”
  • “I enjoyed the chance to come up with my own ideas.”
  • “It has really kept my imagination going. It’s made me realise that there’s lots of different ways to write about feelings. It’s interesting how much power objects can give to your writing.”
  • “I have always loved writing and I love writing stories. This has really inspired me.”

The kids got pretty good reviews themselves. “I love the pieces that our young writers have produced. They’re fresh, personal, fantastic,” says Lucy Macnab, Co-Director of the Ministry.  Rhian Harris, the Museum’s Director and curator of the exhibition, is equally enthusiastic: “I think the children’s pieces are wonderful, really strong, inspiring stuff. They are going to provide a really important element to the exhibition – the child’s own response.”

Primary school, professional standards

Sarah was impressed by the way the children rose to the challenge of writing to a deadline and meeting the very precise word count – 62 words, no more, no less.

“The children tackled every exercise we gave them with enthusiasm and a lot of humour,” she says. “They had less than two hours to write, edit and deliver the final pieces. They all had clear ideas of what they wanted to say and were meticulous in getting the right number of words. In the end they met the deadline and hit a perfect word count. I reckon a lot of professional writers would have been stretched by that task.”

See the children’s writing at the Modern British Childhood exhibition at the Museum of Childhood until 14 April 2013.

This post originally appeared on the 26 Treasures of Childhood blog.