The secret to making it as a screenwriter…

Posted: January 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

It’s 2012. I was going to do the whole ‘2011 round-up’, but I decided not to bother – the time has passed and I think this year is all about moving onwards and upwards…no point in dwelling on the past. The one thing I will quickly say about 2011 is – it was busy, I think I achieved a lot and I certainly learnt a lot. I’d say one of my biggest achievements (in Screenwriting terms) was being a finalist in the London Screenwriter’s competition – you can see the script in an earlier post I made. Anyway, it was the London Screenwriter’s festival that inspired me to write this blog post. Throughout the year I attended various screenwriting events and spoke to numerous professionals from the world of TV and Film, and something was becoming apparent – they were imparting their knowledge on me and I was slowly learning the secret to ‘making it’ as a screenwriter. It was at the Screenwriters festival that my suspicions were confirmed – I KNEW THE SECRET!!! I feel it’s my duty, my responsibility and my calling to pass this knowledge on to you…so just as Bastian did in The NeverEnding Story…find a dark, secluded place (perhaps not in a school like he did, I don’t want you getting into trouble and telling the authorities it was my idea), but you know what I mean – just find a quiet place brace yourselves for the answer you’ve all been waiting for!

Firstly, I’m sorry if you didn’t see this coming, but the secret is…………….THERE IS NO SECRET!!! Mwah ha ha ha ha (evil laugh) Well there is, in a way, but we’ll get to that. Of course you may have your own little secrets (in the form of contacts or lies you’ve told to get where you are, or that you’ll be using when you need to), but generally, there is no easy route into the industry. What I’ve learnt from all the people I’ve heard describing how they ‘made it’ is – everyone’s route is different.  There are lucky breaks, right place right time scenarios, blagging techniques etc. but generally, there’s only one way you can really maximise the possibility of getting where you want to be – hard work, perseverance, more hard work, bouts of depression and lacking self belief, more hard work and most importantly…a lot of fuckin’ HARD WORK. Sorry if I’ve just completely shattered all the expectations you had when clicking on this blog (I’ll understand if you return to YouTube or Facebook now), but I think it’s an important thing to point out…hopefully by the time you finish reading this post you’ll be inspired, enthusiastic and ready to take on the trials and tribulations of life as a screenwriter. So, how do you achieve your goals? Well, it may be a little odd coming from someone who hasn’t actually achieved their own goals yet, but I’m going to give you my ideas, theories and experiences anyway – then you can decide for yourself.

Last year, I heard three interesting stories about how three different people made it to where they are in TV and Film – two of them actually made me quite angry, and I’ll tell you why…

The first was from Fay Rusling (Writer on Smack the Pony, Green Wing, Campus). I heard Fay talk at the Southern Script Fest, and she was asked the obligatory ‘how did you make it as a writer?’ question. Now Fay is a lovely person, and funny, but her answer annoyed me. She basically told us that she ‘sort of fell into it’. She was originally working the Edinburgh circuit as a comedy performer and used to write sketches for her own show – she was then picked up by a producer and started doing stuff for Smack the Pony, and she’s stayed with the same producer ever since (there’s a lot more to it and she tells the story much better than I do, but that’s generally it). Maybe I was just jealous, but I thought to myself – ‘I’m sat in a room full of writers who would chew their best typing arm off to be where she is, and she just sort of ‘fell into it’. I’m not sure if that sort of thing happens anymore, maybe she’s a product of her time? It just seemed like a complete dream-come-true scenario, and I was a little disheartened…how many people will that really happen to? Don’t get me wrong, she seemed very grateful for the amazing opportunities and success she’s had, but it was clear she never had to fight for it – there didn’t seem to have been any blood, sweat or tears. I also think she’s very talented (as long as we ignore her involvement in Campus), but I kind of wanted to hear that she’d been writing for years and years, perfecting her craft, and all the hard work finally paid off. That’s definitely an example of how ANY route can take you into the industry.

Even more of an interesting ‘route in’ was Ash Atalla’s (Producer of The IT Crowd, The Office). Again, Ash is a very nice and funny guy, but his ‘how I made it’ answer annoyed me even more. He started by training in business, and wanted to work in the city as a stockbroker. Unfortunately that didn’t happen because (as he puts it) he was ‘shit at maths’ and kept getting sacked, or ‘found out’. He then went and did some presenting work at the BBC for the News Channel, but apparently was shit at that too. Finally, he managed to convince them to give him a job looking through scripts in the comedy department (where he met Steve Merchant as a minibus driver) and that was that. Bastard! You know how many jobs I’ve tried to land at the BBC? They wouldn’t even accept me for work experience after I’d filled out at 22 page application giving them more information than God (if he exists) would have on me…I mean come on!!! Who just walks into the BBC, becomes a presenter, gets sacked and then walks into the comedy department? I was thinking ‘nice guy, but a jammy shit!’ OK, I was throwing my toys out of the pram somewhat, but it’s frustrating when want something so badly that just seems to fall into the laps of others. I needed someone to cheer me up…

Ah ha! Edgar Wright (Writer of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The Adventures of Tin Tin). Another funny, likeable, really cool guy, and best of all…he always wanted to make films. Yes!!! I was thinking ‘this is like me, I’ve wanted to make films for AGES…I’ve just got to do whatever Edgar says’ Well, actually, he made a film – and that IS what I’m going to do. Edgar’s story was very interesting and funny, but the important part for me was where it started – he went out and made a feature film (A Fistful of Fingers) as a very young, naïve writer/director. Admittedly it made more sense for him to make something as a director too, but at least he knew what he wanted to do…and he did it. He didn’t fall into it, or have it handed to him on a plate; he went out and made it happen! *PHEW* That’s better – some balance has been restored.

So there we have it – three successful individuals with three very different stories of how they got to where they are now. Do you think that’s helped? Well, if not, here is some advice these guys gave:

‘Send stuff out when you’re 100% happy with it – it might be shit, but if it’s what you think is your best and a producer thinks it has potential, they’ll help knock it into shape’.

‘Work with people who are good or that you work well with – a good partnership will go a long way.’

‘Make stuff. If you show someone a script, it looks like every other script they’ve ever seen. If you give them a YouTube link, it will be your work on screen and they’re more likely to take it in. It also shows you’ve gone to the effort of producing something.’

‘I can’t stop you sending me a script in the post.’

I admit they’re not all direct quotes (and I might have used a bit of poetic license), but this is what I heard, and what I’ve heard from MANY industry professionals over the last few years – so I’m going to do them all! This is the year I focus on MY work. I WILL get my feature script finished and sent out to people once I’m 100% happy with it – even if they say they don’t want me to send it to them ‘unsolicited’, I know they need it in their lives.  I WILL be working with someone I work well with – I’ve just finished writing a mini web series with my good friend Simon Regan (follow him on twitter @simon_regan) and we’re just about to start work on the second. And I WILL be making stuff – in fact we have a director on board for the mini web series and we’re hoping (fingers crossed) to be shooting early this year, and then I’ll be filming the next idea myself. So there’s MY secret – I’m thinking of something prolific to say, but basically the idea is to work your nuts off and hope your work gets noticed. The great thing about it for me is – even if I don’t get noticed, I bloody love doing it! I got a message from an old uni mate today (I won’t name him in case he gets embarrassed), but he’d seen a short film I made years ago on my new website ( and sent me the following:

‘Mate, Balloons the short vid on your site, loved it…almost brought a tear to the eye, what a poignant ending, without sounding too deep, awesome mate, and loved the score! Congrats’

You know what, that’s what makes it ALL worth it. And not only that, another uni friend messaged me to say she shows my work to her students – how cool is that??? I may not be getting an audience of millions, but as long as I touch someone (not physically – of course), then I’m happy. And just for a laugh (and to show you won’t always get GOOD feedback) here is the other end of the spectrum…

This is an email a company received about a jingle I wrote, which they aired on a radio station I won’t name:

After listening to your advert on the fantastic ***** radio. I wanted you to know how I feel about you ruining a perfectly good radio station with the most annoying advert I have ever heard! ??? Every time your stupid advert comes on, I want to ram a handful of angry hornets up my back entrance!!! I will be sending ***** radio an email in regard to my disgust in your advert! It enrages me to the core!!! 3 by 3 and 4 by 4 shove your fence up your japs eye!!! Fucking stupid advert!!!

You know what – I was quite proud of that! Why? Because the client had specifically asked for ‘one of those annoying adverts that sticks in everyone’s mind’…I’d say that was a success.

So my advice to all of you for 2012 is – BE PROACTIVE! Whether you want to be a writer, director, producer or anything else, do everything you can to make it…don’t sit around and waiting for things to happen (or for something to fall in your lap), go and make them happen yourself. That’s what I’ll be doing this year – so who’s with me??? *INSERT LOUD CHEER HERE*

Peace x

P.s. My flatmate (Leigh) wanted a mention in this blog…so Leigh, this is for you – without knowing it, Leigh has provided me with material for various scripts I’ve been working on recently. I won’t tell him what, because it will be much funnier to see his reaction when they appear on screen. Keep ’em coming mate!

  1. Jon says:

    In the excellent documentary ‘Tales From The Script’ getting a career is described as a crowd of people feeling a wall for cracks, whenever one appears, that person is sucked through to the other side and the crack closes behind them. No two people get in the same way.

  2. JJ Cocker says:

    I did, and it was fabulous. Lots of opportunities to network, meet people in the business and master classes, too. Contact Rosie Jones, Twitter: @prequel2cannes or through her website: so she can add you to her mailing list for future events.

  3. JJ Cocker says:

    Yup, would like to do another if I can!

  4. JJ Cocker says:

    Thanks for the tips, Dom. I’m tagging you on me blog in the hope you can disclose some random facts about yourself, and what it is that makes a screenwriter, perhaps!

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