How to get a fantasy TV series greenlit (my story)
It's been a fun week of social shenannigans, tweeting, blogging and podcasting for me. OK, I came to the cyber party late but least I'm here now. With balloons.
Since my "Big Break" blog is getting decent traffic, I figured I should now write about how I actually got a series made and the harsh reality of life as a "neophyte" writer if you don't have a trust fund (not hating on trustafarians, just envious). So kick off your shoes, take a load off and Iet me spin you a yarn about a young(ish) girl who dreamed of having her own genre show.
It was December 2006. I'd been working at a TV company full-time for the last two years and I was utterly miserable. I'd spent every penny I had to buy my flat and now I was stuck in this job I hated in order to pay the mortgage. All of this meant I felt I was getting further and further away of my scripting dreams. My commission with C4 seemed like a lifetime ago and I was desperate to get something going. During this period of woe, I'd written a feature script called Monkey Nut Tales. I wanted to do something a little different that would showcase my voice and make me stand out, and I believed this was it.
Monkey was about a young girl Mai (11), who's mother is sectioned due to a mental illness. With no other family in the UK, Mai's grandmother flies over from Hong Kong to look after her. However, Mai has never met gran or even spoken to her, and the two are soon at loggerheads, especially as Mai (the only English speaker in her small family) is used to running the house and doesn't like being bossed around. The only time the two come together is in the evening, when gran shells monkey nuts and tells her fantastical stories of her past, usually involving the mother Mai misses so dearly. But just when it seems Mai is growing close to gran, she learns the reason for the family's estrangement and why gran keeps making excuses not to visit her mum in hospital - gran is ashamed of Mai's mother's illness. Determined to reunite with her mum, the tenacious Mai kicks off a series of escalating events that forces the old woman to confront her personal demons and rethink her prejudices.
I'd tried sending this script to the BBC via the usual sources but no one there was interested*, however, I knew it had merit and wasn't going to give up, so I retitled the script and sent it to a contact I had met at a scheme. She read it, very much liked it and called me into the beeb for a meeting. After we talked about what I wanted to do, my script was forwarded to CBBC who also liked it and called me in for a meeting. I was asked to come up with an idea with all the heart and emotion of Monkey that would work as a TV show for their target audience.
I came up with the initial idea for "Bo and the Spirit Quest" quite quickly and it was taken into development with the in-house CBBC team. This didn't mean we would definitely get a commission however. CBBC then ran a twice a year commissioning process. All ideas had to be pitched on one A4 page which would then be submitted online. With the guidance of the CBBC in-house team, I worked up the A4 document and took the unique angle of writing it in the voice of the lead character. It was an emotional piece, and we felt this would convey the jeopardy and the very real drama of the lead character. Some anxious waiting later and I was given the fantastic news that I'd made it through the first round and CBBC was taking my show into development!
While this was happening, I was making some hard choices about my home. I realized if I were to commit to making my show happen, I had to focus - writing had to become my full-time job and though having a show in development was amazing - particularly as I hadn't even written so much as an episode on an existing show before - it didn't pay enough for me to live on (BBC rates depend on experience and as a new writer, I was on some of their lowest rates). I made the hard decision to sell my home and live off the profit. It was an incredibly risky move, one which just about everyone questioned. I was the only person in my family to have been able to buy property on their own and now I was gambling everything on a dream! It was a tough pill for them to swallow and more than one member thought I'd lost my mind but you know, I had this dream that I just couldn't shake.
After the flat sold, I only had enough money to live on for one year. That's one year to get my writing career going or I told myself I'd have to quit and get a real job.
It was the most finite deadline I've ever had to work to work with and while incredibly stressful, it did teach me more discipline. With my script editor's guidance, I started working on the show's bible: I wrote an A4 page on each character's biography in their own voice; outlined a basic season story arc; came up with possible episode synopsis and generally created the world and the rules. I went through several more commissioning rounds, with the documents I was commissioned to write getting progressively longer. When the bible was finished, I was commissioned to write a pilot script. This wouldn't necessarily be the one that would be shot but would show the scope of my idea. Finally it was all done and we just had to wait to be told whether the show would the go ahead or not. So I waited. And waited. And waited...
(The actual selling doc. Note: first name change for the show. Discussions on whether we needed the "s" in "worlds" continued for several weeks)
Meanwhile, CBBC had prepared a selling document which they took to Mip Junior, the world's showcase for children's television programming. This basically would be the testing ground for the show. Here broadcasters around the world would hear of the show and let their interest be known, if any. I was informed it was one of the best received shows at the event with international interest. Off the back of that, I remained positive as I waited some more.
I watched CBBC announce all the other shows they were making that year but there was no word on my own. I was told it was because my show was so ambitious - a cutting edge martial arts fantasy set in a mythical world - that the budget was the greatest cause of concern; we'd have to build the world physically in a studio and also in CGI, but that wasn't all. Who would play our lead? She would need to be East Asian, a great actress, young enough to pass for fourteen and perform martial arts. The only actress anyone could think of at the time was Katy Leung from the Harry Potter movies but she was already in her 20s. I had no doubt we would find her though and kept referencing Field of Dreams. "If you build it, he will come"...
As I waited for news, I watched my funds decline and really had no idea what I was going to do. Moving home to ma wasn't an option - my brother still lived with her and there was no room for me. Other than my executive assistant skills, there was nothing else I felt I could do that would provide a steady income and the thought of working full time in an office again caused depression to rear its ugly head. Maybe everyone else was right? I had gambled everything away and only had myself to blame. Despite my fears, I forced myself to remain positive and worked on other projects while waiting for news.
Then, ten months into my one year deadline, on my BIRTHDAY (I jest not), my show was greenlit.
Huzzah! Much celebrations ensued. It was real. I had a go show.
I HAD A GO SHOW!!! I wouldn't need to get a real job after all!
We were granted one of the biggest budgets a CBBC drama had been given at the time and from then on, it was all guns blazing. We had nine months to get the scripts going, source a studio, begin the casting process and do all the prep work (storyboards, set design, create cgi concepts and previz etc) with preproduction set to start at the beginning of 2009.
As hard as I had worked to get to this stage, life was about to kick into high gear.
Next time, I'll reveal what it's actually like to write (and be the creator of) a CBBC show, how we found our amazing lead, Jessica Henwick, plus some never-seen-before pictures from the set! Stay tuned for more...
*This script has subsequently gained a ton of love and opened many doors for me at various companies and broadcasters. So the lesson here? Keep pushing, keep flogging your work. Polish when possible, but trust your instinct.