What makes it stronger than or different to what has gone before or is being made now?
It starts with an idea doesn’t it? You need to really think hard and put a lot of work into even this very first stage, to develop and test even just the idea itself. Having an excellent or outstanding idea is your first step to creating that outstanding film; which we’ve agreed is what we need isn’t it?
If you’re like me you might have a few ideas on the go at the same time. Which one is outstanding? What makes it stronger than others out there? What makes it different to what has gone before? What makes it different enough or stronger than what is made by bigger budget productions? Remember you might not have that well-known cast to attract attention – your idea needs to be able to attract attention on its own.
It’s not as if every idea is completely new and original is it? There are familiar story patterns and familiar genres but you need to find a new twist on that or a new interpretation. ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘An Education’ are two great recent British films with coming-of-age stories about teenage girls in relationships with older men in their 30s. In itself this older man relationship was a new twist on a teen coming of age romance but the other thing to note is that their ideas and stories are almost exactly the same but the styles and approaches of the two films were each different and refreshing.
Test your idea out on people and compare it to films in the same genre, setting or style.
Is the core idea of ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ an outstanding idea? Being honest, it’s good, but maybe not outstanding. Let’s have a look at the synopsis:
1974; during a violent Miners’ strike in a quiet Northern village a teenage artist meets a gorgeous new girl from London but their attempts to escape make him betray his family, community and best friends.
I can state right now that this is a film I wanted to make, about the area I grew up in and a story I wanted to tell; but is this idea enough to make an outstanding film to cut through a crowded marketplace?
You may have noticed that this has some similarities to the smash hit film Billy Elliot, released ten years earlier. I’ll use this film as a first comparison point.
The background of Billy Elliot is the 1984 Miners Strike – a massive event in recent British social and political history which was in the news for a whole year and still gets a lot of attention and controversy. The 1974 strike isn’t investigated as much so perhaps Young Hearts Run Free exposes something new, a plus point, but on the other hand the film couldn’t benefit from the press the 1984 strike gets.
The main focus of Billy Elliot is an 11 year old boy who wants to be a ballet dancer instead of a boxer. In Young Hearts Run Free the focus is a teenage relationship – something more universally experienced but less unique and less likely to stand out.
Now to that relationship; a working-class teenage lad going out with a fish-out-of-water middle class teenage girl is probably fairly common. If this had been two boys going out with each other or two girls going out with each other that would be a new angle(like in ‘My Summer of Love’).
What can your PMD be doing?
Get them involved with the research. You can be contacting groups with an interest in the subject matter or the setting and getting their input with research and script. You’ll stay in touch with these groups and getting them involved early on ensures you have a core audience on your side and ready and waiting to see the finished film. One of my new scripts ‘Taught My Heart To Fear’ is about domestic violence and I’m involving campaign groups and refuges in the research and development stage.
This book isn’t going to be an attempt at a how-to on script writing – I can recommend a few useful books on that – but instead this chapter is focussed on how a producer can develop ideas and how a PMD can start attracting an audience.
Get other people to read your script. You can’t do this on your own and you need outside opinions. These could be:
Other writers whose opinions you trust.
Producers, directors or actors.
General public who have nothing to do with the film industry (less insular and very useful)
Groups and advocates from organisations to do with the subject or setting of the film eg for Young Hearts Run Free it could be the National Union of Mineworkers (this is something the PMD should be pushing).
Professional script readers.
This last one could cost a fair bit of money, perhaps between £50 and £150 for a feature script. As a production team you would have to decide if this was worth it. I would suggest it probably is worth doing it once or twice at least as some of the readers are really great at it but make sure you have made as many improvements as you can yourself first and don’t waste money on having them point out the obvious with your first draft. You should also combine using readers with as many of the other sources listed above as possible. For ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ I did only about 7 drafts altogether (proper writers will correctly tell you that’s probably nowhere near enough) and I did a table read with some actor mates after the 2nd draft then got a professional script reader after draft 5 but in truth the untapped potential of the script only came out after a test screening and a complete re-edit.
For Young Hearts Run Free I had done a lot of academic research but not quite enough of contacting individuals or the organisations which would form the core audience. What you might discover is that however well-researched and true your facts are, your core audience may interpret them in different ways so it’s a good idea to make sure your core audience is willing to fight on your side. In hindsight I think I attempted to make the film slightly too commercial with a ‘broader’ appeal, rather than maximising a particular audience. In the end, most of the former miners who have watched the film have really enjoyed it (the former NUM President does an interview on the DVD extras) but it did not connected with modern-day socialist movements ie – the ones who use the internet and connect to the film using all the free social media and transmedia techniques we all keep talking about!