I recently attended a British Creative Exchange seminar at the Royal Academy that discussed collaboration across different creative disciplines and international boundaries. There was an interesting mix of people, from circus performers to architect, designers, and arts magazine publishers. There was a buzz between sessions as people talked about their own creative disciplines and offered advice to others based on their personal experiences.
I struck up a conversation with the woman who sat next to me and asked her what she did. “I’m a TV producer.” Happy to have found a kindred spirit. I told her I worked in TV development. “That’s a cushy job,” she said dismissively.
My first instinct was to feel crushed and then outrage kicked in. This was not the first time that someone had physically turned away from me when I told her what I did for a living – it had happened at Sheffield documentary festival too (two years running).
It is common for programme makers to resent development people, somehow thinking that a) they’ve got it easy and b) they’re not necessary. And, horror of horrors, development producers aren’t making programmes, a crime that can make development folk contemptible in the eyes of some programme makers.
Yet I’ve worked with a number of very experienced and award-winning producers who have spent time working in development, but hightailed it back to production after a few months saying it was the hardest job they’ve ever done. Yet, if there wasn’t a dedicated development producer or team relentlessly originating, researching and pitching ideas there probably wouldn’t be a production job for them to go to.
Producer/directors who can support themselves entirely on work they’ve personally originated and pitched are few and far between. The rest rely on a constant stream of productions crewing up in order to pay their rent or keep their independent production company alive. And someone has to keep chipping away at the commissioning coalface in order to get the work coming in.
Working in factual development requires different skills to those of a filmmaker. The successful development producer (and let’s not pretend that everyone is successful – some are terrible at the job) needs to employ a mix of skills more usually found in marketing and advertising. Sure, they need to understand production, but they also need to be equal parts trend spotter, talent manager, copywriter, customer services manager, and salesperson, as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the domestic and international TV markets, be innovative, but not so innovative that they alienate their customers (commissioning executives are notoriously risk averse) and have the mobile numbers of channel executives on speed dial. All of that knowledge and skill takes time to learn, but most people never spend long enough in development to acquire them.
The (optimistic) estimation of the number of pitches that turn into commissions is generally accepted to be 1 in 10, but there are many more ideas that never get as far as the pitch, so the true figure has been estimated to be nearer 1 commission for every 100 ideas developed.
And what do development folk get for their trouble? Nada.
No credit – not on the end programme (the is no factual equivalent of the drama credit “created by”), nor verbally. The exec producer generally takes credit for the programme, (unless it fails in which case they will make sure that it’s known the development team handed them a turkey). No invites to award ceremonies of programmes that wouldn’t have been born were it not for some unsung development producer originating it, securing the access, pitching it and driving it through the labyrinthine and frustrating commissioning process. Not even an invite to the wrap party. So why are they programme makers dismissive of those that dedicate themselves to the thankless task of winning the business that keeps them in jobs?
Unfortunately, the tendency to dismiss the work of others is not confined to TV production. Filmmaker Daniel Johnson recently posted a plea on Shooting People asking for people in the indie film community to nurture each other. He was addressing a community of independent filmmakers, but I think it’s interesting to consider how his comments might apply TV Development (thanks to Dan for allowing me to reprint it here in full):
“In recent months I have spent a lot of time studying successful people, especially within our industry – trying to make out what it is that makes them succeed. And I found something interesting – namely that those who have a positive attitude about themselves and others tend to be the ones who are doing really well.
When putting my recent short film ‘Crazy Love’ out into the world; I openly looked to receive both praise and criticism. The interesting thing is that the well-established industry people really liked it, and praised my writing, directing, etc… but many people who are struggling focused on things like “yeah, the lighting was a bit off” and “your camerawork is a bit shaky and some of the jokes aren’t funny”. This made perfect sense to me, as it’s in exact keeping with the wisdom I have found in recent months. It sounds quite obvious and I’m sure most of you know it – but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that THE FRIENDLY AND POSITIVE PEOPLE ARE THE ONES THAT ARE SUCCEEDING.
So often when asking for advice, people want a fee. Or when someone helps me find a shed to film in they anchor for a Producer credit on the film, things like that– but the people who truly succeed in film, especially in terms of longevity tend to be those who look out for, believe in, and nurture talent; without the sole purpose being to get ahead. But the funny thing is that those who do this always are the ones who do get ahead. So maybe we should be less selfish.
This goes right to the very top of the industry with names like Steven Spielberg. As much time as he dedicates to Directing and developing his own projects; he is still an active, passionate and positive part of the film community. Hundreds of established filmmakers have been blessed by a Spielberg letter or phone call of positive encouragement. Of course, this works out well for Spielberg as these filmmakers often end up working for him; but this was all the result of him saying “I love your work, your ideas are inspired” as opposed too “didn’t anyone teach you how to light films? Maybe you should head back to film school”.
Whether you’re a Producer, Actor, Director or Runner — whatever your position in the industry; I think we can ALL achieve FAR MORE this year by positively supporting and encouraging the efforts that we all continually strive to make.
This industry is HARD, and ALL OF US continually find defeat, and hardship, and a lack of money. But we keep going, because we know what we’re aiming for. My thinking is this would be a lot less painful and a lot more productive if we were all encouraging, positive and friendly by DEFAULT.
Happy New Year All!! I can’t wait to get working with you in the New Year. We’re going to have a blast, and we’re going to be extremely successful.”
I spend quite a lot of time reading the posts on Shooting People and often find myself feeling a bit depressed at what can seem endless sniping disguised as debate. When I’d finished reading Dan’s post I felt instantly motivated – so much so that I immediately responded to him (and I’m not usually one for posting on message boards).
I don’t know Dan, but his attitude means I would be open to collaborating with him on a project/hearing his ideas/giving him advice – and all because of his positive post. Likewise, there are many people who I wouldn’t go near with a barge pole after reading their responses to other people’s posts, no matter how experienced or talented they might be.
I’ve spent some time thinking about Dan’s post and I think there are a number of things we can learn from it and turn into the TV Mole Development Manifesto.
“Those who have a positive attitude about themselves and others tend to be the ones who are doing really well.”
Unfortunately, in my experience this isn’t always true in TV. It often seems like the people who get on (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as doing really well) are the ones who shout loudest and they are often the ones who belittle other people’s ideas, declaring them unworkable. I think this often has more to do with power and control than the strength of the idea, as those people are often unwilling (or unable) to explain why an idea is unworkable, and even less likely to make constructive suggestions about how it could be made to work. But while this might preserve their position as the “ideas guru” within a department or company, it is shortsighted.
Traditionally, when TV broadcasters all had their in-house production teams, executives and commissioners had a close relationship, having worked together for many years and regularly bumping into each other over the tea urn where the commissioning deals were done.
When Channel 4 arrived in 1982, it didn’t have an in-house production team and so relied on independent producers pitching their ideas to them. Over the last twenty-odd years, a competitive indie sector has grown and flourished. A number of those production companies have become successful because of their founder’s prior relationships with the new commissioning editors, but the clever ones have nurtured their development talent, whether they be executive producers within the company or dedicated development producers.
Success depends on everyone pulling together to find and develop the best ideas and get them to the appropriate commissioning executive before anyone else does.
So far, so positive. However, not everyone works like that. Some executives, and even some development heads, have a positive attitude towards their own creative efforts but fail to extend it to other people.
Some senior people seem to believe that only they are capable of having good ideas, and routinely block other people’s ideas. Or they get fixated on their pet project or niche and fail to realise the market has moved on making their ideas obsolete.
However, those development execs who welcome ideas from the wider production community and take the time to mentor junior members of staff will be rewarded by those people coming back to them with their next idea, and the one after that, one of which might be the next big hit.
The more positive feedback (by which I mean constructive – it needs to be realistic and honest if it is to be valuable) they get, the more they understand what’s needed and are more likely to deliver it.
This is a classic example of giving in order to receive – being positive about other people’s contributions fosters collaboration and on-going co-operation and ultimately leads to the best ideas being produced, which is beneficial to everyone on the team.
“The interesting thing is that the well-established industry people really liked it, and praised my writing, directing, etc… but many people who are struggling focused on things like “yeah, the lighting was a bit off” and “your camerawork is a bit shaky and some of the jokes aren’t funny”.
Predictably, there was a response to Dan’s post saying that criticism is necessary. It suggested senior people only say positive things because they can’t be bothered to do a proper (critical and therefore more ‘authentic’) critique.
I think it is too simplistic to say that only critical comments are useful, and it is insulting to the people who do take time to engage with other people’s work and give them positive feedback. Stephen Spielberg doesn’t need to encourage anyone, that he takes the time to do so is great testament to him.
Worse than a purely critical response, is no feedback at all. I’ve found that many senior people will dismiss an idea without giving any clear reasons why they’ve done so. That is helpful to no one. Spotting problems is easy. Engaging with the piece to find something you like, build on it and articulate your thoughts takes more effort, if done well (and why do it badly?).
In TV land, I’ve found that it is the people who are just starting out who are more open, collaborative and supportive of innovative new ideas, and the more senior people who have a tendency to be negative and block new talent (perhaps because they feel threatened, as ideas are power).
Unfortunately, innovation and collaboration tends to be discouraged by some managers (who set their own bad example, by churning out tired, me-too ideas) and people quickly become institutionalised, taking their turn to be negative and critical of others. It’s not many steps from there to failing to credit other people for their ideas, and then a very short step stealing them.
For people starting out in the industry, there is always a fear that someone will steal his or her ideas. That someone is always implied to be someone ‘out there’, however, the truth is that it is more likely that a close colleague will take credit for your ideas.
Anyone who presents their idea to someone with more influence or power is laying themselves open – it’s intimidating and scary to expose yourself in that way. It’s much easier to stay schtum and avoid the risk of criticism.
The less confident (or arrogant) amongst us are often riddled with anxiety about the shortcomings of an idea and so you’re often not telling them something they don’t already know if you only point out the most obviously failings. It’s much cleverer to give an honest (critical) and detailed response as to why an idea won’t work tempered with praise for the good parts, without which they might just give up on a project (and any future ones). What they need is a supportive appraisal that builds their confidence inspires them to continue improving their skills, despite the knock back.
“Whatever your position in the industry; I think we can ALL achieve FAR MORE this year by positively supporting and encouraging the efforts that we all continually strive to make.”
In TV Development, collaboration is vital – both with one’s immediate colleagues and with those who might have specialist knowledge or complementary skills that could turn an average idea into an outstanding programme idea. We should strive to reach out and include others in the process and nurture their ideas.
It’s time to celebrate factual TV development as a specialist skill and promote it as a credible and desirable career choice, so let’s all play nice. Which isn’t to say we can’t be competitive – we have to be, but we can do it with good grace and integrity.
“This industry is HARD, and ALL OF US continually find defeat, and hardship, and a lack of money. But we keep going, because we know what we’re aiming for. My thinking is this would be a lot less painful and a lot more productive if we were all encouraging, positive and friendly by DEFAULT.”
Hear, hear. I have grown very tired of people who work in development being dismissed and undervalued by people who are ignorant of what development entails.
And TV Mole is my attempt to do provide a positive and encouraging resource for the factual TV development community.
Development can and should embrace everyone in the production community, and TV Mole has been set up to:
1.Provide information to help professional developers do their jobs
2.Provide a crash course for those who find themselves working in development for the first time
3.Promote good practice across the industry that ensures people with ideas are encouraged, mentored, recognised and celebrated. Without them there would be no TV industry.
And last, but definitely not least:
4.Inspire new programme ideas
I’ll give Dan the last word for giving me the inspiration for this post:
“I can’t wait to get working with you in the New Year. We’re going to have a blast, and we’re going to be extremely successful.”
Watch Dan’s short film Crazy Love and give him some love.
1.Foster a positive attitude that recognises everyone’s contributions to the development process
2.Give constructive feedback to help people understand the strengths and weaknesses of their idea.
3.Give credit where it’s due.
4.Encourage and recognise people who are brave enough to put forward their ideas – whatever their level of seniority.
5.Improve the standard of written proposals. 6.Engage in meaningful conversations with commissioning editors across a range of channels.
7.Develop a strong and friendly TV development community who support each other’s personal and career development whilst maintaining a healthy sense of competitive spirit.