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How to Get Your Idea on TV as a Truly Independent Producer

alom-blog-picAlom Shaha is an experienced factual TV development producer who has crossed to the other side. He’s gone from working at Indies such as Pioneer and Lion, pitching ideas to the BBC, Discovery and Nat Geo before handing them off to someone else to make, to pitching his own ideas independently, and raising the funding to make them himself.

His latest film is an ambitious 360 multiplatform project that asks, “Why is Science Important?” and proves that an individual can get a project off the ground (in less time than going through the usual channels) and maintain a great deal of editorial control.

So what’s it all about?

It’s been a really exciting, experimental project. Much of it is driven by user-generated content (UGC), which means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s grownup UGC – content produced by experts who are passionate about their subject.

Close to 100 people have been involved in the making of the film. It started online when I asked scientists, writers, teachers and members of the public to answer the question “Why is Science Important?”

Their responses began to shape, inform and inspire the film. The blog and the film are completely entwined – a truly symbiotic relationship, for the science geeks out there.

I filmed interviews with many of the people who had contributed their thoughts and uploaded them to the website. Some people sent in their own video clips. Then, in the film, I used the website to kick off various lines of enquiry, featuring short clips of the interviews I’d filmed.

The online content came first and it includes written articles, podcasts, vodcasts, photos and even comic strips.

I think it’s a really innovative way of developing and producing a film, and now there’s a passionate community of contributors on the website who all have a stake in the project’s success; so hopefully, they’ll help to promote the film. It’s starting to generate a good kind of buzz.

My ambition is to have at least 100,000 views [Richard and Judy are currently getting 8,000 viewers to their TV show] and I’m exploring how to leverage web distribution for future projects so I can avoid having to go to a broadcaster.

How did you get the idea?

alom-pic2I returned to teaching after a seven-year sabbatical working in TV. I quickly realized that the most important thing to get across to students was not the facts and figures, but that science is important for their intellectual, creative and cultural development. I wasn’t convinced that the curriculum necessarily guaranteed that students would go away with a true appreciation of the importance of science and I felt that this was something that needed to be addressed directly. I saw it as an opportunity, to make a film about something that I love and that is really important.

How did you go about pitching it?

I had developed a relationship with the Wellcome Trust through previous work, so I gave them a quick pitch, with a proposal written on a page of A4 paper. They liked it and encouraged me to apply for a grant. They won’t give grants of this size directly to individuals, so I approached Brook Lapping Education to partner with me. Brook Lapping Education then secured an extra £10,000 from Teachers’ TV, along with a transmission slot and this pretty much nailed the grant for me.

It was a classic co-funding model – Teachers’ TV wouldn’t have commissioned it if I hadn’t already got the Wellcome funding in place and it made it easier for Wellcome to fund once they knew TTV were on board.

Is it difficult to secure grant funding?

It’s actually much more straightforward than applying to a TV channel. They’re much clearer about their criteria – there are no vague and meaningless requests for ‘edgy’, ‘fresh’ or ‘surprising’ programmes.

The criteria are listed and you have to fill in a form to prove how your film fulfills their needs. It can be time consuming if you are applying for several grants, as they all have different criteria, but they are more likely to take risks. They are more interested in your idea than your background – however you do need to be able to deliver. It’s much more transparent than the process of pitching ideas to the channels.

It’s refreshing to work in a world where it feels that ideas are considered on their merits, rather than on politics and personal connections.

alom-pic1

You wrote, produced, directed and presented your film. What did you learn?

Don’t write, produce, direct, and present – it’s too stressful.

Any tips for aspiring presenters?

No one ever mentions that presenting is the easiest part of the job – all the hard work and creativity is in the writing, producing and directing.

So do the crew a favour by not expecting the kid glove treatment. Turn up on set having learnt your lines – it’s professional and saves time on set. Be part of the team – help to set up, carry equipment and get tea and you’ll earn respect.

Don’t present for the sake of presenting, or for money, fun or fame – only do it if you have something interesting to say.  You need to have a passion for a subject, and there needs to be a reason for you to present a particular subject or programme – it needs to be something that only you can make. The only reason I presented this film is because it wouldn’t have made sense for anyone else to present it.

Above all, be honest about how good you are on camera!

How do you feel now it’s all over?

I am really proud of it and incredibly grateful to the huge number of people who have helped make it happen.

jbwhysciencenewWhat’s next?

I want to carry on teaching and film-making. I’m not averse to presenting (it’s easy and it pays well) but I don’t want to be a talking prop – I would rather make films.

I want to be able to make the films I want to make, without having to convince commissioning editors who seem to be terrified of taking risks. I don’t want to be constrained by whatever happens to be fashionable in TV or by the narrow ideas of what commissioning editors think audiences want. Channels tell you how programmes should look and sound – that’s like flipping burgers on a McDonald’s production line. I don’t want to be a director that just delivers a product.

Now I can develop ideas about subjects I’m interested in by:

  • Coming up with formats or ways of telling stories that don’t conform to the norm.
  • Making stuff that isn’t constrained by time slots or channel style
  • Having more space to be experimental
  • Being liberated to have an idea and see it through from start to finish

It’s more exciting to make 3′ film on the web for 10,000 people to see than make a generic 30′ programme for TV. Think about it – if you get 10,000 people watching something you made, they’re likely to be people who made a deliberate choice to do that – your film won’t just be on in the background while they have dinner. Someone once said to me, when I first started making films for the web, how often have you had 1000 people listen to what you have to say, let alone 10,000?

Very few people get to come up with their own ideas and then get to make them. I’m disappointed by the fact that more directors don’t just get off their arses and do something – why hasn’t there been the same sort of revolution in TV / film-making that there has in music?

Anything specific in the pipeline?

I’m going to carry on teaching part-time and hopefully start work on a massive year-long web and film project. It’s exciting – in the old days, I pitched TV programmes, now I’m pitching projects.

Any last words?

If you like the idea of making films without going through the system click on the link and comment on the film, whether you like it or not, support the ethos of doing it yourself.

Visit the Why is Science Important? website to see watch the film.

Read Where To Pitch Your Idea (and Avoid the Commissioners)

Read Alom Shaha’s Top Tips for TV Development Success

Sue Blackmore features in Alom’s film – see what she has to say about science programmes on TV in What Scientists Say About TV Programmes

 

Find out more about foundation and other types of funding in Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot! Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project

 

UPDATE (2012): Alom is now working as a science teacher and has just published his first book: Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for living a good life without God

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