Pitching for Writers

The Crescent Arts Centre hosts 'script midwife' Mary Kate O Flanagan. John Higgins learns a thing or two

I am faintly disturbed by the fact that The Crescent Arts Centre café provides a beverage called a 'flavoured steamer'. I make my excuses and head for the meeting room, where a more traditional selection of beverages is laid on.

This is just the first of many surprises: I also discover that the theatre is packed and I’m not the oldest person here. Today’s seminar is part of Northern Ireland Screen’s rolling programme of courses designed to give Northern Ireland film-makers the business skills they need to compete on an international level.

The seminar is entitled Pitching for writers, and is tailored specifically for writers but is open to all Northern Ireland resident producers, developmental executives and script editors also. Which explains the full room: there are a lot of nascent film-makers out there.

Hosting the event is Mary Kate O Flanagan, screenwriter and self proclaimed 'script midwife', who has written several feature and television scripts and works closely with the Irish Film board.

I should declare some slight self interest at this point: so far I have made two films, both half-edited and gathering dust on a hard-drive, and I’m due to make a third at the start of November 2012. All were done for no money at all – placing me firmly at what O Flanagan calls the 'aspirational' level.

Mary Kate is wildly more successful and has the accent to prove it, veering from her native Irish to a west Kensington drawl to a note perfect Californian chirrup, often in the space of a single sentence. She is vivacious and leonine with a large blood-red flower tucked into her cardigan: she looks like Alex Kingston dressed to distract sniper-fire.

We start with the assumption that writers are at the bottom of the pile, something that all writers secretly believe and an idea Hollywood seems keen to foster. Not so, says O Flanagan, rather writers are miners for gold. It is this notion of self worth that is key to pitching effectively: if you believe in your work that belief needs to be evident.

It is common sense: you do your homework, you practice your spiel, you are specific in proposals and you tell them how they can help you and what they can get from you. Oh, and before you give anyone your script, read it!

O Flanagan tells us stories of scripts featuring 'viscous gangsters' and 'working with depraved children'. There are scripts sent out from agencies where the entire central 20 pages have been repeated and nobody has noticed! If you get you spelling right, you’ll be in the top ten percent.

There is an open and obvious resistance to reading scripts in the industry, mainly because the vast majority of them are so very, very bad. Getting somebody to read your script is like asking someone to go to bed with you – you don’t do it on a first date. Hopefully you're in this for the long haul. Ambitious screenwriters need to build relationships.

So you ask for the most modest thing: advice. It might be possible to mitigate this anti-script prejudice by offering 'I know you won’t want to read my script, but perhaps I can tell it to you'.

You need to go into any potential pitching situation – and any industry gathering is a potential pitching situation if you’re subtle enough – pre-armed and prepared, as though you’re in a 1980s action movie 'tooling up' montage. You need a full arsenal of research, a unique selling point, a honed pitch and an appeal to producers' 'enlightened self interest'.

Aristotle’s definition of the protagonist in a drama is 'a creature of necessity in a landscape of scarcity', and I could not imagine a finer definition of the young(ish), hungry group of film-makers attending today. We should be doubly grateful then that O Flanagan has provided us with such a sumptuous feast.

Visit the Crescent Arts Centre website for information on forthcoming seminars and workshops.

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