Yesterday @MysteryBritExec went on an informative Twitter ‘rant’ about life as a feature development executive. Reprinted here by permission:
Seems I haven’t really advertised that well that this is the area of the industry I work in. It is, & I have only ever worked in feature dev.
In a nutshell, a dev department sources new feature ideas and finds the writers and directors that will bring them, hopefully, to life.
The real meat and potatoes of the work is reading, reading, reading, note writing and working with writers in an editorial capacity.
We source ideas in a gazillion ways. It’s a highly competitive sport. Development people vie for talent & material.
We play our cards close to our chest. Good people, good ideas, are hard to find.
We track theatre, tv, films, books, magazines, news stories, comics, docs, shorts. Anything that could possibly offer up a movie idea.
We are all over all of that shit. Often matchmaking material with the writers and directors we love.
We’re the dept ur script gets sent to. We’re the guys that read & decide whether u hve the talent, imagination, craft to make it at our co.
We’re also the people that sit with you for however many hours it takes, going through your script, offering you insights and notes…
Hopefully these will ensure your next draft is stronger and more successfully conveys the movie everyone has signed up to make.
As a writer, your relationship with your exec can be incredibly creatively rewarding for both parties…
Particularly if that exec is the person who found and championed your project. If they believe in your and love your writing.
A good exec becomes emotionally involved with your project. It becomes their baby too. They will lose sleep, dig deep and fight for it.
They will share in its triumphs and wallow with you if it fails.
They will work with you in a not dissimilar way to a book editor. A good one will spend real, quality time (many, many hours)…
…Reading and thinking about your script before coming to you with their notes.
A good exec has excellent communication skills, is a people person, has a phenomenal amount of patience.
They are also able to relay what can feel like criticism in a nurturing and supportive way.
This doesn’t always happen. Some execs are abrasive, but still have good instincts. Some are lovely people, but they are being too kind.
Ultimately, this is not going to help your career. You are better off with someone blunt but smart, than someone sweet but lacking insight .
Experience and confidence are key. But also, you know, just being a nice, empathetic person.
There is probably a dearth of quality development execs in the UK. This is because it’s not a job you can get a qualification for.
Sure, you can do that McKee course, and various others like it, but actually, unless you naturally have the skillset, they are of no use.
This is partly because to be a truly great exec at senior level, you must bring w/ you the relationships you started building as an asst.
Where you started having coffee with the agents assts who one day will be big shots. The short film makers who will one day be Oscar winners
The second reason for learning on the job is that unlike novels, magazines or any other form of printed words…
We none of us (or very few of us) are reading screenplays from childhood onwards.
When you first enter the industry, the format will likely be new or at least newish to you conceptually…
Figuring out how those words might likely translate onto the big screen is a skill that can only be acquired in practice.
It’s worth reminding yourself that no finish film every resembles the script that went into production exactly. Often it varies enormously.
The practice of development in a vacuum is bullshit and teaches nothing. So if you want to learn…
…it is imperative you work at a company that is actually producing movies. Perhaps this sounds obvious, but it isn’t always heeded.
As a junior, you are better off working somewhere whose taste you may be at odds with, but who are hitting out at least 2-3 movies per year
Rather than working somewhere that have a couple of classy films to their name but are only getting one of the ground every couple of years.
Also, you want to stay in gainful employment, right? No movies, no prod fees, no profit, no salary, hello redundancy.
And this is happening again and again and again, even to the most robust UK companies.
It’s worth pointing out that you can make good money working in dev, but only if you rise to a very senior level at a successful company.
The lower tiers of dev, the small indies, woefully underpay for this skillset. So there is quite a divide. The workload varies enormously too.
You can also expect to get paid a lot more at a commercially successful company than you can working for an organisation more concerned with…
Promoting British Film and British Talent than they are with profit and loss. That’s just common sense though.
So these days, development departments must be lean, highly skilled and very efficient. You must be someone writers want to return to.
You must play a vital and effective role in their creative process.
Ideally, you spoil writers w/your insightful skills, care, effort, attention & the foresight to always schedule meetings to run over lunch.
If you are good at your job you will gain a reputation in the ind.& become 1st choice for agents in terms of looking for homes for projects.
As you get more senior in the field, the job widens out further, and you end up taking much more of a producer role.
Sometimes EP, sometimes P. You will be on set often, maybe even every day. You will be there through post, cutting room, grade, mix etc.
Once you get to this level, your ability to segue into a fully fledged prod is pretty sewn up. It’s up to you if you want to stick or twist.
For your eves & w/e’s to become a constant negotiation between reading off your overflowing pile of scripts, or binge watching Transparent.
You will always, ALWAYS have that Sunday night oh fuck I have to do my homework feeling.
If the thought of this makes you feel sick, a career in dev is not for you.
Be prepared to never find time to read a book for pure pleasure again. Every piece of material you consume is now a potential project.
Be alert, don’t let is sail by. Someone else will pick it up and then you will want to kill yourself, if your boss doesn’t get there first.
You will have to pitch against 10 other companies battling for the rights for a book you have fallen in love with…
Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose and you will lose sleep over it and pray for its ultimate failure.
Here’s the most bizarre bit about development. You are working constantly in a theoretical space.
You have to maintain passion and invest emotionally, sometimes for years, in material that one day may just all end up on the shelf.
This is an odd thing indeed. And it takes a particular kind of individual to be able to apply themselves in this way.
You have to love the process. If you don’t, it will frustrate you and make you angry. You need patience and you need to love writers.
You need to love words. More than anything, you need to love stories. They must be as imp to u as crisps, cake, bacon &oxygen. In that order
It might be interesting to share that of the thousands of scripts that come through the door, actually a very small % make it on the slate.
It’s just as likely for projs to be generated from within a co. This may be unique the UK, or unique to the couple of co’s I have worked for.
So more likely we option a novel, a documentary format, a short film, an article etc, and match it with a writer and or director…
That we have been actively tracking, are fans of, and want to be making movies with.
This is why it’s just as important that you get read by us as it is you get your feature picked up.
Ultimately you want to get to a place where companies are bringing their ideas to you, or inviting you to pitch.
Original ideas are vital to the film industry, but it’s also nice to have good material offered to you.
In my experience, these kinds of marriages, where the prod co has identified material that is on brand for them, makes them excited…
…and brought it to a preferred writer, ends up having the strongest chance of making it to production.
Deve can be the most frustrating job in the world. Sometimes you run the race over several years and fall at the very last hurdle…
How philosophical you can be about this is vital to your longevity in this section of the industry.
But dev can also be the most rewarding job in the world. There is no greater feeling than getting a draft in, seeing the writer has run free…
…and been inspired by your notes, and you know that your input has just helped take the project infinity steps closer to production.
You know that you were integral to that piece of material reaching millions of people. And that, in a nutshell, is why I work in movies.
We are not saving lives, but if something I help shape/bring to life makes Friday night of the general, hardworking public that bit better…
– provides the catharsis or release, then I feel like my contribution to the planet has been worth something.
We may write a script in a vacuum, but once it enters a studio or production company’s system, that story is very much impacted by a group of human beings known as development execs. Hopefully you find execs who are smart, savvy and passionate about story. If you do intersect with them, do whatever you can to nurture those relationships and keep them in your professional and creative constellation. Those connections are gold.
I can tell you this: If I were living and working in the U.K., I’d be doing my damnedest to find @MysteryBritExec because clearly – she gets it.
Thanks to @MysteryBritExec for this Twitter ‘rant’ not only for the wisdom conveyed here, but also because it spawned another outburst of insight yesterday from screenwriter Craig Mazin. It’s a fantastic follow-up to this rant and Craig kindly gave me permission to reprint it. Look for that hopefully tomorrow.
Meanwhile if you’re not following @MysteryBritExec, get your virtual ass over to Twitter and do it right away!