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Your screenplay: does it HAVE to be a movie?

What’s film, and what’s TV? Yes, I’m talking about story here – this site’s title is the big clue. It used to be easy to tell the difference. Films had scale – elaborate sets, crowd scenes, big things blowing up – and they had movie stars: actors you wouldn’t see on the small screen.


by Jonathan Empson

Films could have sex and violence and bad language. Yum.

These days, that’s all changed. Everything’s HD, digital effects are cheaper and televisions are bigger, so TV writers are able to ‘upsize’ their average scene from being just two blokes talking in a small room. Hence creature-feature series like Falling Skies and sweeping period dramas like The Borgias look cinematic rather than cheap and cheesy (check out the 1980s Borgias series for comparison). And subscription TV has allowed for more ‘adult’ material to be broadcast.

These days, film is pretty much having to justify its existence.

It’s currently doing so by outspending TV, either on big-budget international franchises (Spider-Man, Batman, Bourne and Bond in 2012) or on multi-star ensembles (What to Expect When You’re Expecting etc). Or ideally, both (Avengers).

But those of us who don’t already have George Clooney attached to our scripts are going to be asked by agents, producers and funding bodies, “Why is this a film?” And specifically, “Why would someone pay to see this at the cinema?”
I’ve been asked that about two of my recent feature scripts, including Leonardo’s War, a (surprisingly factual) historical comedy about Leonardo da Vinci’s rivalry with Michelangelo. It’s full of Renaissance cityscapes, battles and gigantic artworks (with Clooney playing Leonardo, obviously). The stuff of cinema, surely? Well, apparently not. In the words of one agent,

The fact that The Borgias can be made for TV kills the period film.
If you can grab a slice of historical drama without moving from your sofa,
why the fuck would you pay to see the same thing in a cinema?”

Cinema’s stuffed, then…

Of course, some stories will work only as stand-alone features because they’re about one-off events. It’s hard to imagine, say, The King’s Speech or Margin Call as TV series. But from the scripts, it’s easy to imagine them (with less stellar casts) as made-for-TV movies. And those can be a hard sell – in Australia at least – because TV networks don’t like one-off dramas: they like series that can draw a regular audience. That’s probably why it took David Seidler 20 years to get The King’s Speech made.

So, you may have to ask yourself not whether your movie works on TV,
but if it could work as a TV series instead.

I’m using the word ‘series’ loosely, as these days it’s pretty rare to find a show where episodes are entirely stand-alone and viewable in any order, as was once the case with Colombo, Magnum or the average old sitcom. TV networks used to like such ‘pure’ series because it didn’t matter if you missed the first episode(s): you could join in later after your friends told you how good it was. These days we have endless ‘encore viewings’, video on demand and hard-drive recorders, so most series have at least a few serial elements – usually character back stories or developing relationships – that play out over multiple episodes/series and engage viewers long-term.

Such longer arcs are still pretty light-on in shows such as Castle, Covert Affairs and Person of Interest, but Downton Abbey – a classic example of turning a movie (Gosford Park) into a TV show – is a pure serial.

Most shows walk a middle ground, with a story-of-the-week A-plot
mixed with B-plot and other threads that span other episodes.

It’s the typical cop/legal/medical series format, which is why they’re enduringly popular – think The Good Wife, CSI, House. Most cult series, meanwhile, extend the plot alphabet down to V and W over five or more seasons – think The Wire, Mad Men.
At the more trashy end of the spectrum, Revenge was smart in starting as a series, with the heroine picking off a fresh victim every week, then morphing into a serial once the viewers were on board.

In the US, networks are feverishly hunting for shows with a seven-year lifespan; in Australia and the UK, shorter runs are the norm. Hence they often have a clear destination right from the start, such as Life on Mars (Sam working out how to get back to his own time) or Laid (Roo working out why all her sex partners keep dying). But with, of course, a way of developing further series out of it. So your first task is to work out the ‘shape’ of your TV series/serial.

Next time I’ll discuss pilots, series bibles and my TV series, Chrome – and why it got optioned and AWGIE-nominated, but hasn’t (yet) been made.

– © Jonathan Empson

[box]Jonathan Empson’s TV script Chromewas nominated for an AWGIE in 2010.

His recently completed historical drama-comedy feature Leonardo’s War is in circulation, and his black comedy-thriller Get Out of Here has been optioned.

He is represented by Rick Raftos Management.
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About the Author

Jonathan Empson

Comments 3

  1. With the recent news that the single story of ‘The Hobbit’ is being parsed out into three separate feature-length movies, there’s a trend that shows that even movies are turning into mock serials. Even if the screenplay is MEANT to be a movie, seems there will be pressure to expand it.

    Also, as you said, the Avengers is a combination of a well-known franchise and an all-star ensemble, but itself is the seventh (two Iron Mans, a Thor, a Captain America, a couple Hulk) movie in an unofficial series.

    As you pointed out, the change in technology affected the viewing habits of the audience and in such, altered the way television was written or produced. I see the decline in syndication’s power (with DVR’s and on-demand being much more convenient) killing off the stand-alone episode. It’ll be a while as there are a billion Law & Order episodes left to go.

    Is this a golden age for expanding story-arcs or is this more a sign that both television and movies won’t take risks unless they know they’ll gain a substantial reward?

  2. I do occasionally watch movies and think “this would work better as a series”. One big one was “Skyline” which stands in an overcrowded field of generic sci-fi alien invasion type movies, but could easily have been pushed into something much more unique in a series format…

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