Fieldwork: Lessons from the Big Comedy Conference

by Suw on March 18, 2024

And how I’m adapting our project plan to account for changes in TV commissioning.

Saturday saw the Big Comedy Conference take place in London with a slew of industry professionals taking the stage to share their accumulated knowledge and experience. I went last year for the first time, so this second go round made for an interesting comparison.

The atmosphere was much less chirpy, for one, and the financial challenges of putting on an event of this size in the current economic climate were made obvious by the single stream of speakers with no break-out rooms and the more modest catering. I don’t blame the organisers for that at all – time are tough and they have to cut their pattern to their cloth – but the event felt smaller and less optimistic.

I can understand that loss of optimism too, though. Comedy is in decline in the UK. Last November, Ofcom released a report in which it “explicitly labelled scripted comedy to be ‘at risk’ as a genre” for the sixth year in a row. One of the speakers confirmed that spending on comedy has been cut, with the number of comedies being commissioned dropping by half.

Last year, we were told that the way to get your comedy made is to find a producer whose work you love and approach them. You can’t approach broadcasters directly – most of the commissioners on stage said they were either part of very small team or working solo and they don’t accept unsolicited scripts.

So how do you get the attention of a producer? Twice, we’ve been advised to record a table read and send them over a link. That does make sense – it’s easier and quicker to click a link and listen for a few minutes than it is to read a script.

But that doesn’t seem to be how things actually work. I spoke to someone who had tried sending the recording of her table read to the very same producer who’d given that advice . Yet she still met a brick wall of “We don’t accept unsolicited scripts”.

There was further conflicting advice about agents. This year, we were told to get an agent, whereas last year we were told that agents aren’t necessary and you’ll only get one once you’re established anyway.

It’s Catch 22. Commissioners say that they only accept submissions from production companies. Production companies don’t take unsolicited submissions, preferring work to come via agents. Unlike literary agents, TV agents don’t take unsolicited submissions either. The whole industry is Kafkaesque.

I chatted to one very well established writer and even he can’t get stuff made, despite decades of experience and all the contacts you could possibly want within the industry.

So what does this mean for Fieldwork?

The original plan was to write a short film script, then look for some funding to get it made. Which isn’t a bad plan, but I’m not sure that it’s still the best plan. I am not a film producer and nor do I particularly want to become one, so I’d have to find a producer to work with. I’m not going to rule that out, but perhaps it’s not the best place to start.

I’ve signed up for Dave Cohen’s Build a Sitcom course, so by the summer I will have a half-hour sitcom pilot script written, which I will then cut down to a 10 minute short film. Having a sitcom pilot will give me some more options: I’ll be able to submit it to the BBC’s open call in the autumn (I’ve missed this year’s BAFTA Rocliffe comedy competition deadline), on the off chance. But with hardly any comedy being made now, that off chance is tiny.

What became clear to me on Saturday is that there really aren’t many opportunities for comedy writers at the moment. One’s chances might be improved if one became a writer-performer, but as much as I love doing improv, I’m not about to start trying to develop a career as a stand-up comedian (despite having done it before) in order to write. Honestly, that’s like becoming a worm farmer in order to go fishing.

Where I do see an opportunity – and I can thank Julian Simpson’s Lovecraft Investigations and Tom Craine and Henry Parker’s ReincarNathan for demonstrating this to me – is in audio. Whether that’s BBC Radio or a podcast doesn’t really matter, although one requires me to get commissioned and the other I can do myself (ish).

The podcast route seems the most feasible in terms of getting this story out in to the world (and, perhaps, catching a commissioner’s eye). Being less expensive, it also seems like something with the potential for a bit of crowdfunding to cover the costs.

I know a lot more about the TV industry and the process of getting a sitcom out into the world now than I did two years ago when Thorunn, Pen and I started talking about this project. So it makes sense to adjust our plan in the light of all that new information. An adaptation for audio could potentially be an intermediate step ahead of making the short film, or it could become our final destination, and either of those outcomes would be fine for us.

Having been fretting about the idea of making a short film for a while now, I feel much more excited about developing a podcast. It feels much more doable and much less stressful. The lesson here is that creative projects like this take time to develop, and as they do, the wider commercial landscape changes. We have to stay abreast of those changes and adapt our plan to fit reality.

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