What if the doors to the creative industry are all closed?

by Suw on March 20, 2024

How do we find a window to climb through?

I spent Saturday at the Big Comedy Conference, finding out about the parlous state of TV comedy and rethinking my Fieldwork short film/sitcom project in the process. What was clear from the folks on stage is that budgets are shrinking and fashions are changing which means less comedy is being commissioned. There are only two sitcoms on air that are filmed in front of a studio audience – Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys. Sketch shows have died a death, replaced by cheaper comedy panel shows.

(There’s a similar contraction happening in drama as well. The streamers have realised that, to borrow a phrase from journalism, they have swapped cable/satellite pounds for digital pennies and that the maths just doesn’t math. The BBC has closed Doctors, its incredibly popular but unfortunately expensive daytime drama, as they search for savings in the face of increasing costs and a frozen TV licence fee. Most people don’t care that Doctors has gone, but it was an incredibly important training ground for new TV writers and the loss of that route into the industry is going to have a knock-on effect in the years to come.)

I also had several conversations with some lovely but frustrated writers, both new writers trying and failing to break into the industry and established writers who are still struggling to get commissioned. One of the people was chatting to was Joel Morris whose new book, Be Funny or Die, I just finished reading on Thursday and cannot recommend highly enough.

Joel suggested perhaps our default approach to TV and book publishing should be to assume that all doors are closed. And that set me to thinking: What changes if we assume that Joel is correct? (And I think he is correct.) Instead of knocking at the door to be let in, what if we look for a window to clamber through instead? What would that mean?

This is where I need to say that we must think of ourselves as individuals within a unique context, which is a long-winded way of saying that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone’s mileage will vary. But…

Assuming the doors are shut means that we need to let go of the lottery thinking that is so prevalent amongst writers. Competitions, open calls, and competitive course applications are, statistically, not going to get us anywhere. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people are applying for a tiny number of places, and the chances of any of us winning are tiny. Whilst it’s true that someone has to win, staking our future career on it is only going to lead to disappointment.

And when it comes to screenwriting, the majority of competitions seem designed more to part desperate writers from their cash than provide them with opportunity. You could spend a lot of money entering competitions and end up getting absolutely nowhere. Some competitions offer feedback as an inducement, and perhaps they do provide good advice (though I’ve yet to experience that myself), but it’s nothing you couldn’t get from a good script editor or story development editor.

So, what can we do?

I think the key thing here is to take back control. Instead of just sending our work out there into the void and hoping the Gods of TV and Publishing will bestow success upon us, we need to think about what actions we can take ourselves. Exactly what those actions will be will differ from person to person, depending on personality, preferences, experience and capability. But I think there are two generalisable pieces of advice:

Think hard about your medium

Sitcoms and comedy in general is under pressure, rookie writers very rarely get commissioned, and writers rooms largely don’t exist in the UK, meaning there’s no opportunity to get an entry level writing job. So do you really need to make writing for TV the first step on your creative journey? It sounds like a fabulous career, but if experienced and well-connected writers are struggling to make it work, then newbies are up against a brick wall.

Could you find another medium for your work? If you like performing, perhaps do a bit of stand up and develop a community of fans – you might be able to parlay that into a writing gig somewhere. It’s a long shot, but you’ll get a lot of interesting experiences out of it!

If you’re more of an introvert, how about developing your script into a podcast? Podcasts are flexible, relatively cheap to put together, and lots of fun to do (and listen to). That’s my plan for Fieldwork.

For Tag, my urban fantasy, I’m switching to the novel format. Writing it as a six part TV series has been extremely helpful in that I find it easier to manage the rewriting process for scripts than for prose, but it requires way too much CGI to ever get made in the UK and it’s too British to ever appeal to an American producer. It’ll be a much easier sell if it’s a novel.

There are options on social media as well, but before you throw yourself into TikTok, ask yourself if you’re really going to be developing your skills and audience, or if yoou’re doing it for the sake of doing it and developing the platform’s audience.

Look for funding from unusual places

Fieldwork is part of the International Collaboration on Mycorrhizal Ecological Traits, organised by the University of York, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College and Ada Lovelace Day, and is funded by the National Environmental Research Council. Some degree of luck was involved here, in that Covid destroyed our original plans and we ended up with some money left over, so Fieldwork became our main public communications and outreach deliverable. But because this is a piece of science communications work, there are a number of other grants and funding sources that we can apply for to take it to the next stage.

Not everyone will be able to look for sci-comms grants to fund their writing, but it is worth thinking about how you can find an unusual niche to occupy where you could increase your chances of finding funding.

For example, Arts Council England’s Develop Your Creative Practice grant program releases data on the number of applicants and how many are successful. From the data for Round 17, we can see that there was only one application in the Libraries discipline and it was funded. There were three Museums applications and one was funded. Literature received 290 applications, Music 340 and Theatre 298. Clearly, there are opportunities along the lesser trafficked paths. If you don’t naturally fall into a useful niche, is there someone you can collaborate with?

Grants are usually a nightmare to apply for, but it’s interesting to see that the overall success rate was 21 per cent, which is a far, far higher success rate than any script or writing competition you’ll ever enter. DYCP doesn’t fund the process of writing, but it does strongly encourage participants to pay themselves for their time and it might well be possible to parlay this into some significant career development work.

Reclaim your agency

The biggest benefit of approaching the creative industries as if the doors are closed is, for me at least, a lessening of stress. I feel better about my writing when I feel that I have some agency and can have some influence over the outcome.

Relying on script/writing competitions and open calls was getting me down, because I knew that my work is in a genre that just isn’t ever going to be popular with the judges. And, despite recommendations from panelists at the Big Comedy Conference, I will not be getting a job as a runner for a TV production company in the hope that they notice my brilliant writing, nor will I be spending hours researching producers who will ultimately reject my work sight unseen because it turns out they don’t take unsolicited submissions.

I’d rather look at what I can achieve now, with the resources I’ve got to hand, than expend more time and energy on playing the creative industry lottery.

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