Failing Upwardly: Top Tips for Writers & Filmmakers From a Couple of Amateurs Who Learnt It the Hard Way

Bored BTS Images by Olivia Thompson

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

When deciding a name for our company we kept coming back to a term we’ve used over and over again… ‘learning curve’. Defined as “the rate of a person’s progress in gaining experience or new skills”, our learning curve was indeed proving to be a very protracted one. Over the last five years of working together we have fallen prey to an unrelenting ‘one step forward two steps back’ path. And then suddenly, a buck in the current trend… an email came through on a cold December evening to say that our ‘shot on a shoestring’ pilot got into SXSW! Which begs the question… how the fuck did we do it? 

And that’s why we thought we would share our rocky experience trying to develop a series, hoping others can learn from our mistakes (or at least learn how to get up after making their own).

Lesson 1. Find your tribe and get to work.

Back in 2015, before the fury of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we set up a female filmmakers group, irreverently named Femme Fresh. A space to share ideas, get feedback on work and provide a support network in what felt like the harsh landscape of the UK film industry. Out of this forum, two short films were made by fellow female filmmakers and the idea for our series Bored was born. 

Frustrated by not seeing familiar or even realistic female protagonists on TV (this was pre Phoebe Waller-Bridge mania), we wanted to write a series about two women on the cusp of that awkward transitional period in their lives, aka about to turn thirty, still struggling to figure out who they are. Write what you know they say, go figure. Inspired by DIY success stories like Issa Rae’s and the High Maintenance team – guerilla filmmaking with low concept ideas that are ideal for an online platform in both its conceit and intended audience – we set to work and finished scripts for a seven part web series. Then we bundled together a treatment, shot a mini teaser with the talented director Georgia Oakley we met through FF and were ready to take the next steps…

Lesson 2. Shoot the damn thing.

On our initial search for producers to collaborate with, we were boosted by the positive feedback we were getting back. And yet despite interest in the project, it was often suggested in one way or another that we were being a little hasty wanting to shoot straight away and should probably wait for more industry experience. In other words, leave more room for broadcasters to have influence over the project. This went against the very impetus that made us excited to do the project to begin with. Not to mention the flagrant catch-22 of how one goes about getting this so-called industry experience by just waiting around anyway?

We pushed on and eventually secured two producers (who were established, skilled, and excited about Bored), convincing one of them to make the pilot with us together with Georgia. We pooled our resources and the total production fund came to £1,500. This is an almost impossibly tight budget that we only pulled off because of favours across the board. It goes without saying that we are indebted to the team that worked incredibly hard to get this in the can. At the time we had doubts whether it was the right move, but as it turns out it was the best thing we did on the whole Bored journey. Being on set and collaborating with like-minded people, lived up to everything we thought it was going to be and more.

Lesson 3. Don’t wait for permission.

Pilot shot and series package in hand, everything was looking good. So good in fact that we were encouraged to continue developing the project as apparently there was potential for something bigger than “just a web series.” Admittedly the prospect was enticing and we got a little caught up in the excitement of experienced execs floating the reality that we could be professional writers/showrunners. So we set to work on rewrites, developing the format for a TV series and went to market…

After months of the scripts sitting on commissioners desks, we got some nicely worded rejection emails… essentially “we already have a show with a female protagonist”. In fact, we discovered that it actually worked against us that we already shot a pilot; our project was a little too developed now. We couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that the UK industry doesn’t like to lend itself to a DIY approach. On top of everything, we got into hot water with option agreements, contracts and pretty much every bit of paperwork we encountered, most of it down to our inexperience. The long and short of it is that while pitching we agreed to a shopping agreement for a total writer’s fee of £1. This was two years after we first put pen to paper with Bored.

Lesson 4.  Strip it right back. 

(It will never be perfect. But a script in a drawer is just a script in a drawer.) 

Disheartened and disillusioned by having spent all our time trying to sell our idea (as well as ourselves) to broadcasters, we went back to the drawing board. We parted ways with our producers, paid back the financing for the pilot and set out to self-fund the entire series! Are you exhausted yet? We did rewrites once again (we’re now on draft number twenty three) and reached out to some producer pals who had shown interest before. Re-energised by their championing of the project, they helped us set up a crowdfunding campaign with the aim of producing the rest of the episodes and distributing the series online. As other crowdfunders will know, the campaign became a part-time job in itself – but we didn’t care, we were buzzing about finally making stuff again!

Unfortunately, we only raised half of the total budget needed. By this point, we’d lost all of our confidence. We felt like we had given it our last shot, but we didn’t see the benefit in shooting half the episodes if we couldn’t fund all of them. So we refunded every contributor their generous donation and finally put Bored to bed. It was hard for us not to feel like we had failed, but perhaps the real failure was not to keep pushing forward (more on that in a moment). 

Lesson 5. Trust in your work.

Not everyone is going to like what you do, or get it. As we eventually learnt, it’s futile to base the value of your project on how many people say yes or give you the thumbs up. We wish we realised more along the way that it’s only as long as you’re creating something you value that you won’t be disappointed. We joked about framing the scripts we’d spent four years rewriting so we’d have something to remember them by. Needless to say when we got the email from the SXSW programmers, it was a ray of Texas sunshine. We had made the submission on a complete whim in the wake of closing down the project, and getting accepted was something we never expected to happen.

So this is just a friendly reminder to say – trust your work. Don’t lose confidence or rely on the approval of others. And don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. The one thing we didn’t wait for permission with the whole Bored saga – the pilot – found its audience eventually. Your work will too. So grab your mates, beg, borrow and steal and just shoot something! Also, know what you want if you go into a meeting. Never apologise for being there. If you get in a room with a commissioner, production company or a CEO at a media company who could potentially fund your entire series or film… know the answer to ‘what are you looking for?’ and don’t be afraid to say what that is. That’s all. It’s a simple thing that sometimes gets lost in the British sentiment of being polite, not being direct, not knowing your own worth or thinking you shouldn’t be in the room you’re literally sitting in. 

Whatsapp. Nicole & Coral. January 2020.

A lot of the time people say even after all the mistakes, they wouldn’t change a thing because of how much they’ve learnt. We 100% would not repeat this shit show. It’s even worse on paper! But (big but here), the thing that’s going to keep you afloat in navigating this industry when you’re knee deep in crap, is if you find your tribe (we love you Brit Marling). Those that you can belly laugh with (sometimes through tears), encourage each other’s ideas, and keep you going when it feels impossible. Keep you going full stop. Most importantly, find people who will fail with you. 

After we wrote this article, SXSW 2020 was cancelled by the City of Austin. This has had a devastating impact on everyone involved and our hearts go out to the organisers, as well as to all the independent filmmakers who were relying on the festival as their big break. However,dare we say that there is yet another hard lesson to be learned here! Pinning all your hopes on a singular event or institution is a risky business. Now more than ever we have to remember to enjoy the journey, expect bumps in the road and most importantly – be flexible.  It’s important to mention that the situation this year is unprecedented and both the SXSW programmers and independent film community have been incredibly supportive in the fallout. But this is a stark reminder that the only certain thing we can do which is always in our control – is to continue working and collaborating. And we can’t wait to get back at it. In the meantime, stay safe and well. 

by Coral Amiga and Nicole Hartley

A few years ago Nicole gatecrashed Coral’s exhibition in head-to-toe glitter. They bonded over sake bombs and bad jokes and have been writing together ever since. The London-based filmmakers first collaborated on a mockumentary sketch series entitled Shallow Vs, about a band who don’t make music. Shallow Vs premiered on WhoHaha and was later long-listed for a Funny Women Award. In 2017 they were finalists for the Sundance Institute New Voices Lab. Bored is a seven-part series following the lives of two hapless best friends over the course of a week. Write what you know. Go figure. They like films such as The Handmaiden, When Harry Met Sally, anything by the Coen Brothers and recently…Uncut Gems. Find them on Instagram: @nicolejhartley @coral_amiga.

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