British screenwriters need to become more ambitious. That is the message behind the Eon Screenwriters' Workshop (ESW), an initiative set up last year by the James Bond franchise's famed production company Eon Productions.
'As a (film-making) culture in the UK, we are predominantly low-budget and we are very heavily television focused,' suggests Alby James, head of development at ESW. 'If there are screenwriting courses, from the National Film and Television School onwards, they don't focus on doing high-concept, high-budget films for wide audiences internationally.'
The Bond movies do well in the US but even better internationally. If the ESW can unearth some non-Bond projects with similar international appeal, Sony/Columbia could be interested. '(Sony) could see we have a certain edge in that regard with Bond. It's our joint hope we can take some of that Hollywood production value and marry that to a more European focus on character and story ... we're hoping to take some of our experience on Bond and apply it to other projects,' says David G Wilson, head of creative and business affairs, and the son of Bond producer Michael G Wilson. ESW recently signed a first-look deal with Columbia Pictures.
There are currently five writers - Eitan Arrusi, Rob Churchill, Jim Davies, Matt Thomas and Andy Yerlett - participating in the ESW. They are now coming to second-draft stage in their projects, including big-budget thrillers, romantic comedies and quirky, screwball farces.
Meanwhile, just after Cannes, ESW took on four new projects with new feature-film writers. These are Christopher Hill's comedy Rules Of The Game about teenage videogame designers; Janet Wells' romantic fantasy Creative Fiction about a fading Hollywood action hero and a more refined actress who are magically transported into the fictional world of Pride & Prejudice; Rick Harvey's conspiracy thriller Shadow Play set around the life of Christopher Marlowe; and Glitter And Twisted, a satirical comedy by Hugo Eyre-Varnier set in the world of public relations.
ESW does not want to turn into one of those purgatorial outfits where projects languish in development for years or decades. 'What we're trying to do is create an environment where it is really a team-based approach and where everyone has skin in the game - a vested interest in seeing the project move forward,' says Wilson. The writers' contracts are slanted so they would be handsomely rewarded when a project moves into production.
'Our process is to allow the writer to realise the idea within a year, to a level where we can start to show it to the studio and think about producing it,' says James.
Columbia will decide quickly whether or not they are interested in a project. If the studio passes, Eon is at liberty to take the project elsewhere. ESW will hold full rights on a completed project for two years.
'If we fail to set it up in two years and we fail to buy them (the writers) out, then it goes back to them in turnaround at their request. That's a pretty short window and we feel it's a fair window,' says Wilson.
The ESW is hoping to create its own miniature version of the old studio system, with a group of in-house writers working on a variety of projects. The goal is to produce 10 quality scripts every year. Over time, ESW might also begin to target directors as well as writers.