Training provision for screenwriters has been undergoing a sea change in the UK in recent years, with providers aiming to connect training with the industry and help create writers who can function both creatively and commercially.
The UK film business has not always taken the most positive view of screenwriter training. A 2007 report for the UK Film Council (Ukfc) and UK training body Skillset finding that 'of the minority of production companies who expressed views, most felt that training schemes were ineffective in contributing to critical and/or commercial success, as they were perceived to lack market awareness'.
'The business of screenwriting has not been given as much attention in this country as it should have been,' says David Pearson, director of the International Screenwriters' Festival (July 1-3) and a film and TV executive, producer, writer and director. 'If you're going to function well in an industry like this you have to have market information and understand how the business works.'
But training writers to create both great screenplays and succeed in the industry is a huge undertaking. Teaching the craft of screenwriting, for one, is vastly complex.
'Writers have to construct a story that is absolutely as compelling and as well-written as a novel, but they've got to do it in 100 pages and mainly in dialogue,' says Kate Leys, a script editor who has been head of development at various companies including Film4.
'And they have to write this gripping piece of prose and yet it will never be experienced as a gripping piece of prose by its intended audience. We ask them to come up with a kind of storytelling that is utterly peculiar, very constrained and slightly tangential to the process of film production.'
Innovative new courses
Then there is the wide range of skills necessary to succeed in the industry: reading the market and delivering what cinema audiences want, being able to function well in development, collaborating, re-writing and so on.
The Met Film School Skillset Writers' Training Scheme is an innovative UK programme backed by Skillset and the Ukfc and delivered in association with Met Film Production, Ealing Studios, Slingshot, The Works and PAL.
Ten emerging writers are paid competitively while being taken through the reality of high-level film development. Participants, who retain the rights to their work, go through six months of creative and professional development, including placements in the industry.
At the end of the period five of the writers are selected for a further six months of development support.
'There are lots of programmes for completely new entrants, and here's something that is taking it to the next stage and also recognising there's a need to understand the business of marketing and distribution,' says Met Film School director Jonny Persey.
'It's really valuable to expose writers to every sector of the value chain so they have a real sense of what sales agents, distributors and exhibitors are looking for,' says Janine Marmot, director of film at Skillset. Marmot is in discussion with the industry to design a new screenwriting training course to help nurture and train writers. It will go out to training providers in the autumn.
Skillset also runs an accreditation scheme for screenwriting courses, and is aiming to get the best writers from those courses in front of the industry through its Shortlist scheme, which selects the best writers and aims to match them with agents. There is also an open offer for innovation funding, so providers can propose new ways of writer training. And, in response to the lack of diversity in the sector, Skillset is also backing B3 Media's FeatureLab, an initiative aimed at black and ethnic minority writers.
Marmot says that it is important to have a number of different initiatives, and there is a wide range of approaches in the UK and Europe. Training provision varies greatly across the continent depending on the size of the market and the demands of the industry.
The media programme invests more than $10.9m (EUR7m) annually in training, with more than a third going into European project-based training in order to improve the development and business skills of film-makers and help projects go into production
Screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, whose credits include Girl With A Pearl Earring and John Maybury's forthcoming production of Wuthering Heights, says that initiatives which get writers working to a variety of specific briefs are of particular use. 'That's because there are very few writers who have the luxury of saying 'Hmm, what shall I write'' Most of us write more or less what we're told to because that's the way the market works.'
The ultimate piece of training, Hetreed says, is seeing a piece of writing produced. 'It's the most extraordinary learning experience,' she explains. 'The first time you've written something and watch actors and a director turn it into something alive - that is hugely useful.'
Debra Hayward of Working Title Films agrees: 'The greatest training a writer can have in a way is to see their film made because you get to see the process from start to finish. It's always interesting to meet young writers who've had a film made and see what that experience gives them and how they use it on their next project.'
Learning on the job
Jo McClellan, new talent executive at Film4, says that such training through film-making is invaluable. 'It's more important that there's money to make people's work,' she says.
'It's only then that they really start to learn and understand. Courses like the Met Film course are great and they definitely have to be done. But it's what people like us at the broadcaster end do with that.'
Film4 runs several of its own initiatives, including awarding development bursaries to one to two graduating teams from the National Film and Television School every year. Other schemes include the short scheme Cinema Extreme, Warp X's Darklight for female horror film-makers, and Future Perfect, a theatre writing scheme run by Paines Plough Theatre.
For a profession as solitary as screenwriting, courses can be useful in building support networks between writers. They can also give participants a real understanding of how to receive and make the best of feedback.
Says Hetreed: 'It's very well taught these days how to criticise somebody without being personal or destructive, and really thinking about what could make something better. And to hear that from your peers is incredibly difficult to get if you're not in a film course or in a support group.'
Lizzie Francke, development producer at the UK Film Council's Development Fund, says, 'Anything where you're sharing with others and getting critical feedback is training by learning.'
Building a dialogue
Longer academic screenwriting courses can also give writers the space and structure in which to practise their craft. 'You learn to write by writing,' says Pathe UK's head of creative affairs Colleen Woodcock. 'One of the great things about doing a degree in screenwriting is that you're forced to write a lot.'
One perceived gap is that emerging writers simply aren't reading enough screenplays. 'Writers in other industries learn their craft through reading, whether it's novels or plays or poems,' says Lucy Scher, co-director of the Script Factory, which runs training and development events in the UK and around the world.
'And screenwriters, almost uniquely, have to guess the craft of the writing. And while they may see films or read a lot of how-to books, the only way you really learn the craft is by reading good examples.'
Francke says that an immersion in the history of film can be invaluable. 'I'm someone who believes in having strong film knowledge. There's nothing like knowing what you're competing with: you've got to aim high. And to know what you have to aim for you just have to look back.'
Ultimately, in such a fast-moving industry, training is best seen as something that never ends. 'I feel like I'm always doing writer training and I hope it will never stop,' says Hetreed. 'Every time I have a meeting with a new director or I sit down and discuss the possibility of writing a script, that's a whole new learning experience.'