31 May 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Development Experts share their expertise as part of Working in Development - IFTA Skills in Focus
26 Feb 2021 : News Desk
IFTA's Working In Development
Yesterday (Thursday, February 25th) The Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA), supported by Screen Skills Ireland, hosted a panel discussion on the development process entitled Working in Development – as part of the IFTA Skills in Focus Series.

The panel featured noted Producer, Story Consultant, Lecturer and Author John Yorke (Wolf Hall, Life on Mars, Shameless, Into the Woods), Head of Development at See-Saw Films Katherine Bridle (Ammonite, Lion, Top of the Lake), Element Pictures Head of Development Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann (Normal People, Herself), and was moderated by Treasure Entertainment Producer Rebecca O’Flanagan (Good Vibrations, Viva, Papi Chulo, Metal Heart)

Development is a critical element in the production of a film or TV Series. The development stage is the first step in the film production process and is where stories are found, fleshed out, honed, and worked on until they are in a position to be sold, commissioned, or start filming. Good development is critical to delivering the best possible film or television series, but Development is often an over-looked, under-funded, and mysterious area of production.

In her introduction O’Flanagan said: “A lot of people are  slightly mystified about what exactly Development is but for me Development is the lifeblood of our industry and is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”

The Panel took the assembled audience of Academy Members and the wider Irish Film & TV sector through the various stages of the key process of development and shared their insights and experience across a number of key areas including: Scouting for ideas/talent; Networking & Relationship Building; Researching and Developing Ideas; Script reading/editing, coverage and notes; Collaborating with writers; and key points to succeeding in development. 

What is Development?

The event began with a brief introduction where the panel revealed the many and varied ways they got into the industry and development in particular. Morgan Hoffmann came from a theatre background before working her way up from being an assistant at Element Pictures to head of Development. Bridle worked with Anthony Minghella and then came in  through acquisitions, while Yorke was fascinated by the cast of Z-Cars who he would see across from his house during filming and came into story editing through radio. 

Yorke, the former Head of Channel Four Drama, Controller of BBC Drama Production, and MD of Company Pictures, who is widely acknowledged as the UK’s foremost expert on story, and whose book Into the Woods is the bestselling book on the subject in the UK cut his teeth trying to make sense of an ill-advised attempt to condense the entire Adventures of Tin Tin into a 10-part radio serial, which never-the-less set him on the path to where he is today, saying: “It was terrifying and joyous. That was the moment when I thought this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
The panel then turned to defining what Development is, aside from simply the analysis of a script. 

See-Saw’s Bridle set out the role of development as being “to guide and curate an idea (be it an idea or a script) to a point where a team can assemble to actually make it. The key thing is that core idea and making sure that every step of the way it’s held on to until it can get made.”

Morgan Hoffmann expanded on this saying “Yes, exactly. It’s the nurturing on the idea and the evolution of it. And bringing in the best people to realise that.”

Yorke suggested that the audience is key to all development suggesting that the key questions would be: “Does my protagonist want what my audience wants? If the answer is yes then you have maximised your chances of success, if not, you have a problem.”

“Development is like Dating” – Relationships are key

The panel agreed that building and maintaining relationships is a core component required for development.  With Bridle saying that they work primarily  with filmmakers who inspire them.

“You have to feel like you want to go on that journey with the person (the writer). It can take a LONG time and you have to be able to and want to spend a long time with that person. It’s not like production, which is time-bound so it can be very open-ended.”

Morgan Hoffman expanded on this saying that compatibility is key; “Development is like Dating… You need the gut instinct about the people. You can have a great project but if the people are oil and water it won’t work. The holy grail is that compatibility.”

Communication is also key with people having to know how to communicate to different people in different ways and learning how to adapt communication strategies. Simplicity is key to communication, with writers and the audience at large. This was evidenced by Yorke’s experience on the daytime detective series Father Brown and Life on Mars.

“The best piece of advice I can give is : 'Simplify, simplify, simplify.' The most successful thing I ever worked on was sold in a day, developed in a day, and formatted in a day. Father Brown. It was so simple. The commissioner was desperate for a daytime detective show and while it was an old IP it was an easy sell.

"I was there pitching other ideas and they weren’t getting traction. At the end of the meeting, I remembered a radio programme from the night before about Father Brown and I brough it up and the response was an immediate yes for 10-episodes.

"It fit the mould perfectly. Day time, older audience, detective show, brand name. It was the right idea at the right time. 

"It really is about simplicity. I’ve had successes and many failures but with all the successes there is a simple, Rothko-like simplicity. But Life on Mars took 40 drafts to become simple. Audiences respond to simplicity. The easier to sum up It is, the more powerful it is.”

Bridle and Morgan Hoffmann agreed strongly and pointed to how simplicity works behind the scenes too to ensure that everyone is on the same page in development as well as creating a universal appeal that resonates with audiences. 

“Holding up the Mirror”  - Notes on Notes

O’Flanagan turned the conversation towards strategies for giving notes and how relationships are again key to that. Morgan Hoffmann explained the different ways that writers take feedback and the flexibility required in how that is achieved: “Flexibility is key on our end in terms of feedback to the creatives. some writers prefer written notes, some prefer a zoom; some want a 5-act structure, some 3-act, some the Secret approach."

In addition to flexibility, Bridle says, clarity and purpose are also key, saying that to work well In development one “must be very clear about why this feedback is coming now and what it is trying to achieve. You are just trading in opinions but if you can justify why this opinion is important now and what it will achieve then it becomes a conversation with a shared common goal.”

Yorke suggested that a good rule is “it’s not your show, it’s theirs” and suggested that you want to get to a point where you are acting as a mirror allowing them to see their own work.  
“Make the problem, you, not them; you make them feel secure in their ideas while building a relationship to the point where they can be assured that you are giving advice for the good of them and their project. The worst thing you can do is impose structure. You have to find out the language they use and work in those terms."
The panel suggested that, though cliched, a key piece of advice is that notes should be questions – “Maybe try this… maybe it should be that?” - as opposed to statements and that if development producers had the answers then they would be writing. Asking the right questions are key.

“Find your Tribe”

Before taking questions from the large audience of viewers the panel discussed advice for getting into development, and the industry at large. Again, relationships are key to this with Hoffman suggesting that it’s about finding contemporaries that you can grow with.
“It’s about finding your tribe, your peers. People you can work with. You have to find the people around you that you can grow with. One of the best pieces of advice I got was find the best junior agent who will grow into a senior agent and grow with them.”
Bridle echoed this suggesting that while it’s tempting to see the people at the top and try and learn from them really it’s the people you grow along side who are vital. Yorke agreed saying that you should stick with the people who make you better. 

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