So you want to write movies?

The Script Factory aims to promote new talent and celebrate the importance of the screenplay as a 20th-century art form. By Lizzie Francke
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The Independent Culture
Development hell - it's a phrase that every screenwriter, both those established as well as those fresh to the game, dreads as their crisp script is sent out on its way through the production process only to be stalled. It happens to the best of them and there's the rub. The screenwriter's work is admired, hailed as innovative and imaginative, but it is so imaginative that no one with money can quite imagine it up on screen. Then there are those who may have had the thrill of their script being optioned, gone delirious as it is given the go-ahead, and then finally reached heaven as the director and cast of their dreams are lined up. But then, for a variety of reasons, everything falls apart and the script is borne into some festering, dank underworld, with all the imagination and wonder of the work laid to rest. It is then that the screenwriter can all but hope to find an Orpheus ready to the rescue.

For the lucky ones, the Script Factory, an enterprise launched next week in London which is backed by the British Film Institute Production Division, may be just that. Over the next few months it will be hosting (at the October Gallery and the National Film Theatre) a series of readings by professional actors of yet-to-be-produced screenplays. Its aim is to air the work in front of audiences, to let it breathe. As the Script Factory's director Charlotte Macleod points out, "It is a chance to make a movie in your head." With supper laid on for the price of the ticket, it should make for a great night out for the punter tired of the slam-bam obviousness of the films that have been playing in the multiplexes over the summer. But these ultimate sneak previews will hopefully also generate interest from industry folk who could help take the words from page to screen. This first season includes scripts from promising young writers such as Nick Grosso, whose stage plays Peaches and Sweetheart have already received great critical acclaim, and OO Sagay, whose comic short film Attenborough was broadcast on Channel 4 this week. There will also be a chance to hear the work of such established writers as Allan Scott (who wrote Don't Look Now among others) and Troy Kennedy Martin (whose distinguished credits include The Italian Job, Kelly's Heroes and Edge of Darkness).

Martin, who was also one of those who helped in the selection of work from new writers (others include the actress Frances Barber and director Mike Figgis), welcomes the initiative. "The range of films that are currently being made, particularly in this country, are very narrow because of financial reasons. It would be good to see if there are scripts being written that extend the range of stories that can be told in movies - hopefully there are those that are far more imaginative than those that we are seeing in current movie-making."

OO Sagay agrees. "If one writes a script with slightly unusual characters that aren't immediately recognisable, it is always more difficult to find a home. If you say, `He's a private eye in LA,' everyone knows what you mean. If, however, you say, `She's an African woman with a head-tie who works in a hairdressers,' people go `Who?' `Where?' Then they tell you that black films don't sell. For me the Script Factory is about stretching the imagination. There are certain things that have never been done, financiers think that they have never been done because no one wants to see them, but they have never been done simply because they have never been done."

Crucially, the Script Factory also underlines the importance of the screenplay as an art form in itself. Indeed, over the last few years there has been a phenomenal interest in screenplays. Faber & Faber, which 10 years ago was the first publishing house to add screenplays to its list, believing them as significant as other forms of literature, finds now that its screenplays outsell its fiction. While scripts for Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting top an exceptional quarter of a million sales mark, Leaving Las Vegas has sold more than 10,000 copies, which is exceptionally healthy trade. Faber's publishing director Joanna Mackle notes, "It is particularly the younger readers who are buying screenplays rather than novels."

The screenwriter's language, then, is the grammar of the late 20th century. As Martin observes: "If there is a sort of imagined way that people think of themselves and their lives now, they think of it as a screenplay rather than a novel. For instance, small talk has changed over the past few years - young girls recall some event, they include all the dialogue. Screenwriting terms are creeping into normal, everyday language but also other art forms - for instance, the poet Christopher Logue uses the terms `cut' and `flashback' in his Homeric adaptation, War Music."

Meanwhile, Scenario, a New York-based magazine devoted to screenwriting, has recently been dubbed by the Washington Post as `the literary magazine of the future'. Publishing unproduced scripts from the venerable likes of James Toback and Jules Feiffer, it, like the Script Factory, helps salvage testaments to the power of the screenwriting art. It looks like development hell is about to be exorcised.

n The Script Factory starts on Wednesday with Mark Watters's `Ballad of the Barrel Brothers'. The Script Factory's recorded information line is 0171-580 1052