How to get started in TV

Ahead of the Royal Television Society Student Awards, two leading directors give advice to budding film-makers


THE JUDGE

Paul Watson is credited with inventing reality TV as the creator of the 1974 series The Family, following the fortunes of a working-class household in Reading. In 1992, Watson followed up with Sylvania Waters, billed as a real-life Neighbours, following the nouveau-riche Baker-Donahers in Sydney. Watson worked at the BBC and Granada before setting up his own production company, Priory Pictures, in 2002.

As chair of these awards, I see many young people proffering their films as passports to a promised land. They've been to college and assume a right to work in the subject of their choice. But the truth is that, like Britain today, television is full.

Some may ask, looking at TV's output: filled with what? In the queue for jobs, word soon makes it clear that experience only need apply. Occasionally, a few seasonal workers are wanted. So how does new blood infiltrate the blue blood of television?

First, decide what you are. Shall we say - sheep or wolf? Sheep graze the land and look pretty. In spring, they produce an idea, sometimes two, and everyone is pleased. Very quickly, those ideas end up on the butcher's block. They no longer look the way their creators had hoped. Complain, and a man with a dog puts you in your place. Soon you are replaced by younger stock for another seasonal production.

Wolves, on the other hand, remind us that their bite is worse than their bark. Wolves make an impact, but are harder to employ. They are best served by living in packs; some become leaders and are backed by pack skills.

But a leader must have ideas, a sense of worth and an ability to articulate that worth. Salesmanship without a quality product - I prefer the word "idea" - is just so much bad breath.

Passion, good research, access and an authored view will get my interest every time. But going down the authored route is hard. Worthwhile, yes, but often blocked by format, fashion and executives who really know what the public want - more of what's on already. Try not to dilute your intentions - but listen! Try not to sell out to an "in-house developer"; as a once-famous commissioner told me: "Our job is to filch the best ideas and we have no obligations beyond that."

Any organisation that promises a career path is at the moment promising "fool's gold". The pack is the place to develop your skills. Yes, you'll starve for a while, but time is on your side and niche markets are proliferating.

As Humphrey Jennings so famously said: "One day, my son, this will all be yours." And I add, hopefully: "Surely you'll want to change it for the better?" But then, what is better? Go for it! Maybe your RTS-winning masterpiece will be premiered on your mobile one day. Good luck!

THE PAST WINNER

Sarah Gavron is a former winner (in 2003) at the RTS Student Awards. After graduating, she directed The Girl in the Layby (10mins, 16mm, July 2000) for BBC Television's 10x10 series. She is best known for This Little Life, a feature film for BBC Films and the UK Film Council, which won two Bafta awards in 2004 and the Dennis Potter Award for Screenwriting. She is now attached to the film version of Monica Ali's Brick Lane.

My first tip: start with short films. It's the best way to get noticed as a director. Making just one successful short can get you far. If it wins prizes and is screened at festivals, it can hook an agent and/or get you a commission. But you might have to make a good few before the winning one. I made at least eight short films, some cheaply on video, using friends as crew and cast, others with higher production values.

Applying to every scheme or competition that offers funding to make short films. If you don't get funding, make them anyway by begging and borrowing. Don't undersell yourself: if it is a good script, sometimes recognised actors will agree to be on board.

Get the film screened wherever you can. It is often easier to do this on a wider scale if you are part of film-making organisation or scheme. Apart from national schemes, there are nine regional screen agencies/film commissions that act as channels for funding, advice, networking and getting experience.

My second tip is: gather ideas. If you come across a interesting story or article, or have a life experience worth telling, write it down. The Chinese director Edward Yang said: "Watch life, not films." If you are a director, I would say do both. I spent a lot of time imitating other film-makers before finding my own way. To get noticed, you often have to delve deep and come up with original stories or at least original ways of telling them.

My third tip is: seek industry experience and do courses. I did both. If you get in to a film school (and lots of good people slip through the net, so don't be put off if you are rejected), it does makes it easier to make short films. But equally, many people do well without training and work their way up.

If you take the film/TV course route, choose a course that allows practice as well as theory, because this is the best time to take risks and experiment. I went to the National Film and Television School, which provided a great peer group, resources and some key guidance from tutors.

In the industry, I did various jobs, often for little or no money. This is what got me my first paid job in documentaries. Be prepared at first to work on practically anything.

My fourth tip is: contacts are vital. Make the most of talks and events - and network! I don't believe contacts get you the gig, but they get you in the door. Meeting people, make sure you do your homework; know the names of films and programmes you admire and the ones they've worked on. Keep up with what's going on.

Don't just apply for advertised jobs or send your CV to every production company. Follow other leads and stay in touch with people you've worked with.

There is quite a lot of luck involved, but however it goes, don't give up. In fact, that's my main tip, because film-making is hard and you have to take a lot of setbacks. If you are the giving-up kind, you won't even get to pre-production. You have to see every problem as a challenge.

Useful links

Websites: www.broadcastfreelancer.com; www.shootingpeople.co.uk; and the New Producers Alliance, www.npa.org.uk.

About the awards

Now in its 11th year, the RTS Student Awards have attracted 188 entries from the UK and Europe. Entrants are required to submit work in three categories - animation; factual; and non-factual - demonstrating creativity, innovation and initiative.

The awards ceremony will be held at the Magic Circle headquarters in London on Friday. Paul Watson of Priory Pictures chaired the postgraduate jury, while Granada's Tim Vaughan oversaw judging in the undergraduate category. The students, who attend with their tutors, are presented with trophies and offered the chance to network.

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