After graduating film school, Amanda Higgs followed her own advice: she worked hard, and she stuck to her passion. “It took ten years to get my first production credit,” she says. “If I’d known it would take that long, I probably would’ve quit.”
But Amanda doesn’t strike me as a quitter.
Her number-one message is work hard: “Keep writing, all the time. Even if you have nothing to do. Just do something. Do whatever you can.”
I’m at Amanda’s screenwriting workshop thanks to ScreenWest and the Australian Writer’s Guild. The room is full of writers and producers, it’s scattered with lolly bowls and coffee cups. This could be intimidating, but Amanda makes it feel like we’re chatting over a cuppa. She’s candid and natural, the very opposite of unapproachable.
Now the independent producer of loads of great Aussie TV, including The Secret Life of Us and The Time of Our Lives, Amanda has been executive producer and head of drama at the ABC, script editor for The Slap, and chief-tea-maker-coffee-fetcher for many years in between.
Getting your start in the TV industry**
Breaking into TV is highly competitive. “It’s about building relationships, developing ideas and getting industry experience,” Amanda says. “You need experience and creativity.”
Getting that experience can be a challenge, she admits. “Script editing is a great way to get a foot in the door. All that experience makes you better at your own show, honing it, simplifying it, making it clear.”
Another great step, she says, is to find your way into a writer’s room, that legendary spot where a team of writers hide away to nut out new plot arcs, characters and storylines.
Pitching for TV
As part of the workshop, Amanda gives everyone a chance to pitch their TV idea, giving us professional feedback on the spot. What an opportunity!
I learn from watching and listening: a successful pitch needs to be absorbing, succinct, and informative. It needs to answer lots of questions without sacrificing passion, spirit and tone.
Does your pitch answer these 10 questions?
- What’s the story? Story should be the jewel in your pitch’s crown. Present the story up front, and make it catchy: “As concise as possible,” says Amanda. “As clear as possible.”
- What is your show is about? “Make sure you have something to say,” says Amanda. Why make this story? Why now?
- What’ll be happening? Who are the characters? Be specific. The more specific your concept is, the clearer your idea will be.
- Why should I care what happens? The stakes in your story must be high. How will you keep upping the ante?
- What is your show’s tone? “Tone is one of my favourite words,” says Amanda. “What will I feel when I watch?” This tone should shine through in your pitch, she says, especially for a comedy.
- Where is your show’s home? Home is where the heart of your show is. It might be a workplace, an apartment block, a café, a family home…
- What is your show’s audience? “You absolutely have to think about the audience,” says Amanda. She suggests checking out the ratings of similar shows (using websites like TVtonight.com.au) to work out what audiences are responding to what shows, and whether you can see similar audiences responding to your show.
- What similar shows are out there? Feel free to compare your show to other shows, but not to hugely expensive blockbuster shows that your free-to-air network will never be able to make.
- Who is your team? Having an experienced and respected writer or producer on your team can help to open doors. “Every project needs just one champion,” says Amanda. No experienced member on your team? It’s time to get out there and meet people.
- What’s the logline? Develop a one-sentence logline that summarises your concept. “Every scene should be about that logline. That’s very hard to do.” (Amanda’s favourite logline? “His fame was their fortune,” from Entourage.)
I’d love to see Takeshita Demons on the screen, or to work on an entirely new franchise (anyone need a screenwriter on their team?), so all this advice is incredibly useful.
Struggles, mistakes, disappointments
Just two years before The Secret Life of Us found its feet (and went on to become the Aussie drama most watched by 16-39 year olds), Amanda was fired from her position as script editor at Water Rats. “That was great,” she says, deadly serious. “It was a really well-paying job, it was really comfortable.”
I would have crawled under a stone and cried myself to sleep; Amanda grabbed the opportunity.
How refreshing is that!
Comfort doesn’t always go well with creativity. The struggles, mistakes and disappointments are all part of the learning journey (a fact I wrestle with every day).
“You have to be smart and you have to be strategic,” says Amanda. “You have to play the long game.
“The greatest gift as a writer is that you get your show made, and you get to see what doesn’t work. You need feedback, you need criticism. The business is about practising your craft.”
I walk away from the day invigorated and full of ideas.
And ready to fail to the best of my ability. It’s one more step on the road to success, right?
**Do you live in Western Australia? Check out ScreenWest’s amazing Tele-navigator program, offered again this year. There’s no info on the web just yet, but subscribe to their newsletter to find out how to apply.