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Development process Q&A: Lingo Pictures and Easy Tiger

Development executives Donna Chang and Tanya Phegan on their approach to pursuing, pitching and shaping ideas for the screen.

A splice of Donna Chang and Tanya Phegan's headshotsDonna Chang, Tanya Phegan

In 2020, with productions halted or delayed due to Coronavirus, many creatives and production companies turned their focus solely to development.

Writers’ rooms went virtual, funding agencies like Screen Australia pivoted to provide more support for developing ideas, and as Lingo Pictures’ Head of Development Donna Chang notes: “there’s been a real development boom in 2020”.

But what is development?

Development refers to anything that happens before the production period, when an idea is still being fleshed out and shaped.

The process around achieving that is so unique to each individual project, it can be hard to define.

And as Easy Tiger Productions’ Scripted Development Producer Tanya Phegan says, that development stage can “sometimes be invisible”. People see the finished product – on cinema or TV screens – but they don’t see the years it took to get there.

“And it's kind of like pushing treacle up a hill,” Phegan says.

But it means when you get movement with a project, you really want to run with it.

“There is a certain amount of momentum that you get in development, when something is feeling good and commissioners are loving the material... you need to ride that momentum when you have it – use it to excite your writers, package your series and generally make projects more commissionable.”

Throughout this Q&A, Chang and Phegan break down the development process from their points of view:

Donna Chang has been with Lingo Pictures since 2018. Prior to that, she was a Development Executive at Screen Australia. Donna has also worked in the UK for a number of years, as a Production Executive at Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Films.

Tanya Phegan has been Scripted Development Producer at Easy Tiger Productions since 2017. She was previously Head of Television for Porchlight Films where she co-created and produced the ABC series Operation Buffalo. Tanya worked for over a decade in the UK and US, holding roles at Universal Pictures, BBC Films and DNA Films/Fox Searchlight. She developed projects with the UK's top creative talent, working on films including The Last King Of Scotland, 28 Weeks Later, Dredd, The History Boys, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, Notes On A Scandal, Far From The Madding Crowd and 360°. In the US, Tanya curated Your Film Festival with YouTube/Scott Free with the winner creating a new work produced by Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender.

WHAT DOES YOUR Role INVOLVE?

Donna Chang, Head of Development at Lingo Pictures: It covers a range of things. I’m lucky enough to work closely with two incredible producers Helen Bowden and Jason Stephens, across the Lingo slate. I look for projects to bring onto the slate; and support writers. I'm in writers' rooms and I do notes on projects that are delivered, like scene breakdowns, scripts, and later when we go into post-production I’ll give feedback on cuts. There's also a logistical aspect to the job, for instance, in terms of scheduling. So asking, ‘how long is it going to take to write this? And are we going to get it done in time?’ Depending on the resources available, I'll sometimes write pitches or early documents if needed. And I’m always looking for new ideas and meeting with talent. That's also a big part of it. 

Tanya Phegan, Scripted Development Producer at Easy Tiger: I work across the development slate at Easy Tiger, and that entails originating IP (intellectual property), talent tracking, and capturing and nurturing talent at a very embryonic stage. After we pick up an idea, the next stage is running story rooms, giving notes to writers, negotiating with agents, running development budgets and liaising with screen agencies. The final step (in the development chain anyway) is pitching to and collaborating with networks once we have a show in development. 

We are fortunate to collaborate with high pedigree, very established talent: A-listers like Belinda Chayko, Sarah Lambert, Andrew Knight and Tony McNamara  who we work with a lot. But the wonderful opportunity of working at a company like ours is that we can also work with emerging writers. We can develop an ecosystem for them to work with us in and pathways to progress their careers. Our long running series Doctor Doctor has been a brilliant pathway for us to work with and nurture emerging talent under the mentorship and guidance of Tony McNamara, and later Keith Thompson. Developing podcasts is another way we’ve been working with emerging talent. Overall my job is to find new talent and IP and develop and package those two elements together so we can generate materials that ultimately become commissions and produced shows.

Production shot from TV series Doctor Doctor. Doctor stands next to a Triage sign in a hospital Doctor Doctor, an Easy Tiger production

HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT FINDING TALENT AND IP?

DC: We meet with a lot of writers and I always say to people, ‘the door's open’, so even if we pass on a project, I’ll often say please do come back to us, because we're always happy to have that chat about future projects. We have really good relationships with talent agents, and they do a great job of selling their clients. We also look at who might be up and coming, so we keep track of the screenwriting awards, and we might reach out to people from there. We like book-to-screen adaptations as well, so in terms of finding material, I do a lot of reading and have good relationships with literary agents. They are separate from screenwriter talent agents; these are agents who look after book rights. So then if I'm looking for something in particular, I might email a bunch of them to see if they have anything upcoming that fits. And because you get to know them, they will sometimes send you unedited [manuscripts]. That's exciting, to get something no one's read yet. And part of that – because it might not be edited yet, or need more work or another draft – is that you're trying to read it with that in mind, and just see the potential. I love when I get things that haven't been to market yet, because you might find a gem in there. We also look at back catalogues and pursue books that were published a while ago that have fallen out of option. Sometimes, we'll also hear about a brief that a broadcaster has and we'll try to find and bring them something that they want.

TP: It comes from all kinds of places. We are always on the lookout for IP. A book or anything that has a pre-existing audience (a podcast) or some pre-branding. Maybe it’s an untold piece of history like Chernobyl or Operation Buffalo. Ultimately these will always be easier sells to a commissioner. We want to find noisy ideas that cut through to commissioners and to audiences, so we're always looking for a unique point of view. Sometimes that comes from a newer talent that hasn't yet had their voice heard in the marketplace. Sometimes it’s a really established writer who we adore working with and have a long term relationship with. We meet a lot of talent - writers, directors, actors - and are always open to meeting emerging writers and discovering new and diverse voices.  We want to find ideas from new worlds. We read reviews, watch movies, see shorts, and track talent. We generate ideas internally, take pitches from writers, buy books and option plays. Then we essentially become matchmakers; matching material to the voice we think can execute it best.

HOW MANY PROJECTS CAN YOU HAVE IN DEVELOPMENT?

DC: We don't have a set number, but we try to keep it small. I think that's because they're like children: you want to give them love and attention. And if you've got 20 projects it's not humanly possible to manage all of them every day. So we keep it small, but then that means the projects on our slate get the best chance to thrive.

WHAT STAGE CAN AN IDEA FROM A WRITER BE AT WHEN PITCHED TO YOU? A SYNOPSIS, A ONE-PAGE, A TREATMENT ETC

DC: People come in to us with all stages of the project. I personally like to see a one pager because I want to see that an idea can be communicated succinctly and that there’s a really clear pitch in there. I always love seeing scripts as well. But if people have got other short documents, then we will consider it. For us, it's all about idea and also execution. 

TP: It varies. We always say to talent: it's about having a really strong idea that cuts through. The ideas they are generating don’t need to be a 100% polished when they first pitch it to us. Maybe the idea is a paragraph long. Maybe it's a page. At pitch stage, it’s the distinctiveness and the hook of the idea we are evaluating. We've had people send us through a page of ideas from which we have commissioned one that was only a paragraph long. Sometimes the specific ideas on the page don’t resonate, but perhaps one provides enough of a jumping block for you to say: ‘I loved the kernel of that idea, but I know a broadcaster that is looking for a more skewed angle on that genre – could we take that idea, and alter it to meet market requirements?’

WHAT’S A GOOD TEST TO KNOW IF AN IDEA IS WORTH PURSUING?

DC: Lingo is more in TV, but when I was in film I used to often think about the poster, because you want to know the project can find an audience and connect with people. So for TV, I read something and I think, ‘can I visualise a trailer?’ And also, I ask myself if I would personally watch six hours of it (or however long it is) because it is a commitment. There’s a huge amount of content out there and when you're scrolling through a platform it needs to be something that grabs your attention, where you say ‘yes, I want to watch that’. So you are looking for things that can go the distance in terms of viewing, but that also capture interest and feel distinctive. And to do that you want to be distinctive in your pitch. You want the person you’re pitching to to go ‘this is something new and special’, so that feeling carries onto the viewers when they think ‘we need to watch this show’.

TP: A really clear test is what's on the poster. What’s the logline? If it's too hard for you to explain your idea and if your logline is running into two or three lines and there's conflicting ideas at the heart of it, then you might not have a clear enough idea for your premise or the engine of the show. Ultimately we are in the business of selling, and if you can’t sell the idea clearly at the gestation of a show, it’s usually a sign it’s going to be harder for you to sell it later on.

WHAT MATERIALS DO YOU WANT TO HAVE READY TO TAKE TO A COMMISSIONER?

DC: When you go to pitch, it's good to get a sense of how the story unfolds. So an outline is useful as well as a script. The script will give you the flavour of the show and how it feels on the page, while the outline will explain what happens for the rest of the series. So those two documents are useful.

TP: It depends on who the talent is and who the commissioner is. The public broadcasters and free to air broadcasters have very different needs than the SVOD’s. It’s all about knowing your commissioning audience and what white spaces they are trying to fill and how quickly. Generally we would take in an outline and in the most perfect scenario, a pilot script. With a pilot script, a commissioner can get a real sense of tone of a show – this is particularly important for genres like comedy and YA. Trailers can also be terrific for comedy (the commissioners can see the tone). Outlines can be so reductive and it’s really hard to read tone from them. Saying that, an outline will also give a broadcaster the sense of the engine of the show and serve as an indication as to whether there is enough fuel for further series. Broadcasters are happy to come in at an earlier stage than SVOD’s and partner with you on developing your show from the ground up. Generally for SVOD’s, the more developed the material and package, and the stronger the IP, the greater the chance of a commission. With SVOD’s you want to be thinking about your materials and pitch differently – for them it’s ‘what will drive subscription growth’? What will make the show you are pitching as an ‘original’ different from something they might acquire in your territory? The difficulty with providing a pilot script is that you need the funds to produce it – it’s a lot more expensive than funding an outline. You also need a writer to be available to write the script, which is four to six weeks, depending on the calibre of writer and their availability. It’s always challenging to block out this time with a writer – good writers are always in demand and the push for more development in COVID hasn’t made this any easier.

The Secret She Keeps, two pregnant women stand together in a supermarket, both look concernedDonna Chang was involved in the development of Lingo Pictures' The Secret She Keeps

WHAT IS MOST CHALLENGING ABOUT THE DEVELOPMENT PERIOD?

DC: The biggest challenge is time. Things always take longer than you think and I don't think I've ever heard of a development process that's ever been called easy. It takes a lot of discussion and writing and thinking and talking. A project can also shape-shift from its original form. Sometimes changes are good, sometimes the changes don't work, but it is a journey, so just to be ready for that. For us, changes are very project specific, but it always comes down to: what is the best thing for the project? And does it make our story stronger?

TP: Availability of writers and the talent drain – trying to keep our best talent here and wanting to work on Australian material. It’s hard to compete against the fees writers are getting offered in the UK. I spent a decade working in the UK and the Australian market is increasingly emulating that market. Some good writers are just not available literally until 2022. So you have to make a choice at that point. Can you wait for them? What else do you have in your pipeline? What would that project look like with someone else at the helm? Could your lead writer write one episode of the series only, which would enable you to give some other voices a shot? You are constantly juggling a pipeline of material and perhaps it is worth waiting for a big-name writer for six months, so you have that commissionable name that can get you across the line. But maybe it's not. With the SVODs, the Amazons and Netflix's of the world, normally they don't provide development funds. So it’s a risk management scenario as well, because on one hand, they expect you to come in with a pilot and a package and maybe talent (whether that's a director or cast). But on the other hand, if they can see the value of your package then they can have a very accelerated development and production timeline. This is challenging because quite often writers may have enough time to commit to a pilot, but a series order of multiple episodes is an entirely other thing. And from a writer’s perspective, Australia is not an affluent enough industry for them to be working exclusively on one project to sustain themselves. So they are working on multiple projects with multiple timelines. It’s a juggle!

IS A TRICKY PART OF DEVELOPMENT KNOWING WHEN TO LET AN IDEA GO?

DC: Often ideas are let go, because the market – for whatever reason - isn’t responsive. It’s incredibly sad when this happens, because collectively your team would have poured an incalculable number of hours into getting the project to a pitchable place.

TP: The trickier part is knowing what to take on. There’s a term they use in the UK that I like a lot that is ‘sleepwalking into a project’. It can be really easy to say yes to an idea you don’t realIy have your heart in or can’t see the market for. I really resist this way of developing. Once you have an idea on your slate, you have committed to it and you're drawing your whole company's resources for it - so that's your business affairs team, your development team, your financial team, assistants, producers - and without realising it, you are already allocating an enormous amount of resources to something that you're not sure you 100% believe in. I prefer to be more rigorous at the beginning. When you take something on, you know the gestation period is going to be two to five years and so you have to really love it, and to understand who the audience is and to know who the market for the material is. My instinct is to make sure the idea feels right, relevant and has cut through from the beginning, so that you avoid that situation of having to let lots of projects go. There's a natural attrition rate and not every project makes it through, but I believe in rigour at the beginning of the process, so everything you take on has its best chance to make it as a show. Resources – both a production company’s and writers - are finite - so you want to back the horse you believe in from the beginning.

WHAT’S YOUR APPROACH TO TRENDS?

DC: It can be hard to hop on trends. It does happen. But because development takes a long time, by the time you're going into the market, the market's already got too many of that kind of project. It makes sense to be aware of trends, but to make sure that you're not hopping on the trend for the sake of it, that the project itself is exciting. You just don't want to make a bland version of something just because it's a trend.

TP: It’s a bit of a dangerous cycle to get into chasing trends. The development process is so slow, that by the time you have your materials ready to catch a trend, you may have missed that curve. I have worked for a broadcaster in the past (the BBC) and at different times we would definitely be focused on genres or subjects we wanted to be working in. But generally speaking, what everyone wants is a huge hit. I remember a time at the BBC where we kept saying ‘We don't want any more period dramas. We've got too many. We want contemporary shows.’ And then, Downton Abbey became a massive hit for ITV and we pivoted really quickly to ‘We are hungry for period content.’ It’s a fickle industry. Really all anyone wants is a successful show that will draw a lot of eyeballs. Sometimes you can hit the zeitgeist, but I think mostly breakout hits are the combination of luck, quality, zeitgeist and opportunity colliding. You can get lucky and option a book that resonates with a particular trend and that might be an accelerated pathway to screen. But I think it is counter-intuitive and a bit dangerous to be trying to predict and match trends.

ARE THERE ANY MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DEVELOPMENT?

DC: A misconception is that development takes longer than you think - and more iterations than you think. It's not as straightforward as: 'now your pitch's been optioned by a production company, you're off and away'. You're on another step of a journey. Whether it comes out the other side and can be made is a whole other question. Also every project is different, so it’s hard to put a number on how long it will take. You want to get the project to a stage where you're going out and you're pitching it, but it could take a long time. And projects sometimes resurrect themselves; old projects that you thought were done and dusted, for whatever reason they can rise up from the dead. So it might be a great idea but for whatever reason at that point in time it didn't work. You might want to make a horror film, but suddenly there's a glut of horror films and your timing is just out. It's hard. But sometimes it doesn't mean the project's bad. Sometimes it is a timing issue.

TP: Some people think TV is quick, but in terms of development, it is slower than it used to be (well it feels that way to me anyway!) Film was previously seen as a premium format and TV was its poor cousin. But all of the auteur filmmakers and the best content in the world is coming out of television now. Premium drama now is very different to what it was 15 years ago. Something the scale and quality of Game of Thrones or unique as Fleabag didn’t exist back then. But it takes time and vision to develop such incredible shows.

Generally I think there's also a misconception that there's only one way to develop shows. A lot of people are reliant on writers' rooms as a methodology in Australia, and I think that's one way to develop shows. But you don’t necessarily need a room. You can have a really close relationship with a very small team - a producer and one writer, or a couple of writers - and create really authored, terrific television. It’s more the British model because they had shorter episodic runs. That’s how we made Operation Buffalo, a show with a really unique and authored voice that found and resonated with an audience. You don't necessarily need 10 people in a room to do that. Sometimes, depending on the show, a room that is too big can dilute the auteur voice. I really like television to be authored and to stand out so sometimes less people can be beneficial in that regard. But if you have a long series run, it’s impossible to run a series that way.

ADVICE FOR ANYONE DEVELOPING AN IDEA?

DC: Especially with new writers, I'm interested in seeing samples. A pitch might be great, but I also need to know about execution. Samples will give me a sense of style and how someone writes. Also if you're pitching a comedy, I like to see samples that are aligned in terms of genre, so, not a horror sample. Something that feels a little bit [similar]. At the same time, I'm happy to read any samples. They give a sense of someone’s voice as a writer, because while you can have a meeting with someone, I really like to know who they are on the page.

TP: Learning how to sell an idea is a really important tool. That goes from the very beginning of the development process all the way up. When I meet a writer, they sell their idea to me, but I meet hundreds of writers and at the end of the week, I have to try and remember their idea amongst all the others I’ve heard in the week.  If there is cast attached it will help it cut through – but often there is not. If someone can give me a sound bite or references that helps immeasurably. I need a one liner I can sell up the chain to my boss so that he or she gets the concept of the show. If that soundbite or one liner is strong enough, it’s easier to sell into a commissioner, and easier for them to sell upstairs to their marketing teams and so on. The better you get at selling, and the more comfortable you get with the idea that your show is a product and needs to be sold, the better you become at crafting ideas at the development stage.

When it comes to notes, some executives or producers give lengthy notes, which I always think is terrible and counter intuitive – and probably very disheartening for a writer. My instinct is more the HBO model - back the talent you work with. Also give them a handful of very specific, actionable notes: maybe three or four bigger world-building questions and then a couple that drill into plot and a character question or two. I would encourage writers not to take notes personally and to try and challenge your executive or producer to give you actionable notes. One of the most valuable skills a writer can learn is how to interpret and question notes. It’s quite a skill to realise that the note an executive is giving is wrong, but their instinct is right. If they are not understanding a moment in the script then that’s what you need to address as a writer. It can be empowering to recognise that, because then you can directly challenge the note. For example you can go back and say ‘I don't agree that this plot point isn’t working, but I understand that it's not landing for you. Why is that? Why isn’t it resonating?’ It's about being able to dissect notes. There are generally three ways of interpreting them: 1) notes you agree with, 2) notes you disagree with, and 3) notes that don’t add value that you can ignore. It’s a real skill to learn how to look at notes this way so you can chose the battles you want to take on.