PAYING IT FORWARD ...
September 2021 | Shyam Popat
Starting out, I don’t think I really knew what I wanted from the industry. I knew I liked to write - and that was about it. But bad spec scripts don’t pay the bills, especially if you’re 21 and very very green. Having a website like MFJIF where I could browse different opportunities and explore what career options were available was incredibly helpful in getting me started in a career and a world I knew absolutely nothing about.
After applying to just about every kind of entry-level position in the industry, I landed in the accounts department on a feature film. Now, I never saw myself working with numbers, never ever - but a job’s a job, so I thought I’d give it a go. What I didn’t realise was that the first position would be crucial to my development as a creative and a professional in the film & TV industry. It was a benchmark, a paid gig, an experience on a real functioning movie set and a welcome opportunity to network. To this day I am so grateful to the people that gave me that opportunity.
I eventually saw script development as a way into the creative side of the industry, so I began reading scripts on the side, mostly for free. My advice to anyone starting out, whether as a writer or a reader, is to read as many scripts as you can - especially bad ones. I took on a few months’ internships in development, hoping it would lead to paid work down the line. Some of those experiences were great, some were fine, some downright awful - each one a stepping stone to the next, building enough experience to get some paid work.
However, I should stress that none of the companies I interned for directly paid me at any point. I was young, had a bit of money and lived cheaply, so I could do it. Not everyone can, and I’m not sure they should, either. If you do go down this route, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, keep your eye on the prize and focus on building your network. If you don’t go down this route but still want to enter development, read a lot, build networks online or at festivals and try some courses (e.g. the NFTS Script Development Diploma). Internships are absolutely not essential and I hope the rules change around them soon. People deserve to be paid to work, even if they’re young and make crap coffee!
I should also note that the development world, and the world of film & TV in general, remains very white and middle-class. To non-white or working-class people entering the industry now: trust that there is a strong appetite for your voice and your creative vision!
Script development remained something I enjoyed and wanted to continue, but my passion remained in writing. After long days in accounts or production, on squeezed weekends, between jobs… I would write write write. Features, TV pilots, short films - anything worth writing was written (and plenty that wasn’t worth writing, too). Submitting to free contests such as BBC Writersroom kept the fire burning, with enough kudos to let me know there was something there.
Eventually, I applied for the NFTS Screenwriting MA and was lucky enough to be offered a place. It’s definitely not for everyone and I received a bursary to help pay for the fees. Two years of writing constantly, plenty of stress, some constructive collaborations, lots of great friendships and a worldwide pandemic later, I graduated with a portfolio of work and ideas for the next steps in my career. That included seeking representation, which I managed to find after a year of submitting projects to competitions (recommendations: All3Media, C21, BBC, 4Screenwriting & the free ones on Coverfly), as well as utilising a network built over a decade of grafting and a whole lot of good luck.
Now, nearly 10 years after that first job in accounts, I’m a working screenwriter, with projects in development, a bunch of short films produced and two amazing agents watching my back. I also continue to read scripts for companies and competitions, which in turn feeds my creativity and my writing ability. And I can do my own accounts! I’m honestly not sure I’d be here with MFJIF.
Would you like to share your set stories, write reviews or blog about your journey into the industry? MFJF would love to hear from you!