It’s not at all unusual for a US broadcaster to reject a rough cut as having “serious problems”, when in fact there’s nothing fundamentally wrong.
Nine times out of ten, the problem is the way the script is written. Your American exec doesn’t see it that way. They just see a film that is wrong, wrong, wrong. This is partly because to most American factual channels, the script and the film are essentially the same thing.
The fact that this misunderstanding keeps happening should tell us something – and it’s this:
Many British producers aren’t especially good at writing in the American style. It just feels wrong to them.
Fear not! The ‘Toolbox‘ is here to help!
This is the first of two pages on reversioning. On this page, you have a general discussion of the cultural and stylistic differences between American and British films. On the next page, you will find tips and tricks to help you write in the American idiom.
Unless you’re making a film for PBS, the chances are your film will be split into many sections or ‘acts’. At their longest, acts might hit 10-12 minutes; at their shortest, just 4 minutes or so. And the commercial breaks between acts are around 4 minutes long.
This inevitably means that a substantial amount of time in each programme segment is devoted to setting up, recapping, and (at the end of the act) teasing forward across the break. Which of course means there’s very little time left in the middle of each act for original content.
The result is that American documentaries are heavily formatted and structured. Signposting and logic are vital to help viewers navigate.
Another corollary of having so many breaks is that the images, music and commentary never let up. They must compete with attention-grabbing adverts that are only ever a few minutes’ viewing away.
American documentaries seize their viewers by the lapels, and shout:
Look! This is amazing / important / exciting! Here is what we told you before the break! Now, we’re going tell you this new thing!
They have to. That’s how American TV stations work.
Step 1 on the reversioning learning curve is accepting that fact.
Films with a single coherent argument really only work on PBS in America. On other channels, the frequent commercial breaks transform your content into bite-size chunks.
This has advantages. In America, commercial breaks equate to a loose film structure. Use that fact. The breaks are your friends.
You should already be thinking of your film in terms of its Big Ideas. And now we have a film which is necessarily divided into handy sections! Even better, the links between Big Ideas can be far less logical, because viewers have been bombarded with ads for 4 minutes in the meantime.
But you should also be aware that in all likelihood, those viewers won’t return to your film at all. They’ll get bored during the ads and channel-surf to something more attention-grabbing.
(The exec on one flagship series I worked on told me that their aim was to keep each viewer for one ‘act’ of one show out of the whole series! Out of 10 hours of content, they were expecting viewers to watch just 8 minutes. True story.)
British filmmakers are accustomed to creating a wide dynamic range in their films. We forge beats that exist purely to enjoy the pictures. We use music to help tell the story. The film’s pace will vary from languorous to urgent and back again. We create space for nuance and emotion.
American documentaries very rarely do this. They must fight for their viewers’ attention literally second by second. Generally, they aim for maximum energy throughout. Everything is urgent, and the pace never slows.
The music and commentary reflect that same underlying aesthetic. If the sound track lets up for even a moment, the energy level dips. Your exec will immediately worry that viewers will desert the programme.
This is an area where British and American tastes are poles apart. Brits find American films frenzied and fatiguing; Americans find the more reflective British style bland and, frankly, boring.
When a film gets reversioned, it’s not unusual for the producer to feel that their baby has been brutally disfigured.
In fact something else is going on: it has been made fit for a new purpose.
On the next page: tips and tricks for writing in the American idiom.