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What do film commissioning editors look for?

So you’ve made a film, but what’s next? Richard Davidson-Houston, Head of All 4, Channel 4 Television, and Research in Film Awards 2018 judge, gives his top five tips on how best to approach commissioning editors.

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Don’t fake it, feel it

A tiny percentage of ideas actually get commissioned. However brilliant it is, your film won’t sell itself. You need to bring personal passion and energy to the table whilst avoiding being zealous. The quality of your treatment, the snappiness of your top line and your ability to connect, engage with and meet the needs of a decision-maker all make a difference.

The ideal approach is to mix confidence in your idea or story with the humility to listen and engage with the commissioning editor. The chances are that she or he will say they’ve heard a similar idea before (because they hear 1000s of ideas) and will start shaping things from the first meeting. Behind closed doors, most commissioning editors will say that fully – formed, commissionable ideas never just ‘walk in through the door’.

Leave more than half of the available time for discussion. That’s where the creativity often happens.

Do your homework #1: Audience

Unfortunately, good stories are necessary but not sufficient to get a commission. Commissioning editors are trying to meet the needs of specific audiences which might be young or old, broad or narrow, upmarket or not so. Every commissioning editor is engaged in a struggle to command attention. Find out what slots are available, what tariffs are available, what has worked and not worked. If you’re new to this and don’t know ... ask. Otherwise you’re trying to pin the tail on the donkey while blindfolded.

Do your homework #2: Strategy

One handy thing about most people who work in TV is that they love to talk. There is a very good chance that the person you are meeting or their boss will very recently have made a public announcement as to what they are looking for or trying to achieve. Hunt it down. But don’t try and hold their strategy against them ... things can and do change very quickly.

Where’s the Telly in it?

Not every great story makes great TV. Many commissioning editors will ask you a version of the question “What is there to watch?” It may sound daft at first but it’s a critical question. Imagine you’ve found a story about a potent but invisible force that changes deep ocean currents in some imperceptible but significant way. On the one hand: wow. But what is there to watch? You need an answer.

Do take NO for an answer

Like everyone, some commissioning editors can find it hard to say no. But you need to drive for a decision. If you don’t think it’s going to happen, get that confirmed so you can spend your energy elsewhere. And try to avoid the temptation to pitch the same idea to several people at the same organisation. They do talk to each other and it can also reflect badly on you.

See also our How to make an award winning film feature.

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