Breakout – Reflecting on the Assessment Process

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Paul Ashton, Head of Film & TV, Creative UK, reflects on the assessment process of Breakout and shares insights into what made applications stand out for the right reasons.

The response to our Breakout partnership with Netflix, which launched without advance warning or expectation, has been honestly astounding. We received 800 submissions when we were anticipating more like half of that, especially given the specific requirements around genre, budget, stage of development and funder. If there was any question about the need and hunger for opportunities like this, then it has been resolutely answered.

What’s been exciting for us is that Breakout set out to expand the support available in the eco-system – to provide a major career opportunity in a rapidly changing landscape for those who may have felt ‘outside the system’. Publicly funded opportunities understandably support more niche/experimental work that might not otherwise get backing by the wider industry. However, the risks inherent in supporting less proven talent – even with genre films – also means that more commercially minded filmmaking teams have not easily found an alternative route through with their work. Breakout is a conscious attempt to tackle this issue by opening up the range of support available for different kinds of filmmakers to kick-start their careers in different ways.

We fielded a great range of genres – the most popular being comedy, romcom, horror and thriller, followed by sci-fi, family/YA, crime, action/adventure, comedy-horror and even musical. It’s exciting to see a resurgence of the romcom recently – for which we can thank the streamers – and we’ve seen some very smart contemporary takes on the form. Within each genre generally we observed a reassuring spectrum of ideas and reimaginings.

We did also see a substantial number of films which were a clearly arthouse or even avant-garde take on their genre, from comedy through to horror, as well as dramas that leaned into a particular genre or had a genre twist/climax. The question then is, is it really a genre film – or at least a genre film with the potential for broader appeal? It’s important for applicants to be clear-sighted and honest about this kind of question – if that’s the film you want to make then great, but it’s not what we were looking for with Breakout.

Which brings me to a bigger point – the number of applications we received with what are ostensibly, self-identifiably, dramas. Having explicitly stated that we weren’t looking for drama, it was therefore unlikely we would shortlist them – and that has been the case. We know this was a huge opportunity and that many teams may have only had dramas ready to apply with. But the truth is that part of our intent with the cold launch of Breakout was to target those filmmakers and teams who were already developing genre films so that we could cut a path straight to the people we really wanted to reach: those who love genre, who live and breathe it, and who endeavour to make it regardless of what anyone else might think.

All of which inevitably leads me to an even bigger point: guidelines. Specific guidelines are always there for a reason – whatever opportunity you are applying for and to whomever you might be applying, always thoroughly check through their guidelines, absorb them and respond to them where you can. Not every opportunity is right for every project or team, and vice versa. And when the margins are so tight at the sharp end of selection – in this case, 6 projects from 800 submissions – a speculative ‘may as well apply anyway’ submission just won’t make it through. But not only that, it may suggest that the applicant hasn’t checked the guidelines, hasn’t understood them, or has chosen to ignore them.

With Breakout, as well as receiving non-genre proposals we saw teams that were incomplete, most commonly without either a producer or a director – and even some lone applicants (giving new meaning to the cliché: there is no ‘I’ in team). Students and student teams applied. People and whole teams applied from outside the eligible regions. Directors who had evidently not directed anything. Producers who had evidently not produced anything. Ultimately there was quite a proportion of applications which were either technically ineligible or just too far away from what we stated we were looking for.

On the other hand, there was still thankfully a very hefty proportion that looked like they could be in the running, and this is where the process is tough because you are getting into even finer margins between interesting projects and limited space in the final shortlist.

Projects which progressed in the process at a minimum had to demonstrate engaging previous work, a strong idea and a capable, coherent team. In some cases, the previous work didn’t clearly or resoundingly demonstrate a team’s instincts and ability for the kind of feature they were proposing. In some cases, the team didn’t appear ready for the demands, pressures and scrutiny of making a £1.5m film for Netflix. Some proposed projects felt a little too underdeveloped for the momentum of the process, while others felt more like films already in packaging/financing mode. Some projects felt too big for the proposed budget. Some ideas just felt too niche and small.

In the end we narrowed down to around 50 longlisted projects – and then focused down again to reach an interview shortlist of less than 15. Thankfully our partners at Netflix brought such a clear sense of what they felt would and wouldn’t work for their service, that this final stage was made far less painful than it might otherwise have been. Ultimately, we are meeting less than 2% of teams who applied, to help us select less than 1% of final projects for support. Congrats to those that made it through – and commiserations to those that didn’t, but we hope that this insight at least gives an honest appraisal of the many and various reasons why reaching this kind of shortlist is so very hard – for you and for us. With odds like these, we hope you will not feel too disappointed for too long.