Meet Joe Barton: How I Learned How to Crack Netflix by Philip Lawrence

Ooh ah! Netflix. You wondrous angel you, beaming glorious, bold imaginative stories into our homes and devices. From whence do these mystical tales come? And how can we, the humble screenwriter offer up our meagre scribblings for your consideration?

Today’s Breakfast Club brings Joe Barton before us – who recently cracked Netflix with his feature film iBoy. We sit, eager acolytes hoping to hear the magic incantation that will break open the Netflix box. Spoilers: there isn’t one.

hat the wonderfully down-to-Earth and charmingly self-effacing Joe did offer was a candid insight into his own career, his process and the business of writing telly and film having worked on several shows including Channel 4’s Humans. It’s far less mystical, certainly not mystified and we can all do it. Yes, even you at the back.

The biggest reassuring nugget from Joe to anyone that has a TV series burning in their brain is you don’t have to write the whole thing up front. To sell a TV series you really just need a good pitch document and the pilot script. And don’t worry about the series bible at this stage either. If a commissioner wants the series, they’ll ask you to do a series bible and pay you to do it. A pitch document/ treatment contains anything that helps you put the idea across and can be anything from 5 to 10 pages. (Joe was asked to write one that was 50 pages but that’s extreme)

When writing a script, Joe does a 2 page outline then dives in. Enough for him to know where he’s going but not so tight that he can’t change his story as he goes if necessary. He writes every day, it’s his job. When he finishes at the end of the day, he outlines the next few scenes so he knows how to pick it up immediately tomorrow.

He advises you need to find time to write but also time to NOT write. Something which spot-on interviewer and script editor Karol Griffiths reinforced.  There are times when you have to put a finished draft away in a drawer and let it rest before rewriting. This is why it’s good to have a few projects on the go simultaneously.

Don’t be nervous about your mad ideas that might seem unmakeable. Netflix is interested in bigger ideas and genre stuff that the traditional channels can’t/ won’t do.

Start making friends with producers and production companies NOW. They are the way in. They will employ you to write episodes of their existing shows. And they’re the ones that will work with you to take your original stories to broadcasters.

It’s on this last point that Breakfast Club comes into its own providing time after the talk for the gathered audience to mingle, chat over what we’ve just learned and network. There were one or two producers in the group as well as other writers, actors and directors and the utterly humble Joe hung out in the bar too, happy to chat further. Big thanks to him for his time.

So what about that Netflix then? OK, they retain some mystique by not publishing viewing figures. It’s only through social media that you know you’re not the only one hooked by Stranger Things or Kimmy Schmidt. But Joe even breaks that down. If you want a rough idea of how popular a show is, check how many people are viewing the trailer on YouTube and multiply by five (In the case of iBoy 5.3 million). What it boils down to is that Netflix is a broadcaster, just like the Beeb or ITV. The way to approach them is via a producer/ production company. That said, I’m sure there are exceptions to every rule.

So is there no magic at all? Well, we screenwriters can bring plenty of that. Yes, even you at the back.

Philip is the winner of C21’s Drama Script competition and has a TV series in development with Entertainment One.

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