Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles which have appeared through the US, UK. Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Further information on her work and about engaging her services as a script coverage consultant is available online.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND --Pitching Your Project to Foreign Markets“My plot is dark and sort of creepy,” the writer explained. “It probably won’t appeal to American audiences so maybe you can use your contacts in the United Kingdom and try to sell it for me over there.”
Suffice it to say, I knew before I even read page 1 that I was dealing with a loser.
The assumption that a project which hasn’t yet ignited within U.S. borders will suddenly become a house afire overseas is one that, unfortunately, a lot of new writers seem to embrace. Certainly the encouragement of seeing fledgling rock groups from Bakersfield take Tokyo by storm or soap star extras stealing the limelight in Eastern European indies has fueled the conclusion that foreigners will buy virtually anything with an Uncle Sam label.
No matter the product, it still has to be good to begin with.
The aforementioned story—a poorly stitched consolidation of themes liberally borrowed from Les Miserables, Paper Moon, David Copperfield, and Annie—was intended to expose a secret that most of us were probably already aware of: 1840’s London wasn’t a very pleasant place to be if you were an orphan in a workhouse run by cruel overseers. “British audiences will like it,” the author insisted, “because I’ve really captured the way things were.” The phonetic dialects, she further explained, were the product of years of renting English videos and copying all the nuances.
I felt compelled to point out another fallacy in the strategy of mimicking accents in order to impress readers who were born with real ones. Just as the French can easily differentiate their own native speakers from even the most fluent graduates of Berlitz, so, too, can the nationals of other countries recognize when someone is appropriating their culture, history and speech patterns in order to pen a trendy script. I had encountered a similar situation myself in doing the initial research for a musical on Princess Kaiulani. “Haoles (non-Hawaiians),” I was informed, “have no understanding of what it is to accurately capture the essence of Hawaii.” Impassioned as a writer can be about a particular topic, it takes more than surface imitation to give a story credible depth.
My client continued to assert that her work would be lauded as illustrating just how horrible, filthy, unscrupulous and debauched the Englishmen (and women) of the time could be when it came to the treatment of defenseless children. “And these,” I queried, “are the same people you want to sell to?” While this should not, of course, limit an author to just writing about his or her backyard, it does call to the fore the need for diplomacy when condemning the denizens of the very market you’d like to break into. It’s one thing, as they say, for relatives to trash their own but woe to the outsider who steps in and attempts to do the same.
In keeping with the theme of courting foreign publishers, film producers, and theater companies, the following guidelines can make all the difference between making a sale and making an enemy.
1. UNDERSTAND THE COMPETITION. Just because your plot has been rejected by everyone you’ve sent it to in the U.S. doesn’t mean it will be gobbled up by a “lesser” entity abroad. The argument that foreign buyers ascribe to lower standards in evaluating creative material is completely unfounded. If anything, the rules are even more strict, given the fact that publishing and performance preference will be given to the writers who hail from their own country first. As an outsider, your work not only needs to be bulletproof in terms of quality and professionalism but make enough of an impression to rise above the talents of the existing local competition. Nor should you assume that because a particular genre is so saturated and overdone in the American market that you can go hawk it to foreigners who don’t know any better. One needs only to look at distribution sales in paperbacks, videos and Internet merchandising to realize that our global neighbors are just as abreast of entertainment trends as we are and—like everyone else—are looking for The Next New Thing.
2. THE COLOUR/COLOR OF MONEY. Whether your objective is to sell a magazine filler or a full-length novel, it pays to study the spelling, colloquialisms, and metric conversions of your targeted market before you submit your material. This accomplishes two things, both of which will endear you to an editor. The first is a demonstration of having done your homework and learned what your virtual host considers to be “correct” usage. Too often, the arrogance with which a writer insists that everyone else is “spelling it wrong” results in a failed opportunity to make a sale. Likewise, the liberal use of American slang either poses a barrier to user-friendly understanding or suggests a meaning that wasn’t intended. (i.e., “We didn’t have dessert because we were stuffed.”) The second perk to abiding by foreign rules of usage is the amount of time an editor perceives he or she will ultimately save in having to edit the finished product. It’s easier to say yes to a work that requires little revision than one that assumes knowledge on the part of the reader or projects an ethnocentric superiority.
. 3. ENLISTING FOREIGN AID. When I began penning “The Missionary Position,” a stage comedy set in Australia, I thought the dialogue would be fairly easy. As a fan of Paul Hogan movies and a devotee of that wacky croc hunter, Steve Irwin, the liberal inclusion of “Crikeys,” “Mates,” and “Sheilas” seemed enough to capture the indomitable and fun-loving spirit and candor of the Aussies. Fortunately, I had the wits to share the script-in-progress with one of my associates in Adelaide before I submitted it into competition. “None of the rest of us talk like that,” she informed me, generously offering to go through the lines and “Aussie-ize” them for me. The play went on to win an award, something that would not have happened without the two cents of a native-born expert. This fact continues to be brought home as my list of foreign clientele steadily grows, the single biggest request for assistance being in the area of “Americanizing” the conversations. The best advice I give in that regard is something that I happily credit to the Vietnamese manicurists in the salon where I get my nails done: watch soap operas. The longevity of this genre—whether it’s in the U.S. or overseas—provides a training in dialogue that you simply can’t get from a class. Not only are the topics universal in nature but are delivered in a slow, articulate manner that enables those who are trying to mimic dialect, cadence, or “status” nuances to follow along.
4. STAMP OUT LAZINESS. While the Internet has been a huge bonus to those of us who grew up having to affix envelopes with sufficient return postage for our submissions, there are still markets in the world that do business by Snail Mail. There are also authors who assume that any country (1) sharing a border with the U.S. (Canada, for instance) or (2) sharing the same language (England, for example) uses U.S. stamps. Wrong. If you’re mailing a manuscript overseas and would like a reply, you have the following options: (1) International Reply Coupons, which are subsequently traded at the recipient’s post office for the requisite amount of first class stamps, (2) Internet purchases of foreign postage, or (3) befriending a fellow foreign writer who is just as zealous about getting American stamps and setting up your own “swap meet.” Finally, there is the popular alternative of simply requesting that any communications regarding the project be sent to you via email. You won’t get your submission returned, of course, but considering the length and path of the journey it would have to take anyway to wing its way home, you might just be better off saving that return postage and printing out a fresh copy for the next pair of eyes that will see it.
5. CUSTOMARY HOMEWORK. Last but not least, make sure that you’re targeting the right market for your work in terms of timeliness, social relevance, and universal truths. You wouldn’t, for instance, zero in on India as a top buyer for your article on “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.” Nor would you send your R-rated screenplay to an independent production company in Germany whose past credits have all been after-school specials on famous composers. Not only are such scatter-gun tactics a waste of money but a demonstration that you haven’t bothered to research the buyer’s needs, interests, or current trends. To use a romance analogy, would you rather receive a Valentine that spoke specifically to you and, accordingly, made you feel as if you were singled out for special attention or one which was photocopied and had all the prior recipients’ names scratched off? When you’re courting a prospective match for your submission either at home or abroad, nothing less will do than identifying all the things you have in common, playing to your strengths, and—oh yes—speaking their language, metaphorically and otherwise.
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Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 99 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine and newspaper articles. She is also a script coverage consultant for films and theatrical works. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org