Last weekend was the NAWG Festival of Writing at the University of Warwick, and one of the many highlights was Julian Fellowes who came to chat to us. For those of you who don’t know, Julian Fellowes is the author of a novel called Snobs, the writer of the hit film Gosford Park (for which he won an Oscar) and the writer of the hugely popular television series Downton Abbey.
The key point that Fellowes wanted to get across to us was that those in charge in the creative industry sector know nothing (when it comes to fiction). His novel, Snobs, was rejected by many literary agents, including one who told him to “go away and write something grown up.” (Ouch!) Of course, Snobs was published, and it has been translated into nearly 40 different languages, a fact Fellowes enjoys pointing out to that very literary agent every time he sees him.
When it came to trying to get film companies interested in Gosford Park Fellowes said that every UK film company told him that films exploring the British class system were of no interest to the general public any more. That was everyone’s expert opinion. Which is why Fellowes eventually sold the idea to an American production company.
He then explained how, when it came to organising where it would be released, the American production company insisted it should premiere in the USA. Fellowes didn’t like the idea - the film was set in Britain, written by Brit, and predominantly acted by Brits. As a compromise, the film premiered in the USA, but also opened the London Film Festival that year - as a one-off screening, although it didn’t go on general release in the UK for another six months.
At the London Film Festival, Fellowes told us that the critics panned it, particularly the broadsheets. The American’s loved it. In fact, they loved it so much Fellowes was nominated for an Oscar (which he won). Of course, all this news filtered back to the UK, and when the film eventually went on general release here the critics (including the ones who’d panned it before when they’d seen it at the London Film Festival) now raved about it.
When it came to Downton Abbey, Fellowes told us that many production companies advised him the British TV audience didn’t want yet another period or costume drama, and when ITV commissioned it there were many mutterings that the television company had got it so badly wrong, investing so much money in this idea, when ITV had little money to spend at the time. Of course, Downton has since gone on to be a worldwide success.
Now, Fellowes wasn’t saying that these creative professionals hadn’t got a clue and didn’t know what they were doing. Actually, they were making judgments based upon the information and their experience at the time. And their gut feeling. After all, there is no magic formula that says if an idea has X, Y and Z, with a hint of A and B, it will be a huge success. So, people in the industry have to love a project to accept it and take it on. They are taking a risk, after all. A huge one. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a literary agent, a publisher, a film producer or an editor.
But what Fellowes was saying was that you have to believe in yourself, and your ideas. It doesn’t matter how many times you get rejected, keep persevering. It’s the tenacious b*gg*rs who don’t give up who go on to succeed. When it comes to fiction, there are no clear cut guidelines as to what will work and what won’t. But you have to believe in yourself, and you have to continue banging on doors, trying to find that one person who will believe in you. And when they do believe in you, just take a moment to appreciate the risk they’re taking in you.