Chef (2014) Open Road Films, Fairview Entertainment & Aldamisa Entertainment

Christmas is fast approaching and as my mind turns to where I will be spending it, inevitably I start eyeing up various pieces of tech, clothing, accessories and homewares that I have my eye on both to give and receive. As I move around the stores (party food, yay!) mindful not to send the delicate glass Frida Kahlo baubles crashing to the shop floor, I also start to think about the Christmas menu from breakfast to supper.

I started this list over the weekend to take my mind off a couple of book to film negotiations playing on my mind.  In fact, it had the opposite effect as it occurred to me that the art of negotiation is not unlike food shopping.

Bear with me.

If you think about it, as you pour over the latest juicy recipe by Nigella, Nigel or your favourite go-to chef, you make a note of the ingredients, seasoning and garnish.

In negotiation terms I would describe these respectively as “essential”, “preferential, depending on your palate” and “frou frou flourish”.

Everyone has a negotiation style and I like to think on a good day mine is straight talking and firm but also friendly, justifiable and solution-based. If I can’t justify something, I won’t push it which means breaking the news to your clients and taking the time to explain to them why in the context of the overall deal, this point sits somewhere between seasoning and garnish (as ingredients ought always be identified and communicated when the dish was first contemplated).

The best negotiations I find, are when your opposite number shops in the same food store as you and you occasionally bump trolleys as you trade up and down the aisles. Things become tricky when you encounter someone on the other side of the table who plays a game of chicken at the other end of the aisle and you both spy that last remaining bottle of truffle olive oil (a current obsession with everything and remarkably few outlets offering it).

Dealing with someone that views every item on their shopping list as an ingredient from the outset or swaps seasoning and garnish to an ingredient mid-way through a negotiation, is tricky, unless you think you can achieve the same dish with alternatives.

“But, why should I?” you wail, with the faint thud of a foot stamp.

This is a good question to ask and to answer it fully is a two-step process. First, you have to look at the intention behind your opposite number’s assertion: is this truly a fundamental item to the dish or is it simply the way that they have always made it? Just because their previous guests loved the meal prepared a certain way, does the seasoning suit your taste and isn’t that garnish a little de trop?

You also have to ask and answer that question yourself. Particularly if you’ve not communicated your ingredient in advance to the other side.

When you reach an impasse, especially where a demand is driven by stubbornness or familiarity, I find it helpful to remind myself (as demandor and demandee) why the dialogue started in the first place. Genuine collaboration emerges from a common aim to bring two or more parties’ expertise together to create a new opportunity. Ideally, that opportunity is not like any other offering out there, or if it is, the parties desire to either improve it or take it to a fresh and exciting place together.

Negotiation sets the tone of parties’ relationship to each other: the chef de partie to the main event. It identifies the skills and plays a role in delivering the dish to the pass, but it is not the main event nor should it overpower it.

Image: Debark’s Doggy Etiquette by (c) Emma Topping.  All rights reserved.

Maya Angelo once said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”

That first call with a filmmaker, producer or studio interested in adapting an author’s work tends to play out in one of two ways: the “first date” approach where we cautiously, but politely, circle each other and take a sniff, leaving the bottom lines to the next call (or the lawyers); or the no-nonsense “straight-shoot” when I receive an impassioned pitch for the call’s duration that leaves me in no doubt of the speaker’s vision for the project – and his or her commercial terms.

Which works? Of course it depends on the work and the project, but really: it’s all about the delivery.

Dog lovers will tell you numerously (because it’s true), that you can learn a lot from our furry friends – and watching Koni interact with other dogs is indeed an education.  Being an all white Japanese Akita with alert ears and a curled tail, although kind and loyal if approached correctly, Koni simultaneously exudes authority and a touch of haughtiness. Those that courteously greet her adhering to the rules of “Debark’s Doggy Etiquette” (© Emma Topping) are received well. Those that charge Koni at full pelt barking excitedly regardless of intent without giving her an opportunity to assess or engage, tend to be less successful.

So back to that initial call: whether it’s a first date, a straight-shoot or a first date straight-shoot (when you better have a few night hours dedicated to working on LA time): whilst attention should be paid to what is being said, it is the way that those words are delivered and the openness to receiving and hearing a counter point of view, that really reveals whether a successful collaboration is possible.

In a recent IndieWire article, Ben Travers recounts the following statement by Jack Bender, director of the critically acclaimed television adaptation of Stephen King’s “Mr Mercedes”: “Stephen’s very unobtrusive…When he trusts somebody, [he] lets them take his project.”

And it is genuine and mutually respectful collaboration between author, filmmaker, producer and studio that creates that trust.

For this month’s blog and inspired by a home interiors project that I’m working on over the Easter Break, I bring to you something a little different: a pictorial blog.

The images in this slideshow show filmmakers, films, television shows and actors, all of whom have played a significant part in igniting, shaping and sustaining my passion for film and television.

Can you identify them all?

A guest at a meeting suggesting that I make him and the other male attendees drinks. A lawyer banging his fist on the table in front of the other male negotiators to silence me.

It takes time to shake off the effects of being silenced. Whether overt or subtle, sexist or not, the sudden impact is not unlike the five stages of bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – acceptance?

First comes the stomach flip and the subsequent queasiness that ensues: “Did that just happen?” Then follows frustration and anger.  But it is the bargaining, depression and acceptance that are the most confronting.

Bargaining in this context for me, takes the form of a lively inner debate: an attempt to rationalise, excuse or shake-off an incident that more often than not resolves itself by attributing blame, shame or both at my own door rather than the perpetrator’s.   That resolution ensures that the incident is never spoken of openly, although it will occasionally resurface to nudge me towards negative introspection.

Depression nips at introspection’s heels when an inability to speak out safely, isolates.

John Boyd, a well-known military strategist and once Pentagon adviser identified this when he said in his 1987 lecture “The Strategic Game of Interaction and Isolation”:

“Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration”.

What started with the leak of Trump’s “locker-room talk” audio and the manner of Clinton’s defeat, is now permeating through every layer of society in a post-Weinstein era, most recently, in the humanitarian aid sector. The conversation is no longer a solitary whisper, it is a marching chorus. “Did that just happen?” “Was it my fault?” and “Is it just me?”, has transitioned to: “It did just happen” “It wasn’t your fault” and: “Now, what are we going to do about it, together?”

Acceptance of the status quo is no longer an option.  Silencing others – and the desire to control and undermine that underpins it – can be challenged now that we have the space, the forum and the voice to do so.

But how?

Acceptance of others and alternative points of view is one of my #2018goals.  As a seasoned and scrappy negotiator, this is I can tell you one of the more challenging works in progress currently on my slate.

My version of acceptance does not mean submitting to conflicting viewpoints with a serene and benevolent smile.  It means listening to them, getting educated, finding precedents and trying to identify some kernel of commonality, where possible. Mostly, my version of acceptance means taking the time to reflect, throwing a sponge frustration brick at the wall and/or bending the ear of one of my inner safe circle of three.  This self-imposed time-out no longer includes negative introspection and self-flagellation. But it does provide a safe space to objectively assess the situation and the part that I played in it, as well as whilst in that space, identifying some less incendiary and more positive next steps.  Next steps more often than not lead to options and everybody, save the most steadfastly entrenched, prefers options to stalemate.

I was recently made aware of the Finnish word: “sisu”. A key proponent, Emilia Lahti,  wonderfully explains that sisu “…is often translated in to English as determination, guts, perseverance and the capacity to endure significant hardships…but ‘having sisu’ has the added dimension of doing so with integrity, honesty and humility.”

As silence and control are lowered in to the earth, sisu shoots emerge as the only stage required for an invigorated life philosophy to guide me through 2018 and beyond.

 

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (clip from 75th Anniversary edition)

Remember this, when childhood’s far away;
The sunlight of a showery first spring day;
You from your house-top window laughing down,
And I, returned with whip-cracks from a ride,
On the great lawn below you, playing the clown.
Time blots our gladness out. Let this with love abide . . .

The brave March day; and you, not four years old,
Up in your nursery world — all heaven for me.
Remember this — the happiness I hold —
In far off springs I shall not live to see;
The world one map of wastening war unrolled,
And you, unconscious of it, setting my spirit free.

For you must learn, beyond bewildering years,
How little things beloved and held are best.
The windows of the world are blurred with tears,
And troubles come like cloud-banks from the west.
Remember this, some afternoon in spring,
When your own child looks down and makes your sad heart sing.

Siegfried Sassoon “The Child at the Window”

There was something magical about returning to my childhood home for Christmas and new year: treading the same boards as my younger self, flicking through faded handwritten diary entries and trying on long abandoned but so undeniably now fashions (a teenager of the 1980s, finally bearing fruits).  Bathed in memories, even the difficult ones, this holiday in Ireland brought comfort and joy as reassuring as that fluffy Pikachu onesie on a cold winter’s night.

They say new years are about moving forward and not looking back, particularly if the outgoing year was one you would rather forget.  With the ever-shifting Brexit sands, the revolving White House doors, institutionalised sexism, who should “stay woke” (or be able to say it) and who should be entitled to share a #metoo story:  2017 packed a powerful and divisive punch. At times the noise was deafening. The inevitable backlash and subsequent ennui as the latest political, celebrity or industry scandal broke was equally loud and maybe we all ended 2017 filled to bursting on the sofa, wondering with bulging eyes, minds and bellies just how we got here.  With so much to devour daily and publicly, have we even had enough time to process our own personal circumstances and contextualise our own experiences with what we see and read? I wonder.

Normally, I relish the long return journey to my Brighton home as it affords me the opportunity to reflect on the trip just taken.  However, this time my sadistic satnav took me up and over the Kirkstone Pass at night, in the dark and on icy roads.  Gripping the wheel grimly as I peered out unseeingly in to the darkness, I was struck by how this particular pose: teeth clenched and eyes wide with panic, was the same that I adopted many years before on the starting grid with Dad at Nutts Corner during our Caterham 7 and Westfield racing days.  Initially terrified, then fearless and focused once the lights changed from red to green. Frequently crashing, once winning, always determined.

Once back in Brighton a few weeks ago, I began to unpack. I pulled out my old Paddington box-set of books that I brought back with me and inspired, I put on the 2014 Paddington movie. As new CGI Paddington was introduced, I was immediately transported back in time. A time when I would sit happily and greedily consuming that box-set and all of the early television series for hours, plush bear always by my side, with a zest just like Paddington himself finishing off his marmalade sandwiches.   Any fears I may have had that this new Paddington would somehow sully the memories of what went before were banished and as the end credits rolled I was so pleased to have opened my mind and embraced evolution.

On Monday I attended a performance of the touring production of the National Theatre’s “War Horse” in Brighton. I had berated myself for missing the West-end run as it reminded me not only of my sixth form history lessons, but also of my time at university where a non-law option on The Great War Poets was a welcome respite from an otherwise incredibly dull law degree. The show came at the start of a long week, as the industry is moving at breakneck speed to close deals and release new shows and all of my matters are vying for first place in a list as intimidating at Kirkstone Pass itself.

Ordinarily, this would compel me to bed within an hour of returning home from London, fast asleep before the opening sequence of Silent Witness begins at 9pm. Breaking with this Monday-night tradition, off I trotted to the Brighton Centre. With tears streaming down my face (much to the amusement of my friends) three hours later, I felt grateful to have put aside the to do list that night, as I have never experienced a stage production like it. I left overwhelmed, but also inspired and reinvigorated.

They say new years are for moving forward and that is true. Just one month in to 2018, there are already some new exciting projects in the pipeline that I hope to share with you in the coming weeks. But as I continue this year’s story, I’m packing my racing helmet, my Paddington book box-set and my fond memories of studying Brooke and Sassoon, for these are my childhood experiences that will add colour and depth to this year’s new ventures.

“Stranger Things Than a Tree Eating a Bear” (c) Emma Topping

Just in time following the exertions of our Christmas Day cook-a-thon then eat-a-thon, I bring to you my final blog of 2017.

First and foremost, I hope that you have managed to find the time during this crazy period not only to catch up with friends and family, but also to find a quiet corner of calm to mind yourself.

My corner of calm dwells in the heart of our family homestead in Ireland: the living room. Uniquely resplendent in my Christmas pudding socks and Pikachu onesie gifts, here I sit with family in front of the fire on comfortingly familiar sofas. Cosy we may be, but we find ourselves involuntarily shivering at the ice and snow hitting the headlines on the “mainland” roads today. I am so grateful to remain in Ireland until next week when Bear and I will return to Brighton via Scotland and the Lakes following that very trail that I wrote about in my first blog here.

Appropriately entitled “Reset” that blog featured the following quote by Beatrix Potter: “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never know where they’ll take you.”

2017 has been a watershed year personally, politically and in the industry.

This year I expanded Emma Topping Entertainment to include not only specialist industry business affairs advice and support, but also a new film agency and I am privileged to have taken on two fantastic authors: Dr Ahron Bregman and S G Parker.

Just before Christmas Dr Bregman’s “The Spy Who Fell to Earth” was optioned for a feature documentary and we look forward to working with Salon Pictures in 2018. The time is right for “The Spy…” and I will be exploring new opportunities for this fantastic story next year on both sides of the pond following up on interest received in the context of dramatisations across feature, series and stage.

S G Parker’s gritty crime thriller series opens with “The Sky is Crying”: a serial killer case introducing English Detective Superintendent Ray Paterson and Detective Sergeant Johnny Clocks. His sequel “Voodoo Child” evolves the relationship between these two central characters as they find themselves facing another gruesome case. All rights are available for this series and I will be taking it to market in 2018.

I look forward to continuing existing discussions and seeking out new opportunities with authors (published, self-published or yet to be published) in the New Year. Be it a concept, manuscript, screenplay or publication, why not get in touch? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

2017 has been a momentous year for the industry and particularly for the women – and men – in it. Much has been written about Weinstein, Spacey, #metoo and those aptly named “The Silence Breakers”, collectively Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017. In fact, so much has been written about this subject and will and should continue to be written about it,  that on this occasion and for this blog, I am not going to go down that rabbit hole here. Suffice it to say, given Time Magazine’s rightly controversial selection for Person of the Year 2016, as trailblazer Dinah Washington sang: “What a Difference a Year Makes”.

I wish you all a fulfilling, successful and collaborative 2018.

 

Image © Emma Topping.  All rights reserved.

It’s usually at this time of year as I pack away my summer wardrobe: cool sport-luxe as I like to call it, or rather “trainers with everything” and dust off and shake out my winter version (with jumper), that I start to think about how the year has been going and what I can start doing now to set the tone for next year.

Typically, I’ll have just returned from a glorious round trip adventure: Brighton – Lakes – Belfast and this year was no exception.   The image above was captured at the tip of Lake Windermere just as the sun was setting, bathing Koni (aka Bear) and I in a surreal glow that felt more like an studio set than Beatrix Potter’s rugged land.

Safely ensconced in my childhood Belfast bedroom with dear family, friends and Bear by my side and without the relentless familiarity of the noise and bustle of my commuting week to London, a plan took hold:  simplify, de-clutter, shut out the noise.  Reset.

I heard someone shout “Reset!” for the first time earlier this year when I was lucky enough to attend a night shoot on a feature currently in production.  Nodding knowingly (but knowing nothing), I looked about and shuffled a little in line with what those around me were doing in response.  Ridiculously, really, since as it turns out this is a term that the 1st AD (Assistant Director, don’t you know) calls out to actors and actresses, telling them to go back to where they were at the start of the scene to do it again.

I may have returned to Brighton and the weekly commute to London, but this year my annual pilgrimage to Belfast via the Lakes and that inspiring night shoot have galvanised me towards a reset.

And so, with my first monthly blog I launch (rather grandly) my new logo and website, blending business and creative, reflecting my commitment and enjoyment to the business of making films, television shows and stage shows, almost as much as watching them and showcasing two authors that I am excited to represent in respect of book to film, television and stage adaptations.

In the words of Beatrix Potter:  “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.”

Quite.