OCTOBER 2021: This month sees the launch of FRAPA’s fully revised and expanded Format Bible Template, designed by The Format People to help members create industry-standard production bibles to help their formats travel further, faster and more safely.
A cross between DIY manual, style guide and legal document, a good bible not only facilitates the transfer of expertise from a format’s original producer to adapting producers, but it also plays a valuable role in IP protection. Here, ‘Format Doctor’ Justin Scroggie — the author of FRAPA’s latest members-only tool — explains why a top-quality production bible matters more today than ever…
There are few expensive things we are willing to buy sight unseen. OK, internet shopping has superseded a lot of purchasing IRL. But we can still see pictures or videos of what we’re thinking of buying, and read what other shoppers thought of it. Not so a format bible. Only when we have signed a licence agreement for a format do we get to see the bible that goes with it. And at that point, we have little comeback if the document doesn’t deliver what we expect. Anecdotally — for bibles are necessarily top secret — the results are variable. For every indispensable, 100-plus page guide to making a show, there’s a scrappy, 15-page treatment akin to a ‘what I did in my holidays’ essay (I’ve seen a few). Which is shameful. And short-sighted. Because for a format to travel successfully, it really needs a strong bible to drive it to success. So what is a bible in 2021? It is — or should be — three things: a how-to manual, a style guide and a legal document. As a manual, a bible should transfer the expertise of the original producer to the adapting producer. It should lay out the entire narrative structure in detail. It should explain how each individual format element works, and how they contribute to the engine of the format as a whole. It should provide clear instruction in the processes of pre-production, production, post-production and promotion as they apply to the format in question, including schedules, camera and lighting plans, set designs, etc. And it should include any additional documentation that supports this — or, as I like to put it, any documentation that makes life easier for the adapting producer. A bible is not just how the original producer made the first season: it is also how the adapting producers should make the show now. Every bible I write involves an element of ‘internationalising’ — the process of working creatively with the original producer to smooth out specific regional elements or structural anomalies to ensure global productions work to a common framework. For example, when I write a bible for a Chinese format, I use my knowledge of Chinese production, staffing, budgets and scheduling to make the show adaptable also to Western producers and broadcasters. Anticipating adaptation means a bible must clarify from the get-go which format elements are essential to the show’s mechanics — and therefore non-negotiable — and which are non-essential and can be discussed with the format owner. It saves a world of pain later on. Second, as a style guide, a bible should give clear instruction about the look of the show. In a crowded world of entertainment, the visual identity of your format is increasingly important. At the same time, I find that broadcasters increasingly want to brand an international format to suit their channel identity. To square the circle, a bible must lay out what is essential to the format’s look, and what is flexible. For example, for one of my own formats, Chef In Your Ear, we insist on the footprint and physical elements of the set, because they are integral to the format engine. But we are flexible about the overall visual design, because cooking shows can play in daytime, access-prime and primetime slots, which require a different mood, light and colour palette. Incidentally, all of this gives the show’s production consultant, or flying producer, exactly what they need to carry out their twin roles of format enabler and format police!
Third, bibles are increasingly becoming legal documents in cases of IP violation. Judges generally prefer to read pages of documentation to watching reality TV. And to a legal mind, the best way to determine whether one format has been substantially copied from another is to compare their bibles. Of course, the show with the clearest and most detailed bible is likely to impress more, especially as a copycat show may have no bible at all. In a recent case, the fact that the copycat show had had access to the bible of the original show played a major factor in the judgment. FRAPA’s fully updated Format Bible Template gives you the tools to create a document that combines the functions of how-to manual, style guide and legal document. It provides a detailed framework for a comprehensive bible, offering a clear, hands-on guide to the material you need to fill in each chapter, section and sub-section. Along the way, it references 34 different international formats from 11 original territories to illustrate the points made. Once the material has been assembled, you can set out to write the bible yourself — or you can pass the material to a professional bible-writer. It’s up to you. Finally, remember that bibles are living documents. Great formats evolve over time, as adapting producers bring new twists and tweaks to the show. Every evolution belongs to the original format owners — the successful ones should be added to the bible in revised editions, to enable subsequent adapting producers to benefit from the learning. In summary, then, it is in your best interest to prepare the strongest possible format bible: personally, because you really care about your show; professionally, because any adaptations represent your original work and vision and a poor version will reflect poorly on you; financially, because if you have a percentage stake in the IP, you will earn a lot more if the adaptation is a hit; and legally, because you may need your bible in law to define exactly what your format is, and whether or not it has been illegally copied. Justin Scroggie is chief creative officer of international consultancy The Format People