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Where have all the writers gone?

I am not doing a blog today because there is a far more important article in Screen International by Phil Parker for anyone who works with scripts. Whether you are a writer, script editor, producer, director or agent, please read this and get to the Screenwriters’ Festival in Cheltenham where there will be a major debate over the four days dealing with this situation. Be there where the real action is going to be. It could be your future. And thanks Screen International for publishing this.

The decline in UK productions based on original screenplays has been caused by a misguided film-industry culture says development consultant Phil Parker

Screen International   24 September, 2009 | By Phil Parker
In the last decade, the proportion of original screenplays produced within the UK film industry has declined significantly compared with adaptations, sequels and remakes - a trend reflected in the US studio system. Is this inevitable? Are UK screenwriters incapable of creating successful original films?
The UK film industry over the last decade has shunned original ideas, and new screenwriters, in favour of ‘safer’ bets.
Major UK films of the 1990s such as Four Weddings And A Funeral, The Full Monty, Shallow Grave and Shakespeare In Love were all original works, and all but the last one were from first-time feature film screenwriters. So, why has there been such a decrease in backing for new screenwriters with original ideas?

The answer lies in the development culture that has grown within the UK film industry over the last decade - a culture in which original ideas, and new screenwriters, are shunned in favour of ‘safer’ bets: true stories, adaptations and new writer-directors. In the early-1990s the UK film industry was described as a cottage industry but in truth it was closer to a bunch of, often inexperienced, individuals desperate to make a film, any film.

This all changed at the end of the 1990s with the government and the City backing UK talent into production. The result has been a production explosion, with an average of more than 100 films a year since 2000 achieving theatrical distribution. Alongside this, more than $165m (£100m) was spent on development and a new generation of untrained, inexperienced development executives, readers and new producers suddenly found themselves making UK films.

However, the box-office share of UK independent productions in the same period did not increase substantially. When the majority of the larger UK-based film companies were asked why this was the case, their answer was, “Development does not work.” This was based on the simple fact that the massive increase in development spending had not produced more successful films.

The rapid growth of production had not been matched with a supply of good, if not great, screenplays. This failure of development was put down to spending too much on new talent. However, no-one seemed to question whether the money had been spent on, or by, people who actually knew how to develop feature films, and it should be noted that the vast majority of new talents were not new writers, but new writer-directors. Some may put this situation down to writers not being able to match the demands of film but ultimately the answer lies elsewhere - with the new generation of producers and development personnel. Their inexperience and the wealth of opportunities, in contrast to what was available in the 1990s, created a culture in which people realised they did not need a good screenplay to make a film. This generation has created a culture based on simplistic notions of screenwriting and development theory learnt on script-guru weekends and driven by producers, and directors who know that cast and/or budget, sometimes just a saleable idea, are the key to getting a film funded, not the quality of the screenplay.

Writers were frozen out, writer-directors (more than 300) were ultimately treated as expendable talent, and too many poor films were, and are, made. If this culture continues, the UK film industry will remain dependent on adaptations, true stories or remakes. The lack of originality could force up-and-coming screenwriters to work in TV or migrate to other countries instead of working in the UK.

The Screenwriters Festival is one place where this culture is being challenged. It is where a new generation of original screenwriters meet with producers and financiers who see the commercial potential of backing new original screenwriting. This annual meeting will take place in October and could be where the next Four Weddings or Full Monty are born - and the 2010s see a rebirth of original UK screen hits.
The Screenwriters Festival runs in Cheltenham, UK, from October 26-29.

Why writers feel aggrieved

There may be many reasons, some better than others. The Writers Guild has a session this week at BAFTA on the crisis in TV drama that will no doubt air some of these issues.

I am dealing today with a situation in which a writer has worked on a script with the production company for some months and it has got better and better. Then a director comes onboard and all of a sudden the film the director wants to make is at such variance from the film the writer and producer have agreed they are making, that the writer is forced into a corner.

Stand up and argue against the big director, or give in and see the film possibly changed for the worse. The big question is will it be worse? Does the director have a vision that will lift the script, together with the actors, into a higher league than the writer and producer had in mind? Looking at the changes the director wants to make there is little doubt that some will be detrimental.

Did the writer and producer spend too long on the script so that they can only see it the way it is? This reminds me of titles for films and books – the starting title becomes well-worn and comfortable, so that it seems to be good, but to someone who knows nothing about the project, coming in fresh, another title might be better.

I wish I could say that directors always improve matters. They don’t. They sometimes do. So is it a kind of Russian roulette? Must writers lie back and think of England or wherever, just because the film industry is a director-led industry?

The truth is that if directors and producers were really good they would enable there to be calm and detailed discussion about the changes they want. The changes would not be forced upon writers unilaterally, as they sometimes are.

I reall a TV movie written by a client with over 400 hours of top TV drama behind him, including (at that time) the highest rating single on ITV. When an ITV commissioner greenlit the film there was no director; the director was hired after ITV provided all the money and the director promptly fired the writer and brought in another, so in effect even undermining the decision of the ITV commissioner.

So much depends on the management of people, on the diplomacy by all concerned. In my experience writers feel aggrieved often because they are simply not treated with respect but like naughty children who must be told what to do. Because the director might be right there is no reason why what the writer wants must de facto be ignored or rejected. There is every reason for the process to be as collaborative as possible, rather than firing the writer simply because the director thinks they know better. Who will rid me of this meddlesome writer? Unfortunately is is not necessary to get a bunch of mercenaries as producers ensure that is possible to fire the writer in the basic contract.

No wonder writers want to be producers and directors. It is one of the reasons agents also want to produce. The moment that any of the players pull rank rather than behave in an inclusive way, the rot is in danger of setting in and the Writers’ Guild and all writers and agents need to stand up and be counted.

This is another obvious reason why getting several hundred writers together at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival and why the Guild are so important. We need to build bridges and to work together so that the fragmented freelancers who make up the scriptwriting community can have some cohesiveness. That is exactly why ScriptWriter magazine and were set up.
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