Script development – key to success

Keeping the UK creative edge in content creation

There were some great contributions at the Westmister Forum on TV Finance and Production in London in November, where politicians, producers and media financiers gathered to discuss the business. Despite some of the challenges of working on a day to day basis in an industry as it is turned inside-out by changes in technology, it seemed to
me there was a sense of optimism.

One area that was touched on as vital for that future success was that
our combined focus should be on providing quality in those areas in which we
excel, both in attracting inward investment and exporting quality film and TV. There
is no future for Britain as the media bargain basement of the world, so we
better have quality on our side. Dearest to my own heart as a writer-producer
is the importance of encouraging high quality content in terms of innovative
well-written scripted programming, whether in drama series or animation.

An American distributor once dryly observed to me that the easiest things
to export from Britain in terms of film or TV were “toughs or toffs”. In the
film world at the time that meant diamond geezer gangsters a la Lock Stock
versus a crumpled yet loveable Hugh Grant. In a sense it is still true – in TV,
Shameless or Peaky Blinders on the one hand and Downton on the other, with
Ripper Street, sadly not picked up for a third season, cleverly having one well-turned Victorian boot in both camps. And even within such archetypes, we have wonderful writers capable of conjuring up worlds we have not seen, past and future, populated by characters we want to get to know. Wonderful writers, yes, but not enough of them capable of delivering what is needed, despite the army of potential storytellers battering at the door.

That quality content, currently created by a rather small number of
writers, is the true basis of much of our success, in the scripted world at
least. Fresh, original content – unique IP to which all our other financial,
technical and distribution efforts are applied.

The Forum included a short discussion on aspects of the creation of such high
quality raw material, with mention of some of the key ingredients. First, and
perhaps most crucially, such material and the talent behind it tends to come
from a few unique voices. Some people wrongly translate this to mean one giant
ego unwilling or unable to understand the perilous journey a script must take
if it is ever to become a show. But the truth is the very opposite – the most
unique voices are often the most interested in others ideas and in building in
new ideas from whatever source to improve their initial drafts. But such people
must also be allowed to fight to keep the integrity of the worlds they create
on paper, safe from ill-considered notes that would kill the patient rather
than cure it. Perhaps more education that concentrates on mutual understanding
and respect of the whole range of jobs within the process from idea to distribution
would be of help. The London Film School, as demonstrated at the Forum, is a
beacon of excellence, but it needs to be augmented by equally good short course
and on the job training throughout the industry, with Skillset already making a
good start.

The second key in the creation of such strong material is surely the
development process itself. In the UK, development has often been seen as an
annoying expense rather than the launch pad of success. From an investor’s
perspective it seems like the riskiest money of all – first in and with the
highest chance of ending up unused or unloved. Yet the future belongs to those
who control the finest IP, not just those who control the tubes down which it
is squirted. In reality, all development is paid for. Unfortunately most
development in the UK is paid for the by the overdrafts of individual writers,
or sometimes by an individual producer risking money they can ill afford on
options or rewrites. Few industries have been so short-sighted or stingy about
the care and management of the geese that lay the (occasionally) golden eggs. The
result has been an increase in the number of televisual rotten eggs, stale or
scrambled, which ultimately waste a lot more time and money than savvy
development.

Since we have said UK Media PLC is competing primarily on quality, we
would be foolish to think that we have all the answers at home. When it comes
to high-end drama, America, backed up by pay cable, has been making most of the
running in recent years. The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife and The forum touched on the concepts of Show Runner and Writers Rooms. Any time those buzzwords come up there are inevitable debates about what exactly they mean. In this context a showrunner is a writer-creative producer hybrid who has a creative overview but also a responsibility to ensure that creative vision is delivered to screen on time
and within budget. A Writers room, usually led by a showrunner head writer, is
intended to be a powerhouse of ideas from creative minds capable of exploring
the world of the story from all angles, including those the showrunner might
not have considered. A handful of writers obviously cost more than one, but the
difference in both the sustained quality and potential volume of output are
fairly obvious, even from a purely commercial point of view. And the bottom
line remains the same: an industry capable of identifying strong material,
protecting and encouraging its originator and spending the time and money
needed to convert that material from an idea to a series of scripts, often with
more than one writer, then finally delivering a series of programmes crafted from
that raw material that will attract the audience and the revenue that made them
worth making, both critically and commercially.

One Forum speaker pointed out that in the UK Dr Who effectively has a
‘showrunner,’ while writers’ rooms are common on the Soaps, so the concepts
themselves are neither foreign nor new. But it is equally true that most high-end
scripted drama here is written by a small number of writers and the UK, outside
the BBC, does not so far have a career path to identify or encourage the
showrunners and writers’ room denizens of the future.

The answers are complicated, but are likely to involve the words
Investment, Development and Training in no particular order. The work starts
with all of us taking a good look around for existing and future writing talent
that understands the industry and has a story worth telling in pictures.

Brendan Foley is a writer-producer of features and TV, He wrote WWII escape best-seller Under the Wire (Random House). Past features starring Vinnie Jones, Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave, include multi-fest winner Johnny Was (Sony); thriller The Riddle (2.7m dvds), and Legend of the Bog (Lionsgate). In TV, he co-created animated children’s series Shelldon (NBC) and Byrdland (Thai TV). He wrote the drama pilot for Dr. Feelgood (Monday TV Denmark) and is also a media training provider in America and the EU. This article first appeared in Westminster Media Forum briefing.