Five years ago, I posted Ten New Years Resolutions That Every Writer Should Break. It was one of my most popular blogs and in the current Hollywood spirit of rehashing everything that anyone has ever watched/read/loved, I am revisiting the idea. However, this time I am suggesting 5 NY resolutions that TV producers should make some sort of effort to keep.
I’ve been an active member of the Writers’ Guild TV Committee for a few years now. And the cavalier and often cruel way that writers are treated on some of the UK’s favourite shows never ceases to horrify me. I am consistently disappointed and angered by the lack of response or action from producers when the WGGB confront them with bad practice. We are often told that is just the way things are.
It’s just that way because some people are too lazy or unimaginative to effect significant change or hold themselves to a better standard. It’s worth noting there was a very similar attitude to sexual harassment and bullying in the industry. Change was only promised (it remains to be seen whether it has been achieved) after the survivors of abuse bravely stood up and told their stories. Not a risk-free course of action. Indeed, they risked being disbelieved, discredited and ostracised by their industry.
The same is true for writers who speak out about bad practice in the UK TV industry. They are labelled difficult and unreliable. They are told they are thin-skinned and whiny. In my experience, those producers being confronted with their own shortcomings often turn out to be the ones with a wafer-thin epidermis. They are always so very hurt by any suggestion that they may not be the most benign, thoughtful and nurturing of producers. Even when we have multiple writers making multiple reports about shows that have succumbed to chaos and toxicity. Even when their staff turnover is so acute that there is a permanent ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ cake in the office kitchen.
By the way, I feel I should say at this point that my writing experiences in 2018 have been great. I’ve worked on well-run shows with talented, thoughtful and respectful producers. The sort of producers that inspire loyalty and hard work without demanding it. However, my good experiences have only served to make me more determined to improve the experiences of writers on some of the more toxic UK shows.
So, I have created these resolutions to help producers move beyond the knee-jerk denial and into acceptance. I’m sure they will be taken in the spirit in which it is intended.
*looks to camera*
1. I will pay writers.
We’ll start with something easy. If you are asking writers to produce written work for you; then you need to pay them: Free Is Not An Option. Writing is not a higher calling, it’s a job. We don’t do this for spiritual enlightenment. We do it to pay the mortgage, electric bill, council tax etc. So, if you are asking for anything beyond a few pages of a pitch, do not clutch your pearls at the mention of remuneration.
Actually, you should be the person to bring up the sticky subject of money. You’re the one who knows what budget is available. Basically, you shouldn’t be crossing your fingers under the desk and hoping nobody mentions the fee. And this applies to all written work including ‘shadow scripts’. Which brings us on to…
2. I will trust writers to write.
The rise of the shadow script is not a lost Harry Potter book. It is a divisive and inefficient way to find writers for long-running shows by asking prospective writers to write their own version of a script that is already being written by a commissioned writer.
It relies on prospective writers having the time and resources to produce a script that will never be made and cannot be used by them in any other context. Writers are expected to hit deadlines, take notes and produce multiple drafts of these scripts, often for free or a reduced fee.
So, producers are asking for full commitment from writers on these scripts in terms of time, energy and talent but are unwilling to pay. This means some writers need to write the scripts in amongst day jobs, other projects and childcare/family responsibilities. This impacts significantly of writers with children and writers under financial pressure. In other words, it limits diversity and equality.
And I would question the value of these scripts beyond proving that a writer knows how to follow a layout guide and can remember the names of the regular characters. It smacks of looking for biddable writers who can churn out a cookie-cutter script without any spark or a sense the writers’ voice. Shouldn’t long-running series be looking for originality and freshness? Shouldn’t there be enough time built into the schedule to allow new writers to learn how the show works as they work through the drafts?
Possibly the worst thing about many of the shadow scripts is the lack of feedback. Often writers wait weeks and even months after they have handed in their scripts to hear whether they have been successful. This needs to change…
3. I will improve my communication skills.
This is a problem across the industry. There is a particular UK show that often takes over 6 months to respond to the required episode pitches from their writing team. This means writers are left in limbo, not knowing whether their pitches are good or bad and whether they are still a valued member of the writing team. That’s six months of self-doubt and self-recrimination. And most writers deal with enough of that without it being casually built into the job.
In 2018, the actors’ union Equity ran their extremely successful #YesOrNo campaign. It recognised that not letting actors know whether they have been successful after an audition is both disrespectful and damaging to actors’ mental health. Many theatres and casting directors signed up to a promise to let actors know within a reasonably short period of time whether they had got the part or not. Perhaps this basic courtesy could now be extended to writers?
For example, the development producer who went on maternity leave in the middle of working with me but promised to be in touch as soon as the baby was born to continue the project (a book adaptation). The next thing I heard about that project was when I saw a trailer for it. Apparently, they had dumped me in favour of another writer. At least that’s what I assume happened. No-one ever had the common courtesy to let me know.
And it’s not just about commissions. Please let us know when our script editors have been sacked/promoted. Suddenly hearing a new voice at the end of the line without warning is discombobulating to say the least. And if you’re thinking about major changes to a story, bring us into the discussion.
Make sure all the important dates are in our diaries as soon as possible. That includes delivery dates, script meetings, read throughs and first day of shooting. Don’t assume that writers are at your beck and call 24/7 for the rest of their natural lives once they sign a contract. We have lives and relationships that require time, energy and planning.
It’s not unreasonable to expect a decent work/life balance. And to that end…
4. I will no longer pretend that chaos = creativity.
Every time I think I’ve heard the worst horror story about unreasonable demands being made on writers, I hear another that is even more outrageous.
I know of writers who were forced to write quick turnover drafts whilst their children were seriously ill, whilst they were seriously ill or whilst sitting by the hospital bed of their dying sister. I know a writer who was given script notes on the day of his mother’s funeral. All of these outrageous demands were made because of last minute story changes or the late intervention of a senior producer.
And that was the case when, on a primetime ITV show, I was asked to come down to London at short notice for a script meeting on a Monday morning. I didn’t get back to Leeds until Friday evening. The producer had to send a runner out to Marks and Sparks to get me clean knickers and a toothbrush.
Luckily the only thing I had to worry about at home was my milk going out of date and my plants not being watered. Had I been a parent or carer, it would have been an entirely different story. I would have been unable to drop everything and just walk away. Another example of bad practice impacting diversity and equality.
A year later, on the same show, it happened again. Only this time I knew to bring an overnight bag. Still, every morning I had to check out of my hotel and then check back in when I returned there in the evening. This was because the producers had no sense of how much work was required to implement their story changes. I’m a good and quick writer but I cannot restructure and rewrite a 90 minute script in two days.
The thing is, the first time you turn over a script in a truncated amount of time, you feel like a hero. You’re exhausted but you did it! You saved the show! Indeed, people will congratulate you for ‘taking one for the team’ and ‘going above and beyond’.
But it’s never just a one-off. Too many shows have a culture of huge last-minute story changes and a slow turnover on notes. Often one of the problems is senior/exec producers sweeping in at the last minute and demanding huge changes that force a writer into a page one rewrite just at the point when a script should be sent to the various Heads of Department.
No-one can properly do their job until the script is fit to be seen by the production team. That means the script editor and writer are then put under pressure to turn over new drafts too quickly. I call them ‘fast and nasty’ drafts. They are written in the fug of stress sweat amongst pizza delivery boxes. And they are simply not good drafts. The dialogue will be on the nose and over written, plot holes will slip by unnoticed and the structure will become shaky. But as long as the damn thing is delivered on time.
So, if you are the sort of producer who is buying clean knickers for your writers or giving them notes as they lay a parent to rest, you’re a ‘fast and nasty’ producer.
5. I will be honest with myself about diversity and equality.
In 2018, the WGGB released their Equality Writes report into gender equality in the UK Film and TV industry. The figures were shocking. Only 16% of working film writers in the UK are female, and only 14% of prime-time TV is written by women. The Guild had had to secure funding and commission the report after years of TV commissioners insisting that things were getting better for female writers. They said the same thing about BAME writers and writers with disabilities.
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the reaction was initially on the defensive side. And when I say defensive, I mean Great Wall of China levels of defence. But we were ready for that and we had the statistics on our side. And slowly and surely, the big players are accepting that something must be done. We’ve a long way to go but there are some extremely positive things happening. And they are not just schemes and competitions.
But the most important thing that producers can do is be honest with themselves. If you are looking at an all-white writing team on your long-running series then something is very wrong. And it is down to you make changes. And it’s okay to admit that you don’t know what those changes should be. We know people who can help with that.
I hope that 2019 is a truly extraordinary year of TV and film production in the UK and that this is the year that we learn to respect and listen to each other. Rest assured that the Writers’ Guild will continue to push, cajole and generally kick down doors for writers. Do come and join in!