Tuesday, 7 October 2008


Question: How many production executives does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: Does it have to be a lightbulb?

I guess you could blame Richard Curtis. When 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' came out it was seen as the salvation of the British film industry. I was working with an eager young producer at the time. When she heard that Curtis had written twenty-five drafts of the 'Four Weddings' script, I watched the penny drop. 'So', you could see her working it out, 'if we want our movie to be better than "Four Weddings" we'll have to go through twenty-six drafts.' And my little heart sank.

You don't need twenty-five drafts to make a script work. You need three.

That's right: three.

Your first draft is a foray into unexplored territory. It's a land grab. Do anything you need to do but get through it. Until you've written 'FADE OUT' or 'THE END' you don't have a script.

Your second draft allows you to re-order the material you managed to get together for your first draft. Mould it, shape it, make it work.

Your third draft is the polish. Dot 'i's, cross 't's, give it some extra punch, make it shine.

Three drafts.

If you haven't got it by the end of three drafts, the chances are you won't. Put the story aside for six months. Do something else.

Three drafts is all it needs.

Mind you, on my favourite TV drama series of all time, they didn't bother going to three drafts. 'The Sweeney' just got on with it. Each writer would have ten days to submit his script. One guy took just three days. Occasionally, once in a while, there'd be a second draft. If a third draft was required, it was a sign that a script was in trouble.

Those were the days. 'The Sweeney' is still one of the most influential police dramas ever. A consultant on 'The Bill' once said it was the most realistic TV cop show he'd ever seen. 'Life on Mars' and the atrocious 'Ashes to Ashes' are pallid, pantomimic travesties of the almighty 'Sweeney'.

One draft of the script, lords and ladies. One. Then they went out and filmed it.

By the mid-90s, five drafts of a script was the norm. Which meant that, somewhere along the line, someone in an office had decided to change the story. And the poor old writer was struggling to make sense of it.

At the last count, the Writers' Guild of GB was trying to insist on a maximum of ten to twelve drafts per script contract. Which would mean that a writer hired to produce a script could be made to rewrite that script a dozen times.

If you hired an interior designer, would you expect to send him back to do it all again twelve times over - and all for the same fee?

Would you make a chef cook you a meal twelve times over until you decided it was all right, and still only pay him once?

Let's be clear. Most of the rewrites demanded of scriptwriters these days are complete and utter wastes of time. They do not improve the script. They help to turn it into mashed potato. So why do it?

The answer is one that the media has in common with practically every other major industry these days. Too many fecking managers.

The industry is jam-packed with bright young things whose only skills are wearing suits and talking gibberish. They have no proper function. They have elbowed and schemed and arse-licked their ways into pseudo-jobs in the media. They lack training, originality and common sense.

They have no actual work to do. They have been imported for one reason only: to make their management superiors feel more powerful. What's the point of being Head of Department if there's no one in your department? Better to have a staff of thirty, even if they have no actual work to do, as long as they all respect you as the Great Media Fuhrer.

These people get in the way. They contribute nothing. They are a drain on resources.

And they think they know all about scripts. Delicate scripts, works of genius, the blueprints for drama. They think that they know better than the writer.

They keep coming up with rewrites because IT'S THE ONLY THING THEY CAN DO. Is the rewrite necessary? Probably not, unless it's to repair the damage done by the last set of notes dictated to the writer by a roomful of idiots. Even then, the script will never recover the excitement of its earliest drafts. They'll just keep pummelling it, questioning every element in it, changing their minds and, on the whole, treating the writer like shit until a) the writer has a breakdown, b) everyone loses interest, or c) someone actually has to produce the bastard and time runs out on the timewasters in the designer suits.

Even in the 1990s, producers who had a bit of nous and experience would work with a writer on three drafts of a script. Okay, once you go into production there are likely to be script changes - that's life. But the amount of time wasted - and the degree of exploitation to which writers are exposed, and that includes bullying - while 'developing' scripts until they've been trampled to buggery is a modern outrage.

Three drafts is all it needs. Ten or twelve drafts is a form of abuse.

But as long as the industry is stuffed with pointless people and producers are allowed to get away with it, this abuse will continue. And the quality of scripts will continue to decline.

So - how many production executives does it take to change a lightbulb?

I don't know. Thirty, maybe? But they'll just keep on changing it, and changing it, and changing it ...

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