Sunday, 30 November 2008


Between ten and fifteen years ago, something terrible happened.

(I'm talking about the UK here - the US has specialised in terrible things for a great deal longer than that.)

What happened was unnecessary. Worse than that, it was completely counter-productive.

It was a power battle between producers and writers.

This was a pretty one-sided battle, and it was initiated by the producers. And it was a BIG mistake.

Let's start with a basic fact. A screenwriter without a producer is like a novelist without a publisher. You can spend all your time creating wonderful stuff, but if you're not paired with a producer, it's just paper with scribbles on.

At the same time, of course, a producer without a screenwriter is a mere wannabe.

It's a symbiotic relationship. Writers need producers to turn their brilliant ideas into a kind of reality. Producers need writers to give them those brilliant ideas.

They're the Yin and the Yang of the industry. As such, they're inseparable.

Except that producers forgot that fact. A new breed entered the industry. They were ambitious, they were keen to get on. And they didn't want any lowdown writers stealing their glory. They wanted complete control.

Nowadays, it's almost impossible to consider writers and producers as equals. We're programmed to see producers as god-like individuals with the power of life and death.

But let's remember what a producer without a script looks like. A bit naked, really.

Traditionally, a producer would seek out a writer whose work he or she admired. There would then be a meeting - possibly even an agreeable lunch - and ideas might be batted to and fro.

Between them, the writer and the producer would agree on a plan, a story they wanted to develop. And the producer would say, 'Right, then, off you go, write that script; we'll stay off your back, but if you want us you know where we are. See you in a few weeks.'

That's how scripts happened. Basically, the producer accepted that writing a script is what scriptwriters do. That's why they hired them.

But then came the Cult of Management, along with a trickier environment (commissioning editors were scared, knowing that if they made a mistake they'd be laughed at, and somebody younger with a smarter suit would possibly take their place). The industry ground to a halt. Decisions weren't being taken.

Enter the new producers. The new bunch saw the writer as a problem. These damned writers were, unfortunately, necessary. So to stop them getting ideas above their stations, the producers decided to mess with their scripts and their heads. The idea, I guess, was that the producer would be able to say, 'Well, realistically, I wrote that script: the writer was really just a glorified typist.'

Inevitably, perhaps, there was a massive cull of writers. Projects were damaged because producers who knew nothing about scripts had started interfering, and then some.

Producers began to believe that actors were more important. After all, if you're trying to impress somebody, isn't it better to say 'I'm working with so-and-so, the famous actor', than, 'I'm doing this thing with a writer you've probably never heard of.'

As more and more writers were forced out of the industry, a new crisis arose. No writers! Of course, this meant there were opportunities for newcomers. And these newbies, being young and innocent, had to be steered through the script process by producers. They didn't realise that it's the Writer's Job to Write the Script and it's the Producer's Job to Produce the Damn Thing.

Which is why writers these days are expected to write draft after draft, revising and revising, until the producer accidentally stumbles across whatever it was they were after in the first place.

This is a most unhappy state of affairs, and it will not improve until two things happen.

First - producers have to realise that the relationship between the writer and the producer is not one of hired hand and demanding client. It's more equitable than that. It is, in fact, one expert going into business with another.

Second - writers have to remember that they are the gifted children. Yes: they need producers, because otherwise they may not eat. But they must never forget that producers need them.

It's time for writers to hold their heads up high. The Writers' Guild has been working on a Writers' Manifesto. That in itself is proof of the fact that the relationship between writers and producers has deteriorated - and it is all the fault of the producers.

So - writers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but drafts 4 to 11 of your wonderful script.

Let's remind producers of where they'd be without us, the ungrateful bastards.

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