Another writers’ strike? It’s like a surreal Hollywood sequel

Ireland wants to be a ‘global hub’ for TV, but words don’t end up on the screen by magic

 

The great actor Morgan Freeman does not, surprisingly, think that acting is a creative profession. Acting is more like “interpreting” the creative work of others, he told the London Times. “Someone else does the creating: the writer, who sits down with a blank piece of paper and comes up with something.”

Freeman may be underplaying the contribution of actors here, but it’s his support for “the writer” that is most refreshing. Writers – those mythical creatures that cough up screenplays in the night – have rarely been seen as power players in auteur-lauding Hollywood. There’s no prizes for being nice to writers, unless that writer is JK Rowling.

Laborious process

Even in the scripted television business, where writers are traditionally given more credit, the spotlight rarely falls on the laborious process by which a blank piece of paper is turned into “something”. Too many people claiming to be in the business of supporting television talk and think about the writing bit as if it’s the easy part or, worse, as if it happens by magic.

Now for a sentence that still sounds funny no matter how many times I read it back: the Writers Guild of America may be about to go on strike. Again. At the time of, ahem, writing, talks between the guild and the producers’ alliance were ongoing.

A quick recap: The last 100-day stoppage in 2007-2008 is estimated to have cost the entertainment industry more than $2 billion. Worse, it really messed up the final season of Battlestar Galactica.

Surreal comedy

Screenwriters on this side of the Atlantic, however, will remember this previous strike as a surreal comedy based on the far-fetched premise that writers have collective bargaining power. If only the idea of writing for television as a viable career didn’t also seem a bit outlandish.

Since the Government launched its Creative Ireland strategy last December, more than one television producer has mentioned it to me in conversation in a “well, that’s what they say what they want to do” tone.

The 32-page document reveals a shock twist. Apparently, the Government wants Ireland to become “a global hub for the production of film, TV drama and animation”. It references Ireland’s “storytelling/literary history” as if being Irish is some innate qualification that writers can take into the pitching room.

To get hired, writers need experience. But how do Irish screenwriters or would-be screenwriters build up their flying miles?

Recent writing “academy” schemes for TV3’s Red Rock, funded by Screen Training Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, have been eye-catching precisely because they are rare.

‘Craft deficit’

Here, applicants were required to have at least one drama writing credit – which could be in television, film, radio or theatre. Ed Guiney, whose company Element Pictures makes Red Rock, once told me that while Ireland had great writers, many were not familiar with the process of writing for a recurring television drama. “It’s not a talent deficit, it’s very often a craft deficit.”

At RTÉ, writers new to television can learn about script development by shadowing Fair City writers, and, if they have the aptitude, they can go on to write for the soap – typically about six episodes a year. RTÉ’s online short drama scheme Storyland has also served as an occasional nursery for new writers.

The Irish Film Board, meanwhile, is a potential source of development finance for television drama aimed at the international marketplace. But the Irish Film Board is constrained in the development funding it can offer by the modest size of its annual budget. Its capital funding allocation of €12.7 million for 2017 may be up €1.5 million on last year, but it remains way lower than its pre-recession funding of €20 million.

Seed funding

Most people on the ground in the industry know what should be done. There should be more seed funding directly aimed at writers, more varied routes to market and more chances for screenwriters to hone their craft and compete in the age of peak TV.

Not everybody can be HBO, Sky or the BBC, much less Netflix, but the hit rate achieved by Danish national broadcaster DR over the past decade is something that can be emulated. Its head of drama Piv Bernth, an in-demand speaker at media conferences, is a believer in giving writers the time, space and, yes, the funding they need to develop a project. “It’s not that expensive to have a couple of writers sitting in a room, figuring stuff out,” she has said. Blank pieces of paper all round.

Wooden outhouse

Bernth once reminisced how she and the creator of DR’s The Killing first developed the show in a wooden outhouse where rain sometimes came in through the roof. There was a weird, sweet smell in the air. “So we had someone from the cleaning company come in, who took up the floorboards, and found lots of dead rats underneath. It was a real creative paradise.”

No one ever said writing for television was a glamorous job. But it might be no harm to start thinking of it as an actual job.

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