Tag Archives: Atar Dekel

Writers block

Top-tier television writers are in short supply, so how are producers finding new voices for the small screen? DQ investigates.

If there’s a downside to the current boom in television drama, it might be the often-heard complaint from producers that there is a shortage of writers.

And while it might seem like a bizarre claim – with writing TV shows surely ranking as one of the most coveted jobs in the world – what Europe’s producers really mean is there is a shortage of writers who are trusted to deliver workable scripts for big-budget drama productions.

Belinda Campbell
Belinda Campbell

Given the eye-watering cost of making a TV drama, and the influence a writer can have on other areas such as casting, direction and financing, the emphasis on a chosen few is understandable, says Belinda Campbell, joint MD of UK-based prodco Red Planet Pictures.

“But it does mean brilliant A-list writers get very booked up,” she adds. “We’re fortunate to have good relationships with the likes of Sarah Phelps [Dickensian, And Then There Were None], as well as a CEO with a strong track record [Tony Jordan], but we have waited a long time for writers we wanted for certain projects.”

There is a similar assessment from Kate Harwood, MD of FremantleMedia-owned drama label Euston Films: “Broadcasters don’t tell producers which writers to work with. But when they are constantly being pitched the very best projects, they are bound to select the outstanding work they get from geniuses like Sally Wainwright [Happy Valley]. As a result, there is a lot of competition among producers to secure the services of a handful of talented and experienced screenwriters – though that isn’t always a question of money. If you have the rights to an interesting piece of IP, that can help.”

The challenge is to make sure producers don’t become reliant on a small group of elite writers and prevent new talent coming through, which leads to a second issue – how to get into the TV industry in the first place. Compared with most professions, there is still an air of mystery about how young writers can get their foot in the door, with the industry often accused of failing women, BAME, LGBT and working-class writers.

This lack of a clear pathway, coupled with the bottleneck at the top end, puts TV at risk of over-reliance on similar-sounding voices.

The US doesn’t seem to face the same blockages as Europe. In part, this is because there is such a large demand for TV drama writers from a broad array of networks that commissioners can’t afford to be so prescriptive. But there is also a better talent-advancement model in the shape of writers rooms, says Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle), a sought-after showrunner who came up through the US system, most notably on Fox’s The X-Files, and now plies his trade in Europe.

UnREAL
UnREAL is written by Marti Noxon, who cut her teen working on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“A young writer in the US might start in film school, then write a spec script of a show they are interested in. If the producer of that show likes it, they may be invited to join the writers room as a junior member,” he explains. “Alternatively, some people join a writers room as an assistant and, if they are diligent, may be introduced as a writer after a year or so. On the whole, it feels like a merit-based system.”

From here, says Spotnitz, they will take on more responsibility until they are deemed ready to run their own show. “It took me three years from joining The X-Files until I was running the show – which is pretty swift. Regardless of the speed, however, writers aren’t just learning how to write in a writers room, they are learning everything they need to know about the overall production process to deliver a shooting script.”

This system of on-the-job training has spawned scores of great showrunners – such as Fargo’s Noah Hawley (who cut his teeth on Bones), Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter (The Shield), Power’s Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) and UnREAL’s Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But the writers room model is rare in Europe, says Spotnitz, whose current slate includes Ransom, Medici: Masters of Florence and The Indian Detective. “I use writers rooms for shows that come through my company (Big Light Productions). But it’s still not very common here.”

Kurt Sutter
Kurt Sutter

The main reason for this seems to be production economics. In the US, drama commissions are generally 10 episodes and upwards – with a hardwired expectation/ambition that they will be renewed. By comparison, the majority of dramas in the UK still get produced at eight episodes or under – a number that makes it harder to justify running a US-style team of writers.

So how do writers build their careers in the UK, one of the most prolific TV drama markets outside the US? Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red Production Company, says: “A lot of writers in the UK progress through the soaps or returning drama series. We were fortunate to produce Scott & Bailey for a number of years and that was a great way to nurture talent. After Sally Wainwright [who started her career on soaps like Coronation Street] set the series up, we brought in writers like Amelia Bullmore and Lee Warburton.”

Competitions – although a bit of a lottery – provide another gateway into the business. Lionsgate UK has teamed up with Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures for the Write To Green Light competition, designed to discover new voices in returnable TV drama.

Also up and running for the last few years has been the Red Planet Writing Competition. “We’ve certainly seen the benefit,” says Red Planet’s Campbell. “It introduced us to Robert Thorogood and gave us one of our most successful productions, Death in Paradise. As an aside, it also provided a platform for Daisy Coulam, a writer who came to us after working on soaps like Casualty and EastEnders. Daisy has now gone on to be the creator and lead writer on Grantchester.”

Sally Woodward Gentle, founder of Sid Gentle Films, says theatre is an increasingly important testing ground for UK TV writers. “TV has got so expensive that there aren’t many slots to try out new voices. But there are some good young writers in theatre who have grown up understanding the grammar of TV. And with the recent changes in TV drama, it is an exciting option for them.”

The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel
The Night Manager was adapted by David Farr from John Le Carré’s novel

Examples include Abi Morgan, who went from plays to Peak Practice to acclaimed productions like The Hour and River. Mike Bartlett and David Farr are playwrights who have just delivered two massive hits for the BBC in Doctor Foster and The Night Manager respectively.

Euston Films’ Harwood says authors can also offer a fresh voice for TV: “The transition doesn’t always work, but then there are great examples like Deborah Moggach and Neil Cross, who we are now working with on Hard Sun.” Cross was a novelist before coming on board Spooks and then creating detective series Luther.

Other ways to catch broadcasters’ attention include teaming established authors with proven screenwriters (Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst on Sky1’s The Five) and trying to ride industry trends. Buccaneer Media did this when it hired Nordic Noir hotshot Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) to write ITV’s Marcella.

It’s also noticeable that more movie writers are being enticed into TV – a classic example being John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall), who wrote Penny Dreadful for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

“We have Neal Purvis and Rob Wade [Spectre, Skyfall] writing our adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB for the BBC,” says Woodward Gentle. “Increasingly, film writers are attracted to writing TV series, which is a good development for producers.”

German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world
German drama Deutschland 83 has sold across the world

The recent success of German content in the international market with shows such as Deutschland 83 and the limited choice of local writers with international appeal has led Nico Hofmann, co-CEO of FremantleMedia-owned UFA Fiction, in search of foreign writers.

“For example, we worked with British writer Paula Milne on The Same Sky and, through our FremantleMedia connections, were introduced to Australian writer Rachael Turk. Rachael is now developing an exciting mystery series with us, set in the beautiful area around Lake Constance in south Germany. We are also working together with Oscar winner Dror Moreh [The Gatekeepers] on an adaptation of Frank Schätzing’s bestselling thriller Breaking News.”

Hofmann is also looking beyond the TV industry for fresh voices: “A good example would be Philipp Jessen, with whom we are working on Giftschrank [Poison Cabinet], a drama series about the world of tabloid journalism. Philipp came to us from the world of journalism and has presented us with an authentic and exciting series concept.”

French firm Atlantique Productions’ co-MD Olivier Bibas takes a similar line with regard to France: “Atlantique is focused on TV series that can work in primetime for international TV networks, and there is a shortage of French screenwriters who can deliver those. So we are also looking at the international market for writers.”

Bibas, however, is keen not to get caught up in the bidding wars for high-profile UK or US writers: “We are coproducing a spaghetti western called Django with [Italian prodco] Cattleya in Italian. In that case we have selected three Italian writers for the job because we believe they have the right voice for the project. And in the long run it makes sense for us to invest in new talent.”

Atlantique has also partnered with Sweden’s Nice Productions on Midnight Sun, a thriller set in Sweden’s Arctic region. “This series is written by Måns Mårlind and directed by Björn Stein, two Swedish talents involved in the creation and production of The Bridge,” says Bibas. “In France it is airing on Canal+ [as Jour Polaire].”

Stefan Baron
Stefan Baron

Of course, the popularity of Swedish writers has implications for the domestic market. “Sweden is not a big country,” says Nice Productions head of international coproductions Stefan Baron, “so there isn’t a large pool of writers for productions.”

Baron says the squeeze on Swedish writers is, ironically, being made worse by the increased investment coming into Swedish drama. “There is more money for drama, which is good. But that means a lot more projects in development. So if I try to hire a writer for a project, he may hesitate because he has his own project in development and is waiting for an answer. We could all do with quicker decisions to help free up writers.”

Rola Bauer, CEO of StudioCanal-owned Tandem Productions, echoes that sentiment, while adding that Europe suffers from a writer brain-drain: “A lot of writers, when they reach a certain level of expertise, are tempted to go to LA – which offers a different kind of challenge and potentially high levels of rewards.”

Bauer has also brought in writers with real-world experience, such as ex-cop Ed Bernero who was the showrunner on crime series Crossing Lines.

There are examples like this across the industry. In the UK, Jed Mercurio (pictured top) was a doctor before coming to prominence with medical dramas like Critical. In Israel, war journalist Avi Issacharoff and former soldier Lior Raz created Fauda.

Keshet International (KI) head of global coproductions Atar Dekel says Israel has a number of “talented and prolific writers” who ply their trade across a number of related areas. “It’s a small market, so it’s not uncommon for writers to make money in a number of ways. They’re very entrepreneurial. So you have people who are TV writers, playwrights and journalists.”

A variation on this is the kind of formatted drama KI is so skilled at. “With the UK adaptation of The A Word for the BBC, we needed someone who was interested in the subject matter (child autism) but also knew the local culture,” says Dekel. “So we were fortunate that we secured Peter Bowker.”

Bowker spent 12 years working in a hospital before taking a creative writing course and joining medical soap Casualty. It then took him two decades to secure his place on the UK writer A-list – which underlines two points. First, most writers who make it to the top have learned their trade the hard way; and second, their value to producers lies in the fact that they will almost certainly deliver a decent end product.

With that in mind, the negative connotations of writer blockages in Europe need to be set against the fact the TV drama system is booming in terms of ratings and quality. At the same time, however, the strength of the business shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the issue of diversity.

Most producers agree that, in partnership with broadcasters, they need to take more risks if they are to truly reflect their audience. Red’s Hollick would also like to see “more development money going into this area, not just schemes that go nowhere,” adding: “Channel 4, Lime Pictures and our company did some good work with Northumberland University and the Northern Writers’ Awards, attempting to identify raw and diverse talent in the north of England. We really need to get out into communities to find exciting new talent.”

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Game of Thrones and OJ dominate Emmys

Game of Thrones will end in 2018
Game of Thrones will end in 2018

The 2016 Primetime Emmys didn’t spring too many surprises when its winners were unveiled at the weekend. One of the top performers on the night was HBO’s magnificent Game of Thrones (GoT), which was named Best Drama for the second year running.

Aside from being one of US cable TV’s most-watched series ever, it has now broken the record for the highest number of Emmys won by any fictional series (38, beating Frasier’s 37).

GoT’s two showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, also picked up Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the season six’s Battle of the Bastards. This follows their win in 2015 for the exceptional Mother’s Mercy episode.

George RR Martin
George RR Martin

The big irony surrounding GoT, of course, is that there is such a schism between the progress of the TV series and the progress of the books it is based on. The novels’ author George RR Martin is, much to the consternation of his fans, taking an eternity to finish his magnum opus.

But the end of the show is now just two seasons away and there is no question that Martin will still be tapping away at his keyboard when Benioff and Weiss’s TV adaptation concludes in 2018 with season eight.

DB Weiss and David Benioff
DB Weiss and David Benioff

For those of us who fell in love with GoT as a written work, that creates a conundrum regarding the story’s closure.

HBO also has a conundrum, which is what to do when its most popular show by far ends. It seems so unlikely that HBO would let such an important franchise slip through its fingers that everyone remotely interested in GoT is speculating on whether there is scope for a prequel.

When this subject came up after the latest batch of Emmy wins, Martin kept that possibility open – with a proviso. “I do have thousands of pages of fake history of everything that led up to Game of Thrones, so there’s a lot of material there and I’m writing more,” he said, before adding: “At the moment we still have this show to finish and I still have two books to finish, so that’s all speculation.”

If there is a prequel, however, it seems Benioff and Weiss have already decided they won’t be involved. In response to questions about the idea, Benioff said: “You might want to ask George about that. It’s a great world that George created. I think it’s a very rich world, and I’m sure there will be other series set in Westeros but, for us, this is it.”

Of course, this means HBO actually has two challenges – how to keep the spirit of GoT alive and how to hold on to Benioff and Weiss. Maybe it’s time for a Lord of the Rings reboot…

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
FX’s The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

Another writer to go home with an Emmy last weekend was DV DeVincentis for Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – an episode of FX’s excellent series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special). All told, The People vs OJ won nine Emmys from 22 nominations, making it the top performer on the night.

DeVincentis wrote three of the show’s 10 episodes and was part of a writing team led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Echoing an increasingly common theme in the TV business, his previous credits are mostly movies (but with some extended career gaps).

DV DeVincentis
DV DeVincentis

He co-wrote the John Cusack film Grosse Pointe Blank in 1997 and then penned the Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity (also starring Cusack) in 2000. Short-lived TV series Dead Last (2001) and movie Lay the Favourite (2012) followed. The latter, which didn’t review well, reunited him with director Stephen Frears, with whom he worked on High Fidelity. Now he’s in the TV big league, but there is no news yet on his next scripted project.

The winner of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series was Netflix’s Master of None, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. This makes it a good year for SVoD comedy, with Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle picking up a Golden Globe in early 2016.

While Ansari, the star of the show, is by far the better known of the two, Yang put himself firmly in the spotlight this week with an Emmy acceptance speech that pleaded for more diversity – but immediately managed to stir up a controversy on the subject.

He said: “There’s 17 million Asian Americans, and 17 million Italian Americans. They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and The Sopranos. We’ve got Long Duk Dong [a character from Sixteen Candles regarded as a racist stereotype by the Asian community]. So we have a long way to go. But I know we can get there, I believe in us, it’s just gonna take a lot of hard work. Asian parents out there, if you can do me a favour: just a couple of you, get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll all be good.”

Aziz Ansari comedy Master of None
Aziz Ansari comedy Master of None

While Yang’s intentions can’t be faulted, the sensitivity of the diversity issue was underlined when his comments received a disapproving response from The National Italian American Foundation, which said it was “disturbed by the very public degradation of Italian American history. Mr Yang listed what he considered to be notable representations of Italian Americans in the entertainment industry citing Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. Mr Yang’s comments, while meant to point out the under-representation of Asian Americans in film, ended up including a reckless disregard for Italian Americans by citing films that portray Italian Americans as violent, dim-witted, and involved with organised crime – all three – and insensitive stereotypes that in no way reflect the lives of everyday Italian Americans.”

Away from the Emmys, Channel 4 in the UK and NBCUniversal-owned comedy streaming channel Seeso have announced there will be a second season of Flowers, a dark dysfunctional dramedy that stars Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). Produced by Kudos and distributed by Endemol Shine International, the show was created by Will Sharpe.

Flowers stars Julian Barratt and Olivia Colman (centre)
Flowers stars Julian Barratt and Olivia Colman (centre)

Sharpe is best-known as an actor (Casualty, Sherlock, Dirk Gently), with Flowers his first significant breakthrough on the writing front. Commenting on the re-commission, he said: “Channel 4, Kudos, Seeso and [executive producer] Naomi de Pear have all been such supportive partners on this show and I’m very excited about working with them on another series of Flowers.”

C4 deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans added: “Covering complex issues like fidelity, mental health, sexuality and fraying family bonds, Will Sharpe’s hilariously awkward and heart-breaking show offers another unmissable look at the Flowers’ messed up world. Will’s scripts and the show’s perfect cast are so brilliant at making you wail with laughter one minute, and well up the next.”

Also this month, French production group Newen and the distribution and production arm of Keshet Media Group, Keshet International (KI), unveiled a drama development initiative for French and Israeli writers of high-end drama series. The two companies are calling for professional writers to submit proposals and projects in either English or Hebrew for unique one-hour or half-hour drama series with appeal for European audiences.

Flowers writer Will Sharpe
Flowers writer Will Sharpe

The initiative is being led by Atar Dekel, head of global scripted coproductions and Nelly Feld, KI sales director for Europe, on behalf of KI, and Sandra Ouaiss, Newen head of coproductions.

Dekel said: “Within KI’s aim to grow its global drama coproductions, we are excited to be partnering up with a company as prestigious as Newen. This is a unique opportunity for the creative communities in both France and Israel to take their local stories to the international stage. There is a keen appetite in the global market for Israeli and French scripted content and we hope this collaboration will instigate several high-end international coproductions.”

The submission period began on September 6 and ends on October 31 this year. Each candidate may submit a maximum of two projects via the KI or Newen websites  (where full terms and conditions are available). The firms have committed to selecting at least one and up to three projects that they will co-develop and coproduce if appropriate. The finalists will be announced in January 2017 and given the opportunity to work with an experienced European showrunner.

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