Back in the room

Back in the room

January 26, 2024

The Writers Room

As the dust settles on the US writers strike, Jeff Melvoin, Anna Winger and Suzie Miller debate the challenges and opportunities for writers and writers room models and discuss why they should be trusted to make creative decisions.

As the US television industry gets back to work following actors and writers strikes that took place last year, a trio of leading writers sat down to discuss the implications of the deal won by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).

Writers went out on strike in May after clashing with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) over issues including pay and residuals, and the use of emerging artificial intelligence with the potential to write scripts.

They also looked to secure minimum staffing agreements, with a designated number of writers on every series, and an end to ‘mini rooms’ that would see fewer writers than usual tasked with creating a show and a number of episodes before production had been greenlit – separating the role of writers and producers and removing the chance of writers progressing to higher positions such as that of showrunner.

When the strike ended in September, writers won concessions on pay, greater transparency around viewing figures on streaming platforms, guidelines for the use of AI and a minimum number of writers for both pre-development and in-production writers rooms.

At Content London, showrunner Jeff Melvoin (Northern Exposure, Alias, Designated Survivor, Killing Eve), writer and producer Anna Winger (Deutschland 83, Unorthodox) and playwright Suzie Miller (Prima Facie) discussed the fallout of the strike, what it means for writers and writers rooms and why producers need to place more trust in the writers they work with.

The US writers room system dates back to radio shows that would run for 39 weeks a year, while television adopted a model of 22 episodes a year – more than one writer could script alone.

Jeff Melvoin

Melvoin: It wasn’t really until Game of Thrones happened in 2013 – it’s only been 10 years, but it rocked everybody’s world and things began to change with shows that were shorter, intensely serialised and that could be binged.

But what’s happened in the meantime is the structure and the customs that grew up with the 22-episode system, in which the showrunner emerged as the leader of most broadcast shows, was threatened. When you start to get down to eight or six episodes, you don’t need the same type of multitasking skills that a showrunner had. You could begin to run it more like the old Hollywood model, where the studio and the director would have more influence.

That model is akin to how television series run in Europe and around the world, marking out the different views on how writers are seen in the overall production process.

Melvoin: The principal difference between how we do things in America and everywhere else is that in America, the writer is perceived as labour and management; and everywhere else in the world, virtually, the writers are perceived as labour only and do not have a place at the production table.

The way the streamers operated, they suddenly realised if you’re going to be demanding all the scripts in advance and you’re going to cross-board them, it’s not the same model as writing continuously through 22 episodes. They thought, ‘We’ll get the scripts in advance. We’ll do a mini room and get the writing done first, we’ll dismiss the writers and then we’ll just carry the lead writer, the showrunner, through [production],’ because the assumption is the scripts are done.

That entire way of doing business was being threatened and undermined by the way the streamers were doing it. And whether it was by intent or just inadvertent, it was real and it was destabilising everything we had been doing for the last 40 years and what our union had really fought for.

Melvoin was showrunner on Kiefer Sutherland drama Designated Survivor

Therefore, the strike was needed to establish some “ground rules” for a minimum number of writers on a show.

Melvoin: What we emerged with – and it was a huge victory for the guild – is minimum staffing requirements that are on a sliding scale, depending on how many episodes are being written. And the writers have to be carried through to a certain point in production. There had never been a need in a contract to mention a show needed writers. It was just assumed. But we felt this time around we had to mention that a show needs writers and these are the number of writers you need for this many episodes.

Based in Berlin, American writer Anna Winger has produced all of her shows out of the German capital. Her company Studio Airlift aims to put writers at the centre of productions, allowing them to learn how to be producers and showrunners.

Anna Winger

Winger: It’s essential that the writer be the producer on the show because if you change something in episode six, it kicks back in every direction, and if you don’t have somebody involved in the whole thing, who understands the intention of every scene, I actually don’t understand how that works. Even though I respect that great TV is made without that, I feel like the writer is an essential part of the process all across the production.

When it comes to writers rooms, Winger’s chief concern was how to pay for a large staff from a budget for just six or eight episodes.

Winger: The writers room model is an incredible thing. It’s just that we’re working on much lower budgets, so when you’re dealing with way less money, the question is how do you do that, really? How do you employ so many people with much lower budgets? That’s the challenge of it.

The writers strike did secure provisions for single-series writers – the ‘Mike White rule,’ so called after The White Lotus creator who writes every episode of the series.

Melvoin: If you want to declare at the beginning of a show that you’re going to write all the episodes, that’s still allowable. You just have to put it out there so that there’s no misconception about that.

Australian playwright Suzie Miller works across Australia, the US and the UK, with a production company based in LA where some of her 40 plays are being developed for the screen.

Suzie Miller

Miller: I don’t want to write every episode of those because I’ve spent a lot of time with each one already. A lot of the work I do that’s original is in the UK or Australia, ideas that I’ve had that have turned into television. But with the American model now, I realise that actually the smart thing would be to keep them all at six episodes per series, because that keeps it quite containable – and it means that tonally I can supervise what all the episodes are.

Choosing the producers you work with is really important. The trust on the writer as storyteller, as the keeper of the story, is something I’m very attracted to. Writers do know story, and sometimes you can throw something into a story to change it because of maybe an insecurity of a producer or something they’ve heard that week or someone they’ve spoken to who said they’re doing something similar.

Sometimes you can ruin the story by throwing something in in the middle of it when it’s already intact. Writers already have a framing device in their head for a show – whether it’s visible or not is another thing. But writers just need to be trusted that little bit more, that they actually are the ones who really know the story.

As well as Deutschland 83 (pictured at the top of this page), Winger is also behind Unorthodox

When writers are also producers, they can also hold more power when it comes to other creative decisions.

Winger: Someone has to make decisions about how the money is spent. And if you’re the person who really understands the intention of what you’re writing, you can also make the decisions about how to cut it or how to reduce cost without compromising the story. Sometimes those decisions even make it better. Often things look more expensive on the page than they need to be, and the showrunning process is so much about figuring out how to make the show you want to make with the money you have to make it.

Melvoin: There are a lot of barriers to the showrunner model outside the US, and they’re being broken down. But we shouldn’t underestimate the challenges, because it’s not just a question of infrastructure and economic model. There’s a whole cultural and psychological dimension to it, too.

There are things from productions around the world that Americans need to look to learn from, and there’s a lot that people can learn from America. We’re all going to have to be more collaborative and recognise that the showrunner is the one who can make your most efficient show. Just give us the opportunity to weigh in and participate in those discussions.

Winger: One of the challenges, at least in Europe, is you’d only learn how to do this by doing it, so somebody has to let you do it with them. It’s really important that there be showrunners who have writers who work as producers with them. Otherwise, how are they supposed to learn how to showrun? The only way you really learn how to do it is by actually doing it.

Coming from theatre, Miller was used to being in charge of her own work.

Miller: I arrived into television with that expectation, which I realised other TV writers didn’t have, and I thought, ‘Oh, OK’, but I still live like I do have those rights. I do really strongly believe in the writer as the person who really takes care of the story, and I’ve been really lucky in the producers I’ve worked with who said, ‘Yes, you are in charge of the story,’ and they’re very supportive of that.

Melvoin’s other credits include hit BBC show Killing Eve

Looking to the future, Melvoin said everyone in television has to be more resourceful, flexble and collaborative.

Melvoin: Anybody who works in the collaborative medium knows there are a lot of people responsible for the success of a project. There are always those individuals who deserve that title [of showrunner]; they are so distinctive that at least you can say, ‘OK, we can allow for that.’ But in most cases, those of us who are less than superhuman, yes, you can be in charge of the production but you need to surround yourself with great people and you want to share that credit with those people.

One of the things I sense from talking to a number of European writer-producers is there’s great resistance and fear of the showrunner title, as if we’re both fighting for command of the controls at an aeroplane, and while we’re fighting, the plane is going to crash.

Winger: They think the writer doesn’t care about the money. That’s a huge thing. They think they’re going to be bankrupted. But that’s only because they’re not teaching the writers about how the money is done.

Melvoin: The threat to existing producers of surrendering power to a writer is real. That’s a tough challenge for a number of people I’ve talked to – how do we convince the powers that be that, actually, you need to share a little bit of the authority with me? I just want a place at the table. I don’t need to take over the table.

But will another talking point during the writers strikes, artificial intelligence, change the conversation once again about writers and their role in the television industry?

Melvoin: Without doubt, if a studio could replace us with machines, they would. But I don’t really see that as a serious threat at this point. We can’t be Luddites and say, ‘Let’s put the genie back in the bottle.’ The genie is not going back in the bottle, so how do we use it?

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