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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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].”
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.”
tagged in: Atar Dekel, Atlantique Productions, Belinda Campbell, Caroline Hollick, Euston Films, Frank Spotnitz, Kate Harwood, Keshet International, Nico Hofmann, Olivier Bibas, Red Planet Pictures, Red Production Company, Rola Bauer, Sally Woodward-Gentle, Sid Gentle Films, StudioCanal, UFA Fiction