The Outcome of the WCOS 2014
Recently Warsaw hosted the Third World Conference of Screenwriters, a two-day event for 170 screenwriters from around the world. The event, co-financed by the Polish Film Institute, closed with the Warsaw Resolution, which asserts the essential role of the screenwriter in the creative process.
170 screenwriters from the United States, Canada, India, Nigeria, Israel, and a number of European countries; in total, the Third World Conference of Screenwriters gathered representatives of 30 screenwriters’ guilds, representing 56,000 writers. Special guests included Andrew Davies (screenwriter of House of Cards) and Hagai Levi (screenwriter of In Treatment). The conference featured 14 panel discussions, addressing issues of key significance for screenwriters.
New Possibilities in the Internet Age
The Warsaw event summarized the ways in which the fact that online access to television content is on the rise influences scriptwriting. “The ability to either write for or to have your shows, your products, shown on the internet, which means that […] the audience can access them at any time […], it meant that most of the old limitations on writing product had gone away. Television now, that can be viewed over the Internet, it’s becoming increasingly like a novel — with complex plots that lead from one episode to the next […] – all of those things that had been somewhat limited in the traditional television model, where if the network, for example, didn’t know that you had tuned in on week one, they couldn’t be sure you’d be tuning in on week two. And if you tuned in on week three, they had to make sure you didn’t need to know anything that happened on week one and week two. All of a sudden, the product that’s written becomes much more complex and interesting. And […] written by a range of people who would never have been able to write these things before,” said Christopher Keyser, president of Writers Guild of America West, at the Warsaw conference. The result is that currently 70 percent of WGA members write for television; it is in television series that they can accomplish what seems to be impossible in film. Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, said that in television, it is the writer and not the director who is god and king.
Screenwriters have also begun to strengthen their position in television by taking on the role of showrunners, who control the entire creative process. “I always try to hire people who are smarter than I am […]. If you hire the right line producer and the right post-producer, they’re going to do the heavy lifting,” said Tom Fontana, Borgia showrunner. “To be a producer is not about being a businessman. To be a producer [means] you own the rights. The product is yours,” said Hagai Levi.
Writing Alone vs. Team Work
At the Warsaw conference, screenwriters also discussed the concept of the writers’ room, where a group of several writers works with the lead screenwriter, who is responsible for the final outcome of the script. This model of television series writing has been on the rise in the United States and in Europe. “[in] the shows that I tend to do, the last thing I want is for there to be one voice. I’d like there to be one vision, but I don’t want it to be one voice. […] It should be a cacophony of sounds, of lives, of points of view. When you have writers on staff and freelance writers, you get a variety of voices,” said Tom Fontana.
“In the early stages, we work multiple hours several times a week, discussing plotlines, characters — this brainstorm lasts for months, before the outlines of the first episodes take shape. Then we organize a 2-3 day meet once every two or three months; we often travel somewhere and spend time there discussing the series of events and plots for the next 40 or 50 episodes,” said Ilona Łepkowska about the work of her creative teams.
Canadian writer Denis McGrath discussed the role of the individual in creative teams. “You have to be aware, and present, and understand what your role in that group is going to be. […] Some people […] are just idea geniuses – you don’t like that one? Here’s another one. And then you have somebody that’s very thoughtful. There are people, there are great writers – they will sit there for six hours, they will not say much of anything […]. And then, at 3:30, they will say one thing, that you just look at them and go: You son of a b-tch. You just earned your money today. […] The showrunner – that is their job; to put together that group of people and say: who do we think would go well together?”
The Scandinavian Success Story
At one of the panel discussions, screenwriters discussed the elements that contributed to the success of Scandinavian productions. “The things that we look at in the Scandinavian model are funding, so that the screenwriters are allowed to develop their stories to a very great extent compared to a model where there is a lot of pressure to get the story out and produce things very quickly. The Scandinavians give their stories time to mature, and they give their writers the time and the resources and the money to develop those stories, and […] the writers are not just cast aside once the script is delivered, they take part in the vision of the series,” said Robert Taylor, vice president of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe.
“[In Denmark] we don’t differentiate between movies and television, […] it’s one business, it’s not separate,” said Mette Heeno, explaining that the best directors, actors and screenwriters have been working in both film and television ever since Lars von Trier’s 1994 film The Kingdom, which, according to her, played a key part in the increase in quality of television productions.
The Role of Women in the Film Industry
The conference also addressed the issue of underrepresentation of women as decision-makers and in key creative roles, which has been visible in the film industry for years. David Kavanagh, representative of the Irish Playwrights’ and Screenwriters’ Guild, presented research data about Irish female screenwriters, and said: “We don’t like to use the word, but let’s be straightforward here — there is some kind of strange form of discrimination. Women are going into the system, and they’re not surviving through the system the same way that men do.” (20% of female vs. 80% male screenwriters for feature films). UK-based Olivia Hetreed said that women do hold quite a number of decision-making positions, but this does not improve the situation of women trying to make it into the business: “Women [gatekeepers] seem to try to guess what a man would do. […] Everyone […] interviewed said […] it’s getting better, but the numbers do not reflect that – it’s actually gotten slightly worse between 2008 and now.” Jill Golick from Canada said that the widely popular opinion is still that men won’t watch women’s programming, while women will watch shows for men.
Guild members present at the conference agreed that financial incentives for hiring women would certainly impact the balance between men and women active in the industry. As a result, the Warsaw conference passed an additional resolution that calls for increased attention to the problem of discrimination and taking anti-discriminatory action by creating a goal of having a 50 percent share of female screenwriters active in the business.
The Warsaw conference also addressed a number of legal issues, including those on negotiating collective agreements on minimum wages. “Do minimums become maximums? Yes, they do. That’s just the fact of many marketplaces,” said Maureen Parker from Canada. The threshold of writing for free has also been pushed much further; certain television stations don’t pay for pilots developed at their request. Later it often turns out that they asked several screenwriters to work on the idea, and the broadcaster ends up choosing whichever project they consider to be the best. “A whopping 87 percent of [surveyed UK screenwriters] reported that they had been asked to work for free in conditions where they previously had never been asked to work for free,” reported Bill Armstrong, adding that “we have started a campaign which is called ‘Free is Not an Option.'” Writing for free has become the norm, not least because writers agree to do so.
Regulations concerning copyrights were also discussed in Warsaw. Anjum Rajabali, representing India, admitted that in his country, the prevailing opinion until recently was that ‘copyright is the right to copy,’ Other topics addressed included ways of convincing agents, guilds, and rights management organizations to cooperate in the screenwriters’ best interest.
A Presentation of the Polish Film Market
The opening of the WCOS03 World Conference of Screenwriters was followed by a screening of Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa. Man of Hope). After the screening, Andrzej Wajda talked about creating unique characters, the situation of filmmakers under communism, and about his struggle with censorship. At the conference’s inaugural meeting for international screenwriters, Jacek Fuksiewicz, representative of the Polish Film Institute, presented the Polish system of funding for film production.
The Warsaw conference was the third event in the World Conference of Screenwriters series, following the first edition in Athens (2009) and second in Barcelona (2012). “In the name of the French Guild, I am very pleased to invite you, writers and screenwriters of the world, [to] Paris in 2016. […] I think it will be very hard to do better than the Polish Guild,” said Jean-André Yerlès.
The conference was organized by the Polish Filmmakers Association in cooperation with filmmakers’ associations from other countries and the Creative Europe Desk Poland. The WCOS03 event was financed by the Polish Film Institute, ZAiKS, ZAPA, the City of Warsaw, and Telewizja Polska.
“What is good for writers is also good for those who pay for our work,” said Christopher Keyser, president of the Writers Guild of America West, in his closing remarks.
Members of the 30 guilds present at the Warsaw conference adopted the Warsaw Resolution, which asserts the essential role of the creator and his or her singular vision in the production of quality television.
THE WARSAW RESOLUTION
October 2, 2014
The third World Conference of Screenwriters in Warsaw was organized at a time of great change in the global film and television industries.
This golden age of television is created by writers. The season(s) long narrative arc allows unprecedented room for the development of multi-dimensional characters and intricate plots.
Investment in writers to allow them the creative and financial space to do what they do best is key to the strengthening and continuation of quality television which appeals to audiences both local and global.
Be it resolved that the 30 screenwriter guilds present in Warsaw at WCOS03, representing 56,000 writers, assert the essential role of the creator and his/her singular vision in the production of quality television. We propose the Danish model of “one vision”, which has respect for creators at its core, as the industry standard to be adopted by broadcasters, digital subscription services, funding agencies, producers and studios.
Writers must be provided with the time and resources to develop their plots and characters without either being rushed to camera or interfered with by executives who so often muddy the creative waters. We also resolve to focus on professionalizing the “Created By” credit in all our negotiations to ensure fair remuneration and respect are attached, and to create a global standard for this credit.
Be it resolved as well that the 30 screenwriter guilds present in Warsaw at WCOS 03 call for the financial means necessary through collective bargaining for all writers to be able to focus on their craft in order to support, encourage and preserve the professional quality of the stories the audience expects and deserves.
Translated by Karolina Kołtun