Free Is Not An Option

Today I was fortunate enough to attend the TV Writers’ Festival hosted by the invaluable BBC Writers Room.

During the panel with Piers Wenger (BBC head of drama), Victoria Fea (drama commissioner at itv), and Anna Hargreaves (drama executive at sky), someone in the audience (I believe writer/producer Chris Jury, but I was seated in the front and he in the back, so didn’t get a close look), asked the panel about the scourge of indie producers asking writers to “work” for free.

At first, the panel looked at him like he had 3 heads. Then he asked the audience (who were all working, credited writers) to raise their hands if they’d been asked to write substantial work (i.e. not just a one-two pager) for free by producers. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say every hand in the house when up.

The commissioning executives looked shocked.

The writers in the room felt validated.

I raised my hand to offer some additional perspective based on a combination of my own experience and hearing from many writers over the past year or so.

Later, one of the panelists emailed me to summarise and expand on my point in a note (which I did) and I thought I’d share an (edited for ease of reading) version here:

There exists a conventional wisdom among many indie prodcos (indeed 100% of the ones I have spoken to / work with) that the main commissioning broadcasters only want to work with “commissionable writers”, of which there is believed to be about 20-25. One broadcaster executive (I won’t name names) famously has an actual list pinned to their office wall (a producer I know took a picture of it with their camera when alone). The knock-on effect is that when indie prodcos interface with writers who aren’t on that list, they seek to reduce the perceived risk of working with a non “commissionable writer” by getting as much work executed (i.e. words on the page) as possible to be able to show the commissioner that the “risk” of using the writer is lessened.

How does this manifest?

Well, if a writer pitches an idea, the producer will ask for a short treatment / write up. I think most writers, myself included, have no problem with the notion of scoping / shaping an idea into something tangible because every reader can react differently to a high level idea…it’s the creative execution of the idea that makes it real.  That said, what the vast majority of “non commissionable” writers (who are mostly working writers, often in daytime, radio, theatre, etc) experience is that indies cry poverty and ask for longer treatments, revisions, mini-bibles (“to be able to tell the broadcaster how it’s returnable”) and sometimes whole scripts…for free. The indie typically says that they’ll ask the broadcaster for development money, but the chicken and egg scenario is the they don’t want to approach the broadcaster with insufficient material.  But they don’t want to pay to generate the necessary material to lower the perceived risk.

Often (more often than not) these arrangements are made under a “right to shop” agreement where no money trades hands and the indie has the right to show the broadcaster the pitch/treatment in the hopes of securing development financing. If the broadcaster passes, the indie isn’t out of pocket but the writer has spent a lot of hours “on spec” and their project is now shopped and dies a slow death in their desk drawer.

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the true indies that try to boot-strap their development by asking writers to lean in and maybe share the load. In that scenario, however, my opinion is that writers who take a risk alongside the producer should be entitled to a share of the EP fee upon production. Most indies, however, won’t let a writer touch “their” EP fees.  It’s no surprise that writers are setting up their own production companies (case in point: me).

One of the reasons I raised money for Awesome is be able to solve for this…as you know, I develop my own material (often based on my own books) but increasingly (and now with Kew Media Group’s backing, I’m in a position to champion 3rd party IP and other writers, and to be able to pay for options and to pay writers to write up treatments (indeed the woman who asked the question about gender parity is someone we’ve just hired on a development project and agreed a fair price for her time/effort/creativity to scope out a treatment that’s presentable to broadcasters…if it comes of naught, I’ll be out of pocket but at least she won’t be).

I can tell you that every single writer in that room today was genuinely shocked that the three executives were shocked by the common practice that surrounds nearly every single project that makes its way to their desks.

How can broadcasters help?

Ultimately, the market funnels from writers to producers to broadcasters who only have a few development slots and even fewer on-air slots, so the power vests with the broadcasters and they can help immeasurably in a few ways:

  • telegraph clearly (and publicly) to indies that you are open to pitches from writers who are not on “the list”;
  • ask producers when they present a pitch/idea/treatment if the writer has been paid for this work or if it’s being shopped on spec (this is like the tests jewelry wholesalers must do to guard against conflict diamonds), and;
  • take pitches directly from writers and then seek to pair them with prodcos (this solves the adverse incentive issue of Indies not wanting to put their hands in their pockets unless they are 100% certain of securing development financing).  I recognize this third step is a huge amount of work / material to slog through, so may not be practical, and in the UK it’s typically the indie producers who serve as the signal for quality (in the US, it’s the agents), but maybe there is a baby step by empowering a trusted third party (e.g. the way Writers Room operates, BFI in the film space, the C21 Drama Summit “pitch” day) to “filter” the good from the rubbish.

I don’t claim to speak for all writers, but I am in a special position to operate in the marketplace as both a writer and a producer. Wearing both hats has given me access to many writers and I can vouch for the fact that when those hands went up in air today, they went up based on their personal experience which reflects a systematic challenge in our creative ecosystem.

I found out later that there is even a hashtag regarding this phenomenon…#FreeIsNotAnOption

If we’re content with just consuming drama from those on “the list”, then this isn’t an issue, but if we want a diverse set of voices writing our telly (including new, female, under-represented minorities), then there is a role for broadcasters to help create a healthy, creative ecosystem where writers can be professionals and not (as Chris called out) “amateurs.”

I think we can do better.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to Free Is Not An Option

  1. Mike Ellen June 7, 2018 at 4:35 pm #

    Brilliant this is finally being discussed and loving the shocked reaction from the panel…

    One thing I would say, sometimes the opposite of this from agents can be very counter-productive especially from medium/small indies and actually leads to the kind of behaviour your shine a light on. I am currently right in this situation myself…

    A writer has produced a two page pitch which I like and very keen to work with them. The pitch has been out to at least two or three other indies. One of them, a biggie who have boasted to her about having weekly meetings with one of the people on the panel, initially were very keen, then apparently not. And now the agent has come back to me and said the writer would like to develop with me. Great.

    However having worked on both sides, I am pretty damn sure the biggie indie has run the pitch past at least one broadcaster and come away thinking not worth optioning/developing.

    So now I am being invited to pay for something I’m pretty sure is devalued, or reject working with a writer I really love and want to work with.

    I’d suggest that rather than punting such docs around, writers work on a short pitch with a producer then like and put it in front of a broadcaster at a relatively early stage if poss. Then if there is interest the writer and agent are in a strong position anyway to negotiate a better deal.

    This won’t work for all projects or all producers, it assumes they have something to bring to the table creatively.

    But demanding money for relatively slight documents, can paradoxically lead to producers punting things that don’t belong to them without consent. Or coercing writers to do loads of free work.

    In my opinion…

  2. Dominic Carver June 8, 2018 at 9:03 am #

    Love this. I posted something similar on Facebook yesterday. Your possible solutions are spot on. But after Wednesday do you really think we’ll see a change? I hope so.


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