Friday, October 28, 2011

Have you considered a smaller desk?

An article I wrote appeared in this week's Broadcast, but they didn't pay me for it, there doesn't seem to be any facility for comments, and it's behind a (not terribly effective to be honest) paywall, so I may as well put it up here.

One thing comedy writers in particular quickly get used to is hearing how little money there is at the start of a project.

We’re constantly being told by production companies that if we do a treatment right now, they’ll find “money for development” (they won’t); that if we do a little script polish/total rewrite, “money can be moved around to pay for it” (it can’t); or this from a producer sitting behind a desk slightly bigger than my house: “Your script shouldn’t be a sitcom, it should be a film and I absolutely have money for this right now” (he didn’t).

However, in the past few years, I’ve moved from fairly regular, if relatively low-paid, gigs in comedy and kids’ telly to developing fewer, bigger, drama projects.

Lots of these I’ve been lucky enough to develop in-house with the BBC, where people do seem to talk to one another and money arrives fairly quickly – apart from one incident where it went to another writer with a similar name, quite possibly the estate of Henry James, whose custodians I think occasionally write confused letters asking why they’re getting Bob The Builder residuals.

Sadly, Gillian Anderson never came round to my house to ask for tips on House of Mirth (or if she did, I was out).

Tragically, because not all of my projects can rely on a vast and chilling corporate behemoth dedicated to breaking the backs and minds of innocent licence fee payers, I currently have a number of drama projects in development with those efficient and nimble free-market agents known as ‘independent production companies’.

This means that although on paper I’m doing far better than I was a few years ago when I was writing for Shaun The Sheep and Green Wing (effectively a sketch show, remember), and I handed in a script in March, I’m writing this with mounting overdraft fees on a laptop whose screen only works when it’s at an angle of exactly 60 degrees to the keyboard, and a rubbery nipple where an ‘M’ key used to be.

I can’t afford to replace my laptop because the increasingly insanely detailed contracts my agent is having to deal with, often including all-in format deals for outlines that are just a couple of pages long, mean that although the money is definitely there, my relationship to it is worryingly similar to that of a Dickensian urchin to his inheritance.

Of course, the producers themselves are often scrabbling for cash (although I can’t help feeling smaller desks would help). The problem is, fewer, bigger projects means bigger gaps for writers to fall down while they wait to get paid.

Managing expectations better would help. We know this isn’t a normal job, and all self-employed people learn to manage for gaps in their income, but if producers don’t start making the prompt payment of writers a priority, I foresee a dark future where all television scripts are churned out either by people who live in bins and thus have no outgoings, or the JulianFellowesBot 3000. And I really don’t want to see any more series about footmen.

➤James Henry has realised with a dark and terrible irony that a) he has possibly written this for no money; and b) he is currently working on a BBC4 project that includes footmen


Tim F said...

You wrote a BBC4 project just for my family? Maybe that explains your rubbery nipple.

But I'm intrigued by the notion of an ineffective paywall. Can you get through by paying with elderly pesetas you've kept since a holiday in 1983? Or do you just claim to be on the guest list?

The WV, meanwhile, is pogativ, which I'm guessing is someone who is especially well disposed to little plastic discs.

Annie said...

Producers know that creative people are constantly wracked by self-doubt, and that's why we suck it up.

Because there "isn't any money" on the job I'm on (a drama about the building of a ship the size of Jupiter – hello?) I agreed not to be paid any overtime or lunch money in pre-production, even though I'm working a 12 hour day with no breaks.

I know "lunch money" and "overtime" are probably completely alien concepts to a self-employed script writer like yourself, James, but I can GUARANTEE you that every construction worker, every stage-hand, and every extra is getting paid this. Because they know that what they do is invaluable to a production, even if it's loading boxes all day. Whereas I frantically design and make props and set pieces just thinking "well, I guess I'm not worth anything after all, I suppose they could do all this without a set if they had to..."

Anonymous said...



Paul said...

Just wanted to say that not all producers are alike. On the last three projects I've developed, the writer has been paid more than the producer. FAR more. I'd say I've made 10% of what I've paid writers over the past couple of years. Now that one of those projects is complete and going out to market, I expect to make some back end - but that's after three years of keeping a business open by hook and by crook. So, yeah, some producers skin writers alive, some producers don't. Try to work with the ones who don't, is my advice.

James Henry said...

Thanks for comments!

A very valid point Paul, will put it in the main post.