TBI Scripted: Ending the ‘gun for hire’ approach

Dan Sefton

As part of our focus on delivering more incisive commentary on the global content business, TBI is launching a series of new strands of longer-form content, which will be delivered online to our readers around the world. 

To kick off our TBI Scripted strand, which will run every Tuesday, we hear from UK screenwriter Dan Sefton about a new way to appeal to in-demand writers that could signal a sea-change in the way the business works. 

When I was offered the opportunity to develop a 10-part crime series for a German broadcaster, their sensible and logical request for 10 fully worked out crime stories caused a certain amount of trepidation. Ten! That’s a lot of work. Too much for one person, at least in the time available. We’re going to need a team.

When money is no object, writer’s rooms are a cinch. Hire the best you can and pay well for exclusivity. Problem was, we didn’t have that much cash. The usual UK solution is a pretty bad deal for writers – a story conference at a day rate with the promise of an episode sometime in the future. Maybe you’ll get through, maybe you’ll get fired. Write, try to please the capricious producers and move on. It works, and I’d been part of it for years. But this wasn’t a UK primetime show and didn’t have obvious cachet. However, we still needed to be attractive to talented and in demand writers. How could we offer more?

The Mallorca Files

In the previous year, I’d been working far closer to production as a UK showrunner on shows like Trust Me and The Good Karma Hospital. It was eye-opening, exciting and stimulating. Decisions that had previously made little sense to me as a writer for hire became clearer. Surely all writers on a show should have access to this kind of information? With The Mallorca Files, I wanted to do things a little differently – effectively offering writers the chance to step into an EP role on their own episodes. Luckily, Cosmopolitan founder and EP Ben Donald was fully supportive.

Our initial writer’s room on The Mallorca Files started with a statement of intent that later morphed into a semi-serious, written ‘manifesto’. In pre-production we paid for stories and scripts but made sure everyone was across the entirety of the series, so any story clashes were organically kept to a minimum. A WhatsApp group was set up to share ideas (and co-ordinate social gatherings). The culture was one of mutual support, not divide and rule.

As the show went into production, all the writers remained at the heart of the show. This meant going on production recces, watching casting tapes, seeing key costume choices early, taking meaningful director meetings, going on set with cast and finally giving notes on the edit and mix. In addition, being script polished by the showrunner was not failure, but part of the process.

Trust Me

This all sounds very reasonable, but the enthusiastic response from the writing team speaks to just how unusual this has been in the UK industry to date. For too long, writers have been excluded from the ‘grown up’ conversations, expected just to hand over their scripts and wait until their episode is transmitted to see the results, good, bad or indifferent. It breeds a sense of ‘us and them’ among writers. They create the episode, but they feel a long way from the levers of control. There’s a reason writers rarely go to wrap parties.

This is wrong. We should make every writer feel genuine creative ownership of the show. It’s their show too, no one should simply be a ‘gun for hire’. The quid quo pro has always been explicit – in return for a writer’s time and talent we offer an open opportunity to acquire the skills they need to become a showrunner. Not everyone wants to do that, and that’s fine, but as a writer myself, this deal seems fair to me. The quid pro quo is that ‘bad behaviour’ is not allowed – no foot stamping or hissy fits. As I explained to one of our writers, when it comes to production decisions, you have a vote, not a veto.

We are now filming season two of The Mallorca Files and creating season three. The team has grown but our only drop out has been someone who had their own original series greenlit. The WhatsApp group remains active. New writers have been initially sceptical, but are soon convinced that we really do walk it like we talk it. The process really does work, not just for writers, but for the entire creative team. Not a cult (yet) but a culture of genuine respect for that initial spark of creativity from which everything else follows.

Dan Sefton has been behind shows including Trust Me and The Good Karma Hospital, and is currently showrunner and lead writer on The Mallorca Files, the big budget drama recently extended into a second season by the UK’s BBC, Germany’s ZDF and France 2.

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