Série Series 2016: Let’s Talk About Commissioning
by Série Series
- A discussion of collaboration in public broadcasting
(© Sylvain Bardin & Philippe Cabaret)
(Participants: Katrine Vogelsang (head of fiction, TV2, Denmark), Tone C. Rønning (producer for drama and international coproductions, NRK, Norway), Sylvie Coquart (screenwriter, France), Jeppe Gjervig Gram (screenwriter, Denmark), Christian Wikander (head of fiction, SVT, Sweden), Will Sharpe (screenwriter, director and actor, United Kingdom). Chaired by: Séverine Jacquet (head of drama, RTBF, Belgium))
This year, the session “Let’s talk about commissioning” takes the form of a discussion in which several guest channels, both public and private, exchange viewpoints with creators to better comprehend the different routes for collaboration in place in the Europe of today, and to examine the sometimes complex relationships between creation and broadcasting.
Choosing a Series Project
To open the debate, Séverine Jacquet investigates the role of the broadcaster in the creative process, specifically the means used to choose a series project. She recently met with a head of fiction for the American channel Showtime, who explained that a broadcaster must never call upon an actor or producer directly to initiate a new series project. On the contrary, channels must wait for the projects to come to them.
Katrine Vogelsang doubts that Showtime is the most representative example. The American channel has access to the world’s best talent and its editorial profile allows it to take all kinds of risks. For her part, she doesn’t hesitate to receive creators so that they can present new series projects: heads of fiction must always be open to hearing new proposals. Nonetheless, they also play a role in safeguarding their channels’ editorial lines, and as such they have a responsibility to define a precise framework, either in terms of audience, tone or format (the episodes of series broadcast on TV2 have a maximum duration of 42 minutes, for example) within which creators can express themselves as freely as possible. Regardless of the project, and within the limits of the established framework, the creator must feel that they have ownership of the series. “I’m not going to write the series, that’s not my role; so I need to find someone, a creator or screenwriter, to be the guardian of the DNA of the series,” she explains.
As a screenwriter, Jeppe Gjervig Gram feels much more comfortable when a head of fiction has a clear vision of their editorial strategy. Of course, creators need freedom to express themselves, but “total freedom is not an end in itself”.
Television channels have rules to which creators are required to conform. As a writer, as well as formatting issues, Jeppe Gjervig Gram needs to know the broadcaster’s objectives. He has been working with DR, Denmark’s public radio and television group, for several years. All projects developed by the group’s channels must have a social content, reflecting Danish society as it exists today. “If I bring the head of fiction a project for a purely entertainment-based series, I know it will be rejected.” On the other hand, Jeppe Gjervig Gram knew instinctively that his most recent project, Follow the Money (a series that takes place in a financial setting), would find its place in the editorial line of a public channel.
For Tone C. Rønning, this social dimension is an integral part of a channel’s strategy. She admits that it would be very easy for her to sit in her office and wait patiently for creators to come to her and propose new projects. But the head of fiction for a public service channel has a responsibility to be proactive. One of the main difficulties facing NRK today is the lack of representation of the cultural diversity that makes up Norwegian society. A section of the population, including immigrants, is not represented on television. Yet, a televised piece must reflect society and, as such, must address all of the layers that comprise it. Tone C. Rønning has thus taken it upon herself to provide a voice for immigrant populations. “Of course, progress has been made in this area, but it’s not enough.”
Sylvie Coquart wholeheartedly agrees. In this regard, the needs of the channel and those of the creator can meet in the middle. She notes that the role of a screenwriter is to observe and question society as they see it. But in order for those series broadcast on public or private channels to reflect society, there must be a way for all the stakeholders involved in the creation - screenwriters, producers and broadcasters - to engage in a dialogue. Unfortunately, in France, “broadcasters and screenwriters never meet”. In fact, as Sylvie Coquart highlights, they are not allowed to meet, the reason being that “producers are scared that screenwriters will steal their jobs”. In France, screenwriters are left out of the discussion.
Christian Wikander assures us that his door is always open. Writers come to him regularly to pitch their projects directly. Unlike DR, the series broadcast by SVT are not produced internally, so it always calls upon independent producers. A project might arise from discussions between the creator and head of fiction. But in all cases, the series is entrusted to a producer. Christian Wikander uses the term “adoption” because it is in fact a case of “finding new parents for the series”. Often, the channel will even encourage the writer/creator to find for themselves the producer they wish to collaborate with.
Developing a Series
Once the series has been chosen, the project enters a new phase: that of development. Séverine Jacquet remarks that not every series that is developed will come to term. And Tone C. Rønning confirms this. She admits that she has been lucky, but as far as NRK is concerned, of every two series in development only one is actually produced. For his part, Christian Wikander notes that series that are abandoned during the development stage don’t necessarily disappear completely as a result. They might be set aside for potential future broadcasting, or they could even start a new life on another channel.
For Katrine Vogelsang, the most difficult thing for a head of fiction is to say goodbye to a project they care about because it doesn’t correspond to the channel’s editorial line-up. But this is often the only solution. “There is no point in launching into development for a series that wouldn’t meet the needs of the channel, because then you would be tempted to modify the creator’s original vision at the risk of adulterating the project.”
Séverine Jacquet turns next to the issue of pilots. Pilots are commonly used in the United States, much less so in Europe. Christian Wikander isn’t a fan. Having said that, a pilot might be shot for a more complex project, if the concept is difficult to translate into a written scene. In some cases, the pilot makes it possible to respond to the major issues presented by the series, and define its tone.
Will Sharpe, on the other hand, is very much in favour of pilots. For Flowers, a 30-minute pilot was shot. This mechanism made it possible to define the universe in which the series would take place, as well as its visual signature. “The dream scenario,” he points out, “would be to be able to shoot a pilot once the series has been commissioned, but unfortunately this is rarely the case.” In any case, pilots provide some reassurance for broadcasters.
Séverine Jacquet suggests moving on to address the issue of development notes: these notes allow the broadcaster to communicate with the producer and scriptwriter during the development phase, and to express their point of view. Will Sharpe, creator of Flowers, received many notes during the development of his series. He makes a point of noting that the channel always supported his project. When he pitched the series, he immediately understood that Channel 4 was ready to take risks and that he was going to be allowed a great deal of freedom. Nonetheless, as a writer, he likes to have someone from outside keep watch over his work. But for the development notes to be useful, every partner in the project must give their opinion as honestly as possible, without censoring themselves in any way. During the development stage, all parties must be completely free to speak their minds, allowing all perspectives to be expressed. Next, it is up to the creator to take on board all the comments and find the necessary solutions.
Christian Wikander understands Will Sharpe’s argument. However, in the case of co-productions, there can be a large number of partners, and the multiplication of voices or viewpoints can lead to a very muddled and chaotic situation for the writer. Of course, the discussion should be as open as possible, but he does suggest naming a main partner whose role is to gather together all the development notes with a view to drawing a kind of consensus that will allow all the partners to express themselves with a single voice.
Katerine Vogelsang believes that development notes should be as concise and well defined as possible. In her opinion, these notes must be limited to 5 or 6 precise points. These different points will be discussed with the producer, not directly with the writer or writers. “The producer and broadcaster must speak with a single, joint voice,” she confirms.
Jeppe Gjervig Gram explains that at DR, the only development notes he receives are those written by the head of fiction. Once again, these notes are systematically filtered by the producer (who is considered a co-creator) before they are communicated to him. Any notes considered off-topic are disposed of. The producer also takes the liberty of softening some of the sharper remarks, which is greatly appreciated by the screenwriter.
Christian Wikander wholeheartedly agrees. When he drafts a development note, he refrains as far as possible from suggesting solutions for the writer, which would then be perceived as a form of interference in the creative process. “A development note is not an injunction.” The comments must always link back to the premise of the project itself, and the original concept.
For Tone C. Rønning, the development note process must be tailored to each project. Young screenwriters, for example, are more “fragile”, and the role of the head of fiction is often to provide encouragement. More experienced screenwriters can be somewhat arrogant and tend to be too sure of themselves. The broadcaster must, therefore, find a different way of communicating with them. The same model cannot be applied to every case. In addition, Tone C. Rønning insists upon the need to define the communication process between broadcaster, producer and writer ahead of the development process (and to continuously redefine this process throughout the development stage).
Sylvie Coquart has co-produced six series. She insists that she has never received a development note from a broadcaster. Unfortunately, at least in France, broadcasters and screenwriters do not collaborate and their interaction is more akin to a “master and slave” type of relationship. Paradoxically, screenwriters are often asked to take and assume all the risks! Nonetheless, Sylvie Coquart observes that the appearance of the system of showrunners in France has allowed relations to improve between writers and broadcasters. The relationships that can be forged between a channel and a showrunner can be much more balanced.
During shooting, the series concept is handed over to the director, who is responsible for creating the image. Asked about the director’s participation, Christian Wikander notes that if he is not the writer for the series, he must intervene only once the project is completely stabilised. Speaking specifically about Sweden, he points out that this country has a long tradition of art-house cinema (Sweden is home to Ingmar Bergman). For a long time, directors held all the power. The appearance of television series changed the game somewhat.
Will Sharpe observes that effectively, in cinema, “the director is placed on a pedestal”. They are often considered to be the one and only creator of the film, while the screenwriter is relegated to a secondary role. Inversely, in series, the power is conferred upon screenwriters while the director is at the service of the writer and producer’s vision. For Will Sharpe, both of these extremes are ridiculous.
In any case, the relationship between director and creator varies between projects. Some screenwriters need a strong relationship with the director, who in a way must act as cocreator of the project, Will Sharpe points out. The purely visual aspects of a series can have a powerful influence on the narration or dialogues. More generally, power relationships must be left to one side. A series is a joint effort and everyone involved (whether it be the broadcaster, screenwriters, producers, directors or film editors) must collaborate to work towards a unique vision.
Jeppe Gjervig Gram indicates that with Follow the Money, the channel offered him the option, as creator of the series, of choosing the producers who would be involved in the undertaking. Of course, all decisions had to be approved by the head of fiction.
Séverine Jacquet offers the suggestion that, during shooting, the role and involvement of the broadcaster should be reduced in comparison to the development phase. Although the broadcaster is in fact monitoring the shooting less closely, Jeppe Gjervig Gram notes that it can still keep track of the day-by-day evolution of the project by watching the rushes, particularly during the early days of shooting. The producer, on the other hand, must be present at the shooting and follow it from day to day.
Finally, regarding the shooting of Flowers, Will Sharpe confirms that the broadcaster was hardly present, although he does remember, for example, receiving a note about one of the shooting locations. Still, he imagines that the broadcaster regularly watches the rushes and that they would not hesitate to intervene if the project was not developing as desired.
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