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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Process and Procedure

Which ought to be the title of Jane Austen's unpublished crime novel...

It's the network pitching season in LA, and I just got back after an intense week with results that I should be able to tell you about sometime soon. After nine hours plus of breathing buggy plane air on the way home, I succumbed to a virus that's laid me out for the past three days. Emerging from the mental fog I find Good Dog back online with his personal list of movies that stand repeated viewing.

(In a separate post he also reports on the BFI South Bank Chimera screening.)

Reading these lists, compiled by various people as the meme hops from blog to blog, I'm struck by the sense of a common factor. The titles are diverse but none of the the films are stupid, and few are what you'd call chin-strokers either; and however they may differ, it's like there's something in their DNA that suggests a relatedness, however slight. Regardless of their genre, ninety per cent of the rewatchables can best be described as high entertainment executed with wit and intelligence. Call it the showbiz gene.

I'm not sure when entertainment became a dirty word, but somewhere in the second half of the last century it seems to have been redefined as the enemy of art. As far as the UK's concerned I suspect that, in a kind of back-door Orwellian move, the creation of the BBC's 'light entertainment' department helped to formalise the schism, defining an entire category of amusement without substance and separating it from more educated, more adult concerns.

In British TV drama, that seems to have led us into a commissioning culture where the showbiz gene's been bred out. The current crop of Drama execs make a buzzword out of 'passion', but approach scripts as texts rather than as blueprints for spectacle. With most new series, the kindest thing you can say is that you can see what they were trying for.

Much fuss has been made of the BBC's Sherlock, and for good reason; Sherlock has the gene, cropping up like a cheerful ginger in a clan of swarthy depressives. For me it's reminiscent of the first season of Jonathan Creek, a favourite of mine before the drawbacks of the one-to-write-them-all approach began to show. The giddiness with which Sherlock has been greeted reflects the parched landscape into which it fell.

In The Observer, former Guardian editor Peter Preston duly observed:
How would the primetime lords of American TV feel if they'd happened to make a series called Sherlock, about a modern Holmes, and won tremendous audiences and critical praise in the process?

Modest triumphalism? Not if the "series" in question was a mere three episodes, shown in the depths of summer, with nothing poised to come in the writing, let alone in the can. A pilot without a runway.
Which I think is where I came in. Here's how those 'primetime lords of American TV' go about it:

Now is the time of year when networks are hearing pitches from writer/producer teams. Many of those teams were formed when producers started taking meetings with writers in the Spring. At the networks, drama and comedy pitch separately. You get a half-hour slot to present your show and answer their questions.

Say you get lucky. What happens after that is kind of like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The stakes increase as you ascend the ladder, and so do the chances of getting kicked off it. A successful pitch leads to a pilot script, which leads to a pilot. You have a matter of weeks to write before the pilot script goes into production; my producer friend Jeff Hayes completed shooting on the Rizzoli and Isles pilot in December of last year.

With the holidays out of the way, the networks begin to view and test the pilots and make final decisions on which of them to send to series. They have to juggle those decisions against which of their existing shows to recommission or cancel. By now we're into April and May. Once those decisions are made, it's staffing season. The successful teams start hiring writing staff and booking crews and directors, while the networks present the new shows to advertisers at the 'upfronts' around the beginning of June.

(Almost all drama is written by heavily collaborative writing staffs. The chances of standing outside the system and freelancing a script for an LA-based series are very small. I know I freelanced two Eleventh Hours but my position there was unique. Whoever I ask, on your behalf, about the way for a British writer to get any traction in Hollywood, the answer is always the same; relocate.)

The writers get a bit of a head start before cameras start rolling sometime around August. It's quiet on the lot, and you don't have to stand in line for lunch. You start by discussing the shape of the season and all the different ways it can be taken, before individual stories start to coalesce and get assigned.

Your first episode most likely goes out in the fall and your target is to make thirteen hours by the end of the year, at which point the network looks at the ratings and decides whether to commit to the 'back nine' to make up a full season of twenty-two episodes. If that happens, everyone (or sometimes a reduced writing staff) comes back to work in January for two or three months. Meanwhile, producers out there are meeting with writers to hear the next round of ideas...

It's relentless. But it gets it done. There's no dithering, there are no hesitant toe-in-the-water strategies. Our own system may not have the critical mass to match that kind of performance, but I think most UK writers will agree that our biggest frustration comes from commissioners' slowness in reaching decisions; they sit on scripts and keep their options open at our expense. Technically I'm still waiting for a straight 'no' on Oktober from the BBC, a decision I gave up waiting for when I took the show to ITV and made it over twelve years ago.

Last year I got an email from a director I'd once worked with, bemoaning the lack of available work at home and wondering if there might be any openings in LA. I told him that the timing was perfect, and the opportunities were certainly there; Terry McDonough had shot two Eleventh Hours and Bill Eagles was working on The Forgotten.

By the time his agent got around to following up, all the jobs were gone.

7 comments:

MB said...

Fascinating reading of what would seem to be a tortuous tour.
The BBC commissioning dept. has just made us all suffer Simon Donald's The Deep, from Tiger Aspect. It was banal in the extreme. I suspect it wouldn't have cut the LA mustard.

Lee Goldberg said...

I think SHERLOCK is way, way over-hyped. I thought the pilot was okay, the second episode was terrible, and the third was great. Watching the hour-long unaired pilot, though, has been fascinating. They were wise to rewrite and reshoot...though it would have worked better as an hour again. The introduction of Lestrade, the introduction of Sherlock & Watson, and the finale between Sherlock and the killer, are much, much better in the reshot version. But the scenes added to pad the story out work badly against it.

Sherlock makes the obvious leap about the identity of the killer early in the the unaired pilot...but much later, thanks to the padding/redherring, which allows the audience (if they are still awake) to get way ahead of him (at least this viewer, anyway).

Over all, I'd say SHERLOCK has potential...but it's not the homerun some believe it is.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Completely agree about the length - much as I enjoyed the ride, it felt like a belated attempt to retool an hour's worth of drama into a piece of 'event' TV.

You have to see Sherlock in the context of this year's other new UK main-channel shows like The Deep, BBC1's Luther and ITV's Identity, for the gushing of the press to become understandable.

For my part, I found much to appreciate in tone, style, character, and performances. As for story and structure... perhaps not so much.

Dougie said...

Fabulous read. As a writer myself (primarily an author but with one successful US funded movie to my credit) it never fails to amaze me that so little effort is put in by UKTV to find new ideas let alone new writers.

Call it fear, call it cowardice or simply call it lack of initiative but it's incredibly frustrating to have to keep battling away in an effort to get heard whilst the netwroks continue to pump out what can only be described as dross.

Lee Goldberg said...

Idris Elba is terrific, but LUTHOR was a contrived, idiotic mess... with outrageously over-the-top acting, particularly by the bad guys, who all went to the Hannibal Lector School of Playing Serial Killers...but taught by Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. Elba deserves a much better show than this.

IDENTITY was a crushing bore. I couldn't make it past Act One of episode one...and have been unable to summon the enthusiasm to go back and give it another try.

I'll have to check out THE DEEP.

Lee

Lee Goldberg said...

Okay, I just saw the first episode of THE DEEP. My God, it's horrendous.

My first question is... how the hell did this get the greenlight?? How did they ever attract Minnie Driver, Goran Visinjc and James Nesbitt to this titanic bore?? The characters are one-dimension(at best), the dialog is wooden, and the story-telling moves as a comatose pace. The actors move like they are powered by Supermarionation...only slower and less convincing. I don't think I'll be checking out episode 2.

Lee

Stephen Gallagher said...

Lee, it ought to embarrass me that you keep way more up-to-date with Brit TV than me, but instead I feel grateful that you're watching everything so I don't have to! MB and I used to work together at Granada in the '70s, when there was plenty of dross made but also always, always the sense that something exciting was coming down the pipe. And although we were in Presentation rather than Drama, like everyone else in the company we felt that we were a part of it.

Dougie - I hope you may get a smile out of this post from 2007!