Inside Out

By Rebecca Schechter, President, Writers Guild of Canada

Development heaven and hell

All of us have been there. Development hell, that is. I’ve heard legends that in Hollywood, some poor (but by Canadian standards, rich) writers never get out of it. For their whole careers.

It’s hell and we all hate hell, right?

If you want to create one-hour series, and have watched, over the last five years or so, as the broadcasters slashed development of this type of programming… You may hate it but you’ve been praying fervently for some producer and/or network executive somewhere to put you back in development hell once again.

Why is development hell so hellish? The creative process can be very difficult. You start with a concept, write a pitch and now, in development, you start writing scripts and you find out quickly what doesn’t work. You realize that there’s not enough conflict built into your concept so you have to import it into the world of your series every week. You realize that some of your characters are ill-defined and boring. You realize that the plot engine you thought would propel your series through 100 story-lines peters out by episode two.

As I said, the creative process is difficult. It’s a struggle and sometimes a disappointment. But is it hell? Not if you’re getting paid to do what you love doing the most: writing screenplays.

So what makes it hell?

The short answer: notes and, by extension, note givers.

Notes come from many sources. Producers, layer upon layer of network executives, sometimes (shudder) even directors. First it’s: “We like the two-hour pilot, but could you break it up into two one-hours instead?” Then a few months later: “Could you compress the whole thing into one-hour, and by the way, set it in a small regional town instead of a large city?” Then: “We want this to be an ensemble show and you’ve got a clear leading man. Could you ramp up some of the other characters?” And so it goes. Notes, notes and more notes. Ending in the long drift out to sea where you slowly starve to death and get eaten by sharks. If you’re lucky.

What would development heaven look like, you might ask? Is there such a place? Can we all go there right now?

In my dream, development heaven is a place where note givers know as much about what makes a series work as I do. They watch what’s on the air with the keen eye of creative marketers. But they never feel imprisoned by the trends they so smartly observe. Instead, they have instincts that allow them to jump ahead. To search out and inspire what’s new and fresh and sharp and distinctive.

In my dream, note givers give you back the perspective you’ve lost on your own work. They ask the tough questions. They force you to define what exactly your series is and how it will sustain itself for 50 or 100 hours of storytelling. They don’t try to fix the problems in your scripts, but help you zero in on what works and what doesn’t. And if need be, they figure out after a couple scripts that your series doesn’t have enough juice for four or five seasons and they put you out of your misery quickly, with a large dose of anesthetic.

Why all these dreams and nightmares about development? Our three major networks are struggling with their development processes for one-hour series. They all know that in the last five years not one Canadian hour-long series has found an audience whose size justifies even remotely the $1 million an hour it costs. They figure they can solve the problem by revamping development.

I think they might be right. But here’s my concern. Everybody’s trying to fix development by tinkering with the writers. Maybe they should give some thought to tinkering with the note givers, too.

 


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