Monday 21 February 2011

Interest Costs Nothing

This is the last post I'm going to do about money - for now. And the reasons for that are simple: It's too painful, it doesn't get you anywhere and there's no sign of things changing. (And I've blogged on this twice before, the last of which contains an amusing and cathartic Youtube clip of Harlan Ellison here that I highly recommend.)

Let's just summarise the basic problem: scripts should be free. That's the common wisdom around in Radio, TV and Film that writers have to put up with. No matter how many 'script initiatives' that various TV channels run, the assumption is always that the initial script, the one that takes someone at least A MONTH to write, should be gratis, free and without cost. Except to the writer, of course. He'll still have to pay his rent, gas bill and all that.

I realise that these script initiatives are there to attract new talent. Even though there aren't even enough comedy slots for the existing and experienced talent according to the BBC's Head of Comedy last month. Even though this new talented writer will need a fair amount of help from old or existing talent. And the channels love the idea that somewhere out there, they'll find the next writer of Only Fools and Horses - even though the writer of Only Fools and Horses had already written sketches for The Two Ronnies, and 30 episodes of Citizen Smith.

The art of writing sitcom takes about 4-10 years to crack. Asking all-comers to do it seems about as sensible as asking someone to 'have a go at being a surgeon'. Actually, the cost of the damage (c.£1-2million) is about the same. Constantly, annually, quarterly, begging new writers to send in scripts seems to me a curious way of finding the next sitcom hit, especially when dozens of experienced writers can't even get a Comedy Lab onto Channel 4.

It's a free country. Channels and corporations are free to do whatever they like with the money at their disposal, of course. But the problem is that it is now normal to expect any writer, regardless of experience and to go without payment for at least a month, so that a script can be browsed, commented on and then, most likely, discarded - because it's cost them nothing.

When I was a real rookie, I was with a producer at an indie who mentioned that a channel was interested in a show he was developing. I was enthusiastic and said something that conveyed I was excited. He looked at me blankly and said 'Interest costs nothing.' I've never forgotten that moment.

But nothing seems to be changing. The channels and controllers seem hell-bent on assuming that some comedy genius can re-invent the sitcom from a standing start and has a month free to write a script. Or that some existing experienced comedy writer with a mortgage and two kids is going to risk repayments in order to write a script of an idea which will be thrown into a pile with 2500 other scripts.

Naturally, the experienced writer has some advantages, and can perhaps progress things further and quicker (except one sitcom idea I have in with the BBC is over two years old, and it hasn't even had a read-through yet). But even the experienced writer normally has to do weeks of work unpaid. I had a meeting with a theatre producer a while ago who said he was doing me a favour by not paying me - in case the script wasn't as hoped and he'd end up trying promote something he didn't 100% believe in. And, for a split second, like a schmuck, I believed him.

But this kind of talk gets us nowhere. Things are, senselessly, as they are. Apparently it is better to pay a development producer £56k+ (inc NI/Pension & benefits) a year to persuade 7 comedy writers to write scripts for free than it is to just pay 7 comedy writers £7-9k each to actually write 7 scripts between them.

This is why I'm not going to whine about this any more (although that felt good). I'm just going to write scripts. Dialogue, jokes and that. Characters. Write and write. That's what I do. I am good for little else. I shall stop blogging about money - and get back to the boring technicalities of comedy writing.

So, back to work, everyone.


  1. Thanks for the post, it's interesting to hear an alternate point of view. I certainly agree that just because what we do doesn't require a truck, insurance or a certificate by an industry body that somehow it costs nothing. I guess everyone has to have their own fine line between passion and pragmatism in what they choose to write and for whom.

  2. Sir, you have summed up everything that is wrong about how writers, and specifically comedy writers, are treated these days.

    They want another 'Only Fools' or 'One Foot In The Grave', and yet they singularly fail to understand that those were not scripts from first time writers. They were scripts born from years of writing work.

    They want the finished Rolls Royce, but they don't want the assembly line that makes it.

  3. Not sure that's fair though - I know when [big-name writer] is given yet another series, the newer writers all moan about it being a closed shop.

  4. I thought about this series of posts the other day when I was hired to develop a comedy series (not in the UK) and... offered money to do so. It's not a fortune, but will support me for at least as long as I work on it, and I actually felt a bit... 'err, are you quite sure?'

    You get so used to producers either not offering anything, or a token couple of hundred quid here and there that when you are offered an actual living wage for what you trained to do it feels weird! Which just goes to show how utterly screwed up this industry is when it comes to paying writers.

    It's a weird I'm not complaining about whatsoever, but all the same...