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The second “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” roundtable examines the role of writers’ rooms in Danish, German and Dutch television production
The event, organised by the Media Industries, Infrastructures and Institutions (MI3) research group from Utrecht University, was held online on 12 April
The second “Let’s Talk Screenwriting!” roundtable, entitled “Showrunners and writers’ rooms in European television production” was held online on 12 April. The event, organised by the Media Industries, Infrastructures and Institutions (MI3) research group from Utrecht University, was chaired by Hanna Surma, assistant professor of Media Studies at the same university.
Following Surma’s opening remarks, the floor was given to Eva Novrup Redvall (University of Copenhagen). In her case study on Danish writers’ rooms, Redvall explained that the country’s audiovisual landscape has been characterised by a strong public service broadcasting culture, with a user base of around 5.7 million viewers. According to the figures provided by DR Media Research, in 2019 the largest market shares were controlled by DR (35.5%) and TV2 (40.4%). However, the country has also recorded a sharp increase in SVOD consumption and one of the most recent launched services, Disney+, reached 20% of Danish households in just three months. The surge of writers’ rooms set up by Danish pubcasters started in the 2010s and some of the best examples of this trend are the series The Killing and Borgen, whose fourth season is now in the works. These writers’ rooms are generally small, counting three members supervised by a lead writer, holding “sufficient control” on the team. The writing work for DR in particular is based on 15 “dogmas” established following the success of Unit One back in 2002. Two of the most important dogmas still in place today are the writers’ will to pursue “double storytelling” by producing dramas that “should be highly entertaining and fascinating, but must maintain a public service layer with social and ethical connotations” and the implementation of a “crossover” strategy, involving film manpower working in television productions – an innovative choice at the time, but that now is the norm. Finally, Redvall touched upon one of the studies she is working on, entitled “What Makes Danish TV Drama Series Travel?” (more info here). The project conducts empirical studies both on production (export, co-production and remakes) and reception (audience studies on three levels), by developing the Screen Idea System model to study the process of travelling TV drama series.
Next, Florian Krauß (University of Siegen) presented his research on German writers’ rooms. He explained that writers “working together in the same room” used to be a common practice in daily soap operas productions. Speaking about contemporary writers’ rooms, Krauß said: “Very often, the head writer collaborates with several writers on the basis of already clearly outlined concepts. For example, in Dark, pre-written outlines with many [narrative] gaps [were] the foundation of collaborative story development. Later, the writers worked out single episodes. The series’ head writer and creator of Dark Jantje Friese finalised these episodes. The writing of the final drafts through the head writer can be found in other projects such as We Children From Bahnhof Zoo. [...] In other project networks, writers are at least temporarily integrated in areas beyond the script development, for example by having a say in terms of casting or by gaining access to the raw footage’s dailies.” However, he added that practitioners repeatedly contested the “polyphonic” approach of writers’ and expressed concerns over the director’s influence throughout the creative process. In 2018, several known German screenwriters launched a self-commitment initiative called “Kontrakt’18”. Among other things, they demanded the right to co-determine the director’s choice. This type of requests, Krauß argues, invite us to entirely rethink the showrunner’s role and stimulate a possible “hierarchical shift”. Meanwhile, several high-end productions such as Babylon Berlin are taking the opposite path. In detail, the series had three directors, also in charge of the script, who formed together their own writers’ room. In addition, Krauß said that writers are concerned about certain practices adopted by commissioning editors – especially the ones working for pubcasters – who have bureaucratised many processes and generally see “polyphonic” collaborative approaches as an obstacle to the dominating “one vision” principle.
Finally, the last speaker was Michael Leendertse (one of the writers of The Resistance Banker), who set up Winchester McFly, the first Dutch writers’ room. He talked through the work of his collective, which was established in 2013 and today includes seven members. Leendertse explained that they appoint a head writer within the team, who is also in charge of communicating with the director and producer. A short Q&A session rounded off the roundtable.
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