Monday, 18 May 2009

State of Play

Last Monday evening I was at Masterclub. I've mentioned it before on this blog but just briefly it's a biannual networking event exclusively for past and current students of the MA Screenwriting at London College of Communication. It's an invaluable way for writers to connect with industry people and get an idea of what is really going on - something not always available to us, especially if you haven't got an agent.

On this occasion guests included agents Gemma Hirst from PFD and Katherine Vile from United Agents, writer Ashley Pharoah, Micheal Jacob, Creative Head, BBC College of Comedy, Sally Avens, BBC Radio 4, Exec Producer, Emily Feller from Red Productions, Rosie Alison from Heyday Films and James Peries from Eastenders. So you get my point. Quite a variety to provide a wide spectrum of opinions and views. I can't tell you what each one said, as what happens at Masterclub stays at Masterclub, but I can share my own thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, no one had any doubts that this was a tough time for the industry. Money is tight. But the overriding feeling is that everyone just has to ride it out until it turns around, which it inevitably will. People need stories. The threat of going to bed without a story is still a potent one for my littlest nieces and nephew, as I'm sure it is throughout the world. We have always craved stories. And for there to be stories, there needs to be story tellers. Things evolve too, from telling tales around camp fires, to official court story tellers, to the origins of public theatre, novels, movies, TV and now Internet. So we all need to be aware of that too. (The theory that audiences had finally had enough of reality TV was also mentioned but I have heard this before too, all too often, and fear talk of its demise still premature.)

But it did get me thinking about the state of the industry, how it works, and what can be done to make it work better. Certainly the economic crisis has brought home the reality in this country what everyone has known in the US for a while - that TV drama exists to sell advertising space! And if advertisers get jittery, money dries up, and shows are pulled. Everyone except the BBC is at the mercy of this. But even viewing figures may not be enough. Primeval is in the precarious situation of being an expensive show to make, and therefore despite attracting consistently solid figures, is still rumoured to be under threat - which is ludicrous.

I like to think that the general public, and us specifically who work or wish to work in the industry, can play a part. In the US, a campaign to save the shows Chuck and Dollhouse have seemingly been successful, whilst sadly The Sarah Connor Chronicles couldn't be saved. But the networks, who will then use that against advertisers, now know that there is a swell of people who love these shows. Just imagine if Being Human had been an ITV or Channel 4 (or more likely ITV2 or E4) commission. Let's be honest, the BBC passed on it. But the campaign that followed showed there was an ardent audience and demographic for it, which initiated the series. If this had been a broadcaster that depended on advertising, this could've been just as crucial. It's worth thinking about.

So too is the continued ban on product placement on UK Television. I think the decision to uphold it was massive mistake, costing the industry millions at a time when it needs it most. I've never really had a problem with product placement. I've never really been that susceptible to advertising either. For me it's money for old rope. What do I care if the Primeval team come bursting out of the ARC in a Ford Humvee instead of a nondescript Humvee, if it saves the show? I'm not exactly about to run out and buy one. And even if I was in the market for a Humvee, I'd do my research to find out if the Ford one was the one for me! You get my point. I realise care still has to be taken like what sort of products, like junk food for example, go in kid shows etc. But surely the sensible course would be to lift the ban and then regulate it. My only proviso would be that the advertiser have no influence on the story. You can't have a situation where Apple refuse to allow some baddy to smash one of their Macs over someones head if that's what the script calls for! The same with the case of Mercedes, who apparently rather shamefully refused to allow their cars to feature in the slums of Slumdog Millionaire because it was not the right sort of setting for their product. Grow up fellas.

Finally there is the piracy issue. I'm sorry if I offend anyone, but, well, it's simply not on. It's not on for the general public, but it's even worse for people involved in the industry. It's like a shelf stacker at Asda filling his pockets, and then complaining when he is laid off because turn over is down. It's stealing. Plain and simple. It's taking money from the people who have worked very hard to put a screenplay on screen, some of whom maybe you will meet at a networking event or be fortunate enough to work with in the future. Good luck looking them in the eye. It's not a victimless crime (is anything ever, actually a victimless crime?) It is costing the industry a fortune. So think about that when we are all busy moaning about how there is no money to make or distribute British films, whilst we download an illegal copy of the latest movie. This is not even about moral preaching, or links pirate DVDs have with organised crime or terrorism (!) This is just about not nicking from the hand you want to feed you.

The industry is struggling. It's changing. Hopefully it will recover. But think about how you can play a part in that recovery, and not compound its weak state.

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