Are you a playwright from a Nordic country?

14-04 2009

NordicWritersGuild in Helsinki 2008
Photo: Per Daumiller

(From left: Pål Giørtz, Satu Rasila, Rolf Börjlind and Markus Pyhältö)

If so, you probably already have a good idea of what it is to be a scriptwriter in any of your neighboring countries. Our systems resemble one another quite closely in terms of such things as grants, contractual agreements, payments and the tug of war concerning copyright. The business of being a dramatist in Scandinavia is a tough one. As a rule, one isn’t able to support oneself on scriptwriting alone, but needs to augment one’s earnings through teaching or in the best of cases, related occupations such as directing or working as dramaturge.

Two tips:

If you would like to see copyright and compensation regulated in some form of cohesive manner with established minimum tariffs, write for the stage. Here there are collective agreements in all Nordic countries, even if they don’t cover the entire market and still contain some areas of contention. To write for film and television is on the other hand, as a rule, a journey through lawless territory. If you are able to choose, work in Norway. There, the dramatist’s status has increased during these first years of the new century. At present there are in place collective agreements for all areas, including agreements with producers of film and television, with closely guarded minimum tariffs.

The difficulty in making a living as a dramatist should surprise no one.  That’s the way of the world when it comes to the so-called “free” occupations. Still, you might wonder why even relatively rich Nordic countries are unwilling to support more then five – fifteen fulltime dramatists each. In some countries, Sweden and Denmark for example, a longing for continuity has led to longer term employment agreements for some dramatists. Even so, the playwright or scriptwriter’s existence as well as the work they create, reflect the fact that the state, the main source of support in most countries, has in recent decades shown greater consideration of the realities of the marketplace.

This is clearest in the state’s relationship to the production companies that produce film and television, an impression only strengthened through a series of phone calls to scriptwriters and Union leaders in the Nordic region.

Film and television production is by an increasing number of states and regions seen as something both attractive and lucrative. This follows an international trend in which cities and countries seek to attract drama production, which creates jobs and stimulates local economies. Television and motion pictures are becoming more visible as an industry.

The bait used to catch these lucrative productions comes often in form of production support or tax benefits. This could be interpreted as due recognition of the economic importance of arts and entertainments. On the other hand it is symptomatic that the state, or society, relative to the past, cares less about what as produced as long as the wheels keep turning. In this environment the author is the shakier investment, who can predict the rate of return on their eccentric ideas?

Dramatists in all the Nordic countries perceive the system of support for TV and film production, even when the grants themselves are earmarked for script development, as one that favors producers over the creators of stories, the scriptwriters. It is often difficult and in many cases impossible for a writer to receive manuscript development funds without a producer directly involved in the process.

In Sweden, to take one example, funding supplied by the Swedish Film Institute, now termed “production support” can, even where the intention is to support the development of the manuscript, be diverted freely to other aspects of the production. This policy change was initiated by The Swedish Film Institute’s current leadership after taking over in 2006. The Swedish Playwrights’ Union sees these new guidelines as detrimental to scriptwriters and has lodged a protest. In Finland, another aspect of the problem is seen. There the Finnish Film Foundation is still prepared to support manuscript production, giving a maximum of 10,000 € per film to a scriptwriter who may develop an idea independently of any producer or production company. But recipients of these development grants aren’t always able to use this development money as they wish. Production companies eager to benefit from this manuscript support stipulate in their contracts that these grants be counted as part of the writer’s fee.

The Finnish Dramatists’ Union states adamantly that these grants are personal stipends and seems to be gaining acceptance for this point of view. The practice isn’t pervasive and production companies do not all try to write manuscript development funding into their contracts.

Even in Iceland there are rumors of production companies trying to hijack manuscript development grants. Hávar Sigurjónsson, chairman of the Icelandic Dramatists’ Union has not been able to confirm such a case as yet. The Union line in Iceland is the same as in Finland; “a grant is a grant and a salary is a salary”.

Thus, even when support for script development is formally available, it is in some countries becoming uncertain whether or not the money will actually land in the writer’s bank account. The individual voice is not finding support.

The focus shift from author to producer can in some cases provide a picture of changes in the film industry at large. The Swedish Institute, established in 1963, is the oldest in the Nordic countries. It was born during a time when the Sweden could still boast a vital film industry.  The primary reason for the establishment of the institute was to advance quality, to give projects with artistic merit a chance. These days, almost fifty years later, film production is not something that can be taken for granted.

In the present situation, The Swedish Film Institute’s role as champion of artistic freedom is not as clear-cut. Evidence of the same historical development can be seen in other places as well.

Dramatists in several of the Nordic countries report feeling that the will in society to support independent, non-commercial drama is faltering. One example from Denmark symbolizes this tendency with almost exaggerated clarity. Until a couple of years ago there was a special fund for experimental theatre. The fund was discontinued and the money moved over to augment the general funding of theatres. Experimentation was no longer prioritized.

It is not strange that this example comes from Denmark. Danish dramatists have during the first years of the century experienced an increasing sense of abandonment under a conservative government that has divorced itself from anything resembling cultural policy making:

“We have had a government for almost eight years now that has consistently cut the budget in all areas of culture”, says the chairman of Danish Dramatists, Nina Malinovski. Suffice to say, they have made life impossible for any artist involved in experimentation.

In Denmark, almost every form of support for dramatists that is independent of production or producer, has been eradicated. This, according to Malinovski, is a development that dramatists in other countries should be aware of.

Among Nordic countries in this spring of 2009, it seems that Norway and Iceland might stand as extremes in either direction. Iceland’s economy has crashed, but in the early years of the century it seemed like the financial institutions in Iceland were almost able to pull money out of a magic hat. It was beginning to feel like the powers of the marketplace were invincible, and the government of Iceland began to refer cultural operators to private sponsors. In the same spirit, as the domestic production of television series took off, it seemed superfluous for Icelandic production companies to write contracts. The tiny Icelandic Dramatists’ Union, its office on Hávar Sigurjónsson’s kitchen table, tried to get a grip on an unruly branch consisting of disparate production companies who themselves were hardly organized. The amorphous nature of these companies; one day a two-man partnership and the next day part of a media conglomerate, further complicated the negotiation of any kind of collective agreement between the organizations.  An existing agreement with the National television network became quickly redundant as production was entirely outsourced to external producers. Dramatists, despite this fact, were encouraged to try and follow the old agreements in contract negotiations.

But in writing contracts with production companies, the Icelandic dramatists are entirely left to their own defenses. The Union does not doubt that a great many contracts may be more or less conning the writers. Rights are being signed away and fees pressed while the inexperienced dramatist is told that they are buying their ticket into the branch.

The Icelandic Dramatists’ Union has been fighting a steady battle to bring representatives of the production companies to the negotiating table.  But the opposition has now even stopped answering their letters. How contracts look is almost impossible to say, as the majority of those written have never been offered to the Union for examination. Sigurjónsson wonders whether the present instability affects creativity. Every contact between artists and producer begins with a discussion about money. One can feel that the writer sitting down at his desk to begin work is harboring a sentiment that he’s been had, something that might lend a sour taste to the creative process.

Even on the producer’s side there are some who see disadvantages in not having a contractual framework.  And there are voices among Iceland’s dramatists who would say that while the lack of collective agreements is a problem, there is something stimulating in the prevailing pioneer spirit. It is interesting to see a new market grow; strange beasts are born, but also new possibilities.

Iceland is probably the country where the dramatist’s existence is at present most precarious. Scriptwriters working on feature films have no agreement at all and seek support from an obsolete Danish agreement. Concerning plays for the stage; only the three, large, national theatres, are bound by any sort of agreement. All other theatres can pay half the commission or perhaps not offer any advance on royalties at all.  On the other hand, new Icelandic drama is much in demand.

So what is happening in Norway? That would be the subject of an article all it’s own. Norway is the only Nordic country that has collective agreements in all areas. A contract with commercial television, the hardest to negotiate, was concluded in March this year. But the success of negotiations wasn’t the sole victory in recent times. The support for film scriptwriters that was instituted in the year 2000 has during recent years been raised substantially.  There are now five million Norwegian crowns a year earmarked for script development and distributed by The Norwegian Film Institute. The dramatist may apply independently of any producer. The highest single award is 200,000 crowns, almost enough to live on for a whole year. The Film Institute will even provide a professional script advisor if the dramatist wishes.

For playwrights, lacking the support of an Institute, the Norwegian cultural budget has allocated two million crowns earmarked for the creation of a Drama House. The Norwegian Playwrights’ Association expects that funds matching those allocated film scriptwriters may be a reality in the near future.

With The Labour Party’s  (Arbeiderpartiet’s) leader Jens Stoltenberg’s return as head of state, culture, and not in the least dramatists, have been a focal point for heavy investment. Playwright Association chairman Gunnar Germondsson reports that it is hard to say exactly how much support has come to playwrights during the past four years, but guesses at something on the order of ten million Norwegian crowns. Norway, he insists, has quite simply adopted a cultural policy. “It’s the first time really, that Norway has had a cultural politics in line with her economy, and not merely as abit of icing on the cake. “One might feel”, he continues, “that the charismatic minister of Culture, Trond Giske, is doing something right or wrong, but nobody can deny the fact that he is actually doing things. He has pushed through a yearly increase in the culture department’s budget and has a genuine interest in culture. He sees Norway as a future film nation, capable of bringing home prizes from Cannes and Berlin, and he has the audacity to describe his department as the most important in government, more important even than the department of defense. Giske puts it this way, ” Why do we need a defense if we have no culture to defend?”

This cocky attitude has changed the climate for culture, according to Germondsson. The knowledge that there will be budget increases lessens the trepidation that cultural institutions normally feel when faced with departmental demands for change. Reorganization of the Film Institute has given The Norwegian Playwrights’ Association a seat on the board. Generally, practicing artists have been invited to take part in the political process:

“While we previously were kept in the dark and had no idea why things were done, these days we know practically everything. It creates a sense of security.”

Does this give added weight to dramatists in negotiating agreements? There is no definite reason why our Norwegian colleagues have succeeded in writing the kind of agreements that Icelanders and Swedes for example have, to no avail, been breaking their heads over. Regarding the agreement with production companies, Germondsson comments that it must have expensive and time consuming for then to have to negotiate each contract separately, especially with the knowledge that every contract, as a matter routine, would be scrutinized by the Playwrights’ Association.

Which is exactly the situation in Sweden where negotiations have reached an impasse.

With these agreements signed and delivered The Norwegian Playwrights’ Association is turning its attention towards the creation of an education for playwrights – there is already a school for scriptwriters.  So, it seems that forty years after Norway discovered oil, they have also discovered the riches of culture. Who would have guessed?


Mårten Blomkvist

translation: Edward Buffalo Bromberg