Take it easy, but take it

11-11 2009

The first world conference of writers for screen and tv was held in Athens on the 6th and 7th of Novenber. It was an enlightening experience as nearly 200 writers from all over the world shared their experiences and thoughts as Hávar Sigurjónsson reports.

It was a special atmosphere of solidarity, fellowship and mutual understanding that reigned during the two day conference in Athens on the 6th and 7th of November. Never before has there been a world gathering of screenwriters, and the conference carried with it a promise of future conferences where there will be a fuller representation of the world´s screenwriters. Sadly, screenwriters from Asia and Africa were not represented, the most likely reason being that they have not yet formed into unions and guilds like their western colleagues. It is to be hoped that they will benefit from the impact of this first conference and be present at the next one in a few years' time.

Lowell Peterson US writers guild in Athens

It became abundantly clear that screenwriters are working under very different conditions, both in practical terms, and in terms of their legal and contractual environment, be it in the US or Europe. Europe is not a unified market, the contracts vary from country to country, and producers sometimes exploit this. Informal conversation revealed that a low paid scriptwriter can easily become a bargaining factor in a producer´s search for co-producers in other countries.

Ample space was given to discussion about the relationship between the writer, the director and the producers. It is more often than not a question of who should have the final word, i.e. power. The power is where the money is, or at least where the ownership of the product (the script) is. Don´t sell your script unless you have to, was the advice given. Never give up your authorial rights. If you sign a buy-out contract then expect to be thrown out of the production, or at least don´t expect anything after that. The general consensus was that writers should never sign a buy-out contract.

The difference between the US and Europe was highlighted by the fact that in the US the writer can easily be replaced, but he is handsomely paid. In Europe on the other hand the writer exerts considarable authorial control but the financial gain is minimal. And now it seems that European writers are getting the worst possible deal as their authorial control is being squelched, while financially they are no better off than before. It´s the American contract system with no monetary gain. A producer´s paradise. Good advice was given by seasoned warriors of the industry. “Place yourself as close to the money as possible. Cut out the middlemen.” And another one: “Choose your battles.” Perhaps the most useful advice is the one that hammered out the importance of solidarity and the power of unified effort. The scriptwriters' strike in the US last year is probably the best example. “A strike of the mind, not muscle” was a line heard in the discussion. From the CEO of The British Writers Guild came the warning: “Be aware that a lot of people are willing to write for nothing. The trade unions are our primary tool to make sure that it is not possible to produce films and tv shows without paying the writer.”

Some writers said they had started to direct in order to have total power. Others reminded the congress that making a film is always a group effort, so there is never one author. How do you then explain the first credit that reads "A film by (the director)", if it is a work of many? Well, that´s a tricky one and writers should push for an abolishment of that credit line and insist on simply a credit that reads "directed by" and then "written by". Some directors, it was revealed, are quite happy with that, while others are not. It will not come easy.

In Europe, nearly 100% of film funding comes from public funds. Commercial funding of films in Europe is a myth. European producers are simply glorified secretaries, spending their working time filling out applications to various public funders. Financing films in Europe has become an art of pitching your project to the gatekeepers of public money. It is far removed from the market oriented field of US filmmaking. It was revealed that the Italian film fund supports annually a round figure of 130 films of which 50 are made for less than 200,000 Euros and are never released to the public as the private distributors for one reason or another see no market for those films. The Italians are not alone in this matter, but should be commended for being so candid about it. One of the American panelists said that in the US the title of such a film would be printed on milk cartons with the question "Have you seen this film?"

On a more serious note, it was suggested that this was not a case of over-production, but under-distribution. Which is more stupid, to primarily make funding decisions based on values of cultural policy alone, or to then hand the product over to a body that evaluates the same product solely for its commercial potential? These conditions make it surprising that only a third of the films are not graced by distribution, if impressing the gatekeepers has become an art of writing culture-political manifestos instead of an honest treatment of the project in question.

It was suggested that screenwriters' organisations should make an effort to have film festivals give the scriptwriters a higher profile by handing out special prizes for best scripts. Those festivals that do so should be commended and given high ratings, while those who don´t should be given a low rating. The method has already proved itself, as for example the Berlin film festival introduced last year an award for best script after a long standing lobbyism by the German Writers' Guild. Well done!

As was to be expected, a considerable focus was given to “new media” formats where the works of writers are often being presented without the writer getting paid for the usage. By “new media” we mean the internet, mobile phones etc. But as was quickly pointed out, those are no longer “new media” formats, as they are simply one of many media formats that are today available to the public. Being new or not, the main issue is of course how writers get paid for the usage of their work. How can their copyrighted material be free in these media formats? The answer is simple: It are not. The public is paying for using it, but the money is not reaching the writers. It flows into the pockets of internet providers who are more than willing to increase the bandwidth of the users so that they can quickly download large files of films, tv-shows etc., to watch at their own leisure. The public gladly pays more for internet access and increased bandwidth, and the legal argument is that the provider of access should be legally responsible for making sure the money goes to its rightful owners, i.e. to the copyright holders of the material being downloaded. The internet provider may decide to give free access to the material but he cannot decide that the author of the material give it away free. That in plain language is simply illegal. This is the big battle of today, and its relevance is reflected in the fact that sales of DVD discs are going down while internet traffic is increasing. More information on this is to be found on the homepage of SAA, Society of Audio- visual Authors, which has its offices in Brussels and is a lobbying body in the corridors of the EU headquarters.

Finally, the conference received a warm-hearted greeting from one of the great American screenwriters, Frank Pierson. He concluded his greeting in a good screenwriting fashion by coining a phrase: Take it easy, but take it.

For more articles on the Athens Conference from writers´ guilds around the world check out the website of FSE, The European Federation of Screenwriters.