These are remarks that I delivered at the NEM Dubrovnik conference in Croatia on June 5, 2023.
May I just ask by a show of hands how many people here are Producers? Distributors? Broadcasters? Cable or satellite operators? Media or marketing? How many of you are in the television business?
However you answered, all of you are storytellers. Television is the business of storytelling. The product you make and sell is stories. The business of telling stories not only employs millions of people all over the world. Stories are one of the few products in the world that are an unalloyed good. Stories are the only opportunity we have in life to see the world through someone else’s eyes. They give us empathy for and understanding of other people. They entertain us – make us laugh, cry, be afraid, and think about questions we may not have considered before. Stories help us make sense of the world around us. We quite literally need stories to survive. And so all of us in this room can feel pretty good about ourselves and what we do for a living. Let’s give ourselves a round of applause. I think we deserve it.
I’m here today to tell you a story, too. A story about us. And by us, I mean people whose business it is to tell stories in the first half of the 21st Century.
In many ways, we are incredibly fortunate. Thanks in no small part to Netflix, there has never been more television being made or seen around the world. The diversity of content is astonishing, and -- for more than any time in history -- programs that are not made in the English language can enjoy a vast audience beyond the borders of the country where they were produced.
There is much to celebrate. And yet. And yet...
The business model that Netflix has pioneered has raised a lot of questions. At the same time that it’s created unprecedented opportunities for producers, broadcasters, and distributors, it’s challenged their business models and had consequences that perhaps no one foresaw.
The SVOD model helped to accelerate the decline of traditional broadcast television in the United States, leading traditional studios like Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery to set up their own streaming platforms. While they are still trying to figure it out, streaming so far has proven a challenging business model to emulate.
The effect these practices have had on writers in the United States have been alarming. So much so that the Writers Guild of America has been on strike for the past month, demanding among other things fair compensation for their work and fair working practices.
I support the WGA wholeheartedly and hope that both sides will come back to the table and find a way to settle their differences.
But even after the strike is behind us, it would be unfortunate if the questions raised by this new landscape were left unanswered. If we storytellers in Europe continued simply reacting to the market forces at work in our industry.
I would argue that this period of disruption presents an opportunity. To not simply react, but to act. To be proactive rather than reactive. To look at the way we are telling stories, and ask whether there might be ways that we could tell them better. And if so, to develop new and better practices that will not only improve our work individually but collectively. Because as I look around at the European television landscape, I think we can all agree that while a lot of good work is being done, there is still room for improvement. And there is no reason that we – the storytellers sitting in this room today – cannot be the agents of change to make that improvement happen.
A brief aside that’s not really an aside –
I like to eat. I really like to eat. And I like to cook, too. Many years ago, my wife got me a wonderful birthday present, which was spending a day in the kitchen with a chef who only a few short years later would be recognized as one of the greatest chefs in America, and indeed in the entire world.
That chef’s name was Thomas Keller, and he had a charming little restaurant in Napa Valley, California, called The French Laundry.
I spent an entire day in the kitchen with Thomas, from 8am in the morning until 1am that evening. And the many lessons I learned that day – about things far more important than just cooking -- have stayed with me ever since.
The morning started when I came in and found Thomas alone in the kitchen, filleting fish. I was surprised to find Thomas, the head of a Michelin-starred restaurant, taking the fish he’d just received out of the ice – he had them specially packed vertically, the way they swam, so they would not be crushed by the weight of the other fish – and filleting them. I told him as much – surely he had other people who could do this kind of drudgery for him?
And he said to me that he was very lucky to have the kind of job where he got to do the same thing again and again every day. Because it gave him a chance to perfect his craft.
This blew my mind. Repetition is not drudgery. Repetition is an opportunity. To improve your craft.
I suspect none of us in this room are professional chefs – we are storytellers. But television is nothing if not serialized. We too have jobs where we get to do the same thing again and again. And have the chance to perfect it.
In his kitchen, Thomas posted a set of core values. These values included things like Modesty, Respect, Responsibility and Initiative. They told everyone who worked in Thomas’ kitchen, from the sous chef and the line cooks to the dishwashers, what he stood for. What he was striving for. Because of course people don’t know unless you tell them. Let me repeat that – people don’t know unless you tell them.
With his permission, I later adapted Thomas’ values to my own work in television and they have been posted or circulated in the offices of my company, Big Light Productions, since it was founded in London ten years ago.
I can’t say that I live up to these values every day. It’s likely that I fail at one or more of them on many days. But that’s not the point. The point is that by stating our values, we tell our colleagues what it is that we’re aiming for. And we invite them to aim for it, too.
I hope you won’t think this is presumptuous, but I have asked the organizers here at NEM to share it with you in their newsletter after the conference. I invite anyone here to please take these values and adapt them for yourself and your own company if you wish.
You may know the saying, A rising tide lifts all boats. It’s my belief that if we improve the general quality of our industry, then it benefits not just the person or company doing that better quality work, but all of us. By creating a higher standard that we all then strive to adhere to.
If we are to improve European television, then it seems to me that a good first step is having core values that we know we are striving to live up to. But it’s only a first step. We need more practical, concrete strategies put into place – in all the territories in Europe, but especially in smaller countries where resources are in shorter supply. That lack of economic might may be seen as a handicap, but it can also be seen as an advantage – places where change is easier to embrace because of their size. A lot of you sitting in this room today are from those smaller markets.
It may not surprise you that I think the best place to start is with writing. You can make a bad television series out of a good script, but it is impossible to make a good television series out of a bad script. Everything we do in television begins with the script. And all of us as storytellers should be devoted to making sure we do everything we can to support the quality of the scripts that we are writing, producing, directing, broadcasting, selling and distributing.
How do we do that? It may sound obvious, but it really isn’t. We do it by first acknowledging the importance of the script. Once we do that, it becomes obvious that we should all be devoting the time and resources necessary to proper script development, and putting in place systems and practices that support that development.
Let’s be honest and acknowledge that most hours of television that are produced each year are just OK. But we don’t want just OK, do we? We want good – even occasionally great. We want the highest quality we can afford to achieve. Because quality matters, creatively and economically. A quality show is likely to give a viewer greater enjoyment, and therefore attract a greater audience. And a show that is not just popular but of high quality is likely to have greater staying power and a more enduring after market. But none of that is even possible without a good script.
If we’re going to develop good scripts, it starts by having a proper sense of ambition. That means we cannot be trying to make a show that is simply OK. Being OK cannot be our intention. Being OK may well turn out to be the result, whatever our intention, but we have to start out wanting to make something great – really great. We have to aim for the highest star. Because in my experience however high you aim? You almost always end up landing considerably lower. So if you aim really, really high, and end up landing around still about this high– then you’re still doing pretty well.
How do you create scripts that have a proper sense of ambition? That really aim to be great? It must begin by championing and empowering the writer. Let me repeat that: we must champion and empower the writer.
This has been the secret to the worldwide success of American television, where writers for at least the past 30 years have enjoyed greater power and control than anywhere else in the world. And it’s the erosion of that power that is really behind the current writers strike. The irony is that if the studios succeed in suppressing the power of American writers, they may well save money, but they will also inevitably reduce the quality and long-term success of their own businesses.
I hope that doesn’t happen, but the folly of American producers can serve as a learning opportunity for storytellers in Europe. Let us champion and empower the writer, not by turning them into gods who must never be questioned. That would only be another version of the auteur theory, which has proven destructive in so many ways. No one, not even a director, is a god. And pretending they are – or anyone else – only makes it harder to do good work. To do good work...
I have been living and working in Europe for thirteen years now, and I have spent countless hours lecturing about the writers room system and the benefits of collaboration. It’s not because I believe writers rooms are needed or even a good idea for all series – I don’t. I don’t even think writers rooms work all of the time – much of the time, they don’t work. But when they do work, they work really, really well. The reason is because of the values that writers rooms and collaboration embody. A writers room is not there to turn a writer into a dictator and turn all their decisions into commands. The purpose of the writers room is just the opposite – it’s about collaboration. It’s about giving every one in that room a deep investment in the story that’s being told. So that they can all contribute their best to it. The lead writer or showrunner is there not simply to be obeyed, but to moderate. To guide the room to the best possible decisions and where possible not simply to say “I like that idea,” but “I like that idea because...” That’s not always possible – we don’t always know why we like something – but when you can add that magic word “because” you are opening the doors of collaboration. You are not only pointing the direction forward, but explaining why you think that is the best direction. Inviting others to not only understand and share in your thinking, but to agree or disagree. To change your mind if they have a better idea. To do good work.
Writers rooms are one of the key issues in the current strike. Studios are intent on having writers tell stories faster and cheaper. And indeed cost is the number one reason I’ve heard for resistance to embracing the writers room in Europe. But in truth, the cost of a writers room is relatively modest compared to the cost of just about any line item in a production budget. While the central, vital importance of the scripts it produces cannot be overstated. Surely a commitment to making great television, to doing our best, would demand that we consider spending more on the writing and development phase of television so that we can all enjoy the creative and economic benefits it is likely to generate.
Not all writers are equally gifted, or equally adept at telling every story, and part of our job as storytellers is finding the best writer for a particular story. But equally important to that task is the way we ourselves manage writers. I have had the good fortune to work with many, many different producers and executives from studios, broadcasters and distributors over the years from many different countries. The best ones that I’ve had, whether they’ve been in Italy, France, the UK or the US, have first attempted to gain a deep understanding of the writer’s intention. To make sure that their intention is the same as the writer’s, because a creative enterprise headed in two different directions is certain to fail. Once that executive understands a writer’s intention, they can then support and improve it. You become allies, not combatting each other, but engaging in a mutually beneficial conversation and collaboration. The executive telling the writer not just that they like something, but that they like it “because” and that they don’t like it “because.” So that in the end they can produce television they are both proud of.
It should go without saying, but the development process should not be an obstacle to the success of a television series. It should be a thorough and vigorous process of imagination, interrogation and revision. Because the painful truth for writers is that 90 percent of writing is rewriting. That rewriting should refine the vision of the series so that it leads to the clearest, best blueprint possible. So that everyone charged with turning that script into an actual series – from the director to the cinematographer to the actors, costume designer, set designer, and on and on – can bring the full measure of their talent to the screen.
These are ideals. Goals. Even with the clearest and strongest commitment, we will not always achieve them. But surely we will never achieve them unless we are trying to.
If you remember nothing else that I have said today, I hope you will remember this – that we should all be doing everything we can to support good work. In my career, I have found that to be a simple clarifying principle. Whenever an issue has arisen, I ask myself whether or not the decision I’m taking would lead to good work. If the answer is yes, then I should do it, even if it means I make less money in the short run, or receive less credit, or have to work longer hours. Because doing good work is at the core of my core values. It’s my guiding star. There are no guarantees in this business – no one can guarantee your show will get great ratings, win lots of awards or make a lot of money. I wish they could. But if you spend every day trying to do good work, you will draw strength from the simple fact that you’ve spent that day knowing you’ve done the best you could. That you’ve tried to do good work. It’s a strange paradox. The harder you try each and every day to get up and do your best, the more energy you have the next day to get up and do it again. It’s days when you start saying, no, I’m too tired, or I’m not in the mood – then the next day you may find it’s harder to get up and do your best. It starts to sap your spirit and energy. The words “that’s good enough” are like creative poison. It’s never actually going to be good enough, not if your singular goal is to do good work, but you are far more likely to feel good about it if you keep on trying as hard as you can. And then you are not only more likely to be successful, but to be successful again. And again. And again.
I think it’s fair to assume that those are the kinds of careers all of us in this room want – careers that are one success after another. You may have a career like that without trying or thinking about it, and if you do I would say that you are extraordinarily lucky. You are far, far more likely to have that kind of career if you have a conscious understanding of what you want and how to achieve it. And keep working at it as tirelessly as you can.
Thank you very much.