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Thursday, January 13, 2005

THE WRITING ROOM

A producer I'm hoping to work with asked me to explain the writing room, how it works and what it's for. She's been working without one, which seems to be the custom in Canada. Here's a version of what I wrote her...

The short version is: remember The Dick Van Dyke show? That's a writing room!

The long version is:

Say you've got a small story department of a head writer and a couple of writers. The show's creator has defined the characters, season arc, etc., in the bible. The writing staff's job is to translate that into episodes.

Here's a way I like to work. You've worked out the season arcs in advance, and ins'Allah, the network doesn't ask for any major overall character or story changes in midstream. So, every four episodes or so, the writing staff gets together in the room and arcs out the next four. We break all the stories together on a white board. I might bring in a story idea or one of my story editors might, but either way beat up on it for an hour or two until we're all happy with it. (There is no "ownership" of a story idea in a writing room.

The next day, back in the room, we break down the first episode into acts and act outs. Then the next, etc. When we have four breakdowns, we submit them to the producers and then the network.

Assuming approval, I hand off each breakdown to one of the writers or myself to flesh out into a beat sheet. Whoever is slated to write that episode writes the draft from the beat sheet. This might be the person who wrote the beat sheet but might not -- sometimes the contracted writer was busy on a production polish when we needed the beat sheet, and handing him the completed beat sheet means he can jump right into the draft when his production polish is done.

(Legalistically, a beat sheet is not a treatment. The contracted writer has to write the treatment. Practically, they're not that different.)

The writer's room is invaluable for fixing stories, too. Nothing gets a bad story fixed faster than three or four writers banging their heads together. Writers who are used to fixing their own and others' work can quickly spot story problems in stories that look good on the page, and often can come up with a simple story fix that breathes life into a weak story. I have had terrific feedback from development execs and producers in my experience, but there's nothing like a writer's room to come up with solutions to their critiques.

The writer's room helps solve your problems as you're writing pages, too. There is no beat sheet that doesn't have some handwaving in it. When you realize that a beat is unwritable as envisioned, you can just call your fellow writers into the conference room and work up a fresh approach.

Having writers on staff also makes it far easier to keep the work flowing steadily to the producers. We've all had episodes move around on us for production reasons, etc. A staff is flexible. When an episode gets moved up by two weeks, I can hand off my production polish to one of my staffers and jump onto the first draft of the moved-up episode. If we're waiting for approval on some beat sheets while I'm in the middle of a draft, I can send my staffers into the room to brainstorm story ideas for later episodes.

With a staff, the whole writing process is smoother. You don't get scripts that are interesting, but "not our show," because a story editor soaks up the feeling of the show. We can meet with the producers to hear what kind of show they want, and what their reactions are to our work. Then we meet among ourselves and discuss what we think they want, and what we want. That gives our work a consistency that free lance work never has. That means fewer radical rewrites at the last minute.

With a staff, production issues get smoothed out earlier. Writers make two kinds of production mistakes. They write unproduceable scenes -- and they nix produceable ones because they think they're unproduceable. Can we do a scene in a horse and carriage? How about a street party? How about a party in a loft? How about a scene at La Ronde? A free lancer will usually just guess. A staff writer can ask a producer.

Needless to say issues like scripts being late and "I haven't been able to get in touch with my free lancer" happen much more rarely when everybody's on staff. And let's not even talk about free lancers who are doing multiple projects at the same time! (And they all do it, too.)

Finally, if you have a story department on your show, you develop relationships with people who may write future shows for you, and who now have some experience with production. With free lancers, the only person developing relationships with the writers is the head writer.

This is all why all American fiction shows have writing rooms. Why don't we always have them here in Canada? Maybe they think they can't afford it.


Well, how much does a writing room cost?

Fortunately, there is no WGC minimum for story editor salaries; and most writers care how much they get paid, not which line item their check is coming from.

The solution, I think, is to pay writers to a large degree by guaranteeing them scripts they wouldn't normally get if the show were being written mostly by free lancers. Giving scripts to story editors costs the producer nothing because someone's got to be paid for each script. On Charlie Jade, my writers had decent weekly salaries, but only were credited and paid for one script each, though of course they wound up radically rewriting many more. Had I been able to give them two scripts each, they'd have made more money even if the producers had cut their weekly pay to nothing but Red Bull and biltong.

Let's do some math.

A regular Canadian show might guarantee a junior story editor only two scripts (based on an order of 20 eps); they then rewrite free lance scripts for no credit and no production bonus. But if your show is budgeted at even $400,000 per ep, each script is worth $13,475 after the bonus is in.

(The production bonus is a sliding percentage of the budget payable at principal photography. You get around $6,500 to write a half hour script, and that's applicable to the bonus. If you're in production and all the scripts are getting made, it doesn't matter what the script fee is because it's less than the bonus anyway.)

Let's suppose they're working for 16 weeks (the story department is turning in a script a week, 3 are already done, and you let go the story editors for the last week). A good salary for a junior story editor might be $2500 a week.

2 scripts @ 13,475 = $26,950
16 wks @ 2500 = $40,000

Total: $76,950

But if I can guarantee the writers 4 scripts, that's:

4 scripts x 13,475 = 53,900

and they're doing just as well even if they're only getting paid $1,500 a week. If I can promise them 5 scripts, then:

5 scripts @ 13,475 = 67,375

They're doing as well or better at $600 a week.

I've used the above numbers to set the bar high for my argument. If you suppose that a more reasonable salary for a good story editor on a medium budget show is more like $2000 per week, and if you suppose the budget for the show is even $450,000 per ep, then:

2 scripts @ 14,025 = 28,050
16 weeks @ 2000 = 32,000

Total: $60,050

But if I can guarantee 4 scripts:

4 scripts @ 14,025 = 56,100

then they're doing just as well or better at $300 a week(!), and a fifth script is pure gravy. Note that the total additional cost to the production of the story editor over the free lancer is $4,800.

If there are twenty episodes, and if you don't "waste" scripts on free lancers, it's easy to give five scripts to each story editor, seven or eight to the head writer, and still have a couple left to give to that promising script coordinator who wants to write. Likewise on an order of 13 eps, you could give each script editor three, five to the head writer and still have two left for emergencies / friends / favors / incentives.

You'd do the deals as step deals -- guarantee x scripts for the first y weeks, with options to extend -- just as you'd do if salary were the main selling point.

As the budget goes up, guaranteed scripts get more and more attractive to the writer. At $500,000 per ep, each script is worth $14,575. And so on. I've seen production bonuses in the $30K-$40K range.


The reason all this can work is that the production bonus and credit are paid to whoever writes the first two drafts and these are the easiest writing to do! In my experience, it's the story editors who do the heavy lifting to produce the outline -- frankly, the hardest creative work in an episode. It's the story editors who do the pink, blue, green, yellow, goldenrod, fuschia and mauve drafts. I've never staffed a show where we didn't generally rewrite the free lancers so much that they might as well not have given us their drafts. (If you have, let me know.) If the money is the same, I'd much rather take a lower salary, but get more script fees, have more script credits and do the work of writing the first drafts than give them away to a free lancer who's going to spend, honestly, three days on his drafts.


All in all, I think a writing room is a huge bargain. It saves everyone trouble, time and money, and you get better material. I'm mystified that anyone would want to work without a writing room. If I sound evangelical ... it's because I am!

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