Rewriting the Script on Film Development

By Robin Macpherson

One logic for the market, another for the culture

Agencies which are involved in script development, like the Film Council and Scottish Screen, can decide whether to advocate a particular kind of story-telling/filmmaking voice, and whether to actively encourage scripts/stories of a certain kind, by certain sectors within the spectrum from commercial to artist-led projects. The old British Film Institute Production Board was, for all its faults, a good example of this model. An interesting corollary of this position is the belief that the agency itself, or others, must also intervene on the demand side i.e. in exhibition and education, to stimulate and extend audience interest.

In our post-modern flight from aesthetic, cultural and political judgement, this is of course a deeply unfashionable position to adopt. However, by abandoning the role of cultural preference in relation to the forms and concerns of film-making, the funding agencies have also more or less abandoned their ability to take positive action to encourage social and cultural diversity. Instead they have adopted a more ‘content neutral’ position. In today's climate this means constructing themselves as ‘proxies’ of the market which, almost by definition, implies some kind of market failure in the area of script development. If it didn’t then, ipso facto, there wouldn’t be a need for the agency to intervene with development funds, capacity building etc.

The agencies’ must therefore construct, implicitly or explicitly, a model of the market's (under-supplied) demand for scripts, which they can then set about trying to redress. This model is based on three main ‘drivers’:

1. The agency’s perception of the extent to which any given script is a good or bad match with its understanding of current/future commercial demand, taking into account perceived areas of under- and oversupply both in content/genre and in budget etc.

2. The agency's perception of the secondary benefits of developing a script in terms of encouraging the writer as 'new talent', even if the script itself is a long shot.

3. The agencies’ perception of the potential cultural/prestige value of the script should it be made, even where the ‘market’ viability is in doubt.

Currently, any prospect of value being attached to ‘diversity’ comes in relation to this last driver. This is the heart of the problem. Once upon a time, the agency might have subscribed to a more or less explicit critique of the market’s failure to deliver certain kinds of story/ representation/identity and endeavour to do something about it. Today however, there is a fairly deep-seated belief that we are in a post-statist world in which there is relatively equal access to the means of expression and that there is little role for screen agencies to redress social or cultural ‘market failure’ (but not, of course, economic failure).

The screen agencies do operate within a public policy framework, determined by Government, the principal funder, and also by those other bodies - e.g. the National Lottery Fund - on whose behalf they distribute funds. The broad policy directions are laudable enough – promoting the development of the film industry and culture, developing new talent, promoting social inclusion. However, for script development, translating these policies into practice is much less clear.

What are the criteria used by agencies like Scottish Screen and the Film Council to make their decisions? Aside from the question of whether X is a (potentially) 'good' script do, indeed should, any other factors weigh in the balance? On the face of it, an executive/panel/ organisation can only choose from what it receives. Since there is now a widely held consensus that there are not enough good scripts, not enough good producers (with script skills) and, a recent addition to the list, not enough good development executives, one can confidently say that almost no-one is happy with the quality of what they receive. As a result, a number of well-intentioned (and overdue) initiatives have appeared: more training for writers; more training for producers/script editors/development executives; more training for trainers etc. Having identified a real problem, the public bodies, in conjunction with industry players and training providers, are now actively intervening in the supply-side of scripts and script development.

However, are there enough good scripts from the diversity of communities, identities and experience which constitute the public on whose behalf the agencies intervene in script development? At best the response is likely to be “we would like to see more scripts submitted from - (insert whatever community etc. you like) - but the reality is that we just don’t get them.” At worst the response might be ‘we’re not in the business of quotas or tokenism – a good script is a good script.’ Well yes, but if the logic of intervening in the supply side of writing and script development applies, doesn’t the same logic apply to the lack of diversity in scripts? Apparently not.

Imagine if the agencies had investigated what (if any) particular barriers to entry into script-writing were faced by women, members of minority communities, people in disadvantaged or geographically isolated (from London or Glasgow) communities? Perhaps there are none. It is unlikely, but how would they know, without the research?

Despite the rush to embrace the logic of the marketplace and reinvent themselves as screen industry development agencies, our public film bodies retain an ostensible role in fostering social inclusion, cultural diversity and upholding some sense of cultural value which cannot be reduced to economic indicators. Whenever a film wins prizes or is lauded for representing a previously unseen part of the country or over-looked ethnicity, the agencies are only too keen to share in the glory and the credit. Surely then, it is legitimate to ask what positive steps are being taken to ensure more of these 'exemplars'? Can the agencies not intervene in pursuit of a more diverse and vibrant screen culture? At least we could make a start by talking about it.

Robin Macpherson was Development Executive at Scottish Screen from 1999 to 2002 and is an Independent Producer and Lecturer in Film Production at Napier University in Edinburgh.