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Europe’s Evolution of Adopting the American Writers’ Room Model

Europe hasn’t gone Hollywood quite yet, but it’s getting there, slowly. The standing of the writer within the hierarchy of drama production in Europe has never been higher, but the Hollywood showrunner model, in its purest sense — in which the writer often has the final say in all creative decisions — is still a relative rarity in Europe.

Eight years ago, British exec producer Stephen Garrett, whose credits include “The Night Manager” and is now working on “The Rook” for Starz, persuaded American showrunner Frank Spotnitz to move to Europe and transplant the Hollywood showrunner model in the shape of BBC thriller series “Hunted.” Spotnitz, who brings “Medici: The Magnificent” to Mipcom, recalls one BBC exec telling him British writers were “categorically not capable of collaborating in a [writers’] room.”

Spotnitz proved that exec wrong, but admits that he has adapted the U.S. model to suit European conditions. The writers’ room for the next season of “Medici” meets only three days a week for a limited number of weeks, before taking a break. Spotnitz also employs a team of script editors, a role within British television that isn’t found in the U.S. He describes this set-up as “a hybrid between the Hollywood way and U.K. way of doing television.”

Producer Kate Harwood, who has “Dublin Murders” and “Baghdad Central” at Mipcom, says one obstacle to the U.S.-style writers’ room taking root in the U.K. is it can require scribes to work exclusively for the show for a year or more, which is “a phenomenal amount of money.” Also, most top writers are unwilling to commit as they often prefer to work on multiple projects.

“British writers like ducking and weaving,” she says. “They like the sense that they are not tied down.”

Garrett, who says “the showrunner process is creeping into the U.K. by osmosis,” credits Spotnitz with having “blazed a trail” for the U.S. showrunning model in Britain, with many local writers he has worked with going on to become quasi showrunners themselves, but only in terms of running a writers’ room.

“Most [British] writers I know are writers first and foremost, and either are not necessarily interested in or not very good at those other more practical, creatively organizational bits of the process,” Garrett says. Therefore, non-writing exec producers generally undertake this part of the showrunning role in the U.K., as Garrett did on London-set “The Rook,” alongside U.S. showrunners Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher.

Simon Beaufoy brought “Trust,” a drama about the infamous Getty family, to FX.
Courtesy of FX

Garrett says one of that “rare breed” of British writers who showrun in a U.S. sense of the term is Jed Mercurio, whose “Bodyguard” has been a ratings sensation. Mercurio says his approach is “about having an overall creative vision for the piece.” However, that “doesn’t mean the vision is fully formed when the script is written. I’m very much in favor and enthusiastic about collaboration” with other members of the crew and the cast.

Mercurio says the culture in the U.K. “has tended to be of quite defined demarcation between writing, producing and directing, and those relationships tended to be mediated by the producers.” Early in his career he “did become frustrated by producers who wanted to control the conversation — keep writers and directors apart, keep writers off set, and things like that.”

Writer Simon Beaufoy describes his experience as showrunner on FX series “Trust,” which he exec produced with Danny Boyle and Christian Colson, as the best of his working life. Beaufoy is developing the series “Happiness 3.0” for the U.S. cabler, alongside Garrett. He contrasts his joyful time with FX with the misery of working on his previous TV series a decade ago, when he was “micromanaged” to the point where “lines of dialogue were being dictated down the phone at me.”

Mike Bartlett, the writer-exec producer of “Press,” is less hands-on than Mercurio, but is still “part of the conversation” when key creative decisions are made. “It is about making sure that what the show is … is communicated, and everything is pointing in the same direction, which is to tell the story you wanted to tell,” he says.

‘British writers … like the sense that they are not tied down.’
Kate Harwood

Bartlett is “very present in the prep and the edit stages,” but doesn’t often go on set, which he sees as “the director’s world.” He sees his responsibility as an exec producer “not just to the work but also to the audience and the channel.”

Spanish showrunners Alex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato, who had a hit with “Money Heist,” come to Mipcom with “The Pier.” Lobato says they always work as part of a team because they “find it very enriching,” with the other writers adding “their own vision and emotions,” while the showrunners provide “unity to the whole process.” They employed a writers’ room on “The Pier,” something that is becoming more common in Spain.

German exec producer-writer Joerg Winger is co-creator of “Deutschland 89” and “Hackerville,” but his role differed on each. On the former he had “the American showrunner role” while on the latter “it was more of a collective model.” On “Deutschland 89” he is the head writer, with senior and junior writers as part of the team, and he makes sure there is diversity in the writers’ room. “You want to have different mindsets in terms of their view of the world,” he says.

“The great thing about the U.S. writing system is that young writers go into the writers’ room and learn about the craft,” he adds. He sees the relationship between senior and junior writers as “a master-apprentice relationship … it is the best way to learn how to write for television.”

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