Back in the days when all-powerful Hollywood movie moguls like Jack Warner and Louis B Mayer ruled their studios with an iron fist, writers were the lowest form of life in the entertainment ecosystem.
If Alfred Hitchcock believed, as he mischievously told Francois Truffaut, that “all actors should be treated like cattle”, then studio bosses tended to treat the writers on the payroll like the stuff that comes out of the back end of cattle.
They were regarded as factory labour: hired hands whose job was to churn out screenplays on command in the fastest time possible, with no creative say over the finished film.
The heyday of the autocratic studio head may be long gone, but the movie industry pecking order hasn’t changed all that much. Writers still tend to be the ones shafted first, as their scripts are routinely yanked away and rewritten by others.
Things are very different in the world of television. Over the past 20 years, a select group of writers have evolved into writer-producers, commonly known as showrunners.
The job title is self-explanatory; they run the show. The whole show. It’s their single creative vision that holds sway right down the line.
The two most influential showrunners of the 21st century are David Chase and David Simon. Their respective series, The Sopranos and The Wire, redefined the possibilities of what television could be.
They dealt in the kind of complex, grown-up stories and shaded, morally ambiguous characters that a teen-obsessed movie industry appeared to have abandoned.
Chase, Simon and, to an extent, Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) raised the curtain on what’s considered US television’s Second Golden Age (the first was in the 1950s), a period that’s given us prestige series like Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game Of Thrones and many more.
In an instant, the writers, once the least powerful figures in television, became the most powerful and the most in-demand. Broadcasters know that the name of a particular showrunner – a Chase, a Simon, a Matthew Weiner, a Vince Gilligan or, most recently, a Phoebe Waller-Bridge – is a selling point in itself.
This is why all of them, but especially Netflix, are willing to pay enormous sums of money to secure their services. The streaming giant has effectively turned into the Real Madrid of the television industry.
Like the Spanish football club, Netflix seems intent on buying all of the world’s finest players. Whether it actually needs them or has room for them all is another matter; it wants them and will go to extraordinary lengths to have them.
TV industry jaws dropped in 2017 when Netflix shelled out $100m (€88m) to prise Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes away from ABC. They dropped three times harder last year when Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) quit Fox, his creative home for 15 years, for a Netflix deal that will earn him a staggering $300m.
Netflix’s latest signings, revealed last week, are Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, who signed an exclusive deal worth $200m.
This means that what was supposed to be the pair’s next project for HBO, an alt-history drama called Confederacy, set in an America where the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists, is now completely dead in the water.
These big-money deals are great news for the individuals, but not such good news for television.
If Netflix continues to wave the chequebook at TV’s top talents, traditional broadcasters simply won’t have the kind of funds to compete, and that ultimately means less choice for viewers in the long run.
It’s nice to think there might be some holdouts immune to the lure of the big buck.
It’s hard, for example, to imagine David Simon, a man of ferocious integrity, working for anyone other than HBO.
Then again, who would have predicted Martin Scorsese, defender of the pure cinema experience, would end up making a film for Netflix?
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