Scripting for global domination

Most would agree that the ultimate achievement for kids producers is hitting on a perfectly scripted show that resonates as loudly around the globe as it does domestically. But when it comes to crafting perfect scripts, there doesn't seem to be a universal method for getting the job done.
March 1, 2004

Most would agree that the ultimate achievement for kids producers is hitting on a perfectly scripted show that resonates as loudly around the globe as it does domestically. But when it comes to crafting perfect scripts, there doesn’t seem to be a universal method for getting the job done.

Many execs maintain that a property only needs a great story and solid characters, and those can be utilized to their full advantage by talented writers anywhere in the world. But another industry camp reasons that because the U.S. market serves as a barometer for the kids industry (if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere), a producer should develop scripts that work for an American audience, and that often means sourcing North American writers and following a very different creative path.

Particularly when it comes to writing comedies, many North American kids prodcos ape the collaborative process favored by U.S. sitcom and prime-time creatives – hiring a team of writers, story editors and even stand-up comedians to hash out scripts and pitch jokes. In contrast, European and Asian projects usually assign individual writers to work autonomously on each script, and then go several rounds with the story editors and producers on the back end.

Beth Stevenson, partner and VP of production and development at Toronto, Canada’s Decode Entertainment, says she is an unabashed fan of the collaborative style. ‘Especially on the comedy side, it’s really an essential step so that scripts end up being as funny as they can be,’ she says. ‘If you look at Angela Anaconda, the scripts are unbelievable because we assembled an amazing team of people who’ve come up through the Nickelodeon and Disney schools. That’s one of the keys to the show.’

At the same time, Stevenson acknowledges that there are cases when the one-writer approach works best. For example, Decode’s high-end adventure series King has only two writers attached – Canadians Alan Templeton and Mary Crawford. ‘For this particular show, it works well because there are so many different characters and rules and mechanisms to their world that if you fracture the writing out, it would be too much work to explain it to everyone.’

Kevin O’Donnell, senior VP of creative affairs at Burbank, California-based toon house DIC Entertainment, is also a fan of the collaborative model for comedies. ‘With team writing, the odds of hitting a funny line or take are just that much greater,’ he says. DIC typically employs one or two people on dramatic scripts, but as many as six or seven for comedies.

Meanwhile, in France, the one-writer method is actually supported by law. Under the French Intellectual Property Guide, authors automatically have exclusive rights to the exploitation of their works, unlike copyright law, which is common in English-speaking countries and gives those rights to the producer. French writers’ work must be signed over in a contract before the producer can exploit it in other markets.

These legal considerations can be challenging when a project is being produced as an international co-pro, says France Animation managing director Maia Tubiana, and you must define the writing parameters early on, maintaining tight control throughout development and clearly communicating what everyone is going to be credited for.

Tubiana has limited experience working with American writers because France does not have a co-production treaty with the U.S., and this is poses a distinct disadvantage when it comes to selling into the States. Quite simply, French writers can’t nail the American sensibility in the same way.

While it’s tough to define that sensibility, Nelvana’s executive VP of production Scott Dyer says there’s a connected logic to the storytelling arc that isn’t typically found in shows developed overseas. ‘Things tend to play out the way the audience expects them to,’ he explains. Decode’s Stevenson agrees that scripts geared to American audiences tend to be less subtle and ethereal. ‘They don’t really glom on to whimsy,’ she says. ‘They understand a gag, they understand broad humor, they understand high concept, but they tend to be very straightforward.’

If there is a U.S. sensibility in the kids programming world, Scholastic Entertainment president Deborah Forte suggests its genesis is with broadcasters and buyers and it may not have a lot to do with kids. Because so many networks in the States cultivate strong brand identities, buyers there have a very clear idea of the type of scripts they are looking for.

With eight projects on the go, each carefully tailored to a specific broadcaster, Corsham Entertainment creative director Alastair Swinnerton agrees that at this stage it’s more important to think about the broadcaster than the territory. Of course, trying to tailor scripts to suit broadcasters when there are five attached to a co-production can get a bit tricky. Says Swinnerton: ‘It means the writer isn’t just writing; he’s being a politician and he’s having to learn about how the industry works, rather than just sitting there with the bible and story line and writing a great script.’

Regardless of where you sit on the methodology fence, there are certain fundamentals of script development that apply across the board. According to France Animation’s Tubiana, the three key components to a great story are structure, dialogue and characterization. Without all of them, the story will fall flat. Good structure means there is an engaging conflict and resolution, the characters develop or learn something, and there are no loose ends.

To determine if the script’s structure is sound, HIT Entertainment’s executive VP of creative Jocelyn Stevenson uses a test she picked up from her time as a writer on Fraggle Rock (Jim Henson Company). She asks four questions of each script that crosses her table: Whose story is it? What’s the goal? What’s the risk? What do the characters learn?

Staying true to the characters as they’re outlined in the project bible is crucial, says O’Donnell, and DIC tries to be as explicit as possible so the writers are not left with any guesswork to do. (The bible for Liberty’s Kids, for example, outlined exactly how each character would change over a 40-ep arc). As a test, O’Donnell says he will often take the characters’ names out of a script to see if he can still tell what dialogue belongs to which character.

Finding writers who are skilled enough to weave subtle character changes into a script can be tough, and Decode’s Stevenson says her talent-scouting regimen consists of meeting with new writers as often as five times a week and tracking them as they come up the food chain.

There aren’t many upsides to the kids production slow-down, but it has led to an abundance of talented scribes looking for work and a reduction in writer’s fees, which are generally paid as a flat rate per half-hour episode. The benchmark in the U.K. was about US$8,500 per script five years ago, says Corsham’s Swinnerton, whereas now writers are lucky if they see between US$5,500 and US$7,000.

Similarly, American writers who used to get US$10,000 to US$15,000 per half hour are now looking at about US$7,500 on average – O’Donnell says DIC pays between US$5,000 and US$10,000 per half hour, which is pretty standard.

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