FEMALE SCREENWRITERS – CAN THEY DO IT LIKE MEN?

Posted by admin  /   July 04, 2014  /   Posted in Screenwriters and Industry Interviews  /   3 Comments

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Hi There,

This week a GUEST BLOG by 2014 Channel 4 Screenwriting writer DREW MARKE on the issue of WOMEN IN SCREENWRITING.

I’m really grateful to Drew for writing this excellent, thoughtful, challenging article.

NB  I would love to hear from all of you screenwriters out there – female or male! – about how you’ve encountered and observed this issue. As Drew points out, it’s a debate that needs to be had, an issue that needs to be addressed. Over to Drew…

 

 

FEMALE SCREENWRITERS: CAN THEY DO IT LIKE MEN?

I recently took part in the Channel Four Screenwriting Course, which continues to defy a very common and worrying trend that has everyone talking…

Where are all the female screenwriters?

In the 4 years that the course has been running, over half of all participants have been women. This year, women took 10 out of the 12 slots available, a rare male/female ratio in an industry dominated by male writers.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? I know. Why are we still talking about this: men get most of the film and TV writing jobs, women get left behind. Blah Blah Blah.

Well, to all the eye rollers, we’re still talking about it because the situation is not improving. During the C4 course alone, the issue came up a number of times. Maybe I offered my opinion too loudly. Or maybe Philip noticed the steam coming out of my pores. I dunno. Either way, he suggested I write this article for his blog. So here I am. Chiming in.

If you’ve engaged in your own version of this debate, I’m guessing you generally covered something along these grounds (as we did):

Do men write scripts that have wider commercial appeal?

Are there barriers that make it harder for women to access the industry? Or are men simply more aggressive in pursuing their careers, therefore increasing their chances of success?

And the big one: are men better writers than women?

It’s hard to determine the truth in any of these statements but I’ll certainly try – and will throw in a few credible links along the way (which you should probably leave until the end).

SO – DO MEN WRITE SCRIPTS THAT HAVE WIDER COMMERCIAL APPEAL?

One of the speakers on the course mentioned that women simply write differently to men. They tend to write smaller stories. More emotional stuff.

That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. It seems that the assumption behind this pervasive way of thinking is that material written by people with vaginas generally only appeals to other people with vaginas. That women are not interested in writing the bigger stuff. You know, the stuff that can appeal to guys, the important people.

Sarcasm aside, think about how harmful it is to think that way. For instance, a production company decides to hire a writer to adapt a thriller novel they optioned or to write a new zombie TV show, so they brainstorm a list of writers. If it’s naturally assumed that men do the bigger ideas better, who’s more likely to make it onto that shortlist?

Maybe that’s why shows like DOCTOR WHO and MERLIN struggle to recruit female writers, as highlighted in this article:

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2013/mar/27/doctor-who-female-writers

I dunno… But I did discover one thing on the C4 course: women can and do write the big stuff. The stories tackled ranged from crime, thriller, supernatural to dystopian, comedy and drama. It may be a small sample but these are female screenwriters who are up and coming in the industry. Surely there are a lot more out there. And let’s not forget about (the few) prominent female screenwriters already at the top of the food chain. The likes of Abi Morgan with her hard-hitting SHAME and Sally Wainwright with her recent crime thriller HAPPY VALLEY (which frickin’ knocked it out the park), proves that we simply can’t relegate material written by women to the emotional, small story, domestic box. We need to look at female screenwriters as writers of all genres, just as we do men. And that shows like DOCTOR WHO should acknowledge that they do have options in both sexes, and maybe even try to do something about it …

So if there are up-and-coming female scribes writing a wide range of stories, why aren’t they getting as much airtime as men?

Perception can have a lot to do with it, especially if you’re a female writer and your script features a female lead which, according to some, has limited appeal.

For example, I recently gave a sitcom that I wrote about a group of girls to a male friend who works in the industry, and asked for his feedback. His response started like this: “For someone who isn’t into female-dominated concepts…”

I hope my friend forgives me for calling him out in public (I already did in private), because this is someone whose opinion I really respect – but really? No, seriously, REALLY? !

When I asked him about this he replied that he’s probably been “conditioned to gravitate toward male-centric concepts”.  I’m sure he was just fanning off the debate with a BS PC answer. He achieved the desired effect because I left it there. But I never forgot about it.

Now you may think that it doesn’t make a difference. Male/female-driven concepts – who cares? Once the script is the reader’s hands, they’ll judge it purely on merit.

But consider that scripts often don’t get that far, especially when you’re just starting out. A reader will usually look at the synopsis first and then decide if they want to read the script. It makes me wonder how many male (and even female) readers, script editors, development executives and commissioners – basically gatekeepers – turn off female-driven concepts (and consequently female writers) purely on that basis. Even though, given half the chance with the right promotion and the right time slot, the concept could broadly appeal to both male and female audiences.

For instance, on Amazon THE GOOD WIFE is described as: … a female-driven drama about a politician’s wife who pursues her own career as a defense attorney after her husband is sent to jail on charges of political corruption. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) will not only have to deal with her career but also with keeping her family together by providing a stable home for her two children.

If you’ve seen THE GOOD WIFE, it has brilliant male and female characters, who all have their own individual stories and arcs. It largely takes place in the courtroom/office. Not to say that the family aspect doesn’t feature in the show. It does. But then it also featured heavily in shows such as BROADCHURCH, BREAKING BAD and THE SOPRANOS – but you would be hard pressed to find anything about family in their descriptions. What’s more, I never, EVER hear those shows described as a ‘male-driven’ show. So why is THE GOOD WIFE labelled as ‘female-driven’? What does this serve if not to subliminally highlight to potential viewers/readers/everyone that this show features a female lead and family-orientated storylines – look away if you’re a man???

So is the branding of these shows (and their scripts) part of the problem? Possibly.

I would like to say that bias stops at the script’s concept/sex of the protagonist, and that the writer’s own gender has nothing to do with whether a script is considered/taken forward/commissioned or not. But, alas, I can’t.

Evidence shows that female scribes get a rougher time simply because there’s a female name on the front of their script – and that can impact the way a reader assesses their script and its commercial appeal.

Like in this great little study on the Grantmakers in the Arts website, which looked at reader bias in the theatre world:

http://www.giarts.org/article/discrimination-and-female-playwright

The researchers sent out scripts to over 200 theatres, all of which were written by women. However, some scripts were changed to a male pen name, with the aim of finding out if the scripts would be rated differently by readers.

I hate to say they found bias. Scripts were rated differently based on gender.

But delving deeper, two points in this study were very interesting. The first, scripts written by a woman coupled with a female protagonist were rated the lowest. Just to be clear, the exact same script with a male pen name was rated higher, and the female protagonist in that same script was judged as more ”likeable” under male authorship.

Second, to my surprise, it was the female readers who showed more negative bias towards scripts by a female writer.

I don’t want to start spewing the idea that women are against women. But I do think this study shouldn’t be ignored because the explanation behind the results is really insightful. The researchers explained that bias shown by the female readers was based on “prophetic discrimination”. Essentially, the female readers didn’t inherently believe that men are better writers but rather that their peers were more likely to consider scripts by male scribes more commercially viable, so they felt more confident in championing those scripts. In their minds, a dude’s script with a male lead is a safer bet.

Which nicely leads on to barriers that women face in the industry…

So – are there barriers that make it harder for women to access the industry? Or are men simply more aggressive in pursuing their careers, therefore increasing their chances of success?

From what I’ve seen so far, this industry favours certain traits in a writer: talent, perseverance, affability and overall someone who is easy to work with.

I’ll also add to that confidence. There are plenty of women that show the traits above but I’ve often wondered: are women as confident as men? And if not, does confidence set men apart in this competitive field?

For instance, over at SCRIPTSHADOW (a website aimed at aspiring screenwriters), writers are invited on a weekly basis to post their work and have it scrutinised by their peers and the site’s creator. One week, only scripts by female writers were considered, which caused a furore among the male readers. The site’s creator explained that usually 99% of all scripts submitted are by male scribes and women should be given their moment in the sun! Go to other screenwriting websites such as SIMPLY SCRIPTS and again you’ll find the same pattern; the majority of amateur scripts are posted by men.

Now this trend doesn’t surprise me. After all, from childhood little boys are encouraged to be leaders, successful and put their hand up in the class – yardy yardy yar. But 99%! Wow.

And I know this is probably not a femme-friendly thing to say but with this in mind, maybe the female ego (or lack thereof) is part of (the very complex) problem to successfully breaking into this industry and succeeding as a female screenwriter. Maybe women are not doing it like the men in this department – or at least not enough. Maybe women need to put their work out there more and promote their brand shamelessly in order to get ahead.

Now remember I’m just putting it out there. And I’m not in any way suggesting that women are their own enemies when it comes to their careers and that they don’t face other real barriers. After all, I’ve already raised the issues of reader bias, perceptions around what women should/do write and the commercial appeal of their work. I’m sure there are plenty of others, such as pursuing a profession that’s not exactly family-friendly, or the type of clients that literary agents are likely to take on, or of course good old-fashioned sexism. There is not enough space to cover all the potential issues around access but I stick to my guns – confidence and even ambition are points worth raising.

Which leads on to:

With all this in mind, do we need to have more diversity schemes to help women break into the industry?

I’ve come across a lot of male writers who decry the idea of quota hiring. Look at the comments section on the internet when this subject is brought up and you’ll see what I mean. There’s plenty of uproar over diversity schemes and how they take jobs away from them, the assumed “better writer”, and how these jobs go to “less deserving” writers because they are female or a person of diversity.

I personally have mixed feelings about diversity schemes. I would never want anyone to question why I got a job for any reason other than my talent. In this article, Beejoli Shah, a TV writer in the US, so eloquently explains the potential problems with diversity hires in US writers’ rooms:

http://defamer.gawker.com/in-the-white-room-with-black-writers-hollywoods-dive-1486789620

But just looking at the low number of female writers working in the industry – can we really sit back and do nothing?

If getting a break in this industry is such an arbitrary process which, according to employment figures, clearly favours men at the moment, maybe we do need more structured schemes to help redress the balance.

I personally would love to see schemes that help improve access because it can sometimes feel as though this industry is a closed shop. I may be a bit naïve here but why not have new male and female writers (and possibly new script editors) – that maybe come through great access schemes such as 4Screenwriting and BBC Writers Room – shadow the writing teams/creators on all TV drama and comedy series, not just continuing dramas, especially if these programmes are largely funded by the broadcasters/public money? Though I understand the time pressures of delivering a programme, it certainly wouldn’t cost much (trust me, new writers would be grateful for even a small fee). But something needs to be done, anything to get new blood in and to show those in power that the options are out there.

Or maybe another alternative is to hold the gatekeepers more accountable for the way in which they commission writers.

Read this great article on Producer/Writer Stephen Falk (WEEDS) and COMMUNITY creator Dan Harmon who set out to hire female writers for their writers’ room – one by choice, the other by force – and how it improved the standard of writing on their shows.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/11/26/the_dan_harmon_theory_of_how_to_get_more_women_writing_television_convince.html

I especially love Stephen Falk’s quote: “…if you already have a show on the air and you have like 12 guys and 2 women: you didn’t look hard enough.”

It can be done. No excuses.

So then why are we still here?

ARE MEN SIMPLY BETTER WRITERS THAN WOMEN?

Well, if we break it down, men get the majority of the writing jobs out there. Yes. That’s true. However, at the risk of causing an epic male/female divide, the statistics from a BFI scoping study actually favour the female scribe as the better writer if based on return on investment in film. I.e. Box office returns for films written by a woman were more lucrative at $1.25 for every £1 spent on the budget. With male scribes, it was $1.16 for every £1 (don’t ask me why they used two different currencies).

Based on these figures, one could state that women are better writers. But again I wonder if that’s really the case. Referring back to the study on Grantmakers in the Arts (http://www.giarts.org/article/discrimination-and-female-playwright), the researchers discovered that:

“A young male writer who shows promise receives a production, and then a few more, and then he writes a hit. He develops his craft along the way. A young female writer who shows promise, however, is not as likely to be produced until she writes a hit.”

In short, female-penned scripts are held to a higher standard. The study may apply to theatre writers but I think it helps to provide a possible explanation as to why films by female writers are more successful at the box office.

But really, this is speculation. All of it. Until a more extensive study comparing the careers of male and female film and TV screenwriters – including their background and education, how they got started in the industry, the number of commissions they’ve had, at what age, the frequency of those commissions etc etc – we’ll never really know exactly why we are in the situation we are in now and why it’s not changing at the pace it should be changing.

So to conclude, I personally don’t buy into this idea that men are betters writers, or vice versa.

Simple put, there are great writers. There are good writers. There are shit writers. That’s it.

So to round it all off…

Based on employment figures and the limited research out there, there’s no question that women have it harder than men – from getting their work read, to getting a commission, to sustaining a long career.

In saying that, this is a golden age – at least in TV. With a growing trend in international co-productions and a real thirst for fresh ideas, I truly believe this is probably the best time in a long time for women (and generally any aspiring writer) to try and make their mark in the industry, even if the odds are slightly stacked against them.

IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE ON THE SUBJECT, HERE ARE SOME LINKS –

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/announcements/breakthrough-women-screenwriters-2010-2012

http://www.bfi.org.uk/education-research/film-industry-statistics-reports/reports/diversity

SOPHIA MCDOUGALL ON WHY SHE HATES STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS:

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters

THANK YOU SO MUCH DREW

Until next week,

All the best

Phil

PHILIP SHELLEY

www.script-consultant.co.uk

Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

July 4th 2014

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