Do European screenwriters enjoy closer involvement with projects or do tensions with directors remain? Geoffrey Macnab discovers whether writers are receiving enough recognition for their work

We all know the clichés about the different experiences of writers in Europe and Hollywood. Received wisdom has it European production focuses on auteurs (and writers can fall into that category) while Hollywood is the factory system where writers are highly paid but largely invisible functionaries. Scripts will be gone over again and again by teams of different writers. In Europe, by contrast, screenwriters are much more likely to work alone. But how does it really work in practice?

“If you look at the credits on films that are released, you tend to see that we [in Europe] don’t have as many writers as on projects in America,” says Bradley Quirk, story editor and talent tracker at the UK Film Council’s Film Fund.

In Europe, financiers and development executives will not often ask big-name European directors who write their own screenplays (for example Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Aki Kaurismaki or Pedro Almodovar) to tinker with their storylines. But UK director Stephen Frears disputes the notion writers in the Hollywood and European systems are poles apart. As Frears, who has worked extensively both on US studio films (including The Grifters, Mary Reilly and High Fidelity) and on independent European films (most recently The Queen and Tamara Drewe), points out: “There are sensible people and idiots in both places.”

On any given film, regardless of which side of the Atlantic it is made, the real challenge, says Frears, is “to win the argument” over the screenplay.

‘The idea of a script being handed in and then that’s the end of [the writer’s] work I find nonsensical’

Stephen Frears

Writers of European arthouse movies are not likely to strike it rich. Producers and writers acknowledge the amount they set aside for screenplays is often very small indeed. One Dutch producer suggests a figure between $6,800-$20,300 (¤5,000-¤15,000). For low-budget European movies reliant on public funding and often being made by new talent, the money to invest in screenwriting is minuscule. The writers will not often have agents. When the UK Film Council ran its First Feature development programme, awards for writers were capped at $40,200 (£25,000) — albeit in a scheme primarily aimed at newcomers.

But on certain types of films, European producers will invest heavily in screenplays. Big-budget animated features are a case in point. “Animation is one of the toughest areas to find scripts,” says Belgian producer-director Ben Stassen, the head of Brussels-based nWave Productions, which made the $20m A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures.

Stassen points out animation scripts are not often written on spec and that there are only around 20 big animated features made every year. On Sammy’s Adventures, Stassen himself came up with the idea. He then hired Fly Me To The Moon’s Domonic Paris to write the script.

Stassen expects to pay a writer up to 5% of the project’s production budget. High, he says, for Europe “but definitely not that high for the US”.

Five years ago the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe (FSE) issued the European Screenwriters Manifesto, a defiant document which had the support of 9,000 writers and 21 national writers’ guilds. The European screenwriters demanded they be acknowledged as “primary creators” and asked for “fair payment” as a matter of course.

That manifesto has not had much practical effect, however rousing it was as a rallying cry. The problem facing European screenwriters in 2011 is self-evident. Many are working on movies which are heavily reliant on public funding, and that funding is being cut savagely. Budgets are under even more pressure than before.

Hefty fees for some

Nonetheless European public funders and broadcasters are willing and able to pay big-name writers hefty fees when required. For example, on the long-gestating project The Thirteenth Tale, which is being produced from the bestselling novel by Diane Setterfield by Heyday Films, the UK Film Council agreed to match-fund BBC Films’ investment of $160,600 (£100,000) to cover Christopher Hampton’s writing fee of $321,200 (£200,000), which includes two drafts and revisions.

Agents clearly play a key role in landing the leading writers the most enticing commissions. When Jenne Casarotto was awarded a special jury prize at the 2010 British Independent Film Awards, it marked a rare public acknowledgment of just how influential agents can be. Casarotto Ramsay’s clients include many of the top film writers working in Europe, everyone from Hampton to Tony Grisoni.

“There is sometimes a perception an agent is the gateway towards more work,” notes one script development executive. “I don’t necessarily agree with that but ultimately a good agent will have a series of relationships and contacts that the writer may be able to take care of professionally.”

The UKFC’s Bradley Quirk believes writers are treated with respect in the UK. “We have the highest regard for writers,” he says. “We regard the writers along with the producers and directors we work with as the key collaborators on a project.”

Frears is unusual for a director in that he likes to keep his writers close during the development process. “The idea of a script being handed in and then that’s the end of their work I find nonsensical,” he says.

Frears worked with Hampton on 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, which the writer adapted from his own play, which in turn was based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. At Frears’ instigation, Hampton reintroduced letter writing as the key narrative device, just as it had been in Laclos’ novel.

“There were more scenes between Valmont [John Malkovich] and the Marquise [Glenn Close]. At a certain point, I thought I can’t face directing another of these — can’t we turn that into some other form. Quite by chance, after a series of conversations, we introduced letter writing into the thing, which is what Laclos had done in the first place.”

On Frears’ most recent movie, Tamara Drewe, writer Moira Buffini was involved “all the time”, he says. It was not a case, Frears says, of following the “first draft, second draft, third polish” regime. “I never know what these words mean and I basically ignore them. I can see the people behind [the scenes] trying to mop up the financial implications of my having rung up the writer and asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if…’”

He continues: “I hope I treat writers well. In the end, I suppose I am given some sort of final power but I regard [making films] as entirely collaborative.”

The Brit list

The UK equivalent of the US’s Black List was created in 2007 by an anonymous London-based talent agent. A selection of 40 top producers, agents and public funders vote anonymously on which unproduced screenplays have most impressed them. Peter Straughan’s The Men Who Stare At Goats was the most favoured in 2007. The 2008 list was topped by Matt Greenhalgh’s Nowhere Boy, which Sam Taylor-Wood went on to direct, while the 2009 list featured, among others, Simon Beaufoy’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, now in post-production with Lasse Hallstrom at the helm.

Top titles on the 2010 Brit List

11 votes

Sex Education by Jonathan Stern and Jamie Minoprio (Casarotto). Prod cos Ruby Films, BBC Films

8 votes

Cheerleaders by Ben Schiffer (ITG). Prod cos Cloud Eight Films

7 votes

Honour by Shan Khan (The Agency). Prod cos Dan Films, Parti Prods

Shadow Dancer by Tom Bradby (Lucas Alexander Whitley). Prod cos Unanimous Pictures, Element Pictures, Wild Bunch Production

Song For Marion by Paul Andrew Williams (United Agents). Prod co Steel Mill Productions

Welcome To The Punch by Eran Creevy (ITG). Prod co Between the Eyes

6 votes

Breathe (aka Back 2 Jack) by Claire Wilson (Casarotto Ramsay). Prod co Element Pictures

Engaged by James Condon. Prod co Silvertown Film

The Animators by Clive Dawson (ITG). Prod co Qwerty Films