Screenwriters’ Collectives or the “Making Of” a Profession

Companionship and Solidarity in Creative Work

Les collectifs de scénaristes ou la « fabrique » du métier. Compagnonnage et solidarités dans le travail créatif

Los colectivos de guionistas o la «fábrica» del oficio. Compañerismo y solidaridades en el trabajo creativo

Anne-Sophie Béliard and Sarah Lécossais

Translated by Jean-Yves Bart

Translated from:
Les collectifs de scénaristes ou la « fabrique » du métier

References

Electronic reference

Anne-Sophie Béliard and Sarah Lécossais, « Screenwriters’ Collectives or the “Making Of” a Profession », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 30 April 2020, connection on 06 August 2020. URL : https://revue.biens-symboliques.net/425

Amid the resurgence of some television formats, writers of TV series form a professional group that has gained exposure but is still looking for recognition in France. This paper examines how ‘collectives,’—informal groups of professional screenwriters—contribute to redefining their members’ practices, identities, and professional relationships. Findings are drawn from an ongoing qualitative study based on interviews with writers involved in these collectives (N=22). We show that the collegial functioning and management of these groups is instrumental in turning them into socially homogeneous venues for discussion and training aids. Collectives help bring together writers and stabilize their professional identity by focusing their collective reflection on their writing skills and ways to combat the individualistic rationales currently prevailing in creative work. Ultimately, collectives support their members in their quest for recognition in the profession and autonomy within the television industry through their labelling effect and contribution to the reversal of power relations with producers and directors.

Dans un contexte actuel de revalorisation de certains formats télévisuels, les scénaristes de séries télévisées constituent un groupe professionnel en voie de visibilité mais toujours en quête de reconnaissance en France. Cet article propose d’étudier la façon dont les « collectifs », groupes informels de scénaristes professionnels, contribuent à requalifier les pratiques, les identités et les relations professionnelles mêmes de leurs membres. Les résultats présentés s’appuient sur une enquête qualitative en cours composée d’entretiens avec des scénaristes impliqués dans ces collectifs (N=22). L’article montre comment le fonctionnement et la gestion collégiale des collectifs contribuent à faire de ces espaces de discussion, socialement homogènes, des supports de formation. Le collectif contribue à fédérer les auteur·ice·s et à stabiliser leur identité professionnelle en concentrant la réflexion collective qu’ils et elles développent sur leurs compétences d’écriture et sur la mise à distance des logiques individualistes du travail créatif. Les collectifs fournissent, finalement, à leurs membres un soutien à la reconnaissance et à l’autonomie professionnelle dans l’industrie télévisuelle par un effet de labellisation et de rééquilibrage des rapports de pouvoir dans les relations avec les producteurs et les réalisateurs.

En el contexto actual de revalorización de ciertos formatos audiovisuales en Francia, los guionistas de series televisadas constituyen un grupo profesional que llega a visibilidad pero siempre en busca de reconocimiento. Este artículo se propone estudiar la manera en que los «colectivos», grupos informales de guionistas profesionales, contribuyen a recalificar las prácticas, las identidades las mismas relaciones profesionales de sus miembros. Los resultados presentados se basan en una investigación cualitativa en curso, compuesta de entrevistas a los guionistas de estos colectivos (N=22). El artículo muestra como el funcionamiento y la gestión colegial de los colectivos contribuyen a hacer de estos espacios de discusión, socialmente homogéneos, soportes de formación. El colectivo ayuda a federar autores y autoras y a estabilizar su identidad profesional, concentrando la reflexión colectiva sobre sus competencias de escritura y sobre la puesta en distancia de las lógicas individualistas del trabajo creativo. Finalmente, los colectivos proporcionan a sus miembros un apoyo para el reconocimiento y la autonomía profesionales en la industria televisual, por un efecto de certificación y de reequilibrio de las relaciones de poder en relación a los productores y realizadores.

In her pioneering book on television screenwriters (1995), Dominique Pasquier described these professionals’ struggle for recognition. Television series were at the time utterly lacking in cultural legitimacy, and their authors were socially discredited. Recent developments in the hierarchy of television genres, whereby some formats have been revalued1, call for a reassessment of the profession of screenwriter. Series such as Dix pour cent (Call My Agent!), Un village français (A French Village), and Le Bureau des légendes (The Bureau), which have received considerable attention, offer a glimpse of a recognition for the labour of those who invent them—or at least of increased exposure for some of them. To shed light on these trends, this paper examines an informal mode of co-operation that has recently developed in France—screenwriters’ collectives—and the ways in which their organization contributes to defining the practices and professional identity of participating individuals.

Screenwriters’ collectives appeared in the late 2000s, with the aim of providing spaces for these professionals to exchange advice on their projects. As the profession of screenwriter is characterized by tension between artistic aspirations and economic pressure, resulting in writers taking on some assignments just to pay the bills, we posit the hypothesis that these collectives are able to reconcile these two aspects of the job. Artistic professions are subject to uncertainties regarding career prospects as well as the viability of the projects to which they commit and their financial rewards (Freidson 1986), which is sometimes alleviated by the anticipation of rewards other than financial (Cardon & Pilmis 2013). We explore the idea that getting involved in a collective may be part of an effort to fend off such uncertainties and maximize rewards. This requires investigating the tension between individual, collective and professional group at work in this profession—the constant back and forth between collective practices of coordination and cooperation, and personal positioning dynamics in a professional group that is striving for recognition. We consider to what extent the organizational forms of screenwriters’ collectives contribute to redefining the practices, identities and the professional relationships of writers.

Our analysis differs from similar studies due to the characteristics of the profession of screenwriter and the nature of the social groupings investigated. Collectives have an informal status, which is not framed by legal provisions. This makes their activities different from those of associations and professional unions. The role granted to collectives draws on a rationale that constitutes an alternative, and possibly a complement, to that of trade unions in the structuring of artistic professions (Grégoire 2009; Freidson 1986). As they are formed as publicly identifiable groups (with names and lists of members), collectives also differ from personal networks. Therefore, the analysis of collectives proposed here shall not be part of a study on the effects of networks on professional markets and careers through network analysis; it is the study of a distinct form of professional collaboration.

In this sense, our analysis is on the one hand situated halfway between the sociology of professions and the sociology of the media. It draws on research on audio-visual professionals (Pasquier & Chalvon-Demersay 1990; Pasquier 1995) and on studies of professional groups and relationships in the art world (Menger 2002; Heinich 1993; Chiapello 1998). Where research on labour in culture has evidenced the development of chains of cooperation (Becker 1982) and the role of commissions in creation (Baxandall 1972), here we focus on collectives to approach screenwriters in terms of competences and relationships to other television professionals. On the other hand, our research also builds on findings in cultural studies, as it questions the power relations, including gendered social relations, in which screenwriters are involved and envisions them as “symbol creators” at the heart of the cultural industries (Hesmondhalgh 2007). To achieve this, this paper draws on an ongoing qualitative study on members of screenwriters’ collectives.

Fig. 1. Writing for Television

Image 10000000000004B000000322C8A41B10.jpg

© Television, by Nick Yougson. Source : CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator.

Methodology
Our research consists mainly of semi-directive interviews with 22 screenwriters from five different collectives, aged between 25 and 53, whom we perceived to be white2. We began our study with the oldest of these collectives, having been introduced by a member acquaintance. This introduction to the fieldwork explains the current over-representation of this first collective in our data (11 of 22 interviewees). The vast majority of its members write or have written television series. Our investigations have progressed gradually, drawing on networks of acquaintances. Female screenwriters form the majority of our interviewees (16) even though they remain a minority in their professional milieu. While their numbers have been regularly increasing, as of 2016, women made up 34% of all television screenwriters3.. Their overrepresentation in our research relates to the fact that the men in the collectives under study tend not to write series (but films or animation). All currently live and work in Paris; the professional world described in this paper is largely Parisian4. This is a result of the state of the job market in the sector: the main employers are production companies and especially prominent national television channels5.

We begin by presenting the organization and operation of the collectives. We then consider the role played by these groups in the construction of the screenwriters’ professional identities. We show that these collectives can be seen as a response to the struggles and constraints of the job, and contribute to the promotion of a shared vocabulary and the creation of networks of solidarity. Lastly, we examine how collectives help their members in their individual pursuits of professional autonomy.

1. Screenwriters’ Collectives: Principles and Operation

This section focuses on the emergence and internal rules of collectives, whose members meet on a regular basis, read each other’s work and give each other advice.

1.1. The Emergence and Development of Collectives in France

We have identified twelve collectives created between 2007 and the mid-2010s6. However, drawing up a comprehensive, precise list of currently existing and active collectives is no easy task, as some have no publicity and remain invisible in the media. We therefore provide an overview of the collectives that are publicized by their members, and equipped with public displays (websites, Facebook pages, etc.) that contain information about their functioning and membership.7

The first French collective was created in 2007 amid a national crisis of television drama characterized by weakening ratings and declining output (CSA report 2010). These trends were particularly concerning at a time when French series, which were more expensive to produce than US series were to purchase, suffered from American competition. In 2001, by replacing its usual Sunday night feature film with episodes of the US series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the prominent private television channel TF1 marked a major turning point, reflecting a crisis of trust in French professionals. This competition with US series also played out in terms of content, as French series faced an “editorial crisis”: “the world and the other genres have changed, but our drama has not evolved” (CSA report 2010: 21). French productions were then criticized for their lesser quality, and these criticisms evidently affected their authors.

In response to these criticisms, young screenwriters founded what they called a “collective”: a group whose members meet in a spirit of companionship and mutual aid to talk about their writing practices and their challenges. This first collective was named as a direct inspiration in the creation of subsequent collectives. The second, which appeared in 2010, was described as a junior version of the former.

However, the collectives differ from one another in one key aspect: while all of them present themselves as “screenwriters’ collectives,” their membership does not only include television writers. Some of their members write for a variety of media and formats (graphic novels, animation, film, radio, theatre) and others are directors or editors8 (see table 2). It is also worth noting that among the collectives under study here, most are mixed-gender, but two are open exclusively to women.

The members of these collectives are characterized by social homogeneity. Many of our interviewees are highly educated (fifteen have four or more years of higher education under their belt) and have attended preparatory classes for admission into one of the elite French institutions (12/22), which did not necessarily prepare them for writing or creating series9. With two exceptions, our interviewees are higher education graduates, from institutions including the ENS10, business or engineering schools, institutes of political science, languages, cinema or audio-visual university faculties, specialized schools, or holders of a BTS11 in the audio-visual field. These levels of educational attainment may partly relate to our interviewees’ fairly homogeneous social backgrounds, as the majority come from families well-endowed in cultural and educational capital, with parents in executive positions, higher intellectual occupations (journalist, designer, psychiatrist, physician, etc.) or middle-class occupations (teachers, booksellers, etc). Only two screenwriters among our interviewees have working-class backgrounds and emphasized how unusual this is:

“I come from a working-class background and I’m very, very much in the minority in my job, actually I don’t know… I don’t know any others, I’m the only one. Well, no, one other person. And you know, really working class, right, with parents on minimum wage12 or unemployed. No artists in the family either.” (Olympe, 32 years old, collective 5.)

The collectives emerged in similar conditions—that of a decisive encounter between members (who go on to become the founding members), mainly in one of two settings: first, during a festival (two collectives were created after a screenwriters’ festival); second, in a class of one of the recently opened specialized screenwriting courses in France (the atelier scénario at Fémis and the grand atelier série at CEEA). To some extent, the social frameworks in which members meet lead to similarities in their approaches to the job and the conception of series, since they share the same experience and training.

1.2. How Collectives Work

Most collectives operate in similar ways, based on the model of the first collective. Meetings often start with a round-table discussion in which members present their ongoing projects. There are three types of meeting: some are held to discuss a text, others to meet a guest, and yet others are less codified (and may include analysis of series, or talks about current events in the field).

Discussion on a text, which a member will have sent in advance, is the main activity of these collectives. Each member in attendance provides feedback on the text, first positive, and subsequently critical. The latter rule was not initially used in collective 5, but ultimately adopted to make exchanges less difficult, especially for those presenting their work. Gradual adjustments in the group’s operation are therefore possible. This regulation reflects an effort to foster a friendly atmosphere, and encourage mutual aid between the authors who share their perspectives, diverse skillsets, and advice. The texts presented are generally “personal” projects, meaning that they have been written on their author’s initiative. The screenwriters who are working on workshopped series seldom read storylines from these works, as they generally have a space for group work and editing elsewhere. Indeed, the writers on recurring fifty-two-minute shows (such as Chérif, Nina or Section de recherche) discuss their proposals with series directors, co-authors, etc. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, screenwriters’ collectives work more as informal support groups for individual creation than as incubators for common projects.

In addition to these meetings, some collectives also hold sessions for group reflection on the profession, or welcome a guest who may help them in the process of writing and creating their characters for the purposes of authenticity or realism. Such guests include professionals in the audio-visual sector or individuals in professions that may be depicted in television series (such as lawyers, forensic pathologists, police superintendents, or teachers). During one such meeting organized by the first collective, one of the authors of this paper was invited to discuss her doctoral research on representations of parenthood in French series. Her participant observation enabled her to describe the proceedings in detail:

“The collective’s founder moderates the meeting. He introduces me as a guest and gives me the floor. The presentation is followed by questions, thoughts, discussions on my presentation—occasionally lively ones13 […] Throughout that part of the meeting, Clément, who is the only one with a computer, takes notes. He will then draw up the minutes of the meeting, and forward them to the collective’s other members. This first part lasts around two hours, and is followed by a communal dinner, prepared by two members, who I ran into in a neighbouring supermarket before the meeting. Bottles have been laid out on the table before the discussion, but dinner comes after. The thirteen attending members sit in a circle, on the sofa, chairs and seats that have been gathered in the lounge for the occasion. Once the period of ‘formal’ discussion of the guest’s presentation was over, we thus ate and drank, and small pockets of conversation emerged between acquaintances and neighbours. This part of the evening has a much more congenial atmosphere, and the friendship between the group’s members is palpable. The return of the moderator’s partner signals the end of the meeting.” (Field notes, 15/03/2016.)

The collective is managed collegially, although group cohesion appears to rest largely on the founders. Members rotate in assuming organizational duties from one meeting to the next, so that the host (generally the person with the biggest and most centrally located apartment in Paris) does not always have to handle the organization of meetings. In some collectives, the question of presidency or a form of leadership has been raised. Thus, in collective 5, after a general assembly was held and votes counted, a “rotating presidency” was introduced on a monthly basis to ensure a better division of organizational labour, conferring on the group a form of horizontal governance that reflects the idea of companionship highlighted by the collectives. Each member is successively entrusted with the preparation of a meeting and all related tasks: choosing the guest or the text submitted for discussion, picking the date and venue, sending out email reminders, documents, and so on.

While, with the exception of number 5, the screenwriters’ collectives are not arenas in which projects are created14, their functioning and governance entails costs for members, especially in terms of time. The oldest collective is now twelve years old, and during this time, the family situations of its members have changed: among the twelve we met, two screenwriters were pregnant at the time of our interview, and another was expecting her first child’s birth imminently. As one of the members explains:

“We’re very busy. Actually, we’ve just switched to meeting every three weeks, because we couldn’t do every two weeks anymore, it was too much, with all the babies that have come in, a real nursery! [laughs] […] It really is a bit tough keeping up the pace […]. Also, you know, when you work during the day, you have that keeping your mind busy, you come back home to crying babies and changing nappies, so getting back to thinking about things in the evening, for two hours, it’s not easy, you have to be really driven, so, there’s that. You have to… But still, it’s always a pleasure.” (Christine, 53 years old, collective 1.)

All of our interviewees noted how time-consuming being part of a collective is. As careers progress–usually meaning greater responsibility—and personal trajectories unfold—childbirth being one of their milestones—screenwriters face scheduling issues. Preparing meetings becomes a constraint, and some may choose to reduce their involvement, individually or collectively. For instance, the members of the first two collectives have collectively decided to hold fewer meetings, from every two weeks to every three weeks, so as to take into consideration the members’ individual limitations. Despite these costs, continued involvement in the collective draws on the anticipation or expectation of compensation. One form of compensation lies in the collective’s contribution to the training of its members and the mutual aid network it offers.

2. The Collective as a Key Locus for the Actualization of New Professional Identities

Participation in collectives can be understood as a response to the isolation and individualism that used to characterize the profession of screenwriter (Pasquier 1995). The creation of collectives has been a means to reconfigure the profession, by focusing on authors and fostering new forms of solidarity (Banks & Hesmondhalgh 2016).

2.1. A Support System in the Face of Professional Trials and Challenges

Screenwriting for series is creative work that is characterized by a number of limitations, which can be challenging for writers in a number of ways. First, it is lonely work: the screenwriter often works alone, from home, in sometimes difficult material conditions. In France, television channels and production companies do not have the writing rooms of their US counterparts. Therefore, screenwriters have no office, and some choose to remedy this by renting offices together.

Writing constraints are also very much present, but having been internalized by the authors, they do not necessarily entail a loss of autonomy (Mille 2018). However, television industry rules sometimes further devalue some of the series on which writers work. When they begin their career, screenwriters work on existing series and have to accept the relevant “bible” that tends to reify the characters’ personalities (Chalvon-Demersay 2011). In doing so, they are working on “commission,” as opposed to the creations they may pitch once they have established a foothold in the profession. However, coming up with personal projects is encouraged by membership in a collective, as those projects are the ones discussed in meetings. Most importantly, the sharing of skills and the constructive feedback that are key features of collective work have beneficial effects in terms of training, according to the screenwriters themselves.

2.2. In-Group Training: The Collective as a Venue for Acquiring Tools and Sharing Skills

The main role of the collective is to work on skills and experience. The founders of the first collective came to think that together, they would be able to share knowledge, exchange methods and develop tools to write better, more original scripts and in doing so improve the quality of French drama. This was about transmitting, sharing experiences; “pooling resources to improve them” [Bastien, 36 years old, collective 1]. The collective’s initiative is in that sense described as making up for the lack of official training—for those who were unable to attend courses—by developing other “reputational signals” (Menger 1991: 69), skills, reputation, and professionalization. The driving force behind the creation of the collectives was the idea of teaming up to become stronger—both as individuals progressing in their professional practice and as individual parts of a group allowing them to form a common front in their working environment. The screenwriters we met highlighted these two facets of the collective:

“The idea was to be less alone. And to share what we were writing […] it was to have sort of informed feedback about what we were writing. And also, to join forces, to raise each other’s spirits, to create a network, a shared network, for those who started to have professional contacts, they could hook others up. It was kind of exchanging … being stronger as a group, right.” (Esther, 37 years old, collective 2.)

Being a member of a collective has several benefits for writing: learning techniques, developing tools, sharing know-how, and learning from others, as well as getting feedback on personal projects. It turns writing into both individual and collective work, the latter drawing on lifelong training and the acquisition of creative tools.

Members of collectives are also prone to sharing tools and knowledge because they have friendly relationships. These authors work well together and may fruitfully learn from each other’s advice partly because in their own words, they “get along well”. These affinities are to some extent explained by social proximity among members, who as mentioned earlier are characterized by a significant degree of social homogeneity. These are reinforced by the principles of recruitment of other members, acquaintances, or friends who are recommended or co-opted after a group discussion. The new members are often individuals who have followed the same training and share the same codes for writing and working. Ultimately, collectives are organized around people who describe each other as “friends,” and who are close in terms of age, educational attainment and social background. This may reflect a rationale of homophily that is characteristic of the structure of friendly relationships (Bidart 1997 ; Héran 1990). These screenwriters train each other and give each other tools in a socio-culturally homogeneous, tight-knit environment.

2.3. “Us” versus “Them”

The development of collectives appears to have gone hand in hand with the affirmation of a professional identity that is bound with the ability to work collectively—as well as the taste for it. In their discourse, the screenwriters we met erected a symbolic border between two types of professional—an “us” versus “them” distinction. Whereas previously studied screenwriters seldom talked about the importance of learning writing (Pasquier 1995), those we met were by contrast very aware of this issue, and attributed a central place to lifelong training. Terms such as “learning constantly” (Olympe), training, gathering materials, writing, rewriting, “labouring” (Antoine) recur in interviews, reflecting a shared effort to be effective and to “do good work” (Olympe). Training is both a technical and a symbolic necessity, and pertains both to ways of doing and ways of being (Sofio 2007). For the founders of the first collective, this quest for self-improvement reflects a new approach to the job. These newcomers in the world of television created their collective as a reaction to the postures of already established screenwriters heard during the 2007 edition of a Festival in Aix:

“The round tables and meetings stank. It was bullshit, right, this big amphitheatre where people would just blurt out banalities, there were screenwriters in the room who got up to say stuff like: ‘I’ve got great projects in the pipeline, but the distributors have no balls, nobody asks me for anything’ […] The thing is, I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt like I was crap, I mean, I felt I was a beginner, we had everything to learn, so I had a little bit… of hope that I would make it and ambition, but I didn’t think that the people around me were all that great either, right […] except for Krivine […] so, I’d go, well, I don’t understand, if we can’t keep our own houses in order, umm… instead of griping about producers, distributors and all that […] I can feel that I have a lot to learn, so we should meet up to talk about that, and about that only.” (Clément, 37 years old, collective 1.)

The collective took a stand against the dominant discourse of screenwriters, who complained about the coercive power of television channels. Its creators stated their ambition to improve writing standards on series and reassert the screenwriter’s identity while recognizing the gaps in their experience. There is, indeed, a construction, both individual and common, of the profession at work in collectives, as Bastien explains: “We’ve made our job thanks to the collective, too, and our status thanks to the collective, it’s a way of working thanks to the collective, of having work thanks to the collective […].” The idea of “making” [in French fabriquer, literally manufacturing] one’s work illustrates the creation of a self-proclaimed identity and status, as part of an effort of distinction from previous forms taken by the profession.

While collective 1 was created to overcome individual shortcomings, the dialogues provide a glimpse into a conflict relating to approaches to writing. This conflict is clearly expressed by a founder, who describes the creation of the collective as a split from the “old-timers” (Jérôme, 41 years old). A line is drawn between “them” and “us” here; the former have lived through the golden age of the ninety-minute crime series of the 1990s and are accused of resting on their laurels, whereas the latter grew up on a diet of US shows, started out working in writers’ pool workshops on fifty-two-minute series, and are eager to get better at their craft.

2.4. The Collective as a Response to Individualism in Creative Work?

This opposition reflects a tension between an individualistic response and a collective response to competition in the profession. Our interviews readily pointed to an ongoing shift towards collaborative working methods, designed to collectively address the risks and uncertainty weighing on their jobs.

“It’s the new generation of screenwriters. So, they’re doing a lot of collaboration, these are people who have a very well-placed ego, it’s really placed in the work and not… so it works out. And they really have a love for the series that comes before their love of themselves and their struggles or their recognition […]. Compared with the previous one, I think the extent to which this generation of screenwriters is into collaboration and collective work is impressive.” (Florence, 46 years old, collective 1.)

This posture involves a form of denunciation of previous practices, considered to be individualistic and favouring personal interest through the recourse to individual negotiation, leading to a fragmented profession characterized by the long-term dominance of a few screenwriters working on a single show to the detriment of the profession’s collective interests. Antoine claims to have chosen to join the collective out of a rejection of individualism: “I was interested in that, because I’ve always been more of a person who works in a team, a team player rather than an individualist”. According to our interviewees, collectives enable a collective defence of the screenwriter’s status. They can also be seen as supports or relays, at a broader level, for the demands of the profession, particularly at the French screenwriters’ guild15, in which fifteen of our interviewees are active.

The anti-individualistic dimension of collectives resonates in a context of heightened financial risk and uncertainty as to the quality of writing, leading employers to resort to risk reduction strategies consisting in hiring trusted personal contacts (Wreyford 2015: 88). However, Nathalie Wreyford has shown that reliance on homophily, discourse praising talent and merit, and references to visible women in the profession as evidence of their fair representation in the cultural and creative industries tend to foster recruitment biases against women—under the guise of anti-sexist discourse. Indeed, most interviewees do not consider their professional milieu to be sexist. This tension runs across the entire audio-visual production sector and may go some way towards explaining the strong presence of women in collectives, and perhaps the existence of two exclusively female collectives. Arguably, they find in them inclusive spaces for writing and ways to make up for the gendered recruitment bias that is implicitly at work in their profession.

3. Collectives as Springboards for Autonomization and Professional Recognition

Far from the myth of the solitary genius that has long prevailed in representations of artists (Heinich 1993), our interviewees are embedded in social relationships that frame their activity. The collective helps them accrue autonomy and power in these relationships.

3.1. Screenwriters and Their Milieu: Hierarchies and Power Relations

The creative process involves constraints at a variety of levels. Producers hold the economic and executive power. Some screenwriters say they have been “fired” from a series overnight, which has major economic implications in a profession where unemployment insurance does not exist as writers do not fall under the French intermittent du spectacle status granted to other artists. Screenwriters are therefore professionally and economically dependent on producers. Television exhibits the same embedding of economy and creation that exists in the art world (Menger 2002).

The relationship to directors is characterized by a loss of artistic power for the screenwriter once the script has been completed. Even when they have access to film sets, screenwriters struggle to find their place there. As Margaux (44 years old, collective 1) notes, they are not given a space of their own, which gives them the feeling that they are constantly in the way on set. This inegalitarian power dynamic reflects rationales inherited from the history of French film and the impact of auteur theory, which constructed the director as a “creator” (Sellier 2004):

“On a set, yeah, you have to be careful. In France, directors are worshipped to such a degree that there’s this strong belief that on a set, everyone has to talk to the same person; I don’t know where that comes from, I think it’s dumb. […] So the thing is, it’s just that since Truffaut and Godard, the directors have had it all.” (Clément, 37 years old, collective 1.)

In the audio-visual creation process, economic and artistic power relations tend not be in the screenwriters’ advantage; they tend to languish in the “shadows” (Aude, 43 years old, collective 1). Our interviewees denounce this state of affairs, and precisely mobilize against it with the help of the collective.

Screenwriters also play a variety of roles: they may be simple team members, dialogue writers, series directors, authors in a writing workshop, or showrunners. These positions confer varying degrees of autonomy, and reflect the division of labour between screenwriters. Lena for instance told us that a series on which she writes functions with two teams: the “premier league” of regular, experienced screenwriters and the “second division” of young writers, who complement the premier league’s work—the latter’s scripts are less often picked by the channel and they are paid less. The organizational logic at work here rests on a differentiation based on hierarchized lines of professional specialty (Menger 2002). One’s position in the milieu of screenwriters influences relationships with other professionals: the higher the individual’s position as a screenwriter (series director or showrunner), the more he or she weighs in on negotiations with producers and directors.

Lastly, these power relations are also the result of gender and age relations that work to women’s detriment—especially when they are young. Some professional practices reflect this: for instance, older, male writers may be assigned to work with them on episodes of a series after they have been hired, which places them in an inferior position. Here, the relations of cooperation that characterize artistic creation (Becker 1982) are marred by sexist assumptions (Bielby & Bielby 2002), hierarchies, and forms of paternalism against women and young women in particular. Thus, the idea that women are better organized and thus better suited for organizational production or management tasks than for creative tasks dominates in the cultural industries (Hesmondhalgh & Baker 2015), and transpires in screenwriters’ discourse, as in the case of Élise who hates being treated as “the secretary”:

“The thing is, I’m being picked but I’m being told ‘OK, the boys need monitoring,’ you’re a girl and you’re serious, you’re a girl, you’ll be taking notes well, you see.” (31 years old, collectives 2 and 3.)

Sexism and paternalism routinely mix, and getting ahead, making a name for oneself allows women to change their position in power relations that initially work to their disadvantage.

3.2. Conquering Individual Autonomy through the Collective

Screenwriters sharpen their craft, improve thanks to the collective, and as they earn prestige, they abandon some activities (Hughes 1959), such as the writing of industrial series, and they come to turn down or leave projects that do not suit them. The collective is also a social venue in which “strong ties” are forged (Granovetter 1973); Clément even speaks of a “work family”. The strength of these relationships reflects the supportive role played by the collectives, as evidenced by Bastien, who told us: “If not for the [collective], I think I’d have quit this job”. This sociability gives individuals a safe space to talk about the difficulties inherent in their situation and protect themselves from a “competitive,” “tough” professional environment (Aude, 43 years old, collective 1). The collective is often described as a place to “decompress,” where members can complain, criticize the professional world, and share their everyday frustrations. In the group, members let off steam and arm themselves against other professionals, and in the process gain artistic autonomy.

3.3. Labelling, Networks and Reputations

Lastly, collectives also function as networks that offer work opportunities. Members work together, and those who develop their own projects call on others to co-write. A currently highly successful show is identified by some interviewees as “the collective 1 series”: it is reportedly impossible to work on that series outside of the collective. This recruitment within collectives allows some to collectively find a footing in the profession, but it also creates mechanisms of selection and exclusion. For instance, one Arte series was written by half of the members of the same collective. This illustrates the capacity of groups to provide work, as their members very openly confirm. Most importantly, this has significant effects in terms of recognition—this particular collective has been gradually identified in televison circles as a token of quality:

“People have actually started to hear about us, sometimes my agent would go: ‘Hey, you know, here I have people telling me, I want someone from [collective 1]’ [laughs]it’s really great, producers say: We’re looking for someone from [collective 1].’ And I was like… [laughs] I didn’t really believe it; it was nice of him to say, but since then I’ve actually had people come to me and say that…” (Clément, 37 years old, collective 1.)

Jérôme (42 years old, collective 1) explains that the collective is becoming a “label” of sorts. Each member benefits from positive externalities in terms of reputation: being labelled like this gives them opportunities and reinforces their position towards the producers who seek them out on that basis. Within the professional milieu, the collective forms a new mechanism for pairing up screenwriters with producers. These reputational effects are validated by the draw of the collective for screenwriters who are not part of it. Antoine (41 years old, collective 1) says that he wanted to join the collective because he was drawn by the group’s “prestige,” and from a strategic perspective, he was individually eager to benefit from the positive effects of the collective’s reputation, as those are significantly helpful in making up for uncertainty and heightened competition in the profession.

The first collective has a particularly prestigious image in the profession. When asked about that group’s image, our interviewees’ language is telling: “Also, they were all handsome, well dressed. […] It’s “prestige” [laughs] they’re classy, you know […]; they look like they could be in magazines” (Sabine, collective 2); “to me [in collective 2 and 3], they’re the Mad Men. They really are, you know, they’re all tall, super handsome, super tall, they all make sense together” (Élise). It is worth noting that, to our knowledge, that collective is the only one that has received any media coverage, including a two-page magazine article featuring a photograph of its members. For their part, members speak of rumours about an “aristocracy of screenwriting,” or a “Freemasonry of French screenwriting,” a kind of “snobbery,” and accusations about that group “taking over series”. From the inside, members express fears about being perceived as an “elite club”; from the outside (i.e., from other groups), “glitter,” prestige and “stars” are highlighted.

Conclusion

Screenwriters’ collectives are described by their members as support groups, in cultural industries where creative work is particularly characterized by precariousness, irregularity, short-term contracts and pay inequalities (Banks & Hesmondhalgh 2009). Founding and participating in collectives is a response to the heightened individualization of this work, in industries that sing the praises of autonomy and individual talent and encourage increasingly individual professional practices (Banks & Hesmondhalgh 2009: 419).

In France, the collectives that have emerged over the past twelve years or so may be means for new authors to combat precariousness and solitude, by building networks of solidarity that are bolstered by friendships, thanks to which they are then able to get ahead in the audio-visual worlds. This companionship has also allowed these authors to make up for the long, glaring absence of recognized, institutionalized training for the job of screenwriter16. Collectives thus contribute to redefining the practices and professional identity of participating screenwriters, drawing on a cooperative effort to collectively improve their skills and reverse power relations. They are outlets for the practices of a new generation of screenwriter, who are invested both in the quality of French series and in the recognition of their profession.

Lastly, a more strategic use of these groups appears to have emerged, owing both to their gradually increasing media exposure (with pieces in Télérama, Le Figaro and L’Express17) and to the success of the series on which their members work. These collectives help give exposure to their members but also restore the prestige of a profession that is looking to conquer autonomy, recognition, artistic freedom, and power. However, the persistence of individual and solitary practices in screenwriting also deserves investigation at a time when writers’ workshops and international productions are increasingly in fashion, encouraging collaborative work. If recent graduates tend to join or create collectives, could these collectives become a new norm in the profession, resulting in the consecration of the professional practices and identities defended by our interviewees?

1 This newfound appreciation was partly triggered by the success of some US dramas, especially those released by HBO, which have been referred to as

2 The names of screenwriters and collectives have been anonymized (see Table 1).

3 Où sont les femmes? Saison 2015-2016 (“Where are the Women? 2015-2016 season”), brochure edited by the French society of dramatic authors and

4 In 2011, 81% of authors in the audio-visual sector in France resided in Paris. See Gouyon 2011: 1-32.

5 New actors in the market such as Amazon and Netflix have begun producing series in France, with titles including Marseille, Plan cœur and most

6 Collectives were identified on the basis of a web search and of our interviews.

7 The collectives’ websites include a list of members with photographs, and in most cases, CVs. Homepages feature news about members (festival

8 Our research focuses on writers of television series, who are particularly involved in these groups.

9 Specialized screenwriting courses have recently been opened at the European Conservatory of Audio-Visual Writing (CEEA) and the Fémis (French

10 The École normale supérieure(ENS) is a public higher education institution that trains teachers and researchers. Students are selected by

11 The Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) is a short technical certificate, in which is taken for two years after completing secondary education. It

12 The French hourly minimum wage is the salaire minimum de croissance (Smic), or “minimum growth wage.”

13 We have chosen not to elaborate on these exchanges here; they will be analysed at a different level.

14 Collective 5, which is composed of five female authors, is the only writing collective that operates as a project incubator, as its members meet to

15 The French screenwriters’ guild, the Guilde des scénaristes, was founded in 2010 and remains the country’s only screenwriters’ trade union to this

16 The right to lifelong training for screenwriters was only recognized in 2012 (Source: SACD, « Le droit des auteurs », last accessed on 28 May 2019)

17 French national magazines.

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Table1. List of interviewees

Image 1000000000000EC400001625597B73E1.jpg

© The authors

Table 2. List of collectives under study

Image 1000000000000EC4000016250EE882B1.jpg

© The authors

1 This newfound appreciation was partly triggered by the success of some US dramas, especially those released by HBO, which have been referred to as Quality TV (Edgerton & Jones 2008; McCabe & Akass 2007).

2 The names of screenwriters and collectives have been anonymized (see Table 1).

3 Où sont les femmes? Saison 2015-2016 (“Where are the Women? 2015-2016 season”), brochure edited by the French society of dramatic authors and composers SACD (Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques).

4 In 2011, 81% of authors in the audio-visual sector in France resided in Paris. See Gouyon 2011: 1-32.

5 New actors in the market such as Amazon and Netflix have begun producing series in France, with titles including Marseille, Plan cœur and most recently Family Business. The places where screenwriters meet and negotiate are still in Paris; talks about the remuneration of authors (especially since the adoption of the directive on authors’ rights in 2019) will be central to the evolution of this market.

6 Collectives were identified on the basis of a web search and of our interviews.

7 The collectives’ websites include a list of members with photographs, and in most cases, CVs. Homepages feature news about members (festival selections, awards, funding obtained, television broadcasts of their works, etc.).

8 Our research focuses on writers of television series, who are particularly involved in these groups.

9 Specialized screenwriting courses have recently been opened at the European Conservatory of Audio-Visual Writing (CEEA) and the Fémis (French National School of Sound and Image Professions). Only the youngest among our interviewees have had the opportunity to attend them.

10 The École normale supérieure (ENS) is a public higher education institution that trains teachers and researchers. Students are selected by examination.

11 The Brevet de technicien supérieur (BTS) is a short technical certificate, in which is taken for two years after completing secondary education. It is geared towards students who have followed technical or vocational tracks.

12 The French hourly minimum wage is the salaire minimum de croissance (Smic), or “minimum growth wage.”

13 We have chosen not to elaborate on these exchanges here; they will be analysed at a different level.

14 Collective 5, which is composed of five female authors, is the only writing collective that operates as a project incubator, as its members meet to write together, sometimes in response to calls for projects. However, they do not only work within that framework, and the projects they develop within the collective appear to be only a small part of their activity as screenwriters.

15 The French screenwriters’ guild, the Guilde des scénaristes, was founded in 2010 and remains the country’s only screenwriters’ trade union to this day.

16 The right to lifelong training for screenwriters was only recognized in 2012 (Source: SACD, « Le droit des auteurs », last accessed on 28 May 2019).

17 French national magazines.

Fig. 1. Writing for Television

Fig. 1. Writing for Television

© Television, by Nick Yougson. Source : CC BY-SA 3.0 ImageCreator.

Table1. List of interviewees

Table1. List of interviewees

© The authors

Table 2. List of collectives under study

Table 2. List of collectives under study

© The authors

Anne-Sophie Béliard

Université Grenoble-Alpes, Laboratoire Pacte (Régulations)

Sarah Lécossais

Université Paris 13, Laboratoire des Sciences de l’information et de la communication (LabSIC)

© Presses Universitaires de Vincennes 2020