Ashwini Gangal

Too much content, too few good writers?

There's a general belief that a shortage of good scriptwriters is one the biggest impediments to the creation of good original programming. Who better than a group of writers to discuss this with?

On the one hand, it's getting harder to deny that there's way too much video content available online. Yet on the other hand people frequently complain about a dearth of talented writers in the OTT industry. Can a better content ecosystem, one that keeps the writer at the core, pull the good writing talent into this business?

In a session at vdonxt asia 2019, presented by Tulsea (a media and content management company that represents writers, directors, actors and producers), Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, contributing editor, Business Standard, spoke to four scriptwriters about what the digital video industry looks like from where they stand.

Too much content, too few good writers?

L to R - Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, Suhani Kanwar, Vasant Nath, Dhruv Narang, Patrick Graham
Click on the image to enlarge

Dhruv Narang (writer, Netflix's Sacred Games - Season 2), thinks there's no dearth of talented creative writers in the country and that the real questions are - Is the industry doing enough to attract these divergent thinkers and writers? Is the writing profession - that is, scriptwriting for web shows and movies - attractive enough for these minds? His answer to both is no; the field is not rewarding enough, as it stands today. Writers, he argues, are forced to deal with a trade-off between monetary and creative satisfaction.

Too much content, too few good writers?

Dhruv Narang

Too much content, too few good writers?

Patrick Graham

Too much content, too few good writers?

Suhani Kanwar

Too much content, too few good writers?

Vasant Nath

"...the production environment is not placing a premium on creativity..." Dhruv said, in this context. Producers are preoccupied with timelines and logistics, not aspects like the story or the creative premise. The "creative ecosystem" needs an overhaul, per Dhruv.

In Patrick Graham's (director, Netflix's Ghoul), view, it's not talent that's lacking but the infrastructure to "source, train and refine" that talent. Consequently, there's a dearth of vocational writers (as opposed to something-turned-writers), which in turn affects the "standard of writing". The influx of platforms like Netflix and Amazon has led to the need for a certain type of storytelling and approach, something he doesn't think many people in India are accustomed to. India needs more training courses for writers, especially when it comes to this kind of "Western formula" or "Western format" of storytelling one sees on these platforms, he believes.

The panelists agreed that there's a dearth of formal training/mentorship programs for writers in India. These educational courses, Patrick reasoned, can help inject some much needed "structure" into the way writers work, especially in the contemporary context of 'Writers' Rooms' and given the demands professional OTT scriptwriting makes on them.

In the opinion of Suhani Kanwar (writer, Netflix's Leila) it's only when the people who're in-charge of deciding what 'good content' and 'good writing' is start encouraging more "provocative" and "risky" ideas that the bar for good writing will move higher.

"It's a systemic problem that has to be worked out from the top..." said Suhani. And that presents a caveat of sorts because, as session moderator Vanita pointed out, creativity can't be scaled exponentially. "The process of making money out of the creative product does not allow for risk..." she said.

Furthering Patrick's point about the need for more structure and discipline in the field of writing, Suhani stressed on the need to dispel the myth that writers are people blessed by an "ideas fairy", a commonly held belief that dilutes the seriousness of the profession.

"Just because, as a scriptwriter, all you need is a laptop -or a pen and a register- doesn't mean you don't need to be trained to do it..." she said, cautioning against a romanticised idea of what it means to write for a living. As author JK Rowling said in an interview once, "Writing is not about taking dictation from angels; it's a 'job' like any other that you have to work hard at..."

Re-looking the way the industry regards writing and the role of writers in any project will help lift the profession. "...the system is a little scared to acknowledge the importance of the writer; everyone seems to want a little bit of credit in the screenplay. Everyone wants to stake a little bit of a claim in the writer's work. We don't do that to directors, production designers, costume designers... " Suhani pointed out, highlighting the need to give writers "exclusive credit", which in turn will reflect in the way they're compensated.

This is a subject that movie critic Rajeev Masand has discussed many a time with his interviewees at his 'Writers' Roundtable', an annual group interview he conducts with Hindi film scriptwriters; a recurring theme one encounters in those discussions relates to the need to "empower the writer".

To Vasant Nath (writer, Netflix's Sacred Games - Season 1), the industry lacks a collection of people adept at tackling the beast that is "series writing".

"With this huge boom in (the number of web) series being commissioned, there's tremendous pressure on this new entity called the 'Writers' Room' to suddenly deliver on this challenge... when a 'Writers' Room' is assembled, some of us have never met one another before..." he said, highlighting the need for trust between writers who're collaborating on a common project/show. In the world of American TV and OTT scripting, effective systems, that help writers understand exactly what's expected of them, depending on their seniority, are already in place.

Vasant shared a little something about his own experience in the Writers' Room for Sacred Games: "Three writers (the other two are Varun Grover and Smita Singh), with very different views and opinions, who've never met one another before, locked in a room for a year..." Protecting their own fragile egos was just one of the issues each of them encountered.

He believes writers have to gradually build their own system; cut-pasting the Western system will not work. "We've grown up in an industry with very different conventions - writers are used to narrating stories that nobody else knows... we have these quirks..." he said.