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Monday, April 25, 2011

Organizational Bureaucracy at Odds with Creativity in Film and Television

Art through corporate bureaucracy can be likened to oil and water. The rise of the studio system to produce film as an art form thus evinces a necessary evil. To be sure, organization is necessary to literally organize the various facets involved in the production of a film. However, needless managerial levels have gone beyond what is needed for coordination, particularly in television, and have stifled good narrative in the process.

Ken Loach, a feature and television film director, declared, “Television kills creativity; work is produced beneath a pyramid of producers, executive producers, commissioning editors, heads of department, assistant heads of department, and so on, that sit on top of the group of people doing the work, and stifle the life out of them” (p. 40). These suits are told to control the creativity even though the latter cannot be controlled without dying out in the process. According to Loach, “if you’ve got ten people sitting on your shoulder you can’t be good, you can’t be creative” (p. 41). For example, directors say they are told that they are not allowed to work with the writers. Instead, the directors work with managers, who somehow view themselves as qualified to write narrative because they are oriented to business factors. The result has been artificially-constructed television programing akin to politicians running solely off polls. Although financial concerns have a legitimate place, they are of such import to the layers of managers that cheap reality shows have trumped serious drama with a coherent, thought-out plot.

According to Loach, television, which “began with such high hopes,” has become “a grotesque reality show” (p. 41). To be sure, Loach admits that “some good work gets through” (p. 41). Even so, it is much too hard for it to survive the inevitable onslaught of the bureaucratic knives unscathed. The editing done by managers is fundamentally different than that which writers would do—and not for the better.

Perhaps rather than tearing up scripts that have been accepted, managers could have confidence in their own decisions in accepting the scripts by letting the writers themselves work out any changes with the directors. In other words, in putting an accepted script through the meat-grinder, are not executives and their staff undercutting their own decision to accept the script?  Of course, a particular acceptance could be to say that a script is only “good enough to get through the door.”  In other words, it would be understood that the script is to be considered as only partially done when it arrives. I would caution against such an “acceptance” because managers oriented to business matters are not likely to function as surrogate writers in finishing the job. A writer is a writer whereas a manager is a manager. Business expertise does not proffer the ability to tell a story.

Therefore, I contend that scripts ought to be accepted that can stand on their own as scripts. That is to say, the accepting executive ought to believe that the scripts he or she pays for are good already, and thus that the respective writers can be trusted to accommodate changes that the director believes are necessary.  

A producer ought to be on the look-out for the following: “What writers need to write are original stories, original characters, plot, conflict, things that dig into our current experience. Things that really show us how we’re living, give us a perspective on what is happening” (p. 41). Sometimes in watching a movie, I can sense what will come next because the formula has already become hackneyed.  I have even thought that nearly a century of films has perhaps exhausted good narrative.

The screenplay’s structure is so “scripted” that the exactitude of the uniform structure may itself willow away originality and creativity. It is perhaps like trying to fit lots of different shapes through a very small hole.  The defining structure, such as there being three acts—the first running twelve to fifteen pages and ending in a triggering event that in turn leads in act two to a critical event that is seen to be resolved in the last act—seems needlessly confining. Are there not other possible structures compossible with film narrative? 

On the other hand, I suspect that creativity can still be applied through the existing structure if there are original stories and characters out there in someone’s imagination. However, the standard structure ought not be allowed to exclude any stories that are original yet not conducive to that particular structure. Perhaps a new structure could naturally come out of such an original story. I suspect that the specificity of the formatting and length is primarily a means of standardizing incoming scripts so they can be more easily compared. While convenient, the guidelines may be contributing to movie-goers viewing the films as too formulaic.  For example, boy meets girl, girl pushes boy away, boy wins back girl, and the two embrace. Girl goes with other boy is scarcely off the formula.

In any case, creativity is urgently needed among screenwriters, and the protection (and respect) of creativity is urgently needed among managers having control over the art. Just because a person can control something doesn’t mean they should hold it so tightly—squeezing the air out of it.


Ken Loach, “Between Commodity and Communication: Has Film Fulfilled Its Potential?” International Socialist Review, 76 (March-April 2011), 28-44.