NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Unlearning screen authorship

By Rowan Woods and Dr Duncan McLean — Film school programs are only useful to students and industry if attention is paid to the winds of change surrounding screen authorship.

With SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) expansion and proliferating online platforms shifting workplace models and a post-#MeToo student body wary of over-indulging a singular auteur, the “future-focused” film school curriculum must reflect on the faltering relevance of the film director as auteur and the likelihood of the TV showrunner facing a similar fate.

The formula for critical and popular screen storytelling success is endlessly debatable. There is, however, a broad acceptance that while creativity by committee rarely results in work that excites audiences and resonates widely, a singularity of vision can create both a coherence of form and, antithetically, a compelling disruption that brings exciting screen stories to life. At an industrial level, recent decades have seen teams of creative producers, writers and directors jostling via agents and guilds for a pre-eminent authorship position within the development, financing and production of feature films and television series. They jostle because this perception of authorship has a real influence on artistic control, prestige and pay scale.

While the auteur theory began as a critical exercise to validate cinema as an artform, theorizing then assumed an industrial dimension. The auteur director became a box office draw, with marketing campaigns built around selling their presence, while the producer’s role as a creative shepherd, gauaging audience and finance throughout development and production, often failed to receive the authorial recognition it deserved. After years of hearing that “film was a director’s medium”, the TV series emerged as a fictional format led by creative producers. The emergence of the showrunner in the US in the late 20th century then ennobled the writer/creator with similar prestige and creative control as had been afforded the auteur film director.

The showrunner is a most unusual, multi-skilled, around-the-clock job description. Within the constraints of budget and schedule, this televisual polymath is responsible for the creative control of a television series: from leading the writing room, to writing the key episodes, overseeing all aspects of the pre-production, shooting and post-production, along with key communications between the network and the show. Crucially though, the showrunner role evolved within a specific, hierarchical US network system during an era of standardised 11- or 22-part television series, made for syndication with a regimented house style. It is a system that afforded the showrunner an established training pathway, not to mention phenomenal remuneration via a triple fee on every episode, as creator, writer and executive producer.

Very recent transplanting of the showrunner title into other national screen industries has happened within a wholly different historical and industrial context. SVOD no longer reflects the old US network/syndication model that birthed the showrunner. Instead, shorter series lengths, less rigid episode timings and a desire for more adventurous, less formulaic content has driven a commissioning process more akin to the golden era of independent cinema in the 1990s and 2000s, with the best, most celebrated SVOD series today reflecting both the writer’s and the director’s creative vision.

That a single creative person can take full control of storytelling decisions within a film or TV series assumes that work structures allow for unwavering support for that TV writer-creator or film director. In reality, TV and film projects are complex and unwieldy circuses with long timelines, requiring agile decision-making from a cohesive authorial team, a nexus of creative producer, writer and director. No project or authorial team is the same. There are no rules for a “lead voice”. One person or any flexible combination of authority is possible, guided by contractual obligations, ethical negotiation and common-sense collaboration.

For film schools, the aims and outcomes remain the same. Through theoretical, practical, and reflective learning, students build knowledge and skillsets fit for industry. But film schools are not simply training grounds for established pathways. They are institutions wherein future-facing students and industry expect questions and answers that illuminate notions of positionality, identity and the ethics surrounding the storytelling process. The immediate question to be answered is whether a partial or holistic unlearning of traditional authorship models will shift the paradigm within the screen industry or swirl within a conceptual cul de sac.

Rowan Woods is Head of Directing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School and a board member of the Australian Directors Guild. He is an AACTA, AFI and BAFTA winning director of feature films and TV series within the Australian, UK and US screen industries. He completed graduate and post graduate courses at UNSW and AFTRS and is now completing a PhD at UTS, researching the evolution of screen language within new online platforms.

Duncan McLean is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Duncan has a PhD from Macquarie University for a thesis exploring the impact of auteur theory on the emergence of the Film School Generation and has an ongoing interest in the role of film theory in practical film education. Duncan has also recently published on genre evolution and revisionism.

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