Yesterday we learned that a performance project on which we had been working seriously since August will not get broadcast funding. This was to have been a television version of a thrilling production that I admired immensely in the theatre earlier in the year. Although we saw this as a continuation of our work with Hamlet (2009), Macbeth (2010) and Julius Caesar (2012), this time it was not a Shakespeare play.
When we proposed the idea the broadcaster responded with initial enthusiasm and asked the director and I to budget and schedule a screen version. We brought the cast and creatives on side, found a date that could work in everyone’s diaries and started to plan the details of the filming. But now we’ve been told that there’s not the money to make it – despite its two and a half hours bring budgeted at less than half the cost of an hour of standard television drama. Such things, of course, happen all the time, but I am struck by how rarely they are discussed, either in journalism or in academic writing – and I have been wondering quite why that should be the case.
Putting together projects that then either attract or, far more often, fail to attract funding is exactly what producers do. Yet why do we know so little about the ones that never get to contract stage? Might an awareness of what doesn’t get to the screen not be valuable in better understanding what does? Perhaps learning something about the paths not taken might, for example, illuminate the values and priorities of the funding systems. It could be that discussion of the failures could help us all make better successes next time around. And such a debate may even impart a sense of accountability in relation to those who make the funding decisions.
Yet I can think of only one or two projects – apart from our own or those of friends – that I know were developed in detail but then not taken forwards. We know when a series is cancelled or, sometimes, when a sequel is mooted but not then made. We can see pilots – some of them really great – that are never picked up for a series. But which producers own up to the ideas that never reach the screen in any form, and why do they fail to do so?
No-one, of course, wants to advertise failure, and there is always the sense that a decision not to fund will be seen to be because the project is not sufficiently “good” or “compelling” or “necessary”. Or that the producer has failed to understand quite what the requirements of a funder may be. Then there is the notion that the producer could take the idea elsewhere – although this is often illusory. Certainly in the case of comparatively high budget adaptations of classic performance the market, whether in Britain or the world, is vanishingly small. And anyway while self-pity may be a comforting private emotion there is something a touch unseemly about parading it in public.
Fear plays a part too, as perhaps you can tell from the fact that I am avoiding all the specifics of the production and the potential broadcaster. Relationships with those who hold the purse strings of life and death over projects are fragile, delicate. No producer wants in even the most minute way to irritate or annoy the executive who might, perhaps, just maybe, help make the next project fly.
And then there is probably a factor that we can call habit. For at least a century producers have trumpeted successes and muted any and all discussion of the projects that never attract funding. Or perhaps saved such details for their autobiography. Yet I can’t help feeling that a more open attitude on the part of both producers and those who make the decisions might help us all – and might indeed make for a more transparent system of commissioning, a more accountable framework for funding and ultimately a better television system all round.