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Frank Spotnitz talks about the advent of Netflix, the golden age of television, and why he doesn’t ...
2019-08-13 23:59:00

You’re Never Smarter Than Your Audience
An Interview with Frank Spotnitz

Frank Spotnitz. Photo courtesy of Big Light Productions
You’re Never Smarter Than Your Audience
You’re Never Smarter Than Your Audience

“I think this golden age everyone is talking about is already gone. […] There’s an awful lot of bad TV now that is unremarkable and easily forgotten. At the same time, there’s probably more good shows than there have ever been, just because so much work is being done. I think the challenge now is that it’s very difficult to stand out and to have the impact that television used to have back in the old days when it was broadcast over the airwaves,” says the television writer and executive producer Frank Spotnitz, whose résumé includes work on The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle.

Read in 11 minutes

Dariusz Kuźma: I know that you do not like using the term ‘showrunner’ to describe your work as a screenwriter and producer, but it became so popular that I would like to start our conversation with defining what exactly a ‘showrunner’ is.

Frank Spotnitz: The term ‘showrunner’ came about in the US in the 1990s and means the lead writer/producer. The reason I don’t like the word is because it feels a little bit too self-congratulatory to me. To say that you are a person who runs the show. I may be the lead writer and producer, but there’s a lot of other writers and producers working alongside me who also run the show. It is true, however, that if you’re the showrunner, you’re in charge; you are the decision maker. What’s unique about the showrunner system in Hollywood is that the lead producer is also a writer. Whereas in Europe the lead producer is almost never a writer – they are exclusively a producer, hiring writers and directors. In Hollywood, it used to be the same, really, until the 1990s when the networks and the studios combined, and they wiped out many independent producers. Their way of thinking was that they didn’t see the need to have non-writing producers in charge of shows. That’s when the showrunner system took off.

You were a part of this system and you have observed the evolution of the industry throughout the last 25 years. How did the job change from The X-Files to, say, The Man in the High Castle, which was done for the Amazon Prime Video platform?

I think the biggest change has been the fact that network television is no longer the dominant model. With The X-Files, we did typically 24 episodes of television per year. And so the intensity of that experience, as you can imagine, was great. Because you start writing in June, you start filming in the middle of July, and then you’re doing a new episode every eight business days until the following April. So, it’s a huge amount of content you’re producing. And nowadays, with shows on streaming services like The Man in the High Castle, you’re doing 8-12 episodes in the same amount of time. So, it’s half the amount of work in the same calendar year.

So, it is actually better?

It is better in terms of the amount of time you have to focus on the creative side of the project. But there is a downside. You know, as a writer and a producer you’re paid on a per-episode basis. So, if you’re doing 12 episodes in the time you used to do 24, that’s 50% less income.

How does the change in the number of episodes and the mentality of the viewers affect the way the shows are written? I mean, considering the fact that people watch whole seasons in one sitting.

The impact is enormous. In the old days, when you did a show like The X-Files, you knew that the majority of your audience would not follow all of the episodes, so you needed to repeat information. You needed to find a way to very cleverly help some people catch up with what was going on, without doing a disservice to your regular fans. Now, in a streaming environment, it would be annoying to the audience if you repeat information. You can safely assume that the viewers are keeping memories present. Also, the old-fashioned kind of storytelling that we used to do on network television, where it was sort of ‘story of the week’ episodes, has gone out of style. What almost everybody wants now are these serialized dramas where it’s one continuous narrative and where things are changing and moving forward. That way, people are more invested emotionally in the characters’ lives. When you did a show like The X-Files, it was more like a collection of short stories, and if you didn’t cover some aspect of characters’ emotional lives, you had another shot at it in another episode.

What do you think about this ‘golden age of television’ we currently live in? According to experts, 2019 will see the US passing the 500 mark of new scripted original programmes for the first time ever. So, does fierce competition make the shows better, or is this whirlwind of ideas not that good because series cannot grow to their best form as everything’s done in a rush?

It’s a really good question, but there isn’t one answer to it. Personally, I think this golden age everyone is talking about is already gone. I mean, the volume of television is unprecedented, and I don’t see any sign of it slowing down in the immediate future. In many ways that’s wonderful, but the reason why I say the golden age of television is over is because it’s clear the quality has not kept up with the output. There’s an awful lot of bad TV now that is unremarkable and easily forgotten. At the same time, there’s probably more good shows than there have ever been, just because so much work is being done. I think the challenge now is that it’s very difficult to stand out and to have the impact that television used to have back in the old days when it was broadcast over the airwaves. It held your attention captive; you had to be there to watch it when it was broadcast. Everybody watched it at the same time, and then the next day at work or school everybody would talk about it, and it created a sense of connection in our communities. Now, I’m not even aware of half of the shows that are coming out, and my biggest fear as a television writer and producer is that my work simply won’t be noticed.

Which means original ideas and creative approaches are not enough to ‘sell’ them to people. How does this awareness impact those shows that deal with difficult themes and reward patience, like your own Medici? Were there many compromises to be made in order to tell that story in a particular manner that would make it more attractive?

Medici was such an interesting series for me, if only because I had never done a historical drama before. Together with my co-writer Nicholas Meyer, we assumed that no one in our audience would necessarily be interested in watching a series about 15th-century Italian bankers. So, we went at it in a very genre kind of way by creating this murder mystery that drives you into the story. We were partly inspired by Amadeus – there’s no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s just an interesting way into the story of Mozart. And because we were doing this for an Italian broadcaster, RAI, we knew that portraying the Medici family as villains was not an option, even if the fact is that the methods they employed to stay in power were sometimes pretty bad. So, that led us to this very interesting theme which is the idea that they were doing bad in order to do good, while the entire series asks the question whether the means justify the ends. This made the show contemporary and relevant to the modern audience.

I wonder, does the phrase “know your audience” still mean anything in the age of writing and producing shows for a ‘global audience’?

You still have to know your audience. Even if you’re making a show for Netflix where the audience is virtually the entire world. But I do think that we as writers and producers sometimes forget that storytelling is the act of communication. You are – or you should be – telling a story because you want to reach someone. So, of course, it’s very helpful to know who it is you’re trying to reach. I guess you can disregard that rule, but most often it doesn’t end well. I always think of my shows in terms of its audience. For example, The Man in the High Castle gave me a very powerful opportunity to say something about fascism and intolerance. The thing is – and this is what troubles me nowadays – because of the nature of the platform on which it’s shown, I’m likely to reach an audience that already agrees with me. Whereas with a show like that you want to reach people who don’t agree with you, you want to make people think. That’s increasingly difficult now because the television landscape has become so fragmented. What saddens me even more is that people now don’t want to work for network television and do these mainstream shows. Networks like RAI in Italy or CBS in the United States reach a vast audience of ordinary people who deserve good, thoughtful television. And it’s never been harder for them to get it.

You seem to believe in audiences far more than most producers, who make easily definable, commercial shows devoid of true ambitions or serious reflections.

One of the most important things I learned from my time on The X-Files was that you can’t be smart enough for your audience. That no matter how smart you think you are, they are smarter still. And it’s amazing how many really smart writers don’t write television as smart as they themselves are because someone supporting them thinks it’s not a good idea. We’re all such sophisticated television viewers, we’ve seen thousands of hours of dramas. It’s very hard to get ahead of the viewers, to surprise them. And they don’t see any reason to even try. I want to start a conversation with my viewers. I was very lucky that the popularity of The X-Files came about just as the internet was expanding, and every week we could see how the audience was responding to the show online. I was able to see just how observant people were; how subtle they were in their observations. That made a deep impression on me that lasts to this day.

Is this what you teach the young screenwriters you train and work with?

I always tell them: be as smart as you can possibly be, be as ambitious as you can possibly be, trust your instinct. And don’t hoard your ideas. Some writers have great ideas and decide to wait with them until episode seven or episode eight, because they fear they won’t come up with anything better. I would say, however, take it and use it now. And then trust that by the time you get to episode seven, you build on that idea and come up with an even better idea than you imagine now. It goes back to what I was saying about the audience being so sophisticated that you have to be operating at the highest level. I think it is an obvious thing to say, but it all starts with a script. If the script is not terrific, it’s impossible to have a terrific show. You have to insist again and again on making scripts as good as you possibly can. But even then you are going to fail. I don’t know anybody who has a perfect record.

Which begs the question: is there still any independence in this industry?

Yes, there is, but less and less so. Part of the reason why I came to Europe and established my company Big Light Productions is because the independence that I enjoy here would be impossible in the US. In Europe, I hold the copyright to my own series. I may share them with a producing partner or with a writer, but they’re not signed away to a corporation, which is the very first thing you do in Hollywood when you make a deal with a Hollywood studio. You give them the copyright to your story and your characters. However, there’s more and more pressure on independent producers to sign deals that are less and less advantageous. The big buyers may not appreciate the value of independence and diversity. Hopefully, neither of them will become too powerful in the marketplace, because then they will strangle that independence and diversity.

To some extent, isn’t it already the case with the streaming giants? Netflix has dozens of amazing non-English shows from Europe or Asia, but it does not have the means and time to promote even half of them.

You are right. And that’s really frustrating for the producers of those shows who spend so much time developing them only to see them swept away by the tide of dozens of more popular – not necessarily better – shows. Looking from Netflix’s point of view, however, that’s simply impossible given the scale of what they’re attempting to do. Because they are trying to become a new kind of television – a global one. And to a remarkable degree they’ve already succeeded. Which is to say, instead of turning on your TV, you’re simply turning on Netflix and there you have everything people in other countries have. The audacity of this vision is also to make shows that work all around the world and are very attractive to local markets at the same time. I think in so many ways it’s a hugely positive thing for the planet. Because when I grew up, we Americans made tonnes and tonnes of television that we exported all around the world, and then we refused to import anybody else’s TV. It was a one way conversation that America was having with the rest of the world. And now, it’s this really wonderful situation where all of these countries are talking to each other through their television. And I really applaud Netflix for that.

But Netflix will probably not stay ahead for a long time. Apart from Amazon Prime Video, we will soon enough have Disney+, AppleTV+ and HBO Max, whereas European networks, like the BBC and ZDF, plan to join forces and have their slice of the pie.

Which, I believe, is a great thing. There are many hugely positive things about the advent of Netflix, but it’s really important that there continues to be competition in the marketplace for it to be healthy and vital. We don’t need a monopoly. And I hope the BBCs, RAIs and ZDFs of the world will find ways to stay relevant and to compete in this marketplace as well. The other aspect of this is, so far Netflix has been on an accelerated growth mode and without much regard for the bottom line, but at some point that’s going to change. We have to wait and see what will happen.

The question is, what will happen with you and other independent producers?

If the market is healthy and vital, I will have more opportunities to tell the sort of stories I want to tell. There will always be a number of ideas I love that I know I couldn’t get made, that I could not get funded, but I do, increasingly, embrace new voices with fresh perspectives and courage in crossing some borders. I know it won’t be easy to get them through, but I treat it as an inspiration to try and work even harder. You know, storytelling is such a wonderful career and a great thing to do with your life. If you tell good stories, you’re not hurting anyone. You’re just creating a conversation and inviting others to participate.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


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