Karla Williams explains why she’s producing her TV series independently rather than signing over the copyright
The battle for creative control is one that all artists face, especially screenwriters. A reader experiences a novelist’s work directly, a playwright is thought of as queen within theatre and her words are respected and revered. But an audience experiences a screenwriter’s work through the lens of someone else and once you have signed a contract that gives away copyright, you no longer have a say.
The incentive to sign over your baby is simple – money. According to the Writers Guild of Great Britain website, the fee for writing a 1-hour drama for ITV is £13,785, which when offered to a writer who has learned to live on £500 a month, is understandably, appealing. But with that cheque comes creative control, which is then handed over to whoever is paying the fee.
This was recently highlighted by Michaela Coel during her McTaggart Lecture, where she spoke about turning down a $1 million deal for a show she had written. During a post-talk interview with Katy Brand, she went into more detail, ‘I’ve no mortgage, no credit card, no real kids, no car, happy with my bicycle; money’s nice, but I prefer transparency,” she explained. “My stories are my babies, I wanna look after them, so I asked to reserve a portion of my parental rights; my copyright…The first thing I asked was: ‘Why do you want to take all the copyright?’ the answer [was] ‘that’s just the way it is’.
Like Michaela, my works are my babies and since 2015 I have created four original TV series; three dramas and one comedy. My primary goal was to get these commissioned by the big boys BBC, Channel 4, ITV etc and then happily enjoy the very large cheque that comes from such endeavours. I was naive to what that really meant and much more focused on the laptop, clothes and holidays I could buy now that I had finally come out of my overdraft. Having also come from a background of theatre and playwrighting, I was oblivious to where screenwriters fell in the pecking order.
But my work means too much to simply give it away, and with most TV commissioners, execs and producers being white, middle class men, I would be giving my baby to carers who were not best equipped to feed, love and nurture her. So I decided to produce it myself, with director Rebecca Coley. Our goal is to tell female-centred stories and increase the representation of women within film and TV crews. To date we have produced the award-winning short film Pretty Bitch, which has been screened at festivals all over the world including London, Denmark, Berlin, Vancouver and Turkey. The film also won the Best Screenplay prize at the Van d’or Awards for Independent Film in 2013. We have also created the music video YOU for singer/songwriter Sharlene-Monique which has won three awards and been screened online nearly 30,000 times.
Our next project is the comedy I have created, Celibate which tells the story of what happens when a woman who enjoys sex, meets a guy who is celibate and is based on my own experience of being celibate and dating a guy who really loved sex. Celibate is a 6 x 30 min comedy and I have created a show that can run for at least 3 series – and I want to have a say over every single episode. I want to be involved with casting and what my actors look like, I want to have a sign off on a creative team who understand my creative vision. And should the comedy get interest from say, the US, I want my signature to be on the contract that takes the series stateside.
Part of the problem with lack of diversity in the British film and TV industry is that that there are not enough people of colour, people from working class backgrounds or women decision makers. The goal with my production company is to build a company that can challenge the establishment, much like Idris Elba’s Green Door Pictures. Their mantra is to ‘champion diversity of thought, working with emerging and established talent to produce content that is innovative, entertaining and thought-provoking whilst appealing to a broad audience’. They are the producers of the comedy In the Long Run staring Idris Elba, Jimmy Akingbola and Madeline Appiah and broadcast on Sky One. They also produced the Sky Atlantic and Showtime series Guerrilla written by the Oscar winning writer of Twelve Years a Slave, John Ridley.
We have launched an Indiegogo campaign to help raise the budget to produce, film and release Celibate online as a web series. The ambition is to build an audience for the series and then work with a larger streaming platform or broadcast to turn into a TV series, with me as one of the executive producers. The campaign runs until Sunday 11 November and you can donate between £10 and £10,000. We are offering a wide range of perks including, being an extra in the series, invite a preview screening and an acting masterclass with Casualty Actress, Crystal Yu.
We want Celibate to be the part of a new wave of TV shows that are created, written and produced by people with a diverse approach to the modern British experience, telling stories that reflect the world they live and grew up in. Surely it’s about time?
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