Jennifer Davidson talks about the European TV Drama Series Lab

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

Jennifer Davidson, screenwriter, recently received a bursary to attend the European TV Drama Series Lab, at the Erich Pommer Institut.  Read more about Jennifer’s experience.

“In 2015 I received a bursary from Screen Training Ireland to participate in the European TV Drama Series Lab, organised by the Erich Pommer Institut and Media Exchange. The lab took place over two weeks, in July and November, both in Berlin. There were 33 participants selected for the lab from 16 different countries across Europe. The Lab was open to both writers and producers to attend. As a writer attending the Lab, I was curious about what opportunities there might be for European co-production projects, but also to see how the skills I have learned working on a domestic production might translate internationally, and also what skills I could bring back to our show.

We gathered in Berlin on what turned out to be one of the hottest weeks of the summer in Germany. Our first task of the lab was to introduce ourselves, and the TV drama landscape at home, and share our favourite drama production from our own country. It was really interesting to hear everyone’s different experiences, but also to realise how many television references we had in common.

The first week of the lab was very much focussed on the theme of what we as European TV drama creators could learn from the US experience and how to strike that balance of playing to our individual strengths in a collaborative medium. It was clear early on that we were not here simply to copy the US showrunner model but to explore how we could apply the experiences of our US experts to our own work, and equally how we as participants from different European countries could learn from each other.

I was the only participant on the lab who was working primarily in continuing drama, and it struck me early on how our model probably owes more to the showrunner system than it does to the more traditional continental European auteur led approach which comes from a more feature film based experience. The experts in the first week (David Semel, Jonathan Shapiro, Stefano Sardano, Franck Phillipon amongst others) were incredibly giving with their time and expertise. The days were very intensive but after each day, our hosts organised our evenings, giving us a chance to continue our discussions in a more relaxed manner.

We finished the week feeling inspired, educated and looking forward to the second module in November. Already, informal teams were forming, ideas being discussed and future projects for collaboration mooted.

On November 9th we reconvened in Berlin for Module Two. Where Module One had looked at the bigger picture and the practicalities of European Drama Co-Production, Module Two was more focused on the creative practicalities of TV Drama Production. Sven Clausen from DR in Denmark gave a case study based on the Danish model of writer/producer/broadcaster relationships. Having spent a lot of time during module one discussing the merits and demerits of the US Showrunner led model, and the traditional European auteur approach, it was interesting to see another option being presented and to see evidence of how it has worked successfully in a European context.

Prior to arriving in Berlin for Module Two, we had been assigned our writers room groups and provided with advance materials to study and prepare notes on. I was working in Blake Masters group, together with 3 Germans, 1 Northern Irish writer, 1 French Writer and 1 Swedish Writer. Days 2, 3 and 4 were spent working in this simulated writers room.

Blake had provided us with a pilot script and bible for a potential TV series. Our job was to spend the next three days breaking series one and coming up with a workable series outline. Within the group our levels of experience of working in a writers room context were varied. Blake explained his own approach, and what he hoped we would achieve by the end of these 3 days. He was keen to remind us that this was a learning exercise, and so rather than pushing us to develop the best possible series outline, he would find opportunities within our work to break out and look at how we could apply what we were learning to our own projects. At the end of the three days each group had to pitch their series to the entire group, with our fellow producers and other experts acting as a panel of potential commissioning editors. Not so surprisingly, it turned out that each writersroom had elected their Irish writer to lead the presentation. It was fascinating to hear the process the other groups had undertaken during their time, and to hear the quality of work that had emerged in only three days.

On the final day we all reconvened, for a morning of three discussions – on selling IP into the US market, Dynamic Storytelling (given by John Yorke) and the future of TV and branded content. After lunch the afternoon was devoted to one-to-one meetings with the experts and our fellow participants. This gave us an opportunity to seek specific career and project related advice from the experts, and also to continue discussing ideas with our fellow participants, and past TV Drama Lab Alumni who had been invited to join us for this final day.

The European TV Drama Series Lab exceeded my expectations. Being able to spend two full weeks immersed in the working of international TV drama and co-productions was invaluable on a number of levels. I developed some lasting professional relationships, and potential creative possibilities for collaboration on TV drama projects. On a personal level, attending the course reaffirmed for me the high level that we work at on shows like Fair City here in Ireland – soap is often seen as the poor relation when it comes to TV drama but as a practical training ground in how to deliver fast turnaround scripts and a hands on experience of a writers room in practice, it stands up at an international level. Since participating in the lab, I have found numerous ways to apply the skills I learned there to my day to day work on Fair City as well as to my own personal TV Drama projects. I would highly recommend attending this Lab to any TV drama professionals in Ireland looking to further develop their skillset and build a network of colleagues and contacts across Europe and the US.”