Friday 4 January 2019

What is a universal story in 2019?

I am currently head writing a new cartoon series. The show will air in 2020 and will be broadcasting in every country in the world. Sounds great right? And in one way it is. It gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction to sit in a shed in Croydon and know that the stories I am creating will be seen by millions of children in countries I will never visit. However, the flipside of this is that every story I and my team create has to be just as accessible to a child in London as it is to a child in Hanoi - and everywhere in between…. There’s the rub.

Now you might think a child is a child is a child. Certain stories will always appeal no matter where that child is from. And again, to a certain extent, you’d be right. What that doesn’t factor in is the restrictions different broadcasters put on what you can and can’t write about.

In the Middle East there’s no magic or witchcraft. You can’t have homosexual characters and only the most conservative mixed relationships can appear on the screen. There’s no pork products – so ham sandwiches are out – as are pizzas just in case they have pepperoni on them.

On the subject of food, the French broadcasters are on a healthy eating drive which means all food shown on screen needs to be healthy, so pizzas would be out anyway. So too would be any sweets or biscuits, pasta, noodles, meat that isn’t grilled and an ‘abundance of bread.’ But they’re fine with gay characters. Not that we could have them.

The British are keen to model good behaviour and are hot on imitable stuff that may lead to letters in the Daily Mail. So – and I kid you not – we have one particular story where some animals hijack a vehicle from some humans. That’s fine. But they have to wear seatbelts, drive on the road and use a designated slipway when driving into the sea. 

As a sidebar, if you’ve ever wondered why Dennis the Menace has become Dennis and Gnasher, look no further – we can’t have kids being menaces these days. This also makes a particular form of universal visual humour very difficult to get away –slapstick.  If you do have slapstick humour, no one can get hurt. So there’s definitely no slapping with sticks in slapstick.

The Chinese have some issues with other races, in particular the Japanese, so we can’t show sushi. Chalk that up with pizza. They are also conservative in what relationships can be shown on screen. They are however very keen on fireworks. Unfortunately all the other broadcasters hate them so they’re out too.

Maybe fairy tales would be a source of fun? You’d be right. But only for certain cultures. How can you be sure that the kids in Bangkok know about Goldilocks or Sleeping Beauty? And if they do, have Disney already done the definitive version? In which case you can’t touch it with a bargepole.

A good old Christmas Special should be hard to argue with. Unless your culture doesn’t celebrate Christmas of course. And if it does celebrate Christmas is there snow? And Christmas trees? Best not call it a Christmas special just to be sure. A case in point – my recent Danger Mouse Christmas Special has no references to Christmas at all.

So how do you create a story with all of these restrictions? More importantly how do you do it 52 times? The answer is, with great difficulty. I liken it to playing one of those buzzing wire games. If you can get to the end of the wire without anything buzzing, you’ve got yourself a story. Maybe. So long as it comes in on budget.

This is quite a modern phenomenon. We live in a global society. Previously, if a cartoon was going to be made for the UK, then the BBC would pay for it and they’d be the only broadcaster we would have to worry about. Fifteen years ago, the very idea of an American network being able to sell a cartoon and the ensuing merchandise to Saudi Arabia or China would have been unthinkable, now it’s all part of the business plan. Cartoons have become more expensive, to get them made you need global partners, that means those global partners have a say in what gets made and naturally they want to make sure their interests are served and represented.  

Where the TV world leads I am sure the world of books will follow. I already know that there is a lack of appetite for rhyming picture books – it makes them hard to translate. I was asked to tone down the girlfriend/boyfriend plot in a recent series of middle grade books so that it will sell to the Chinese market and on one memorable occasion I was asked to remove a reference to a sausage dog in case it offended the Middle East. I did point out that it wasn’t literally a dog made of sausages, but dachshund was our ultimate compromise.

Where does that leave us as creators? Is there still space for the stories we want to tell? Is there still space for region specific stories, or as publishers become multinationals are we obliged to create work for a multinational audience if we want them to buy it?

The stories I am creating are still fun. I am still proud of them. They still work. But increasingly they are stories no one can argue with. Perhaps that’s the true definition of a universal story in 2019.


Stroppy Author said...

Personally, I'm not a fan of this international blandifying of everything. In a similar way, reading scheme books have to be so inoffensive they are inevitably dreary. It's a small step away from censorship, particularly the kowtowing to markets that won't tolerate single-sex or mixed partnerships. I recently had to rewrite part of a book first published in 2008 because the Chinese printers refused to handle it. It wasn't even for distribution in China. The Chinese state is controlling the depiction of China in books published and sold elsewhere by prosecuting printers who print anything the state doesn't like. Time to step back to more local markets, I think.

Susan Price said...

No argument with what Stroppy said. Ciaran, I admire the fact that you can write anything at all under these conditions, but... I know it's argued that censorship makes writers and audiences more alert and imaginative but only up to a point, surely? Beyond that it becomes 'X [fill in name that suits or won't offend local culture] sat quietly all day in her lovely [fill in colour that has no unsavoury associations for local culture] room with [his/her] hands at [his/her] sides. [He/she] thought nice inoffensive thoughts.'

Ciaran Murtagh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ciaran Murtagh said...

I agree with both of you, it's more whether there's anything that can be done to stop it. We are increasingly global consumers. Even Netflix censors it's content when the Saudi's shout.

I don't want to homogenise content, but if we are going to sell to those countries, and if our paymasters want to make our content available to the largest possible audience, then we have to. It means that, effectively, our standards become the standards of the most easily offended, which is not where I think we should be going.

But, my local chicken shop now only serves halal meat and my local fish and chip shop only sells pork free sausages, I think we may all be heading that way whether we want to or not.

Andrew Preston said...

Who are all the 'we's' and 'ours' and massive generalisations about society?

A large part of the imploding that is taking place in Parliament right now, and the spreading Yellow Vest protests.... are part of many people's utter sickness of hearing about "It's a global world.."

Your whole post smells of "Yes, I'm doing it for the money..., naturally I'm holding my nose....". Aye, right, of course you are.

Ciaran Murtagh said...

Hi Andrew. Sorry you didn't follow. The 'we's' are the team of creatives responsible for delivering the program. Some of them are the 'ours' too.

The massive generalisations about society are not technically generalisations, more very specific requirements that various broadcasters funding the making of the programs have for it's content based on their understanding of the society they cater for. Some of those may be state regulated, others may be more network specific.

Lets be clear, this is not a political post, it's a financial one.

If you have watched or consumed any form of entertainment in the past five years be it TV, cinema, games or online content it has been produced and financed globally for an international market. The BBC work with HBO, Netflix and Amazon. Disney work with just about anyone - so Star Wars, Marvel and Disney content is tailored to the demands of many different people... You'd be hard pressed to find a movie or TV programme that didn't have an eye towards the global market.

Of course I'm doing it for the money! It's my job. But I'm not holding my nose - far from it! I am very proud of the work I do. This is an industry specific blog, and this particular entry takes a look at how some of the programming every child in the world watches is financed. It's not the entirety of my job, I write stories, but in this specific arena, these are some of the considerations that have to be taken into account. That has nothing to do with whether or not we leave Europe nor with whatever some Yellow Vest protestors are doing in France. It's how stuff gets made.

It seems 'global world' are trigger words for you. I would point out that using the term 'Yellow Vests' and 'many people' in the same sentence is ridiculous. At it's height they estimate 280,000 people took part in those protests, and that's out of a population of 67 million. So you know... I'm also pretty sure they weren't protesting about the way in which TV programs are financed, more with the price of fuel.

Andrew Preston said...

I don't think so.

As far as I'm aware this is a writer's blog. Which is not actually the same as an 'industry blog'. It's you who majors on industry speak. [ And yes, I'm not a writer. I do take an interest, and occasionally comment here. If the blog administrators wish to block my comments, well, that's their decision. ]

For every person who comments on any blog, there are many more who read, assimilate and don't comment.

For every person who took part in poll tax riots in London in 1990'ish, there were infinitely more around the country who agreed with them. Politicians knew the dynamics very well. They removed the prime minister, and scrapped the poll tax.

Similarly, the politicians in France knew very well that the Yellow vest protests were only the tip of the iceberg, and fuel tax only the presented reason. The government quickly caved in, because overall it was clear to them that it was very much about the overall policies and slick, condescending attitude of the President himself. Who had rather forgotten that he wasn't French Royalty, but did suddenly remember that rioting on the streets wasn't actually a good sign.

With all due respect, you do sound remarkably ignorant outside of your little slick, global corporate speak bubble world.

Me ? Yes, I do watch and listen to...., consume, if you like..., TV and films.
I've even taken part in some of them. Film extra, or supporting artist to assume the glossy name.

Overall, it seems to be the big international blockbusters where at various points my attention drifts away..., the feeling of big monies, the search for the formulas that work for everyone, no real risks, and the hiring of the hottest actors to compensate. So many of these films, I find, are actually rather forgettable.

I couldn't watch social realism every day, but there's a refreshing honesty about them.
I particularly recall an interview that someone did with the director Ken Loach....

"Has Hollywood ever come calling...?"

"Yes, they have, but when they realised what I was about, they all ran away again..".

catdownunder said...

with all those considerations I admire you for even trying. I work with an "international" language system and I know how often we have run into problems trying to express a concept without offending someone. Story lines would be even more difficult.

Ciaran Murtagh said...

Hi Andrew,

Believe it or not, writing until administrators block your comments is not the point of internet based interaction. Nor does the fact that they haven't blocked your comments yet mean that you are right.

Again, this is not a political blog, but whether you choose to believe it or not, the Yellow Vest movement started out as a protest against domestic fuel tax rises, nothing to do with globalisation at all. By week two, when more and more issues got corralled in a general 'down with this sort of thing' way, their numbers had halved and continued to deteriorate until they stopped altogether once Macron abandoned the tax. So clearly nothing to do with a domestic fuel tax issue.

I'm glad you like Ken Loach. You do know his films have been funded at various times by Denmark, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, the UK and distributed by Lionsgate (US) and EOne (Canada)? If anything it reaffirms what this blog is about. You want to make a film critical about the British in Ireland, get the funding in Ireland. You want to make a film with a broadly Republican outlook, go to France for the cash...

The entertainment business is a global one. Creatives go where they have to in order to get the money that gets their work made. Even Ken Loach. He may have turned down Hollywood (whatever that means) but that doesn't mean he was picky when it came to getting his funding, nor that he wouldn't have had to adhere to the demands of the producers who gave it to him.

Good night from the 'slick, global corporate speak bubble world'. You know, the one where things get made.

Andrew Preston said...

Good morning, Mr Slick.

I think you'll find that Ken Loach has stuck very much to the general approach of what he wants to say, and producers, of any country, know that trying to force their views on him is a waste of time.

It's not the money, or where it comes from. It's about how much power, influence and control that comes with it.

You seem to be confused over the difference between funding from international sources,
and creating a piece of work with a main aim to try to satisfy everyone.

And as for who is right, you have heard of viewpoint, perspective... right ?

By a complete coincidence I was on a Yellow Vest demonstration here in Somerset last Sunday. The local online news outlet (Somerset Live) managed to find a quote from a TUC chap and subtly created the impression that he was a spokesperson for everyone. In reality the group was diverse. One was a businesswoman. She runs a glass blowing company ( Bristol Blue Glass ). She employs people. She, and they, make things.